India has potential World champions, but they will have strong competition: Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Touring success: Vachier-Lagrave’s significant triumphs include the recent Tata Steel Chess India rapid title in Kolkata, which made his first visit to the country truly memorable. | Photo credit: Debasish Bhaduri

Franchise player: Vachier-Lagrave, who enjoyed his time with Upgrad Mumba Masters in the inaugural Global Chess League in Dubai, believes the tournament is ‘good for chess’ because it helps ‘people get involved and root for a team’. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Franchise player: Vachier-Lagrave, who enjoyed his time with Upgrad Mumba Masters in the inaugural Global Chess League in Dubai, believes the tournament is ‘good for chess’ because it helps ‘people get involved and root for a team’. | Photo credit: Getty Images

As a feat, crossing 2800 Elo points in chess shares similarities with scoring 10,000 runs in Tests. Only 14 batters have scaled that peak. Only 14 Grandmasters have touched that magical mark. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is one of them. The Frenchman, usually referred to by his initials MVL, reached the milestone in 2016, during his triumph at the Sparkassen Chess Meeting in Dortmund. His peak rating, achieved the same year, is 2819 — the seventh-highest in history. A former World No. 2, he won the World blitz championship in 2021. Among his recent significant triumphs is the Tata Steel Chess India rapid title in Kolkata, making his first visit to the country truly memorable. Excerpts from an interview he granted The Hindu:

Winning the World blitz championship two years ago in Warsaw must have been one of the highlights of your career. How do you look back at the experience? It was impacted by Covid-19…

It has definitely been one of the highlights of my career. I hope there is more to come.

It was an extremely tough tournament. There were a lot of strong players, like Magnus [Carlsen], Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Levon Aronian… The circumstances were also tough because of the Covid, which hit on the final day.

Yes, Hikaru Nakamura tested positive and there was even the possibility of the tournament being stopped…

Yes. I managed to keep focused and was a bit lucky. The level of chess was very strong on the final day. I won the games I needed and it turned out to be enough.

You won the World junior championship in 2009. It is the most prestigious of the several age-group tournaments FIDE organises. Some World junior champions have gone on to become the ultimate World champions, like Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov, Viswanathan Anand…

Yes, it is good company. It was a great moment for me. It is one of the strongest tournaments a youngster can get to play.

But you had already crossed 2700 at that time, hadn’t you?

Yeah, I had crossed 2700. But still it was a tough tournament for me, as there were some strong players in the field. And I won the title only by winning my last-round game. Sergei Zhigalko was actually having a superb tournament; we both won eight games each and didn’t lose any. It was on a tie-breaker that I came first.

The World championship remains the biggest prize in chess, though Carlsen is no longer part of the cycle. He is clearly not happy with the current format. What are your thoughts on it?

I do think that Magnus makes some very strong points about the need for quickening the time control. But I also understand FIDE’s desire to keep the tradition of the World championship.

I would like to see a Candidates tournament with 16 players, instead of eight. Then at the end of some knockouts, you get three players. And let the World champion join at that stage. Yes, maybe a World championship featuring four players.

But still, I must say that this year’s World championship [between Ding Liren and Ian Nepomniachtchi] was very exciting, thrilling. The World champion getting the right to play the title match directly, while his opponent has come through a really tough cycle, is a bit too much of an advantage, I feel. But at the same time, it is part of the tradition.

You may have to get some balance, that is why I spoke of this idea of making the champion join three players that come through the Candidates. Maybe it is not an idea that appeals to everybody. But I feel the way the World championship is conducted will change at some point, maybe in five years, or 10 or 20.

How much did it matter, reaching 2800?

It was a high point in my career. I was on a roll then, putting pressure on everyone and getting some lucky breaks, too. I was a bit sad that I couldn’t keep it up and build on that momentum.

Is the new generation of world chess taking on yours? The Fabulous Four from India — D. Gukesh, R. Praggnanandhaa, Arjun Erigaisi and Nihal Sarin — and then players like Alireza Firouzja, Nodirbek Abdusattorov, Vincent Keymer…

Yes, India has potential World champions, but they will have strong competition. Gukesh had an exceptional Olympiad in Chennai, but Praggnanandhaa has made a good case for himself in the last few months. I wouldn’t discount the others, either.

It is always nice when you see new blood coming. We had Magnus, then Anish Giri, Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So…Then the next generation was perhaps a bit shaky. Right now we have a strong generation of players led by Alireza. And they are bouncing at our doors. Now it is a big fight. And we actually have to fight well with them. When I started my career, I was looking forward to playing the big stars that I grew up watching, but now I am on the other side. It is very exciting.

Anand was the lone Indian you regularly met across the board for so long…

Vishy is amazing, in the sense that he kept that level and he is still keeping it. I am sure that in 20 years from now, I will be far from being able to maintain such a level. He is a living legend, for sure. His chess is flawless. At the top of his game, he could play every move relying fully on intuition and that is also why he managed to keep that level for such a long time. Even right now he plays at an amazing level. And as a person, he is very nice and approachable. I have never had a bad moment with him.

You were part of the inaugural Global Chess League in Dubai. How did you find the new concept?

We had an exciting final and I thought the concept was very nice. It is one of the events that help people get involved and root for a team. There is a future for this event. These teams were made from scratch, but mine, Upgrad Mumba Masters, actually got along well from the start. We had real team spirit. Such tournaments are good for chess.

How is the chess scene now in France?

It is more popular than it was five years ago. More people are recognising me, which is a nice thing. Because of the pandemic — chess can be very much an Internet sport — and the Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit, the interest in chess has grown rapidly.

The World champions you admire?

Bobby Fischer, Alexander Alekhine and Kasparov.

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