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20 April 2020

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave: I'd Rather Look Ahead Than Behind

The French grandmaster, one of the leaders of the FIDE Candidates Tournament answers Eteri Kublashvili’s questions

- Maxime, we are making our interview in challenging times. How do you cope with the isolation period?

- I stay at home, I go shopping twice a week and that's what I'm all about! In fact, I am wisely waiting for the epidemic to stop, or at least for the situation to improve.

- How has the whole situation in the world influenced your life and plans for this year?

- It's clear that the next tournaments are or will be cancelled or postponed one after the other. But then, there are still a lot of online activities... Anyway, there is in the medium term the prospect of the Candidates' resumption, which makes that I will certainly have to work hard in the coming months.

- Do you think that online chess can be a good measure for people in the world to endure this period?

- This is rather good news for all chess players if only to help them pass the time. And we can see that a lot of people have taken the initiative to register on platforms because there are a lot of possibilities to play, to follow broadcasts, to learn and so on... Indeed, a lot of content is being produced at the moment. Therefore, the period becomes necessarily easier to live through.

- Could you please recommend our readers any books (chess or any others), movies, TV series, chess programs or channels for the isolation time? 

- It's hard for me to recommend series because even if I'm a big fan of the genre, I'm too random with them at the moment! Check out the classics again!

- Do you follow the news about the state of things – both from medical and economic points of view? Or do you prefer not to spoil your mood with it? 

- I'm mainly following things from a medical point of view, especially to try to get an overview of when the Candidates Tournament might start again. As a citizen, I'm also interested in the economic impact, and there's no doubt that it's complicated. In my opinion, the situation can only get worse in the first instance. 

- Back to the FIDE Candidates. When it seemed that you wouldn’t take part in it this year, did you have any hope that it would still happen? For example, somebody would refuse or something like this?

- Let's just say I was prepared for the eventuality that something happened that would allow me to participate. But I certainly wasn't torturing my mind that I had a chance to play the Candidates. I would say I was in the recovery and mind-clearing phase!

- Were you sure that you really deserved to play? Are you a fatalist?

- Yes, clearly, there was no doubt in my mind that I deserved to play. I think I've achieved the 2019 season equivalent to Nepomniachtchi's, just behind Carlsen, Caruana and Ding.

- What was your first impression when you got a letter from FIDE about your possible participation?  

- When I was given the opportunity to participate, I did not hesitate for a moment. I immediately went into organisation mode because there was a lot to do. The obvious urgency to put everything in place, from an administrative point of view as well as from a chess point of view, quickly imposed itself on me.

- Didn’t you feel that other players were in a more privileged situation since they had had more time for preparation? 

- I still had a little time left to try and fill in the blanks (smile). But above all, I arrived in Yekaterinburg very rested, mentally and especially physically. So I was rather happy from this point of view, even if my preparation was necessarily very shortened. 

- What do you think helped you become the leader after the first part?

- I think I was playing pretty good! I've also benefited from the good work done by the whole team. From a chess point of view, I had both the good preps and the right level of play...

- Do you believe that the pandemic influenced the play of other grandmasters?

- Some players may have been influenced by the pandemic, but I have to say that there can always be influences, whether positive or negative. Something can happen at any given time. Obviously, in this case, it was a really special situation, but we – high-level players - are normally "ready" to deal with this kind of situation and get into a bubble. Though for some people it's more complicated than for others, that's for sure...

- How did you find the tournament conditions in Yekaterinburg?

- All in all, it went well, with no particular worries. Given the circumstances, everything was done to make sure that the playing conditions, both on and off the board, were right for the players. Obviously, playing without spectators was a bit strange... The only downside was the opening ceremony, which was particularly unwelcome in the context. 

- Do you think that Teimour Radjabov’s pretensions to FIDE are well-taken?

- For me, he withdrew too early, without consulting other players... Now it's up to him to see if he wants to go to court. As things stand at the moment, I think that even if FIDE wanted to, they couldn't reinstate him. Indeed, the tournament rules were written in such a way that the modalities in case of a postponement were already established before the tournament started: and so we will have to start again with the same players and the scores acquired. 

- What are your plans for the next months?

- Work! Of course, there is the Magnus Carlsen Invitational on Chess24 from 18 April to 3 May. There will be other online tournaments that will probably be organized in the next few months. I also have some other commitments. But in any case, it will be necessary to work to be ready for the Candidates' resumption.

- You are one of the strongest and famous grandmasters in the world but the Russian chess amateurs don’t know much about you. Could you please tell us a bit about yourself? 

- Basically, I'm a chess enthusiast. I had a chance to be strong, very quickly, to progress and thus to be able to live on my passion in the world top. Then, I'm a rather discreet person, and I understand it doesn't help to know much more about me (smile). But it's also possible to discover me through my games, and I'm sure you can guess a bit more from them!

- You became one of the leading players of France and the world quite early. But how did you start playing chess? Who taught you? Who was your first coach?

- My father taught me how to play chess, and my first coach was FM Eric Birmingham. He took me under his wing when I was 6 years old, and I started winning titles in France and a few medals at the World Championships.

- When did you understand that you were going to be a chess professional?  

- Around 16 years old, when I became the French champion, and then very quickly I came close to the 2700 mark. I took a degree in mathematics, it was because I liked it, but without any particular objective since I had already understood that I would stop after the degree.

- How were your early coaches preparing you for the games? Has this approach changed significantly since then?

- Yes, the approach to a game preparation has changed enormously since I was young! Back then, the idea was really to find the opponents' weak points in the game and in the openings. But in a more global way and obviously using the computer less. We had a lot less knowledge, a lot fewer games of other players and the level, in general, was much lower - including my own, of course (smile). Now the approach is really more rigorous and much more "scientific" in a way.

- Are you preparing to play «against pieces» or «against opponents»?

- I'm playing against opponents, clearly. Of course, I always look for the best moves, but I know I also have to be ready to take a psychological approach against each of my opponents, that's obvious to me.

- Which of the great chess players of the past (or present) influence your play?

- Fischer, of course, did, but also Alekhine and Kasparov. Having said that, in the current top-level chess, one is obliged in any case to be universal enough to be able to navigate any kind of position. But it's true that there's an assumed willingness to take the initiative that is easily found in these three players; that's a characteristic I particularly appreciate.

- You are known as a great connoisseur of the Gruenfeld Defence and the Najdorf Sicilian. Do you think that a deep knowledge of a precise opening is enough in modern chess especially when Magnus Carlsen seems not to be very much dependent on the theory and prefers to wage struggle in the middle game?

- I invite you to reconsider your question because Magnus is perhaps the best-prepared player at the moment! And at least for the whole of 2019…

- Speaking about Carlsen. Paraphrasing Gary Lineker, it may seem that everybody plays chess, but Carlsen always wins. What do you think makes him a special one? What do other players need to beat him?

- We'll see about that next year during the match!

- Which achievements of yours are the most important for you? 

- I'd rather look ahead than behind... I try to be the best chess player I can be, my ultimate goal being to become the world champion. I am aware, however, that there is still a lot of work to be done.

- What do you value most of all in chess?

- Most of the time, you have to play good games to get performance. But as such - beyond the sporting result – I value these beautiful games, when I manage to produce them, I am proud to have played them!

- Do you follow any sports team or athlete? 

- I follow a lot of sports, mainly football, tennis and basketball. I'm a supporter of Olympique Lyonnais in football, and an unconditional fan of Roger Federer in tennis!

- What hobbies do you have?

- I watch a lot of TV series; I play video games. Recently, I've downloaded enough video games to last me when I'm alone, as was the case in Yekaterinburg, and even now in my apartment.

- Are you active in social networks?

- I'm more active in private networks. On my public accounts, I am a little less active, even if I try to give news from time to time!

- Do you consider chess to be a sufficient source of income, or do you have plans to invest in any other field in future?

- For the moment, it is clear that I make a good enough living from chess. But I know it's not set in stone. I will see what my future will be made of in due time, even if there are already tracks towards which I know that I will be able to turn when I stop playing chess completely, or if I would come to be less strong or weary by the game. Even if the objective, for the moment, is to be stronger! In any case, I know that I will have options later, either to continue to be in the chess world or to turn to a completely different activity.

- What is your life motto?

- Generally speaking, to enjoy... We only have one life!

Photos by Lennart Ootes and Kirill Merkuryev

Special thanks to Laurent Vérat, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s manager, for his help with the interview. 

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