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No pressure: French Grandmaster MVL on surprise route to Candidates

French Grandmaster Maxime Vachier-Lagrave will be playing in his first Candidates tournament this year.
French Grandmaster Maxime Vachier-Lagrave will be playing in his first Candidates tournament this year. © mvlchess.com

French chess Grandmaster Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is on an emotional roller coaster. After the disappointment of missing this year’s Candidates’ tournament by a whisker, the world number eight now finds himself racing against the clock to prepare for that very tournament, scheduled for 17 March, after the surprise withdrawal of GM Teimour Radjabov.

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“After he blew his last chance of qualifying for the Candidates at the Jerusalem FIDE Grand Prix (in December), Maxime felt disgusted with himself. Last week’s announcement was a complete surprise for us," Vachier-Lagrave’s manager Laurent Vérat told RFI.

"He is very happy for getting a chance to play in the tournament. But he has no time to celebrate because of the late announcement.”

Playing in the Candidates tournament is one of the top goals for every professional chess player. The winner of this biennial tournament becomes a challenger for the world championship crown.

Vachier-Lagrave’s participation as a replacement to Radjabov, who pulled out citing personal reasons, was announced on 6 March, just 10 days before the start of the tournament in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg.

The Frenchman was drafted in for having the highest average rating during the period from February 2019 to January 2020.

Coronavirus complications

“Besides having very little time for chess preparations specifically for the tournament (other than a three day training camp in south of France), Maxime has had to deal with travel arrangements which were not easy due to the coronavirus situation,” Vérat said.

He also wasn’t sure if his second, GM Etienne Bacrot, and the rest of his training staff would be able to accompany him to Russia.

With so little time to prepare, playing in such a high-level tournament that features the world’s top Grandmasters won’t be easy for Vachier-Lagrave – despite the fact that he has maintained a daily training routine to prepare for this year’s tournaments.

However, Vérat believes it could in some way act in the Frenchman’s favour. “Playing in this tournament is a bonus for him. Being free of pressure, he will give his best and try to win the tournament," he said.

"And even if he doesn’t win, it would give him an inside view of the tournament. He can use this knowledge for the Candidate tournaments in the future."

Vérat conceded that for a tournament of this level, it’s always better to prepare for three or four months. “You need this time to not only come up with fresh ideas in the opening against specific players but also to digest them,” he said.

But he pointed out that Vachier-Lagrave’s late entry means the other seven players in the tournament also won’t have enough time to prepare against him.

This will be the first time that Vachier-Lagrave, who has been in the world’s top 10 since January 2016, will be participating in the Candidates tournament, after missing out narrowly in 2014 and 2018. 

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