Vachier-Lagrave: 'The Road To The Candidates Should Be Equally Tough'
After missing the candidates, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave speaks out. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Vachier-Lagrave: 'The Road To The Candidates Should Be Equally Tough'

PeterDoggers
PeterDoggers
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51 | Chess Players

Chess.com conducted an interview with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave after a tough and eventually disappointing year for him. The French number-one player speaks about failing to qualify for the candidates, what was wrong with the qualification process and Alireza Firouzja possibly becoming a French player. Interview text may have been edited for clarity or length.

The interview was conducted via Skype on January 2. Vachier-Lagrave was at home in Paris, where he lives in the sixth arrondissement, about a 20-minute walk from the Notre Dame. In fact, he could see the fumes from his apartment when the iconic cathedral burned down on April 15 last year.

Shortly before the interview, MVL had just finished his first session in the Chess.com Puzzle Rush World Championship, where he competed with top players like Peter Svidler, Hikaru Nakamura, Ray Robson and Firouzja.

"Clearly I don't have what it takes to beat those guys," said Vachier-Lagrave, even though he was still in the mix after the first day of play, and set a 44-puzzle streak at some point. "I don't expect to do great things. If I qualify it's already a big result."

On Friday, Vachier-Lagrave successfully qualified for the quarterfinals, and will play in the final bracket of eight on Saturday, Jan. 4. Coverage begins live at 7 a.m. PST on Chess.com/TV.


The Puzzle Battle World Championship runs until Jan. 5. You can watch the action with live commentary at Chess.com/tv.

One of the sensations in this first edition is the Greek player Dimitrios Ladopoulos, FIDE-rated 2253, who is better at solving these puzzles than many others. How do you explain it that there is an amateur player killing even top grandmasters?

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave: Yeah, it's fun. I guess it's a lot about memorization. He probably has fantastic vision and because he knows there's a tactic, he'll find it.

Besides, there's something about the feature that helps a lot if you're not so strong and that is that the difficulty of the puzzles goes up and up. First it's very easy, and then there is this range around 40 that it gets difficult but they are more easy to memorize and that's how he does it. If the level of puzzles would be totally random then it gets trickier to actually know what to expect.

Who's your favorite to win it?

I guess Ray [Robson].

I noticed you take part in a lot of events on our site, more than many other top players. There's the Speed Chess Championship and PRO Chess League, of course, but also these Giant Chess battles with Danny Rensch in St. Louis, Puzzle Battle, this "adopt a Danny" thing recently and our Chess960 tournament two years ago.

I have tried other games like bughouse, king of the hill, three-checks. I feel like it's all good fun. 

The news from today was that Ian Nepomniachtchi withdrew from Wijk aan Zee for being too tired and wanting to prepare for the candidates. Do you feel tired as well, after one of your the busiest years in chess?

Yes, I have played chess for about 130 days last year. But a lot of it was about the schedule, which was just insane. It is partly FIDE and partly the Grand Chess Tour, but they didn't have a single one of these tournaments in the first four months. This means that starting from Croatia at the end of June I must have been at home for a maximum of one and a half months. I freed up my schedule in October but apart from that I didn't have a break.

I understand that February is a bit early to organize things but March and April were pretty much free and I think it would've been much better if maybe one FIDE Grand Prix and one or two rapid and blitz Grand Chess Tour events would have happened in that moment.

It was debated whether I should play the Grand Chess Tour actually. It's one of the events where of course you get paid the most but that's not the point. It's also one of the events where you learn the most because you play against all the strongest players.

So learning is part of the motivation to choose an event?

Learning, experience, the challenge. You're trying to outsmart the best players in the world in the opening and whatever, and then in the actual game. It is pretty tough.

Anyway, I didn't feel like I needed to miss the Grand Chess Tour as I was going to play in Abidjan and Paris anyway, because they were both sponsored by Colliers and Vivendi—and as a French-speaking player I would have played there. So basically what I could have avoided was playing the two classical events in Zagreb and St. Louis. At the moment I didn't feel like it was insurmountable.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave at the world blitz last week.
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave at the world blitz last week. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Early in the year you had made it clear that qualifying for the candidates was your priority number-one. If you look back, do you think you made a mistake there?

Possibly. If I really wanted to optimize my chances the most, possibly. But I don't think anyone, apart from Vladimir [Kramnik], who was retiring, declined the Grand Chess Tour invite. It's just too tough a decision to make, especially as anyone is playing some of the events. I felt like I could do it.

I don't think it's possible to blame FIDE for everything but I do think they and the Grand Chess Tour could have coordinated better.

Twice, in separate Grand Chess Tour live broadcasts, Garry Kasparov criticised FIDE for announcing the Grand Prix at the last moment, even though for the last decade or so we have had a Grand Prix series every two years, and mostly with the first leg in February. So the Grand Chess Tour organizers could have seen it coming, so to speak. Why do you think the schedule ended up so tight?

I don't think it's possible to blame FIDE for everything but I do think they and the Grand Chess Tour could have coordinated better. It was a year that the Grand Chess Tour expanded quite a lot and when I saw the schedule I was a bit pissed. I saw that everything was colliding on such a heavy level but at the same time I was also excited by the challenge, I have to say.

By reaching the 2019 final you have directly qualified for the next Grand Chess Tour. They have announced their events, but no dates yet. Are you disappointed?

I think there's definitely room for improvement. In tennis we know the calendar well in advance, also for the tournaments not to collide with each other, at least major tournaments. I think this should be the case in chess to avoid some of the chaos.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Vachier-Lagrave at the world rapid last week. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Let's talk about the FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss tournament. First, what do you think about having a Swiss event as part of the world championship cycle?

I think it's actually a good event and it's possible to have it as a qualifier, but I don't think you can use it with only one spot. With one spot it's very random and players like me are not going to play, especially with such a busy schedule. But if you give it more spots...two probably doesn't cut it but three should be good. With three spots you're sure that all of the top players will play and also there is less room for arrangements. I don't think there were any arrangements this year but with so much at stake it's not unthinkable; there have been some arrangements in the past. This is one of the issues with the Swiss system compared to the knockout system where arrangements with opponents are impossible.

The average rating is mathematically faulty.

Another way of qualifying for the candidates was by average rating, from the February 2019 to the January 2020 lists. You ended just behind Anish Giri, who got the spot because the highest-eligible player, Ding Liren, qualified from the World Cup. What's your take on this particular path to the candidates?

We didn't feel it so much in 2017 because the results were normal, and this year we wouldn't have felt it if it had been Ding who had qualified by rating, but the average rating is mathematically faulty. If you start the year with a higher rating you can perform worse, or the same and come out higher. Let's say Anish performed more or less the same as I did because he started the year in January three points ahead of me and now we're like on the same rating, so basically we had the same TPR, and still by September there was absolutely no chance that I could catch him. Since we had performed more or less the same; that was a bit wrong.

And both of you played relatively little chess in the first couple of months of the year, which are the months that weigh heavier in this system.

Exactly.

So what would you suggest?

I think TPR [tournament performance rating, or in this case the performance rating over the given period –PD] is already much better and if I'm being fair I think Leinier Dominguez actually had the best TPR. I don't know if TPR is the best way to select a candidate but it's definitely much better than average rating. Because also with average rating, if you take another sick example, like, you are 2780 at the start of the year and you discount the number of games limitation—but just to be schematic, if one plays just one tournament in February and wins 15 points and the other one plays this one tournament in December and wins 50 points he will be completely crushed by the first one. That's totally illogical.

How is it possible that such a blunder was made?

If people don't pay attention it's possible to make those blunders. The thing is we were not consulted. The good thing is that now I've been able to share my point of view and I hope that at least my points will be taken into consideration.

And what didn't help for you was that Giri withdrew from the Grand Swiss, which was in fact a breach of contract. As far as I know the FIDE presidential board still hasn't made a decision on that, or at least didn't publish it.

Yeah, it's strange, because they announced that they would take a decision in December. If I would have to speak up my personal opinion, there should be a substantial fine, just to avoid any repeats and also as a matter of respect to the organizers. At the time, when we had to send out contracts to the Isle of Man, I waited until the deadline, it was at the beginning of the Riga Grand Prix. If I had been eliminated in the first round there I would've played in Isle of Man but I decided to take the risk.

Anish Giri
Anish Giri last week in Moscow. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Actually I haven't made this point yet but to add one more event this year felt like too much—even if this event is very interesting in itself. It's unfair that I cannot reasonably play in the Isle of Man and divide my chances in the best way I can basically.

Anyway, so I decided to take this gamble, because, especially in hindsight that I played this one-month World Cup, I didn't see myself coming back one week later and not dropping a fair amount of points.

I think there should be a financial sanction, to be honest, as a warning to everyone who could be tempted to do it.

So yeah, as a matter of principle, all people should have been treated equally. Everyone was asked to send the contract back, or not, if you don't want to play, by a certain date. Then you should really be able to justify your withdrawal if you decide not to play. I think Anish was not the only one to withdraw actually, I think Dominguez did, and others. I think there should be a financial sanction, to be honest, as a warning to everyone who could be tempted to do it. I was actually invited after the World Cup to join in but clearly there was no way for me to include one more tournament as I needed to rest and prepare for my next events.

You were also critical of that match for third place in the World Cup, saying that besides the relatively small difference in money it was basically played for nothing. However, at the time it definitely seemed relevant because a third place could work in someone's favor for a wildcard, so was it right to criticize it?

I think it could be very relevant if, let's say, Magnus [Carlsen] or Fabiano [Caruana] had played in the World Cup because then it could actually potentially decide who qualifies. Let's say one of them plays but doesn't reach the final, it doesn't matter, you're not going to change the whole thing in the middle of the tournament. You're not going to say, if one of them reaches the final we're gonna play the third-place match. That's shaky. But here we knew it's not going to be decisive and I think the first way to solve this is just to decide that both semifinalists have done enough to show that they are worthy of wildcard eligibility and not put them through another week-long tournament. Especially when one week after that there's Isle of Man.

Wang Hao
Wang Hao, the winner in Isle of Man. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

I'll be honest, I don't think it would've changed my decision to play in Isle of Man but it definitely could have, from a zero percentage it might go to a 10 percent chance that I would show up there because I have more time to rest. And seeing of course how FIDE priced the Isle of Man there was certainly good reason because it was a very exciting event. It would've make sense to make sure that players get the best conditions for entering and adding an extra week to the schedule wasn't a necessity. So I stand by my point; once we knew that it wouldn't actually qualify for the candidates the third-place match was totally out of order.

Do you agree that Magnus and Fabiano shouldn't have been allowed to play in the Grand Swiss?

At first I thought it wouldn't matter but actually it sort of does. Actually even for the World Cup, they shouldn't be allowed to play. We don't even have to think about the third-place match and we can erase it from our memories. But from their point of view it's also a bit strange because for example the World Cup is a very fun event that you might want to play no matter what, so I'm not that certain. But yeah, it does feel a bit strange that you're part of the qualifying process when you are already qualified or you don't need to qualify because you're the world champion.

Carlsen and MVL meet at the world rapid
Carlsen and MVL met at the world rapid. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

How do you look back at the Grand Prix as one the qualifying paths?

It was a fair system. I think the idea to make it a knockout was interesting. Of course in a way it also made rapid and blitz very dominant, because it is part of the Grand Prix and the World Cup so that amounts to four spots. Also, I think the bonus points were a good thing but I think they were weighed too much.

It was actually to my advantage this time because I think I was the one who won most matches with bonus points, maybe [Alexander] Grischuk got as much, I don't really remember. But I think this should be reduced, the bonus points should be reduced but not eliminated because of course it's an incentive to fight before the tiebreaks.

There were a lot of people surprised that with my open letter I was asking for a wildcard. I wasn't.

That brings me to a final point which I hadn't made yet even though it's obvious. There were a lot of people surprised, [thinking] that with my open letter I was asking for a wildcard. I wasn't. There was no guarantee that I would have won this match with Alekseenko.

I can see people reading it that way. You were basically pointing out that from the start the Russians were happy to be guaranteed of a Russian participant, and now that two Russian players had already qualified, the necessity to have a third wasn't there.

Maybe it was misworded, but the point was that I'm happy to play for it. But I wasn't writing this open letter with the idea that I would get a match at all. I knew that it was very unlikely but I also just couldn't stay silent in front of the rumors that had been created.

I despise the wildcard. In my mind, it meant asking for a match, if at all possible.

I understand that the Russian chess federation wants another Russian player, it makes sense for them. There's nothing wrong in using the wildcard this way, I just don't think the wildcard should exist. That is why I wasn't asking for a wildcard, because I despise the wildcard. In my mind, it meant asking for a match, if at all possible.

An argument often made in favor of the wildcard is that it might help finding a sponsor.

I think the new FIDE board is working hard to get some new sponsors, new agreements to make chess more popular and I think in general chess is much more popular than it was like even five years ago, or maybe 10, so I think there is room to manage without a wildcard. I know that at some point some people were trying to get a French candidacy for hosting the candidates. I made it clear to them that if they want to organize the candidates in France that's fine, but do it to make chess more popular in France and not to give me a wildcard.

Before we leave the topic of the wildcard, I was wondering why you were so critical when the Russian chess federation announced its plan to choose a Russian player and possibly via a playoff.

The timing was ridiculous. It was done during the Hamburg Grand Prix. I think legally they were allowed to announce it because there was no rule but I think there should be a rule that says you cannot announce it before the end of the cycle, at the very least out of basic respect to the participants. I understood that it was likely that a Russian was going to get picked, but for instance we didn't know that they would do a match among all Russians involved. In general, out of respect to the participants of the ongoing cycle you wait until the cycle is over. This way you are certain you're not going to influence the current cycle. You already have one spot so you are already influencing the candidates. Why influence it more? This was really annoying.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Vachier-Lagrave wasn't happy with the timing around the wildcard announcements by the Russians. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Are you still going to follow the candidates?

Yes, it will be fun to watch. Of course it's a bit sad that I'm not in there and I think I've done enough this year to have a place but that's another matter. In sports that's not always how it goes.

The scheduling of the year made it much more difficult for me than for others.

Yes, that's a point made by many people. On the one hand you are by far the strongest player not have qualified; you were actually the first non-qualifier in the World Cup, the Grand Prix and on average rating. At the same time, every moment when it mattered, you didn't deliver.

Yes, and here is why this is not really a fair point, I think: The scheduling of the year made it much more difficult for me than for others. With the scheduling I had, of course by the end of the tournaments, and not only the tournaments that mattered but all sorts of tournaments, like the Paris Grand Chess Tour which I won, I finished horrendously. In St. Louis, in the classical portion, I finished horrendously. So basically it was a matter of physical tiredness and then that physical tiredness showed up by the end of the tournaments. It could also have an impact on my mental tiredness and my ability to fight to my best abilities. So yeah, I failed, as we could call it, a few match points, but clearly I wasn't helped by the scheduling of the year.

But wasn't it the same for other players who were also in the Grand Chess Tour? Ian Nepomniachtchi, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Levon Aronian, Sergey Karjakin, Anish Giri...?

I think we all suffered this year. So first of all, neither Shakhriyar nor Levon qualified. Anish managed to get knocked out from all the Grand Prix events quite early. [Smiles.] Nepo is also someone who suffered quite a lot. He did have a very hectic schedule as well, that's clear, so fair play to him for qualifying. But out of all the players we're mentioning I think only Levon played in the Isle of Man and I think that again is pointing out the issue that I was mentioning about the Isle of Man being added to a year that was already totally full.

It has been suggested in the past that to get the strongest eight players except for the world champion into the candidates, we should use a simpler system, for instance eight places based on (average) rating, or TPR.

I think that's not the way to go. I think it's good we have these qualifying tournaments, but there were just too many of them. I like all three paths, except the Grand Swiss if it's only gonna be one spot.

Do you think FIDE should reach out to top players more often and get their opinions?

I think so, yes, but I also think, and I'm speaking from experience, we also have our share of responsibilities in the fact that we might not be available to answer polls or whatever. I am actually motivated to have my opinion heard but that might not be the case for every player out there. I think they have other things to do and I can relate to that at times. It is anyway a good time because I feel we could be listened to on some of the subjects. Our opinion is coming from experience and we have more of that than most of the people in the world championship commission.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Vachier-Lagrave last week in Moscow. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

There's no other way of putting it: In the end you simply failed to qualify. Is there one moment of the last year you regret the most?

It was more like the whole process, because even in that last match against Ian I missed some opportunities, especially an opportunity to strike back, but by that point my head was clearly not working; my brain was switched off. There was just not much more I could've done in general. The same in the World Cup, of course my brain switched off for like 10 minutes, but then even the match against Yu Yangyi was just a pain to watch and I think it was painful from both players' point of view. Clearly, tiredness kicked in. The World Cup was already the end of a four-month marathon.

Do you explain Levon missing the win against you the same way?

Yeah, clearly. I think we all had a tough schedule. Some of the mistakes that we made, there's tension of course but I think there's just physical tiredness, which matters much more than mental tension. We don't get to the top without adding mental resources, that's for sure.

Do you do fitness?

Normally I try to do it, but this year it was just so impossible.

If I want to improve and I want to qualify for the candidates and have a shot at winning it I clearly should be on Ding's level and that's not an easy task.

FIDE can learn from the errors that were made. What would you say you can learn yourself from 2019?

Clearly there are some lessons I can take, some ways for improvement because again I can complain about how some things were done and rightfully so, but I haven't been good enough this year to make it. For instance, Ding was qualified on rating clearly but he still managed to make it to the final of the World Cup and twice in a row actually. So, I haven't been good enough to make all of the things that could happen wrong with me this year moot. I clearly had a worse year than Ding. So, if I want to improve and I want to qualify for the candidates and have a shot at winning it I clearly should be on Ding's level and that's not an easy task. But clearly these are the sort of things I should be aiming for if I want to not be depending on outside events.

Who is your favorite to win the candidates?

It's an event where the level of play matters so clearly, there are two favorites, Ding and Caruana. However, a lot of side events can happen and depending on how the tournament goes from the start, you know, one player can take a run. It's just one tournament after all even though it's 14 rounds. I would probably take the two of them against the rest of the field but not by a big margin.

And what about Alekseenko?

I don't expect him to be doing badly. I saw him first in a tournament in 2012 in the European championship in Plovdiv, and he did really well. I noticed him only because he was 2300 and he performed at like 2700.

I don't think he will do ridiculously badly as a candidate. I think he has done things that showed that he is able to compete with his players. Even in the World Cup he challenged Ding quite a lot.

Kirill Alekseenko
Kirill Alekseenko. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

I don't think any of the players have stolen their spot, so to speak. It's just that some of them had an easier path to the candidates than others and that's what's not fair, basically. For everyone the road to the candidates should be equally tough. This is perhaps the main point I wanted to make.

On to something else. Alireza Firouzja is trying to switch federations and rumor has it that he might be playing for France, where he lives. How do you feel about that?

It does cost 50,000 euros and I don't think the French chess federation has that money, but I could be wrong. But actually for a player of this caliber, at least of this potential, 50,000 euros is peanuts to be honest. Clearly he is a potential world champion. And he already lives in France.

It's actually quite exciting news, the idea that we get a stronger team. I don't know actually if I will be part of the Olympic team at the Olympiad in Moscow; it's quite unclear at the moment. There are some issues between me and the federation. But in general it's quite exciting that Alireza might become French. But I think he has other offers as well, so I don't know what he decides in the end, but it would be great to have him on our team.

He is showing things in his play, and his attitude that are reminding me of Magnus.

It's interesting that you already call him a potential world champion as his successes have only spanned about 10 months. Isn't it too early to hype him? What do you see in him what other players don't have?

He is showing things in his play, and his attitude that are reminding me of Magnus. The way he processes things at the board, the way he sees things, the way he puts his pieces, it's in a way very reminiscent. But of course he has a long way to go. It's not going to be automatic. But if he improves the way he improved, he'll definitely be in the top.

Alireza Firouzja.
Alireza Firouzja. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Do you see this in his classical games or maybe more in the faster games?

You can feel it even more in the faster games. I felt it when I watched him play in Moscow.

With you and him on the team, and Maxime Lagarde maybe still improving, could France play for medals?

Don't rule out [Etienne] Bacrot and [Laurent] Fressinet. For instance, Bacrot is a solid board two or three and for now he still has his place on a team that could contend for a medal or better but of course not on board one. He has experience to be able to fit in that team.

Maxime Lagarde had had an interesting development recently. He still has a long way to go but he has been doing really well this summer. He has a few things to he needs to improve. He's young; he's started to take chess seriously only recently because he was pushing an MBA for a while. I think there is room for him to become a 2700. So yeah, with Firouzja on the team we could reach for the top; we wouldn't be favorites but we would be going for medals or better. 

To me France always seems like one of the teams that has a strong bond among its players; you all seem to be good friends. Do you also see each other a lot outside chess?

In general, yes. But it depends. We don't always see all of us together that often but if we do find each other in the same tournaments, we get along really well and we always have side events where we are playing all sort of games together, having fun and enjoying each other‘s company. Clearly I think the atmosphere on the French team is special.

Of course there is no big rivalry, which helps. I actually don't know what would happen if Firouzja would become French and we would develop some sort of a rivalry. But I don't think so because to be honest he is 13 years younger than me so I have, at best, I think six years to contend for the top. I don't think I will be hanging out in the top 10 by the age of 50 like Vishy [Anand] does. But I'm only asking to surprise myself on this one!

So we could be rivals, but for a limited amount of time. And I think most rivalries are quite healthy if the people are reasonable. I know that there has been some tension in the U.S. but they have been able to figure it out and win the Olympiad.

Team spirit is important for me, to have the pleasure of playing on the team. If you don't get any pleasure of playing in the Olympiad then there is no reason to. But besides team spirit you also need really strong players. So I don't see a reason for a rivalry between me and Firouzja, it will probably be more like a cooperation, until of course we meet for individual challenges. I'm not going to be, like, defending my territory, trying to be nasty or something, that's just not something I do.

I did also want to mention the fact that you have your own website, and you write a blog there. Several top players have a website, but not many actually keep on updating it. Is this part of your sponsorship?

Actually it's not. I feel it's good that I can express my thoughts this way. It was actually when I was critical of this third-place match that I got this discussion going with FIDE officials. It's a good way to express my opinions and share my thoughts with the chess world and to hopefully get things better not just for myself but for the chess world in general, to make it more fun to follow and so on.

What are your plans for 2020?

I am playing in the PRO Chess League again and my first match is coming up pretty soon. [The France Roosters are playing the Poland Hussars on Jan. 9 –PD.] And I'll be playing again in Gibraltar and Norway and besides that, potentially the Grand Chess Tour, but I have no other engagement as of yet. I'm going to try to keep up a reduced schedule, to maybe also improve my physical fitness and everything, to be more ready for the next cycle.

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