Maxime Vachier-Lagrave played two memorable games as defending Champions Clichy clinched a 15th French Top 12 title. The hard work was done by Radek Wojtaszek, who only stumbled in the final round against Baadur Jobava, and high-scoring Loek van Wely and Jorden van Foreest. Bischwiller made Clichy fight all the way to the end, with Maxim Rodshtein and Arkadij Naiditsch both winning six of their last seven games. We also take a look at a couple of brilliancies from 19-year-old Jan Krzysztof Duda and how Fiona Steil-Antoni’s Vandoeuvre escaped relegation.
Top seeds Clichy initially looked like cruising to yet another French Top 12 victory, as their biggest rivals in Chartres, 2015 Champions Bischwiller, had a tough start. In Round 2 Arkadij Naiditsch was rested as losses for Romain Edouard and Yannick Pelletier meant they only drew against Strasbourg, a team whose tournament would end in relegation. Then in Round 4 the big clash between Clichy and Bischwiller was decided by fourth wins in a row for Jorden van Foreest and Loek van Wely.
You can watch a short video with some clips from that day:
Jorden beat Naiditsch, whose French Defence saw him struggling to hold the queenside together only for Jorden to switch play to the other wing:
29.f5! exf5 30.Qg5! and Jorden won the h8-rook in exchange for the d3-bishop. Naiditsch tried to whip up counterplay with his b-pawn…
…but 36.Qc3! rained on that parade.
After a difficult year for the 18-year-old Dutch Champion, Jorden van Foreest climbed back above 2600 in style with his 8 wins, 2 draws and 1 loss gaining him over 20 rating points with a 2757 rating performance. Loek van Wely matched that with 7 wins, 2 draws and 1 loss in his 10 games, while Clichy also had one very big gun they could bring in when required.
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave made it back from the Moscow Grand Prix in time to play the Round 5 clash with a strong Mulhouse team that would end tied for 3rd place, but edged out by Nice on tiebreaks. He sat down against 17-year-old Hungarian star Benjamin Gledura, who was having a fine tournament after beating Naiditsch in the first round. Their Giuoco Piano didn’t stay quiet for long…
Here Maxime blew apart Black’s position with 21.Ne5!!, with the point that after 21…dxe5 22.Be5 trying to defend the knight with 22…Kg7 runs into 23.Ng4! Gledura instead tried to dig in with 21…Qc8, but 22.Nxg6+ fxg6 23.e5! ensured it was going to be a tough day for the youngster. The rest was beautiful, and in the final position MVL was able to make use of the rook he’d swung to the kingside via a3:
White could simply take the knight, but instead he played 31.Rf7+!, when a quick mate is coming. For instance, 31…Kh6 32.Qxh5+! and 33.Rh7# delivers mate next move.
So was it going to be easy for Clichy? Not quite! After dropping three points in the early rounds Bischwiller finally clicked and went on to win all their remaining matches, including 8:0 drubbings of the bottom two teams. Naiditsch recovered from two losses in three games to win six and draw one of his remaining games, Markus Ragger finished unbeaten and Maxim Rodshtein was the standout performer of the event. He proved beating David Navara in Round 1 was no fluke as he won eight games on the way to a 2826 performance that went some way to repairing the damage done to his rating in Poikovsky and the Russian Team Championship.
Bischwiller needed some help, though, and they got it, as Clichy rested both Wojtaszek and MVL (if you can rest someone who had only played one game at that point!) in a shock 4.5:3.5 defeat to Saint Quentin in Round 9. That featured a bizarre moment from Jorden van Foreest against Cyril Marcelin:
Here Jorden played 32.Nb5??, giving up a piece and leaving the e2-square undefended against a knight fork. Perhaps he thought 32…cxb5 was impossible due to 33.Rc3, having overlooked that Black can simply play 33…Qxb7. The rest of the game was grim for the Dutch star.
It was great news for the tournament, though, since the teams went into the final round with Clichy knowing that to be sure of the title they needed to win a potentially tricky encounter with the Baadur-Jobava-led Tremblay. Bischwiller ratcheted up the pressure by scoring the only 8:0 win against bottom team Lisieux, while Clichy took a decision that looked reckless.
They put Radek Wojtaszek on top board above MVL, where he came up against his nemesis, Baadur Jobava. Wojtaszek won their first encounter back in 2005, but since then he’d lost five classical games, including getting knocked out of the World Cup, losing twice in Wijk aan Zee and even losing an 8-game “friendly” match. Wojtaszek has admitted Jobava’s somewhat random style is tough for him to handle, but by now it must be as much a psychological as a chess issue, with Baadur also deliberately moving fast in their games.
In Chartres Jobava played 1.b3, but it was Wojtaszek who sprung the first surprise by varying from his play against Harikrishna and Richard Rapport on move 5. The Polish no. 1 looked to have a good position until he took a fateful decision:
It’s of course dangerous with the semi-open c-file, but either here or on the preceding moves it looks as though Black should have castled queenside, since the kingside is anything but safe. Instead Wojtaszek went for 16…0-0 and soon Jobava played g4 and developed one of the easiest kingside attacks you’re ever likely to see between two 2700-players, with Wojtaszek resigning on move 35.
Ultimately, though, that was a mere stumble, with Clichy going on to win on five of the remaining seven boards and take the title:
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s second game for his club in the event looked like being a bore draw in a closed position, but he ended with an extraordinary rook sacrifice:
44.Rgxg5!! (exclamation marks for aesthetic effect, since White could also just shuffle pieces ad infinitum) 44…fxg5 45.Rf7 Rd8 (of course any other move allows mate) 46.f3! (strictly an only move)
Black is a whole rook down for a pawn, but it’s an exquisite zugzwang. The g4 pawn push would change nothing, so Black can only move the h7-rook. After 46…Rhh8 47.Rxg7 there’s again nothing Black can do. For instance, if 47…Rh5 48.Rg6+ Ke7 49.Rg7+ and the king would have to go back to its mating net on d6 or all the queenside pawns fall and it’s White who wins. Vladimir Malakhov had seen it all and simply took a repetition with 47…Rhg8 48.Rh7 Rh8 49.Rg7 Rhg8. Maxime’s brief appearance in Chartres hadn’t been entirely in vain!
One player who caught the eye in Chartres was 19-year-old Jan-Krzystof Duda. The world’s second highest rated junior (after Wei Yi) first made an appearance in Round 6, when he drew with Polish no. 1 Radek Wojtaszek. He only played five games in total, but two of them were classics. Jean-Marc Degraeve went badly wrong in a Scotch, as became crystal clear after Duda’s 16.d6!
For a mere pawn White utterly destroys Black’s structure, leaving the c8-bishop comically stuck behind isolated doubled pawns, and after 16…Qxd6 17.cxd6 18.Nb5 Ke7 19.a4 there was also no hope for the a8-rook. Black did finally manage to free the bishop at the cost of an exchange and a pawn, but it’s perhaps fitting that in the final position it was back where it started, while Duda was dominating on both sides of the board:
A game for chess coaches to show their students!
The same could be said of Duda-Jobava, when the youngster brilliantly refuted some trademark Jobava aggression, exchanged queens and then set about winning the endgame:
32.Bxg5! After 32…fxg5 White wouldn’t play 33.Nxg5, which runs into 33…Re2+!, but first the zwischenzug 33.Nge5+. That was still better than what Baadur tried, since 32…Re2+?! immediately left White on top after 33.Rf2 Rxf2+ 34.Kxf2. The threat of a knight fork on f6 leaves the bishop immune to capture. The game should be enjoyed in full, since there was more fine calculation involved in the way Duda consolidated his advantage until in the final position the white g-pawn will slowly but surely win the game:
The Polish no. 2 had shown the Polish no. 1 how it’s done, while in some sense it looked like a punishment for Baadur’s previous two games, where he’d drawn in 5 (!) and 17 moves.
Duda, who finishes school this year, now has a live rating of 2696.9 and will get the chance to cross 2700 for the first time when he plays in the Individual European Championship starting in Minsk tomorrow, or next month, when Poland are the 4th seeds for the World Team Championship in Khanty-Mansiysk.
At the other end of the table, meanwhile, three teams would be relegated, and while Lisieux and Montpellier never stood a chance (between them they only avoided defeat once, when Montpellier beat Lisieux) the battle to avoid the third relegation spot was fierce. In the end Strasbourg went into the final round with a one-point lead over Vandoeuvre, but, as expected, they lost heavily to Nice. That left Fiona Steil-Antoni’s team needing to beat Montpellier, which they did with a very convincing 6:0 victory.
If you missed it, here’s Fiona’s first vlog on the French Top 12, which gives a good glimpse of what it’s like to play the event:
So that’s all for the 2017 French Top 12. There’s a lot of chess just now or coming up, including the Capablanca Memorial in Cuba and tomorrow the European Championship in Belarus. Then of course it’s just a week until probably the strongest tournament of the year (and almost of all time): Altibox Norway Chess!
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