Maxime Vachier-Lagrave will be hunting for a record fourth victory when the Biel Chess Festival starts this Monday in the French and German speaking Swiss city of Biel/Bienne. He’s joined in the six-player line-up by strong players who’ve struggled for supertournament invites, Radek Wojtaszek, David Navara and Pavel Eljanov, the hugely experienced Michael Adams and one of the world’s most exciting and promising juniors, Richard Rapport. We preview the 10-round double round-robin.
This year’s grandmaster tournament in Biel boasts a 2720 average rating, although it could easily have been higher. In April, for instance, it would have been 2742! Almost the whole field has struggled in recent months:
Let’s take a look at the players one-by-one:
In the 47 years the Biel Chess Festival has been running a host of star players have won the main event. Magnus Carlsen has done so twice, as have the likes of Viktor Korchnoi and John Nunn, while Anatoly Karpov and Alexander Morozevich have won it three times. They’re joined by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who won the event in 2009, 2013 and 2014. He must be the favourite to score a historic fourth win this year, although some question marks remain over his form.
Maxime started 2015 in fine fashion with a +4 performance in Wijk aan Zee, and was still rated 2762 and world no. 11 on April 1st. That earned him a spot in the Grand Chess Tour, but since then it’s been a rough ride for the French no. 1. He went for 94 days without a win and struggled to cope with a very heavy playing schedule. There were signs of improvement during the French Team Championship and Maxime started Norway Chess with a surprise win in the blitz tournament and then a first-round victory over Levon Aronian. He didn’t manage another win after that, though, so we certainly can’t claim Maxime is back to his best. Maybe, however, the one-month break since that event was just what he needed.
Michael Adams first played in Biel 24 years ago, but the English no. 1 has been ageing like fine wine, with Dortmund 2013 (7/9 ahead of Kramnik and Caruana) one of the most spectacular tournament victories in recent years. His subtle positional style still remains one of the most original in world chess, though you might say the world has come round to his way of thinking on the opening – choosing moves that aren’t critical or the computer’s first choice but which often lead to positions he understands better than his opponents. The master of that approach, Magnus Carlsen, took the Englishman onto his World Championship team.
It’s also hard to judge Adams' form, though, since he’s played only two big tournaments this year. A last-round win over Anand made the GRENKE Chess Classic a success, but he started badly in Shamkir and ended with three losses to Kramnik, So and Anand and one win over Giri. He enters Biel as nominally the top seed and can of course challenge for the title.
Maxime held on, but it was proof that Radek has what it takes to win such events. He also gave a glimpse of his potential earlier this year by beating Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana in three heady rounds of the Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee, although he struggled later in that event, as he did recently in the French Team Championship.
This will be Radek’s first tournament since his marriage to Alina Kashlinskaya, and yet again we’ll get to see if there’s any truth in the rumour that marriage costs you around 50 rating points. It’s perhaps worth noting here that whatever marriage does to your chances falling in love seems to be a good idea! Arguably Wojtaszek’s best result to date was winning the 2011 György Marx Memorial with 8/10 and a 2893 performance (6 wins, 4 draws). At the same event he met Alina Kashlinskaya, who also won clear first in the women’s tournament.
The same applies to Anish Giri and Sopiko Guramishvili, who met at the 2011/12 Reggio Emilia tournament. An amazing last round saw Giri win his first supertournament, ahead of Morozevich, Caruana and Nakamura, while Sopiko dominated the women’s event with 8/10.
Czech no. 1 Navara and Wojtaszek both hit their peak career ratings in 2015 – for instance, on the June rating list Navara was 14th with 2751, while Wojtaszek was 16th with 2749. Navara memorably claimed the distinction of scoring an unbeaten +7 in Wijk aan Zee and still not even tying for first place – the phenomenon that is Wei Yi was to blame for that. Also, like Wojtaszek, he suffered in the French Team Championship and then fell to a heavy defeat in his match in Prague against Wesley So.
The suspicion remains, though, that Navara is in his prime at age 30 and he’s overdue to win a supertournament. Could this be his event?
When it comes to Ukrainian GM Pavel Eljanov we probably can’t do better than quote the introduction to his chess24 profile:
Eljanov’s chess career has followed an unusual trajectory. He was a relatively slow-starter who only achieved a 2600 rating after turning 20, but six years later he soared to 2761 and world no. 6… only to plunge 80 points and 54 places in the following year. He hasn’t yet managed to cement a place among the world elite, but later successes suggest his rise wasn’t merely an anomaly.
Eljanov has been back above 2700 since April 2013, seldom looks out of place in elite company and worked as a "secret" second for Magnus Carlsen. He’s also arguably the only player starting Biel on the back of a good result. He gained rating points with three wins and two losses in the Capablanca Memorial in Havana, finishing tied for second place. That was also useful experience, since it was played using the increasingly rare 6-player 10-round double round-robin format used in Biel.
Still only 19, Rapport’s 2671 makes him the world’s no. 2 junior, but wind back to January and the junior rating list looked a whole lot better for the maverick Hungarian:
What happened since? Well, Wei Yi achieved lift-off, but also this:
Such a sequence can perhaps only be put down to fatigue, but Rapport’s eccentric opening choices and creativity do mean losses to much lower-rated players are inevitable from time to time.
The good news is that in Biel there are no lower-rated players, so the risks are lower if Rapport once more decides to delight us with his unique approach. One amazing (if true) statement he made in Gibraltar earlier this year was that he doesn’t check his games with a computer afterwards.
What’s sure is that this is a wonderful opportunity for Rapport to get back on the prodigy fast track. A first supertournament victory would greatly boost his chances of invitations to top events in the year to come – though admittedly that goes for a lot of the players in this year’s Biel Supertournament!
So when does it all kick off? 14:00 CEST. You can click on a game below to go straight to the action:
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