Who would have thought that in the space of a year, rising French star Maxime Vachier-Lagrave would go from his nickname of MVL to the MVP of chess? At the start of 2015, MVL was given a ‘golden ticket’ into the Grand Chess Tour by the organisers as Russia’s Sergey Karjakin turned his spot down. But MVL has grabbed his chance to be up among the world elite and in the past year, he has had a meteoric rise up the world rankings.
Last month the Frenchman enjoyed what he described as “definitely one of the biggest successes in my career” by winning the 44th Sparkassen Chess Meeting in Dortmund. He took the title by such a convincing margin ahead of pre-tournament favourites Fabiano Caruana and Vladimir Kramnik, that he leapfrogged both to become the new world No2 behind Magnus Carlsen.
And although he was a wildcard entry for the Sinquefield Cup in St Louis, he started as the pre-tournament favourite as the in-form player with an amazing unbeaten run in classical chess. But all good things have to end, and in round two, MVL was finally beaten by that wily old fox himself, the five-time ex-world champion Vishy Anand, in a fascinating tussle to finally end his streak of 70 games without a loss.
I said in the previous column that, sans Carlsen, the Sinquefield Cup could well shape up to be one of the most open elite tournament of recent times. And indeed, it's shaping up that way, with four players - Wesley So, Levon Aronian, Veselin Topalov and now Anand - in the joint lead after three rounds, a half point ahead of the chasing pack.
While round three proved to be all draws, in round two - as well as Anand - there were wins for Aronian and Hikaru Nakamura, beating respectively Peter Svidler and Anish Giri.
All the action from the Sinquefield Cup is being streamed live daily on www.grandchesstour.org, featuring play-by-play and analysis from the world-renowned commentary team of GM Yasser Seirawan, GM Maurice Ashley, and WGM Jennifer Shahade.
1-4. Wesley So (USA), Vishy Anand (India), Levon Aronian (Armenia), Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria) 2/3; 5-7. Ding Liren (China), Fabiano Caruana (USA), Hikaru Nakamura (USA) 1.5; 8-9. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Anish Giri (Netherlands) 1; 10. Peter Svidler (Russia) 0.5.
GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave - GM Vishy Anand
4th Sinquefield Cup, (2)
Caro-Kann Defence, Two Knights Variation
1.e4 c6 2.Nf3 d5 3.Nc3 The somewhat offbeat Two Knights variation, which generally results in a closed centre and long manoeuvring games, was doggedly adopted by the young Bobby Fischer against the Caro until the turn of 1960, and later also becoming a favourite of a young Nigel Short. 3...Nf6 4.e5 Ne4 5.Ne2 Qb6 6.d4 e6 Black has a French Defence set-up, which looks solid but has one drawback: The Black knight has a shortage of squares if attacked. So... 7.Nfg1 With the not-too-subtle threat of 8.f3 winning the knight - so Anand now has to make compromises in his position to save it. 7...f6 8.f3 Ng5 9.exf6 gxf6 10.f4 Ne4 11.Ng3 Bd7 Anand opts for the radical approach, not fancying either of 11...Nxg3 12.hxg3 c5 nor 11...f5 12.Qh5+ Kd8 13.Nf3 as alternatives. Can't fault him there, as both look difficult to defend. 12.Nxe4 dxe4 Anand's position is a bit loose, but he does have the bishop-pair as a form of compensation. 13.c3 There's no rush for 13.Qh5+ as after 13...Kd8 he'll have to play 14.c3 anyway. 13...Na6 There's no good way to prevent Qh5+, as after 13...h5 14.Bc4 and Black's position, long-term, looks to be full of holes and weaknesses - so Anand just gets on with the job of developing his pieces as best he can. 14.Qh5+ Kd8 15.Bc4 Kc7 Anand hopes to develop his rooks (and find a safe haven for his king) in order to open the game for his active pieces. But in doing so, it looks though for a moment that Anand has missed a trick with 15...Nb4 as White can't play 16.cxb4 as ...Qxb4+ wins back the piece and a pawn - but after the very simple retreat 16.Qe2, White has a wonderful position. 16.a4! c5 Not only giving Anand a square for his queen but also looking to open the game up for his bishops and rooks. 17.Ne2 Rd8 18.Be3 f5 Black can't take the poisoned pawn on b2, as after 18...Qxb2 19.0-0 it's too dangerous, as White is ready to launch a full-scale attack on both Black's king and queen. 19.0-0 Kb8 Safety at last - but at what price? 20.Qf7 Nc7 21.a5 Qc6 22.Qf6 Bd6 23.dxc5 Bxc5 24.Nd4 Qd6 25.b4 Qe7 Luckily Anand has this resource and is over the worst of it, otherwise after 25...Bxd4 26.Bxd4 White would be close to winning with those dominant bishops. 26.Qh6 Exchanging queens with 26.Qxe7 Bxe7 gives Black a bit more than equality now. 26...Bd6 27.Rad1 Rhf8 28.Bf2 From his opening woes, Anand is now back in the game and doing what he does best of all: Managing effortlessly to find the optimum way to unite his pieces. 28...Rf6 29.Qh4? This seems a bit strange after his previous move 28.Bf2? I fully expected here 29.Qh3 Bxf4 30.Bh4 Bd6 with Black having good compensation for the exchange. It's almost as if MVL was going down this path, but at the very last moment got spooked and rejected it and instead opted to defend f4. It's all good news for Anand, however, as he now masterfully unravels his pieces to emerge with the advantage. 29...Nd5 30.Nxe6?! This tactic doesn't work, as Anand throws a big spanner in the works. But the alternative of 30.Bxd5 exd5 31.Qh3 Qg7! doesn't look appealing in the long-term, especially when facing someone like Anand. 30...Bxe6 31.Bxd5 e3! (See Diagram) Oops...White is going to drop a piece now. 32.Bxe3 Bxd5 33.Bxa7+ Kxa7 34.Qf2+ Bc5! This simplifies everything and leaves Anand with an easily won game now. 35.Qxc5+ MVL can't keep the queens on the board. If 35.bxc5 Rg6! 36.c6+ Kb8 37.g3 Qe4 38.Qf3 Rxc6 is hopeless for White. 35...Qxc5+ 36.bxc5 Rd7 Safety first, giving the pinned bishop and rook an escape plan with ...Bc6. 37.Rfe1 h6 38.Kf2 Kb8 39.c4 Bc6 40.Rxd7 Bxd7 41.Rb1 The rest is just a clean-up operation, as Anand picks off all those weak White pawns. 41...Ra6 42.Rb6 Rxa5 43.Rxh6 Rxc5 44.h4 Rxc4 45.g3 Kc7 46.h5 b5 0-1