He won his first French Championship (Under 8) as a 6-year-old, became a grandmaster at 14, and World Junior Champion at 19. Although the same age as Carlsen and Karjakin (Maxime turns 24 in October), he has remained on the fringes of the word elite.
During the first round of the Sinquefield Cup, GM Ben Finegold picked Vachier-Lagrave as his dark horse candidate to win the tournament:
That prediction now seems far-fetched after Caruana’s tremendous run in the first half, but MVL still has chances to fight for second.
On the eve of the tournament, I sat down with Maxime just after his official photo shoot for a brief chat:
Macauley Peterson: Is this your first time in St. Louis?
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave: Actually no, I was here two years ago for the Spice Cup. I went to [the Chess Club] but just dropped by more or less… maybe 15 minutes to see it.
This year you made it to the Top 10 for the first time… Have you found something that has changed in your play to account for the breakthrough?
Definitely something changed because I actually had a bit of a low phase back in 2011, early 2012, and I was losing a lot of rating. I'd gotten to 2730 — so the Top 15 more or less — and then I lost as much as 50 points, dropping back to less than 2700. Of course I was a bit — I wouldn't say ashamed — but I simply had to find the reasons why I was not playing so well.
I got in touch with Alexander Beliavsky. I went to his place [his house in Maribor, Slovenia — MP] and worked a bit on what I should do, because I also knew that I still 'had it'. I could still play some chess if I wanted to, and I managed to regain confidence, step by step. First I got back to 2700, and maybe I worked a bit harder. I also improved in a way, because we did some specific work that I was not doing enough of before. At some point it clearly started to pay off.
I think I was just making less mistakes, and it's been quite nice. I actually not only got my rating back, but also had a couple of good tournaments and a couple of good opportunities. For instance, I got the opportunity to play in the Alekhine Memorial in 2013.
You also won Biel that year.
Yes, but the Alekhine Memorial was special, maybe because it was 'the next level' already — there was Kramnik, Aronian…
So even more of a big deal than Tata 2011?
Tata 2011 was also a big deal, but it was two years earlier and I also had to get new experience. In the Alekhine Memorial I was actually fighting to win the tournament at some point. I was in the sole lead, I think, two or three rounds before the end.
When did you start working with Beliavsky?
In the middle of 2012.
Did you choose him? What made you think that he in particular would be the one to help you?I chose him. I just thought that with his experience of top level chess — he was up to third in the world — and his experience of matches, as a player and second, he could be a big help. It was also that he was less attached to computers and I just thought I was going to learn something different. That's more or less what happened.
And of course at some point — more or less one year ago at the World Cup — I had a definite breakthrough when I got to the semi-finals and won around 25 rating points. Perhaps I needed to be more stable, because I have to say I wasn't as stable a chess player as I should have been. I was losing quite a lot of games — I was winning a lot as well that year, so I was still gaining points, but I felt I had to lose less games — that was the next step. The World Cup helped me in that respect because in the end I was playing against all the good guys. I played Dominguez, Caruana, Gelfand and Kramnik and I was not losing any classical games, so that was good.
...at some point I just went undefeated for 50 games
And then I started to lose a lot less games, and at some point I just went undefeated for 50 games. Of course that was quite special and definitely helped me to get into the Top 10. [His impressive no-losing streak ended with a loss to Giri in Biel this year.]
What do you suppose happened to get this new stability? Your style is still very aggressive.
Yes, I have an aggressive style, but at the same time I like control, to control what is happening to me, and this is maybe what people are failing to notice so well. When I go for some risky line I generally like to calculate it quite well — I mean quite deeply — and know I'm not taking too many risks. This is what I like to do, probably because I don't like to lose. Maybe over the year I've been calculating deeper, and that's what has also made a difference.
Of course when you're calculating deeper you're not taking so many risks. Even if you go for a very sharp line, if you don't make too many mistakes in calculating and evaluating the positions that result from the complications you should be just fine.
So it's chess factors, like your ability to calculate deeper, or is it more to do with psychological factors like a boost in confidence, or a combination?Probably a combination, but of course I think the boost in confidence is the most important. You could also mention some other factors. I've been working pretty hard on my physical condition to be able to get to the end of a tournament, and it's a bit better. I go running more or less every day. It's not yet ideal and I still struggle a bit at the end of tournaments. For instance, in Biel it was a bit tough. I consume a lot of energy during my games. I know it's maybe a bit too much, but OK, it's part of my style.
How did you feel about your form in the Olympiad? Are you coming in off a boost from that?
France definitely had a good event. Of course towards the end it was a bit tougher, but I still think you can't dismiss the fact that we were more or less leading two rounds before the end. We could easily have won the match against China, and at some point we could hardly lose it. That's what happened, so some little adjustments would have been enough, maybe not to claim gold, but at least to fight for gold.
I was not so happy with my tournament, to be honest. I was maybe running a bit short of ideas, and I was a bit tired as well. After Biel I had very little time to recover and in the end I lacked energy, especially at the beginning of games, strangely enough. I was not applying enough pressure and sometimes got into trouble quite unnecessarily. That was probably because I preferred to rest a bit more before the games rather than prepare too deeply — I thought I would need the energy towards the end.
In the end the good thing about my tournament was that I was fighting — I was fighting very hard
For instance, against Levon I had a very difficult position, and against David Navara as well, but in the end I managed to recover and maybe defend in the best possible way. There were some uneven games — even against Mamedyarov, which was a disaster openings-wise. I was almost lost after the opening, but then somehow I managed to fight and find almost the only moves to keep playing. I almost got away with it, but in the end it was just too tough in time trouble. That was a real good point about my tournament — I was fighting, and I hope to be able to fight that hard in St. Louis.
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