Reports May 15, 2022 | 11:21 AMby Colin McGourty

MVL beats Firouzja, So, Aronian to win Superbet Chess Classic

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave beat Alireza Firouzja, then Wesley So, then Levon Aronian on the final day to complete a remarkable comeback victory in the Superbet Chess Classic. Maxime defeated an over-ambitious Firouzja, while the leaders drew, to reach a 3-way playoff. Though Wesley started brilliantly against Aronian and was a move or two away from wrapping up victory in the 2nd game, MVL triumphed in a chaotic finale before going on to clinch the title against Aronian.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave with the 2022 Superbet Chess Classic trophy | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

You can replay all the games from the 2022 Superbet Chess Classic using the selector below.

And here’s the final day’s live commentary from Yasser Seirawan, Peter Svidler, Alejandro Ramirez, Cristian Chirila and Anastasia Karlovich.

MVL beats Firouzja to set up 3-way playoff

Going into the final round of the Superbet Chess Classic there was just one game that couldn’t influence the fight for 1st place — the all-Candidates clash between World no. 5 Richard Rapport and World no. 6 Ian Nepomniachtchi.

Richard Rapport's tie deserved better! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

It was the kind of game that you might expect to end in a quick draw, but instead we got a novelty from Richard in a topical line of the Nimzo-Indian (10.Qc1!?) and, when Ian blitzed out 15…Nb8?! instead of playing 15…g5! 16.Bg3 first, White was suddenly pressing. “There’s a reason why we’re on the last two places — he was playing very quickly,” said Richard, and some more mistakes left White completely winning after 22…Nc5?

It was one of those days for Richard, however, who explained:

As per usual in my white games, there was only one thing to blunder in this position, and I managed to accomplish it, after which I was clearly not able to recover… I see this position with Nc5, I think I have one hour or something, and then I see I have two winning moves, 23.Nb5? is one, 23.b4 is the other, and it was just like 50:50. Of course one of them is clearly winning… and the other is what I did!

23.b4! and Nepo might have resigned almost on the spot, but 23.Nb5? had a gaping hole. Richard had seen some brilliant lines, including 23…Re7 24.Ke2 a6 25.Rhd1! axb5? 26.Rd8+ Re8 27.Rxe8+ Rxe8 28.b4 Rc8 29.bxc5 Rxc7 30.cxb6 Rxc1 31.b7 and the pawn queens.

Alas, what he’d totally missed, was that Black had 25…Kh7!, getting out of a check on the back rank.

Now after 26.Nd6 Rcxc7 the c-pawn had gone, and although objectively Rapport still had chances he was understandably unable to refocus given how little there was at stake. In fact he said he was happy to at least make a draw. His self-disgust had reached new heights:

I just don’t really see the point of showing up to games which I play this way — it’s kind of a disrespecting of chess, in my opinion. It’s a very nice game, I have one hour on the clock, and then I make a move that ruins everything. Also, we had this scenario against Deac and I’m winning in 20 moves, it’s very strange, to score half a point out of these positions.

The Superbet Chess Classic was a disappointment for all the Candidates Tournament players, whose thoughts are understandably elsewhere. Fabiano Caruana felt he could rescue his tournament somewhat with a last-round win over Bogdan-Daniel Deac, but Bogdan varied early rather than entering the same line where Aronian had earlier in the tournament blundered horribly against Firouzja. Deac gave up a pawn but had ample compensation and, by matching Caruana’s 50% score, has only enhanced his reputation.

Fabi summed up his performance in Bucharest:

Shaky! Not very good overall. I missed some chances. I played one quite bad game, against Maxime. It was also very disappointing yesterday, because I still thought I had chances in the tournament, and I got such a dream position in the opening against Richie — I think he mixed up his preparation or something. The position he got was the worst of all worlds, and I just ruined it.

Levon Aronian decided the final classical game wasn't the time to take any risks | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

It became clear early on that Fabiano wasn’t fighting for tournament victory, since co-leader Levon Aronian made a quick draw against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. He explained:

The last round has its specifics. It’s like in poker, you don’t play your cards, you play your position, and my position dictates me to play very solidly, because in case I had lost the difference would have been huge, in GCT points, and also in prize fund as well.

Levon summed up his event:

I think I was playing rather terribly, but so was everybody else! I think I was making very obvious mistakes. I think I’m playing so much rapid chess online, it kind of kills your concentration. At least that’s how it works for me. So I was struggling with my concentration, something that I need to work on, and that’s why I was making such mistakes and putting myself in real danger, but I’m happy at least I was fighting back.

Wesley So was better against Leinier Dominguez, but settled for tying for first place | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Soon afterwards we knew we’d have a playoff for 1st place, since Wesley So reeled off 25 moves of preparation, got a promising position against Leinier Dominguez, but then, seeing no clear plan, and not wanting to take any risks, made a draw by repetition.

At the time it seemed all but certain we’d get a 2-way playoff, since it was Alireza Firouzja who had any advantage in the all-French battle against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. It turned out Maxime had made a good choice, however, from a psychological point of view.

Alireza Firouzja lived to regret playing for a win against his French colleague | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

I decided to play a very normal game, because I knew that Alireza would not back down from a fight, and actually he tried very hard to win, as much as he could, and at some point it did backfire badly.

Alireza would have ended on a high, and back in the 2800 club, with a win, but his 33.e5?, played with 9 seconds on his clock, was a lunge in the wrong direction (the ugly 33.Rd4, simply defending the pawn, would have held the balance).

After 33…Ng4 34.Rc7 Nxe5 35.f4 Maxime had a crucial trick.

35…Rd3! forced 36.Rxd3 Nxd3 37.Rxf7+ Kg8 38.Rd7 and although White had restored the material balance, the b-pawn is a monster, as Maxime made clear with 38…b3! Firouzja gave checks to reach the time control with three seconds to spare.

He had time to think, but there was no good solution, as the b-pawn went on to cost Firouzja a knight, and though he put up stiff resistance all the way until move 74 he eventually had to admit defeat.

That meant a disappointing -1 score and 10.9 dropped rating points for Alireza Firouzja, but slightly lowering expectation levels before the Candidates is perhaps no bad thing for the 18-year-old.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave wins the playoff

For Maxime, meanwhile, there was a playoff ahead, with the regulations for a 3-way tie specifying a single round-robin at a 10+5 time control. Maxime got to take a rest, since the first game up was So vs. Aronian.

Levon Aronian was in very high spirits before the rapid game against Wesley So, but things would soon go wrong for him on the board | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Wesley So’s strategy of making a draw in the final round seemed questionable, especially when he now faced Levon Aronian, who had knocked him out of the recent American Cup in dramatic fashion.

This time, however, it was a tour de force by Wesley, who by move 15 was completely winning.

Rooks were exchanged and the material on the board was equal, but it turned out White’s minor pieces were totally dominant. Levon is a great fighter and stretched out resistance until move 74, but although you could question some of Wesley’s choices, at least from a practical point of view, he never let a winning advantage slip.

Wesley So came very close to wrapping up victory with a game to spare | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

That meant Wesley went into the 2nd game, against Maxime, knowing that a win would see him clinch the title with a game to spare, and when he picked up a pawn on move 18 that seemed a realistic prospect.

Wesley, who had been untroubled all tournament, correctly met 19.Be3 with 19…Be4! and looked in control, but it’s here that Maxime’s famous speed chess trickery came to the fore. He went for 28.h3!?

Maxime wasn’t blundering 28…Qxg3+, since after 29.Kf1 both the queen on g3 and the rook on e2 are attacked. Maxime commented:

I was in a must-win situation, and I hadn’t got any preparation, because I was just trying to recover from the exhausting game I played with Alireza, so I just figured things out at the board. Of course the opening didn’t go well, and at some point there were some very scary moments, but I did find some tricks, this h3-move, for instance, where Qxg3+ doesn’t work.

What was perhaps missed by both players, however, was that after 29…Re7! Black is doing fine, and, in hindsight, playing that position for two results would have been desirable for Wesley. You could point to many similar moments, however, such as after 32.h4?

32…Qe2+! 33.Kg2 Re5! and the white queen is overloaded, since it can’t defend both the c5-bishop and the d1-rook. That would have won the tournament for Wesley, but instead after 32…Qg4 33.b4! it was soon Maxime who was completely on top. Once again there were wild swings, however, until the final moments.

Now 50…Qc1+! was winning for Wesley, with the point being that after e.g. 51.Kd3 Qf1+! he defends the f7-pawn before taking the rook on c5. It was a treacherous position, however, and after 50…Qe2+ 51.Kd5! Black’s advantage had gone. The game ended 51…Qxg4 52.Kd6 Qc8? (52…Qf5! holds). Maxime would then have been winning with 53.Qxf7+, but he didn’t need to play the move since Welsey had lost on time!

Maxime summed up:

In the end I think it was a comedy of blunders, but with a such a complicated position and five seconds per move, it was bound to happen.

Wesley So looked understandably shell-shocked! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

That first and last setback of the tournament for Wesley cost him the title, while Maxime went into the final game against Levon Aronian knowing that he only needed a draw with the black pieces. That meant Levon was willing to burn some bridges, but while he could be satisfied with getting a very complicated position he could be less satisfied when it turned out Maxime had a huge attack!

Total one-way traffic looked on the cards, but a combination of Levon’s incredible resourcefulness, and Maxime perhaps remembering that he only needed a draw, led to the position ultimately becoming anyone’s to win again.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave won the tournament after a wild game | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Maxime never entirely lost the thread, however, and was clear-eyed at the end.

You could easily panic and assume you were getting mated here, but Maxime correctly saw he could continue his plan with 58…b2! After 59.Qc5+ Kg8 it turns out the only way to draw is 60.Be4!, while after 60.Qc8+ Kh7 the checks had run out. Levon played 61.Qc4, but just as Wesley did in the previous game, he lost on time while playing it.

That meant it was Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who must have written off his tournament winning chances when he lost to Levon in Round 6, who clinched the bonus $10,000 for winning the playoff. These are the final standings, with the prize money and Grand Chess Tour points gained.

Maxime commented:

Of course, I feel very good, but I’m surprised I haven’t fainted or something! It’s been a very long day, but all in all, a very good day for me. I won three games, so that’s definitely very positive. I won the tournament, helping me come back from a tough few months where I was trying to qualify for the Candidates and didn’t manage, so of course it’s a boost of confidence.

Aronian, Caruana, So and Rapport will be back playing the Superbet Rapid and Blitz Poland in Warsaw from Thursday May 19th, which is also the day the Chessable Masters begins, with Magnus Carlsen, Ding Liren, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Anish Giri and Praggnanandhaa among the stars in action.     

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