Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is the real wild card in the 2020 Candidates Tournament. The French no. 1 was returning from a vacation in New York less than two weeks ago when he learnt he would have a chance to play after Teimour Radjabov withdrew. Can MVL be like Denmark, who won the Euro 1992 football championship after getting in as late replacements for war-torn Yugoslavia, or is it too much to ask to enter such an event more unprepared than usual? Our experts give their verdict!
MVL’s failure to qualify for the Candidates Tournament was becoming the stuff of legend. He’d been in the Top 10 at the start of the 2014, 2016, 2018 and now 2020 Candidates, but in each case failed to qualify. In 2017 he was an Armageddon game away from beating Levon Aronian to get to the World Cup final and the Candidates, while also just missing out in the Grand Prix and by rating. 2019 was almost a carbon copy – again World Cup semifinal heartbreak, again a game away in the Grand Prix, again next in line by rating.
It seemed the universe was against him… until the coronavirus intervened. Teimour Radjabov’s reasons for asking for the Candidates to be postponed now seem entirely reasonable – who knows when or how the players will make it home or whether the tournament will be completed – but the Azerbaijan player’s withdrawal was the lifeline Maxime needed to get a first shot at the World Chess Championship title!
What do we know about Maxime?
You can also check out Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s chess24 profile.
The gang got back together (this time online only as they were back in three different countries) to add a more than one hour bonus video on Maxime Vachier-Lagrave to their Candidates preview. It includes analysis of his beautiful win over Fabiano Caruana from the final round of the 2015 Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee.
Here are the scores they gave Maxime:
That compares to Kirill Alekseenko’s 60, Wang Hao’s 69, Anish Giri’s 71, Ian Nepomniachtchi’s 72, Alexander Grischuk’s 72, Ding Liren’s 87 and Fabiano Caruana’s 87. As you can see, Maxime is behind only Fabiano Caruana and Ding Liren.
Peter Heine Nielsen comments:
I would generally say the chances of [the Candidates] not happening is higher than, for instance, Maxime winning the event.
Barring any last-minute drama it’s looking as though the Candidates will go ahead, but if there’s one reason why Maxime’s chances of winning are small it’s the question of preparation. There are two reasons why Maxime scored badly there. The first is the circumstance of suddenly finding out he’s going to play while the other Candidates have been doing intense preparation for months. The other was captured by a joke that has more than an element of truth:
Jan commented of Maxime:
It would be very surprising if he didn’t play the Najdorf, Grünfeld and 1.e4 – he’s almost the only participant where you can say these things with such certainty, it feels like.
He’s very predictable, which I think in modern chess is kind of a big weakness unless you are very well prepared.
Laurent talked more generally about his countryman’s preparation:
It clearly is a weak point. Last year we were following of course on the French channel all his games, and he lost the most important games of the year against Radjabov, against Grischuk, against Nepomniachtchi - it was a lot! Especially against Grischuk and Radjabov, it was mainly connected to the opening.
The game that lost him a World Cup semifinal came up again later under “time management”:
Here, despite clearly having been surprised by Radjabov in the opening, Maxime spent just 1 minute 28 seconds on 10…0-0?, which after 11.e5! turned out to have been more or less the losing move. Jan noted:
I think sometimes he likes to pretend that he’s still in book when he’s clearly not, and blitzes out some move like 0-0 against Radjabov, or blitzes out some move that gets him into real trouble quickly.
The reason our experts still scored Maxime so well is partly that in the openings Maxime plays he has great understanding and instincts, but also that they agreed his calculation is phenomenally good, perhaps second only to that of Fabiano Caruana. That also means that his technique, which many consider to be built on excellent short-range calculation, is up there with the best.
The biggest discrepancy in scores came in "Hot or not" (i.e. recent form), where Peter gave 5 and Jan a mere 2. Jan explained that his low score was taking into account that Maxime hadn’t been expecting to play, while adding that the Frenchman, “Missed every chance to qualify, so it wasn’t a great year 2019”. Laurent countered by saying just missing out still meant Maxime had played well in all those events, while Peter justified his 5/5 due to the boost of unexpected qualification:
I see it as basically he has been resurrected as a World Championship candidate - the biggest comeback you can possibly make. He was actually knocked out of the event and then he still managed to get back into it. That’s the biggest upgrade you will ever see.
Let’s sum up some of the reasons why Maxime will, or won’t, win the Candidates:
The boost of unexpected qualification: As Peter mentioned, getting into the tournament at the last moment is a dream for Maxime. Finally the 29-year-old has a chance to show what he can do on the second biggest stage in chess and perhaps qualify for the biggest stage of all. It’s also proof that the chess gods aren’t against him.
In a blog post Maxime explained how it happened and how he felt:
It all started on Wednesday, when I was coming back from a few days vacation in New York. FIDE contacted me to tell me that there was a possibility that one of the qualifiers would not participate in the Candidates Tournament, without telling me who, nor why. According to the rules, I was the first substitute. Friday morning, after Teimour’s forfeit was announced, I was officially invited to participate.
He described himself as “delighted to have this opportunity” and added, after mentioning the logistical issues:
Although I’m in at such a short notice, I’ve been waiting for this for a long time, so I’m certainly not going to be a picky eater.
A fresh mind: While the other players in the tournament have been thinking of little but the Candidates for months Maxime has had the chance to relax and go about his life, while no doubt doing some general preparation for upcoming events (even if most of them are now likely to be cancelled). An interchange with Anish Giri emphasised the advantages and disadvantages of late qualification:
He’s an unpleasant opponent for everyone: We’ve touched on Maxime’s chess skills, such as phenomenal calculation, while his record includes not just a peak 2819.3 live rating but winning a number of supertournaments, including the 2017 Sinquefield Cup ahead of Magnus. Maxime also beat Magnus in a match in London in the Grand Chess Tour Finals last December, before losing in the final. If everything falls into place he could certainly win the Candidates.
More specifically, however, he enters the tournament as the player with the best positive score against the field. A large part of his +5 may be the +4 against Nepomniachtchi, but he’s scored worse against only Caruana and Grischuk and also has a plus against Ding Liren, Wang Hao and Alekseenko. More than that, his style makes him a dangerous opponent to meet. Peter didn’t think anyone would be “jumping for joy” when Maxime got in, since although Maxime might be easier to beat than Teimour Radjabov he’s also easier to lose to: “Facing his Najdorf is not so nice compared to facing Rajdabov’s Berlin!”
When the euphoria wears off, will he be ready? The relief of finally getting into a Candidates Tournament is likely to boost Maxime at the start of the tournament, but will he at some point hit a wall since he hasn’t done the same mental, physical and chess preparation as the other players for the gruelling 14-round tournament?
His late entry may accentuate his greatest weakness: If preparation is where Maxime is naturally weaker than his elite rivals then only learning he’s going to play at the last moment has ensured it’s one hole he was given little chance to patch. The other players will have come up with targeted preparation for their other rivals, and in some cases whole new repertoires, while it’s likely Maxime will be relying on his favourite openings and sheer natural talent.
There are still two clear favourites: Maxime has shaken up the tournament by his late entry, but it’s still clear that Fabiano Caruana and Ding Liren are the men to beat. They’re strong in the areas Maxime is strong, have shown an ability to win the biggest events and are more consistent and better prepared. If Maxime is going to earn a match against Magnus his best chance may be to get off to a fast start… since he plays Fabiano and Ding, with the white pieces, in the first two rounds!
So that’s all the 2020 Candidates previewed! It's looking good for the tournament to happen...
...and all that remains is to tune in and watch Vladimir Kramnik, Jan Gustafsson and Lawrence Trent commentating live from Tuesday 17 March at 12:00 CET. We’re also expecting to have Magnus Carlsen and Peter Svidler phoning in from time to time, and we’ll have live video of the players.
To warm up on Monday we’ve got Banter Blitz with Jan and Lawrence at 17:30 CET followed by a Banter Blitz Cup 3rd round match between 21-year-old Polish star Jan-Krzysztof Duda and French GM Romain Edouard at 19:00 CET.
Remember if you want to play Jan, Lawrence or more of our Candidates commentators you should be a chess24 Premium member. Now’s a great time to Go Premium using one of the following voucher codes:
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