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On Chess: Maxime Vachier-Lagrave Battens Down The Hatches To Win The Paris Rapid & Blitz Tournament

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave holding his trophy after he won the Paris Rapid and Blitz Tournament in 2019.
Lennart Ootes | St. Louis Chess Club

Chess players can picture a tournament victory 1,000 times in their head. One can prepare, have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish, and show up to the event ready as you can possibly be.

Once the first move is played, however, those plans often get thrown out the window. 

This is doubly true in rapid and blitz chess, where games fly by at a blistering pace. This point was illustrated perfectly at the recently completed Paris Rapid and Blitz Tournament, the latest stop on the Grand Chess Tour, from July 27 through Aug. 1. 

When Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, France’s No. 1 player, finished the rapid portion a point ahead of the field, he had to be brimming with confidence. As the top-ranked blitz player in the world, he is used to coming from behind in the latter portions of rapid and blitz events, but to go in with a lead is just gravy. The tournament was all but sewn up, right? As is turned out, there were many unexpected twists before the Frenchman earned his trophy.

Vachier-Lagrave’s play in the three days of rapid chess was exemplary. He made his intent clear from the get-go with two wins as black and, apart from a slight hiccup in Round 3, cruised to an impressive 13 points out of a possible 18. It should be noted that a win in rapid counts for two points and a draw for one, while in blitz the points are halved. Some games he dominated, others he used his resourcefulness, and overall he just outclassed the competition. Alexander Grischuk took longer to get going, but his two wins on the third day were enough for him to finish the rapid with 12 out of 18. Ex-World Champion Vishy Anand and Ian Nepomniachtchi also performed well in the rapid and finished with 10 out of 18. 

As hinted at earlier, the blitz was a completely different story. Vachier-Lagrave and Grischuk lead after the rapid and are known blitz specialists, but they had two days of blitz chess they’d sooner forget. Their form was a shade of what we are used to from them, and in such an unforgiving field that will rarely go unpunished. They both scored 8 out of 18, leaving MVL at 21 points and Grischuk at 20 to finish the tournament. Polish wildcard Jan-Krzysztof Duda, world championship challenger Fabiano Caruana and U.S. champion Hikaru Nakamura all performed well in the blitz, but their performances in the rapid weren’t strong enough to allow them to be contenders for the top places. Hikaru took seventh, Fabiano sixth, and Duda earned fifth place. Nepomniachtchi looked very close to chasing down the Frenchman, and was within a game or two of catching him on the last day. He finished with two losses, however, which was only enough to allow him to tie with Grischuk for third place. Vishy Anand was chasing the leaders for much of the event, and an incredible winning streak on the last day allowed him to leapfrog into second place with 20.5 points. That was just half a point shy of MVL’s 21, and thus the French player won the title by a mere hair’s breadth.

Vachier-Lagrave’s well-earned and long-overdue title puts him in second place in the Grand Chess Tour standings, behind world champion Magnus Carlsen. He’ll try to continue his success at the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz. This event will have the same format as Paris: three days of rapid chess Aug. 10-12, then two days of blitz Aug. 13-14. There will be 10 participants who will play nine rounds of rapid and 18 of blitz. It is a precursor to the Sinquefield Cup, an 11-round classical time control event Aug. 17-28. This 12-player round robin will feature all the tour participants, and be critical toward determining who qualifies for the final in London. 

The St. Louis Rapid and Blitz is certainly not to be missed, as World Champion Magnus Carlsen will be back in action after skipping the Paris event. He won the Cote d’Ivoire Rapid and Blitz, the Croatia classical event. With the year he’s having, he is no doubt the player to beat. The Norwegian will have his hands full, however, as he’ll be joined by a slew of elite players. Apart from the champion in Paris, Carlsen will be joined by tour participants Fabiano Caruana, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Ding Liren, Levon Aronian and Sergey Karjakin. The wildcards will be no less dangerous. They are world No. 10 Leinier Dominguez, Chinese No. 2 Yu Yangyi and the mercurial Hungarian player Richard Rapport. If Paris was any indicator, we are in for another five days of excitement and unpredictability, and it’d be foolish to miss it.

The first round of the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz will kick off at the St. Louis Chess Club at 1 p.m. CST on Aug. 10. Online English commentary will be provided by Yasser Seirawan, Maurice Ashley and Jennifer Shahade. Live audience commentary will feature Cristian Chirila and Alejandro Ramirez at Kingside Diner. All commentary will be viewable at grandchesstour.org or on the St. Louis Chess Club’s YouTube channel.

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