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On Chess: Maxime Vachier-Lagrave wins his first super tournament and propels to No. 2 spot

 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave holds the trophy for the 2017 Sinquefield Cup
Austin Fuller | Saint Louis Chess Club
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave holds the trophy for the Sinquefield Cup

The third leg of the annual Grand Chess Tour, the Sinquefield Cup, once again took place at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis from Aug. 1-12. The entire event was a close race, ending in a nail biting finale.

The tournament has a reputation of no repeat winners, as a different grandmaster has clinched the title since the inauguration of the event in 2014. This year was no different.

Going into the event there was a clear favorite: Magnus Carlsen. Whenever a world champion plays in a tournament, he is automatically considered the favorite. In addition, Carlsen has shown sparkling performances in the first two legs of the tour, winning them both and clinching the top spot in the standings.

However, there is something different about the Sinquefield Cup compared to the first two legs. It is the first classical event of the tour. As impressive as Carlsen was in Paris and Leuven, those were rapid and blitz tournaments.

Normally, the chess world takes the world champion’s skills for granted and assumes he must win every event. This assumption is based on the time period when he did win practically every event and the fact that he is the highest rated player on the planet. However, the last classical event he won was last year in July when he finished first in the Bilbao Masters with one round two spare. He did defend his title last November against Sergey Karjakin, although it was done in the rapids when the classical matches ended in a draw.

On the other hand, Levon Aronian has been climbing back up the rating ladder and winning tournaments all year. The former undisputed No. 2 player and Carlsen’s closest rival had a few shaky years but seemed to be back to his usual self this year. He won the super tournaments, Altibox Norway and the Grenke chess classic, ahead of Carlsen right before the tour kicked off. Once again he found himself back in his comfortable No. 2 spot in the world rankings.

Of course, another player who can never be counted out in these competitions is five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand. Time after time, this legend proves that he is a force to be reckoned with even though he unjustifiably goes unnoticed due to his age. In fact, when thinking back to the 2017 Sinquefield Cup, it is his game against the much younger Fabiano Caruana that will be forever remembered.

Another player who is well known at the top level is Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The Frenchman has been part of the 2700 club for years and has even crossed the highly coveted 2800 mark on a live rating list. He was neck in neck with Carlsen on the Grand Chess Tour standings going into the Sinquefield Cup. Even though he is a household name for chess fans, he has never won a super tournament of this caliber in his career. Up until now, that is.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s road to victory was not an easy one. His preparation was as exceptional as were his nerves of steel. His big break came in round four against Carlsen, when he found himself in a lost position. But his resilience allowed him not only to save the game but also to take home the full point. This win put Vachier-Lagrave half a point ahead of Carlsen, a discrepancy that the World Champion never overcame.

This was a dream tournament for fans and commentators as the fate of the event was resolved in the last round. Going into the last round, Vachier-Lagrave, Aronian and Anand were tied for first with Carlsen and Karjakin was half a point behind them. All kinds of scenarios were possible, including a four-way tie for first place.

As the saying goes, playing well is not enough to win a tournament, one must also get lucky. Vachier-Lagrave did not get lucky per se. His last round win was wrinkle free, but his closest rivals never had a chance. Anand drew his game quickly against the American Wesley So, while Carlsen beat Aronian in a brilliant game. The Frenchman did his part and everything else fell into place. For his efforts, he collected the Sinquefield Cup trophy, $75,000, and 13 Grand Chess Tour points. He now has 31 overall tour points, only three points behind Carlsen and a whopping 15.5 points ahead of last year’s tour winner, So. He rejoined the 2,800 club and is now ranked No. 2 on the live rating list.

Champion Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (right) with Dr. Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield along with the $75,000 first prize check. August 2017
Credit Lennart Ootes | Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis
Champion Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (right) with Dr. Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield along with the $75,000 first prize check.

The next stop of the tour is the Saint Louis Rapid and Blitz, which is taking place at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis through Saturday. Neither Carlsen nor Vachier-Lagrave will be competing as they already fulfilled the requirement of playing in two rapid and blitz events. The last stop will once again be the London Chess Classic from Nov. 29-Dec. 11, where the champion of the 2017 Grand Chess Tour will be crowned.

Tatev Abrahamyan is the Grand Chess Tour journalist, providing live commentary of the rounds through the Grand Chess Tour Twitter account and writing daily recaps. She is the third highest rated female in the United States and has represented the United States in four Olympiads and two World Team Championships since 2008.