Interviews May 30, 2019 | 10:04 PMby FM Joachim Iglesias

MVL on being Carlsen's no. 1 rival in blitz

French no. 1 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave finished joint second in the Côte d'Ivoire Grand Chess Tour, while winning the blitz section, and on his return home he gave an interview to chess24’s French site on his results, his rivalry with Magnus Carlsen and his ambitions for 2019. We also look back at some of Maxime’s flashes of genius in Abidjan!

Maxime saw a lot more of Abidjan than most of the participants | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave finished in joint second place overall in Abidjan...

...but he beat Magnus Carlsen in both their blitz games and "won" the blitz section, even if there were no separate prizes:

1Vachier-Lagrave Maxime29331 11 0½ 1½ 0½ ½1 01 11 10 112,0
2Carlsen Magnus29540 0½ 1½ ½1 1½ ½½ ½½ 1½ 11 111,5
3Nakamura Hikaru29340 1½ 0½ 1½ ½1 ½1 1½ 10 ½½ 111,0
4Nepomniachtchi Ian2778½ 0½ ½½ 00 ½1 1½ ½1 ½1 1½ 110,5
5Karjakin Sergey2816½ 10 0½ ½1 ½0 0½ ½½ 11 10 19,5
6Ding Liren2773½ ½½ ½0 ½0 01 1½ 0½ ½1 01 ½8,5
So Wesley27440 1½ ½0 0½ ½½ ½½ 1½ ½½ ½½ ½8,5
8Wei Yi26410 0½ 0½ 00 ½½ 0½ ½½ ½1 11 ½7,5
9Amin Bassem26620 0½ 01 ½0 00 00 1½ ½0 01 ½5,5
Topalov Veselin26821 00 0½ 0½ 01 00 ½½ ½0 ½0 ½5,5

Nakamura and So look on as Maxime Vachier-Lagrave became the first player to beat Magnus Carlsen in an official game in 2019 | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

The best French player of all time talks to chess24

Joachim: Hi, Maxime. You’ve just come back from Abidjan where you finished joint 2nd with Hikaru Nakamura, behind Magnus Carlsen, in the Cô‌te d’Ivoire Grand Chess Tour. Are you satisfied with your tournament?

Maxime: Overall I’m satisfied with the result, but I’d have liked to bother Magnus a bit more, and above all I saw many areas for improvement from my side, of course during the first days of rapid chess, but also during the blitz.

You scored -1 on the first day, then = on the second, before winning the last three rapid games and the first five blitz games. How do you explain that incredible streak? Is it down to you and things you can influence, for example top form combined with great confidence, or is it down to external factors out of your control, such as the bad form of your opponents or some luck?

I’ve always considered rapid chess, and even more so blitz, to involve the phenomenon of “a hot streak”. During a series of wins you gain in confidence while your opponents lose and begin to doubt themselves. Some would say that Carlsen has transferred that phenomenon to classical games! To achieve a streak of eight wins in a row there’s inevitably a lot of luck. In my case, that was particularly visible in my game against So, which I should have lost 100 times out of 100. Moreover, when the luck began to abandon me (against Ding I was expecting to win that position even though it was objectively drawn – then against Topalov and finally Nepo) the results were immediately worse! But fatigue was also beginning to be a factor. 

When you’re in your top form, do you think you’re stronger or weaker than Carlsen in top form?

In classical games I haven’t been in top form for some time now. It’s not so disturbing when you see the time it took Carlsen to get back to his own top form, but even so, I don’t remember ever being as dominant as Carlsen has been since the start of the year.  

Only in blitz is it a match. I consider myself one of a trio of players just behind Magnus, but if I maintain my new consistency in blitz I can be his number 1 rival at that time control.

I’ll have to prove that this year at the World Blitz Championship, since I didn’t participate last year.

In a recent Banter Blitz you probably heard about, Magnus refused a draw offer against Laurent Fressinet only to lose a few moves later. That’s also what happened in your first blitz game. Do you think that’s a weakness Magnus has or is it the price to pay for all those extra half-points his combativeness usually brings him?

It’s more the price for his combativeness. You can’t take on those extra risks without paying for it in some games, particularly in blitz. And for once I’m also on the front line in this area in blitz, taking risks which are sometimes reckless.

Magnus and myself have two very different styles in blitz. I find him really dominant in the early middlegame and he’s often won games that are clean from start to finish against me, but I’m slippery, and I often find resources at that time control that surprise everyone, including him.

Maxime satisfed, Magnus upset: this is just after the Frenchman has completed a 2-0 blitz whitewash | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

Magnus seemed “on tilt” after you beat him for a second time. Do you take pleasure, like Bobby Fischer, in seeing your opponents react like that, or is it playing well that satisfies you?

It’s important to get your opponents thinking like that, even if it’s just in blitz. So yes, I take pleasure in his reaction. Otherwise I prefer also to play well, since that’s more promising for the future…

At the end of the tournament you’re world no. 2 in blitz, 2 points behind Magnus. Is that annoying?

Personally I find it irrelevant, but I don’t think that’s the case with Magnus!

Do you think, as some do, that a player's blitz level is a better measure of talent than their level in classical games?

It’s a long debate… I’d instead say that having a very good level in blitz implies potential for classical games, though there’s no guarantee that potential will be fulfilled. The opposite isn’t necessarily true. 

How do you rate your chances of qualifying for London? And your chances of qualifying for the Candidates, which I guess is your number one goal for the year?

High, in both cases. Let’s say over 60%. But I’ll have to be on the top of my game in the critical moments, especially in the FIDE Grand Prix. 

I saw that you were followed by a TV crew. Could you tell us more?

The TV crew followed Maxime to some unusual venues! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

Playing Simplice Degondo, the Ivory Coast's top player | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

I was followed by a film crew in Abidjan and that will also be the case for the Grand Chess Tour in Paris, for the whole tournament, to make a documentary that will probably be released later. The experience went very well with the entire crew there and I cannot wait to see the result!

Maxime has been in high demand with documentary makers recently!

Thanks, Maxime. We look forward to following you soon and congratulations again on your tournament!

Throughout the tournament Maxime delighted us with some flashes of genius. Here are five of them:

Round 4, White vs. Wei Yi

Maxime had just played 27.Kb1-c2, a move that seemed like an innocent centralisation of his king, and Wei Yi did the same with 27...Kg8

28.Kb3!! The king is actually targeting the a7-pawn! 28...Kf8 29.Ka4 Ke7 (if 29...a6 30.Bb7)

30.Kb5 Kd8 31.Ka6 Kc7 32.Bd5

Black gave up the f7-pawn with 32...Kb8 33.Bxf7 and lost in a few moves, though 32...Nxd5 33.cxd5 Kb8 34.Bxg7, followed by a4-a5 to break up the queenside, was not much better.

Round 7, Black vs. Veselin Topalov

24...Bxe2 25.Kxe2 Rxc3!? would be typical and interesting, but the g6-knight remains out of play. MVL found a way to improve on the idea:

24...e5!? 25.fxe5 (25.Qd2 exf4 26.gxf4 Nxf4 27.Qxf4 seems to exploit the pin, but 27...Qxc3+!)

25...Nxe5 26.Rd1 Bxe2 27.Kxe2 Rxc3! With the knight on e5, this is much stronger!

28.bxc3 Rxc3 

Black has too much play for the exchange. In this lost position Topalov blundered, cutting short his suffering:

29.Rd2 Qb5+! 0-1

One spark of genius shouldn't be forgotten in any article on Abidjan!

But back to the chess...

Round 8, White vs. Nepomniachtchi

Black has huge threats, based on the pin of the f4-bishop: Nxe5, Nxf4 or Rxe4 would all win the game, but it's White to move...

31.Nxg6+! Bxg6 32.Rxd4! Qxd4 

White seems to be lost, until we spot the weakness of Black's back rank:

33.Rxc7! h6

Black has parried the mating threat. Time for Maxime to resign?

34.Be5!! No, it's Nepo who can resign!

34...Rxf3 35.Rc8+! Kh7 36.Bg8+! Kh8 39.Bxd4 and Black resigned a couple of moves later.

Round 2 of blitz, Black vs. Magnus Carlsen

With a handful of seconds on the clock against the World Champion, Maxime has three interesting options to choose from, but only one of them wins: the one he chose!


Neither 43...Nf4 44.Qd7 Bh4 45.Qc8+ Kh7 46.Qf5+ with perpetual check, nor 43...Qh1+ 44.Ke2 Nf4+ 45.Kd2 Qxe1+ 46.Kxe1 Nxd3+ 47.Kd2! Bc5 48.Kxd3 +- win.

44.Qd2 Nf4! 0-1

Round 11 of blitz, White vs. Magnus Carlsen 

38.Rd2! A fierce pin!

38...Rb2? In a probably losing position, Magnus goes astray!

38...Nc1+?? 39.Rxc1 Rxd2 40.Kxd2 also loses. Least bad was: 38...Rxb3! 39.Ne1! Nxf4+! 40.gxf4 Rxd2+ 41.Kxd2 Rh3, with drawing chances.

39.Rxb2! Nxb2 40.Ne5! 


If 40...Ra7 41.Rc2 Ra2 then 42.Kd2! forces resignation, but White could go astray with 42.Nd3? Nxd3 43.Rxa2? Nc1+ or 42.Nc4? Na4!

41.Ke3 Rd1 42.Nxf7 and the rest was easy. 1-0 in 55 moves.

Maxime's next tournament after Abidjan was the French Top 12, where he performed well but couldn't get a crucial win for his team despite pressing Laurent Fressinet for 84 moves.

Maxime will get a chance to display his blitz skills against Magnus again when he competes in the blitz opener for Altibox Norway Chess this Monday!

See also:

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