Top 12: A wine maker and a mathematics professor battle it out against international stars

by Dhananjay Khadilkar
7/1/2021 – The "Top 12" competition sees some of the world’s best players battle it out to claim the French club championship. This year players such as Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Veselin Topalov and Jorden Van Foreest show their class in this 11-round event. However, this competition also serves as an excellent platform for amateurs who seldom get to play against such strong opponents. Dhananjay Khadilkar asked Mathieu Ternault (pictured), a wine maker by profession, and Mickael Hutois, a professor for mathematics, how it feels to play in such an event. | Photo: Dhananjay Khadilkar

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 "It has been a dream come true for me and my teammates," says Mathieu Ternault (rated 2308) whose club Echiquier Agenais from the city of Agen in south west France, qualified in the top flight for the first time this year.

The 28-year-old Ternault, who achieved the FIDE-Master title in 2015, now plays just five tournaments a year. He spends the rest of his time taking care of his family’s winemaking business near Bordeaux. "I have been playing in the second division for a long time. So much so that a few years ago, I thought we will never play in the top division. However, we had a great 2019 season that culminated in us winning the second division and bringing us to ‘Top 12’," he says.

In the first seven rounds, Ternault’s results are a mixed bag, winning one, losing two and drawing four. His approach to the competition has been straightforward. "I am here to enjoy the experience. The team atmosphere is very relaxed, without any pressure to win." He however contends that since "it’s a big effort for the club to invest money and time in this competition", he wants to give his best.

Another first timer in the top division, Mickael Hutois from the club Echiquier de l’Erdre, echoes similar feelings. "Playing here is exceptional, especially for a club that is just 10 years old," says Hutois, who is a professor of mathematics. The club, which qualified to the top division for the first time, is based in Suce-Sur-Edre, a town based in western France, with a population of 6700.

Mickael Hutois | Photo: Dhananjay Khadilkar

The 29-year-old, who started playing chess at the age of seven, became a FIDE-Master in 2019 and is currently rated 2261. He terms playing in this tournament a great learning experience but also a daunting task. "I play between boards two and five. Playing against GMs is always complicated", says Hutois, who has faced six GMs in the six rounds he has played so far. Out of the six matches, he lost five while drawing one.

Hutois, who is the team captain and club president, says that being a small club with a small budget, they don’t have any Grandmasters or International Masters in their line-up. Their club has received funding from the local and regional councils which is sufficient to take care of the players’ accommodation, travel and food.

In Ternault’s case, it’s his wine making enterprise that is sponsoring the club. Similar to Echiquier de l’Erdre, the sponsorship money pays for the players’ accommodation, travel and food. Contrastingly, the top clubs with much bigger budgets, field professional Grandmasters on almost every board. Typically, these clubs have budgets that are many times higher than the small clubs.

One of the features of the tournament is the prospect for each club to field three foreign players. The rules state that out of the eight players, at least five have to be French. And of the five French players, it’s obligatory to have at least one woman team member. Inevitably, almost all the foreign players are strong Grandmasters that play for the top clubs. For someone like Hutois, more than half of his matches have been against them. Out of the six rounds he has appeared in so far, he has faced four international and two French GMs.

Ternault, whose one of the two losses at the end of seven rounds, was against Pavel Tregubov, contends that the presence of non-French GMs adds prestige to the competition besides "offering an opportunity to play against some of the greats of the game. To play in the same competition as former world champions, Veselin Topalov and Rustam Kasimdzhanov, gives me immense pleasure," he says.

Though slightly frustrated at the results so far, Hutois is hoping for better prospects in the remaining part of the tournament, particularly the last two rounds, where his team will take on the two other debutants in the competition, Echequier Agenais and Club 608 Paris.



Standings after round seven

Pl. Clubs Pts J D P C
1 Bischwiller 21 7 30 34 4
2 Clichy Echecs 92 19 7 21 31 10
3 Asnieres - le Grand Echiquier 18 7 13 20 7
4 C'Chartres Echecs 16 7 9 21 12
5 Chalons-En-Champagne 15 7 10 22 12
6 Vandoeuvre Echecs 15 7 6 22 16
7 Grasse Echecs 15 7 7 22 15
8 Mulhouse Philidor 13 7 5 16 11
9 Villejuif 12 7 -19 12 30
10 Agen 9 7 -25 7 32
11 Club 608 - Paris 8 7 -20 10 30
12 Echiquier de l'Erdre 7 7 -38 4 42


Schedule and results...

Dhananjay is a Paris based journalist and a chess enthusiast. While he enjoys playing the game, he is more fascinated by the drama and history associated with it.


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