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11 Jul

The French Revolution

While there may not be much ‘joie de vivre’ in France today following their defeat in Paris last night to Portugal in the final of soccer’s European Championship, on Thursday there will be much patriotic tricolour waving and fireworks as the nation celebrates Bastille Day, the French equivalent of the Fourth of July. The annual national holiday commemorates the storming of a fortress by the mob on 14 July 1789 that marked the start of the French Revolution.

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Back then, in the 18th and 19th centuries, France was the leading chess superpower. Two of the greatest players of the era, Francois-Andre Danican Philidor and Louis-Charles Mahé de La Bourdonnais, were French, and the Café de la Régence in Paris - regarded by historians as being the world’s first chess club - was a gathering place for anyone who liked to play the game, including luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon.

But bizarrely French chess then went into a long decline that failed to produce a native-born grandmaster for nearly 150 years. They’ve had many grandmasters since though, but the word on the rue is that they could be planning another ‘French Revolution’ of sorts, that’s being led by their 25-year-old rising star Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who is tipped as a future challenger to Magnus Carlsen.

With an opening round win over defending champion Fabiano Caruana - then followed by a draw with Vladimir Kramnik - in the 44th Dortmund Sparkassen Chess Meeting in Germany, ‘MVL’ leapfrogged the US Champion in the unofficial live ratings to world number three (behind Carlsen and Kramnik), as he becomes in the process just one of a handful of select players to cross the rubicon of the 2800 rating barrier.

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MVL now shares the early lead in Dortmund on 1.5/2, alongside Ruslan Ponomariov of Ukraine.  And with his start of beating Caruana, followed by a draw with ten-time previous winner Kramnik, MVL's performance against the top seeds could well be the springboard for him to go on to become the first French-born player since the days of Philidor and La Bourdonnais to successfully storm the chess Bastille of winning an elite tournament. 

Photo © | Dortmund Sparkassen Chess Meeting

GM Fabiano Caruana - GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
44th Dortmund Sparkassen, (1)
Sicilian Najdorf
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 Like Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov and Vishy Anand before him, MVL is the top elite star in the game today taking up the cudgels of complexity that is the Sicilian Najdorf. 6.f3 Rather than the deep labyrinth of one of the uber-sharp main lines, Caruana is looking to take the game into a sort of English Attack set-up with Be3, though sidestepping the tricky ...Ng4 lines. 6...e5 7.Nb3 Be6 8.Be3 Be7 9.Qd2 0-0 10.0-0-0 Nbd7 11.g4 b5 This is all typical fare in the Sicilian Najdorf with both sides castling in opposite sides of the board: White throws everything into the kingside, while Black does likewise on the queenside - and whoever blinks first can often find themselves in trouble. 12.h4 Nb6 13.Qf2 Rb8 14.g5 Nfd7 15.f4 exf4 16.Bxf4 Rc8 17.Nd5 Nxd5 18.exd5 Bg4 19.Be2 Bxe2 20.Qxe2 White may well have a space advantage, but Black has good compensation with his rooks on the e- and c-files. 20...Re8 21.Qf3 Qc7 22.Nd4 Nb6 23.Rhe1 It looks tempting to put the knight into c6, but it backfires: 23.Nc6? Nxd5! 24.Qxd5 Qxc6 25.Qxc6 Rxc6 26.Rhe1 Kf8 and Black will emerge a solid pawn to the better heading into an endgame. 23...Bf8 24.Rxe8 Rxe8 25.Nf5 Qc4 26.b3 Qb4 27.c3 The complications on the c-file makes life difficult for Caruana; and soon, any little advantage he hoped for soon evaporates. But White has to be careful, as Black is not without clever resources here, such as: 27.Be3 Qc3! 28.Qf2 Nxd5! 29.Rxd5 g6 and White has to return the piece, leaving Black with a comfortable game. 27...Rc8 28.Rd3 Nxd5 29.Bd2 Nb6 30.Kb1 Qc5 31.Be3 Qc7 MVL may well have a pawn, but White has the better pieces, a weakness on d6 to attack, and good possibilities of an attack on the Black king. 32.Qf4?! Caruana is hoping for too much here as his position begins to slide. He would have been better dealing the limitations of his position with 32.Bf4! Qc6 33.Qxc6 Rxc6 34.Bxd6 Bxd6 35.Nxd6 with a very small endgame advantage, and most likely soon a draw with careful play from Black. 32...Re8! MVL seizes his chance to activate his rook down the e-file. Swapping off pieces could now see Black's rook being a problem with White's h- and g-pawns being too far advanced up the board. 33.h5 Hindsight is always 20/20, but Caruana should really now have bailed out with what looks like a forced draw after 33.Nxd6 Rxe3! 34.Qxe3 Bxd6 35.Qe8+ Bf8 36.Rd8 Qc5 37.b4 Qf5+ 38.Kc1 Qf1+ 39.Kc2 Qf5+ and a perpetual check. 33...Re6 The game is now beginning to flip dramatically with the time pressure, as MVL's active rook on the e-file defends both d6 and prevents any attack with White playing g6. 34.Kc2 Qc6 35.Bxb6 If 35.Nd4 Qg2+ 36.Rd2 Qe4+ 37.Qxe4 Rxe4 38.Nf5 Nd7 39.Bf2 Re5 40.Nxd6 Rxg5 (again, those over-extended kingside pawns are a liability) 41.Nxb5 Rxb5 42.Rxd7 Rxh5 and Black has an extra pawn and will cause problems as his kingside pawns are the freer to run. 35...Qxb6 36.Rf3 Qb7 MVL is a pawn up and has somewhat resourcefully better activated his rook and queen - but more worryingly for Caruana is the prospects of the queens being exchanged and finding he can't defend his over-extended g- and h-pawns. 37.Ne3 Re4! (See Diagram) Going for the safe ending with 37...Qe4+ 38.Qxe4 Rxe4 39.Kd3 Rh4 was also winning - but MVL's option is stronger with his opponent's time-trouble, as he takes control of the e-file and opens up an attack route to Caruana's king. 38.Qg3 Re5 39.Qf4? If 39.g6? Qe4+! 40.Kb2 hxg6 41.hxg6 Qxg6 42.Qxg6 fxg6 Black will eventually win the ending with ease. 39...Rxg5! In time-trouble, Caruanan errs by missing that his rook on f3 is hanging. 40.h6 gxh6 41.Rf2 Qd7 42.Nf5 Qe6 0-1

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