Vachier-Lagrave Plays Pac-Man, Gobbles Pawns To Extend Lead

Vachier-Lagrave Plays Pac-Man, Gobbles Pawns To Extend Lead

| 13 | Chess Event Coverage

After a day of rest which sadly included yet another attack on his home country's soil, French GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave managed to re-funnel his mental energy into a win against GM Evgeniy Najer. He also doubled his lead to a full point (4.0/5) in the fifth round of the Sparkassen Chess Meeting in Dortmund, Germany.

Unfortunately, this resilience is becoming a trend for the number-one player in France. The day after the attacks in Paris last November, he also had to play chess at the European Team Championships. Somehow, he won on that day too, a crucial victory over GM Levon Aronian.  

He told that yesterday he spent Bastille Day watching his country's iconic yearly sporting event, the Tour De France. The dramatic finish, in which the leader crashed and attempted to run the final kilometer, presaged the evening's news in Nice. Vachier-Lagrave told, "After that, I found it hard to sleep and to focus."

Today he said he "finally decided to just review some lines more or less one hour before going to the game and somehow tried to focus during the game."

Vachier-Lagrave has shown a preternatural ability to focus on chess when he needs to, including today against Najer. | All photos courtesy Georgios Souleidis.

While Vachier-Lagrave's country has declared three days of national mourning, he is supposed to be enjoying the pinnacle of his career. Nearly every round in Dortmund has brought his rating to a record high. Also consider:

  • Thanks to the middling performances thus far by GM Vladimir Kramnik and GM Fabiano Caruana, Vachier-Lagrave leapfrogged them both to world number two in live ratings, his best ever.
  • He's added 80+ points to his rating in the last 12 months.
  • His 2808.3 live rating is the 10th-best all-time.
  • He hasn't lost any classical games in 2016.
  • If he holds on to win, this would be the biggest tournament victory of his life (Dortmund is even stronger than, say, Biel 2015).

The 2800 club is even more elite than any of the posh places listed here| Image courtesy

In other action today, GM Leinier Dominguez (3.0/5) couldn't keep his hold on sole second. The Cuban drew GM Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu (2.5/5) and caused the former to fall one point off the pace. That also allowed GM Ruslan Ponomariov (3.0/5) to pull up alongside Dominguez as the former world champion took Black and beat the luckless GM Rainer Buhmann (1.0/5).

Dominguez will play White against Vachier-Lagrave in the final round. It will likely be a must-win game, although it's also possible the tournament could be clinched by then.

Kramnik and Caruana, who aren't usually relegated to the seventh paragraph of tournament reports, both reside on even scores (2.5/5) after drawing a marathon game that lasted until after 10 p.m.

On to the matches. Here's the sleep-deprived Vachier-Legrave not playing the kind of calm game you might expect after a restless night with minimal preparation.

No doubt he was falling back on his extensive theoretical knowledge in capturing the Aeroflot Open winner's poisoned pawn. He wasn't finished with one pawn, as he eventually gobbled two more. His queen played the role of "Pac-Man" and consumed pawns like power pellets. The question remained: could she avoid the "ghosts" that were all the minor pieces chasing her?

Games via TWIC.

Buhmann tried a well-known pawn sacrifice against Ponomariov's Queen's Indian Defense. White got a knight to d6, but that's about it. After the knight was dislodged, White's pawns became crippled. Still, somehow the first player almost liquidated successfully against the 2010 champion.

Would Ponomariov have known the "Troitsky line" in the two knights versus pawn endgame? We'll never know! However, it's not automatic that world champions have it memorized as both Topalov and Karpov erred several times when it occurred in a rapid game they played in 2000.

Just when all the queenside pawns left the battle, Buhmann missed an intermezzo that would have given him great drawing chances. Consequently, the knights got to romp around at will, ending the game post haste.

Next to finish was post-round-three co-leader Dominguez. He was pushing for a win as White against one of the three 2600s, but Nisipeanu held strong.

Just after the opening phase, White's center crumbled, but he had a chance to use one of those opens files. Black's resource involved giving away the queen, so White tried another channel but got nothing. Indeed, Black even had the better prospects, and it was Dominguez who had to "bail out" into a drawn opposite-colored-bishop ending.

Two 2800s battled for more than seven(!) hours in a double-rook ending before Kramnik gave up the fight against Caruana and conceded that nothing more could be done. They agreed to a truce after "only" 85 moves. The old-school time controls of 40/100, 20/50, SD/15+30 seconds increment from move one meant that you didn't need to reach move 100 to be in the eighth hour of play.

Though it's very hard to research (readers can post below ), this may be the longest game ever played between two 2800s.

Although Caruana was under duress today and now finds himself mathematically nearly unable to win his third Dortmund title in a row, the good news is that he found a beach some 200km away from the nearest open water.

Caruana duly took this photo as the sign told him too.

Kramnik also will likely not add to his impressive ten first place finishes in Dortmund. If so, his five-year "Dortmund dearth" will be his longest since his inaugural win in 1995.

If Kramnik can pull a rabbit out of his briefcase and mount a comeback, he will have won exactly 25 percent of the 44 iterations.

The final two games will be this weekend. Vachier-Lagrave opened with two games against his fellow 2800s, so his path to the finish will be White versus Ponomariov tomorrow and Black against Dominguez on Sunday.

Perhaps conveniently, those are the two men chasing him one point back. Consequently, two draws will clinch sole first place. It also means that those two opponents can shake up the standings entirely should either of them beat the leader.

Dortmund 2016 | Round 5 Standings

# Fed Player Rtg Perf Pts 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
1 Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime 2798 2967 4.0/5 = = 1 1 1
2 Dominguez Perez, Leinier 2713 2803 3.0/5 1 = = = =
3 Ponomariov, Ruslan 2706 2779 3.0/5 0 = = 1 1
4 Nisipeanu, Livie Dieter 2674 2742 2.5/5 = = = = = 0
5 Kramnik, Vladimir 2812 2736 2.5/5 = = = = =
6 Caruana, Fabiano 2810 2736 2.5/5 0 = = = 1
7 Najer, Evegeniy 2687 2579 1.5/5 0 0 = 0 1
8 Buhmann, Rainer 2653 2503 1.0/5 0 = 0 0 = 0

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Mike Klein began playing chess at the age of four in Charlotte, NC. In 1986, he lost to Josh Waitzkin at the National Championship featured in the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer." A year later, Mike became the youngest member of the very first All-America Chess Team, and was on the team a total of eight times. In 1988, he won the K-3 National Championship, and eventually became North Carolina's youngest-ever master. In 1996, he won clear first for under-2250 players in the top section of the World Open. Mike has taught chess full-time for a dozen years in New York City and Charlotte, with his students and teams winning many national championships. He now works at as a Senior Journalist and at as the Chief Chess Officer. In 2012, 2015, and 2018, he was awarded Chess Journalist of the Year by the Chess Journalists of America. He has also previously won other awards from the CJA such as Best Tournament Report, and also several writing awards for mainstream newspapers. His chess writing and personal travels have now brought him to more than 85 countries.

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