The decisive phase of the tournament

Vachier-Lagrave

MVL (all photos by Alina l’Ami)

This post will be about the second half of the event, when the final standings gradually took shape. First place might have been half-decided already before the final round, last place was rather clear relatively early. Shared second place (or rather who and how many would share second place) became clear only in the very last of 13 rounds. Only that much about the results of the A group – I assume that most readers are already familiar with the purely chessic part of Tata Steel 2015.

This second article will be a bit longer – because I could obtain some longer interviews and because I could ask for final comments only after the last round. Today’s title photo goes to a player with whom I had one of the longest interviews, and (as explained below) probably the most formal one. I use the short version of his name – it seems that he himself doesn’t mind – but of course his full name is Maxime Vachier-Lagrave AKA “the Frenchman with two names”. The picture [click to enlarge as for all other photos] also reveals a few more things: the overall atmosphere on the stage shortly after the round has started, whom he played (someone from Norway), which opening appeared (Grunfeld, what else if white plays 1.d4 against MVL?) and which supplies the players brought to the round – there might be an invisble banana next to MVL’s bottles.

Day4/Round 8

Once again, the first quote is from Baadur Jobava, this time already before the round. I normally do not approach players before the round, but he approached me as he was entering the venue, which resulted in this little chat: TR “Good luck, and keep your plus score against Carlsen!” Jobava: “I will play for a win. You know chess is like boxing, I always go for a win!” TR: “Except in round 2 against Vachier-Lagrave, when you didn’t mind a draw?” Jobava: “That day I was tired … .” Readers are free to speculate why he was tired. A bit later on the stage and just before the round started, two boards were surrounded by photographers: Haast-Gunina in the B group because the entire Dutch women team dressed in orange came to morally support the white player, and Jobava-Carlsen in the A group. Norwegian TV apparently had an interview on stage with Jobava who was about to face “the reason why they traveled to the Netherlands”.

Next the already mentioned interview with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. It was his third consecutive interview, he still stood in the same space as before and I occupied the square centimeters previously taken by Tom Bottema and Kaja Marie Snare. I didn’t want to ask too many questions, same ones as before, about his game from round 8 (a rather clean and dominant victory against Giri), but rather some general ones. Yet one obviously starts with TR: “Are you happy with your tournament so far?” MVL: “Well I won three in a row, but five more rounds to go.” He agreed with me that his victory against Giri was rather ‘clean’, while the one against Ding Liren had been more chaotic [At this stage, I didn’t remember his ‘patient’ win in round 1 against Hou Yifan, and his somewhat lucky win against Saric] TR: “Different question – Wesley So was asked about becoming a professional. As far as I know you did also attend university before becoming professional.” MVL: “Yes I studied mathematics and got my first degree.” TR: “So you were a pretty serious student?” MVL: “Yes, of course I missed some classes because I went to chess tournaments, but I passed all my exams on schedule.” TR: “Do you regret going to university rather than pushing your chess career at an earlier age?” MVL: “No, it gives something to fall back on (I can do so even if by now it’s unlikely). To get a job in this field, I would need to go back to university for two more years. It also added balance rather than studying chess all day long – something I don’t really like.” TR: “In your own opinion, you are not the hardest worker among the world top – unlike Caruana who apparently works 8 hours a day?” MVL: “That’s what I do during training sessions, but not on a regular basis.” I completely forgot to surprise MVL in the opening doing the interview in French, but maybe it was better held in English: 1) His English is fluent, and my French (I partly lived in France in the 1990’s) now somewhat rusty, 2) I could say ‘you’ and didn’t have to choose between the informal ‘toi’ or the formal ‘vous’.

Next two analyses of games in the B group: Potkin-Shankland 1/2 and Navara-Michiels 1-0. First I wanted to skip these as I had hardly followed the respective games, but Navara’s analyses were always fun to watch – he completely dominated, while his lower-rated opponents/victims (I watched the sessions with Haast, Michiels and Klein) mostly listened. [For the sake of completeness, I also noticed the postmortem of his rather quiet draw with Gunina, but they talked Russian which I don’t understand]. David Navara‘s “habits” are hard to describe, but one quote from the analysis might be representative: “This is a position grandmaster Karpov would like to play, but I am not grandmaster Karpov.” Yes, he said ‘grandmaster Karpov’ twice! This referred to a simplified position with some white positional advantage, instead he won in a sudden kingside attack. Shankland asked in French(!?) “Qu’est-ce qu’il s’est passé?” (What happened?) – “Ah I can forget about playing the A group ….”. I actually had to ‘do a Kramnik’ on Shankland, checking his name tag (as Kramnik kept doing during the early rounds of the Qatar Open). I hope American readers – if any – aren’t offended, part of my confusion was because he first spoke French. Anyway, this was the keyword I might have needed: TR to Navara “But you would like to play the A group, however it’s still a race (with Wei Yi)?” Navara: “Yes, in the beginning I wasn’t too ambitious, but now I am. But anyway, I want to win every game I play.” Sounds like Jobava, but Navara probably wouldn’t stand a chance in boxing against the Georgian player? Navara later also joined the live commentary, but I couldn’t follow at the venue (and only caught a glimpse later on back at home).

Next an interview with Bart Michiels, why not? TR: “Let me start like this: When was the last time a Belgian played in Wijk aan Zee?” Michiels “The last one was Gurevich, who is obviously imported, before Luc Winants.” TR (thanks for the keyword!): “You now overtook Winants by Elo, albeit slightly. Over the last years you improved slowly but surely and became GM at a slightly advanced age (27). What’s the story behind this?” Michiels “During my studies (Civil Engineering) I had little time for chess, later during my Ph.D. thesis I had more time.” TR: “And now, professional chess player or a regular job?” Michiels “I work for a competitor of Tata Steel and take holidays for tournaments like this one.” TR: “Did you already play in a comparable round robin?” Michiels: “Yes, Inventi in Antwerpen two years ago.” [Breaking news: Michiels lost 20 Elo points in Tata Steel B, and Winants *1963 is the new old Belgian #1 in the 2/2015 rating list. Not-breaking news: Gurevich moved to and is now playing for Turkey.]

Day5/Round 11

Early during the round, I did something I had never done before in 17 years: visit the beach in Wijk aan Zee (today the weather was adequate, sunny but cold). From the dunes, one can see factory buildings and smoke plumes of Tata Steel, and hear industrial noise. This was the incentive to talk to Tata Steel spokesman Robert Moens, a chat turning into an interview. First I was personally curious why Hoogovens (company name before various mergers) chose Wijk aan Zee – or rather nearby Ijmuiden. This hardly belongs into a chess article, but later the conversation was about the future of Tata Steel (the chess event). Moens: “Officially we can guarantee the event only from one year to the next one – one never knows if/when there will be another crisis. But we want to continue for many more years. The new feature “Tata on Tour”, logistically and financially demanding, is certainly a long-term concept.” This refers to rounds in Amsterdam and Eindhoven last year, and Rotterdam and The Hague this year – away venues for 2016 will be announced around November 2015. Moens said a bit more, and sounded somewhat more optimistic than tournament director Jeroen van den Berg in the final press conference – something like “We can confirm Tata Steel Chess for 2016, but not for 2017 and beyond – but it looks pretty good”. Moens also mentioned that, from all participants, Aronian was most interested in art – staying in museums in Amsterdam and The Hague after the official photo shots until shortly before the start of the rounds.

Carlsen-MVL ended in a draw just before the press conference with Hou Yifan. The Norwegian TV team jumped up immediately (priorities …), I decided to stay. Some ten minutes later, in the room next door there was (still) a lively analysis between van Kampen and Saleh, with two kibitzers: Saleh’s coach Ivan Sokolov and … Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. I don’t remember and didn’t write down everything spoken (not everything might be suitable for, and/or was meant for public quotes!?), at some stage MVL told van Kampen “you are fucked!”. It seems that they know and like each other, maybe since youth competitions long before they became GMs. Saleh – van Kampen 1-0 was indeed a pretty one-sided game. As a side note, this year I watched several analyses with other titled players (tournament participants, coaches – also Giri’s coach Tukmakov – and guests) kibitzing or joining in. None last year, maybe it doesn’t happen every day and was a matter of being at the right spot at the right moment. MVL had provided the keyword for another mini-interview: TR “Were you ‘fucked’, or did you have everything under control against Carlsen?” “I was worse, but didn’t see a forced win for him. I always have counterplay with my a-pawn.” Later another quote from another directly concerned expert, Peter Heine Nielsen: “The endgame with an extra pawn was a draw, earlier white would have kept serious pressure with 24.Bd2 – ‘it’s the computer move’ – rather than 24.Be3.”

Next I asked Salem Saleh a few questions. TR “Were you invited before or after Qatar Open?” Saleh: “Actually before”. TR: “You played great in Qatar and not as great here. Does it play a role that it was closer to home, familiar climate, … ?” Saleh: “No, I simply played better chess! I also like it here, but only the last two games are normal. I hope for two more good games.” Later he managed: a counter-win with black against Michiels and a solid draw with white against Wei Yi.

The final interview of the day with Manuel Bosboom was held in bits and pieces: tournament hall, press area, bus from Wijk aan Zee to Beverwijk, train from Beverwijk to Uitgeest. He was rating favorite in the highest amateur group but eventually finished in last place with 2/9. Bosboom: “I played like Jobava: always spectacular games, always something went wrong – one game I lost on time. My only win was from a lost position.” This was more a chat than a formal interview: Bosboom is the only titled player whom I had met several times (neglecting the few occasions when I faced others at the chess board) already before I became a chess writer. The conversation would have been exactly the same if I had been just a visitor in Wijk aan Zee. To characterize him as a player: one ‘classic’ Dutch article is now also available in English translation.

Day6/Round 13

It all comes to an end: several players’ statements on the tournament as a whole. But I start with another amateur quote from Tom Adriaanse, a chess friend from Den Helder: “I had a tough tournament, next year I can try one level lower [he relegated from group 4 to group 5]. I really want to play at least one more time, it will be my 25th time in Wijk aan Zee!” Adriaanse was born in 1942, some years ago he couldn’t play every year because he couldn’t always get holidays from his job – a problem he obviously no longer has.

The next interview was – again – with David Navara. TR to Navara: “Great tournament but not quite enough!? [at the time, Saleh – Wei Yi was very drawish and would later end in a draw]” Navara: “I am satisfied with my overall result, but Wei Yi was even better. I had some weak games in rounds 10-12 [quiet, uneventful draws].” TR: “What about your game against Wei Yi? You were an exchange up but apparently it wasn’t enough to win.” Navara: “I was winning at some stage. But he defended well and it was a deserved draw in the end.”

And another player whom I had met before: Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. TR: “When I talked to you earlier you said ‘I will comment on my result at the end of the tournament’. I guess you are happy now?” MVL: “Yes, everything went even better than I expected. I am satisfied with my play.” TR: “Carlsen is still playing and seems to be worse. I don’t see him losing, but I guess you wouldn’t mind!?” MVL: “Yes, of course I would like to finish in shared first place. But I am satisfied with my own play, regardless of what others do.” TR: “The one game I don’t understand, neither do others, is your game against Aronian. What’s your take, did you have everything under control?” MVL: ”Maybe not everything, but I did have a strong attack.” I didn’t ask MVL about the events in Paris just before the tournament – unsure whether I simply forgot, didn’t dare or considered it inappropriate also after the final round. According to other sources he was (searching for the right words …) very touched – for example his own Tweets from Jan 7 and Jan 11: “Je n’ai pas pu me déplacer à la étant à l’étranger mais de tout coeur avec les participants ! Fier de nous voir soudés” – “Being abroad, I couldn’t join the Marche Républicaine but my heart is with the participants [can’t really translate the second part, ‘fier’ means ‘proud’ – ‘soudés’ is Google translated as ‘welded’, probably in the sense of ‘united’]”. And a Norwegian source, wishing to remain anonymous, pointed out this TV item about and with him entitled “I hope I can bring home good news in all this sadness”. The Google translation isn’t all clear, but the video interview (MVL speaks English) reveals that he knew the killed editor Stephane Charbonnier personally and had featured on one of his cartoons – “It was so strange, because I looked at the drawing just days earlier.

As I first couldn’t get hold of Giri – he was in very high demand in the press area – I then talked to his coach Vladimir Tukmakov. TR “I guess the coach is happy!?” Tukmakov: “Yes” TR: “Is there room for improvement?” Tukmakov: “Always …” TR: “Maybe his endgame technique?” Tukmakov: “What do you mean?” Tukmakov (correctly) called the possible win in the queen endgame against Ivanchuk ‘a sudden coincidental chance’. Even if one knows that there is a forced win it’s hard to find exactly the right moves. Giri sensed that he had “the maximum” at this stage, used lots of time but didn’t really believe in his winning chances (something Giri had also said himself). About the endgame against Ding Liren: “Of course it was won and hard to spoil, but far from trivial. If engines say +3 it means material advantage for white – and further …?”. Other qualified sources (more qualified than I am) also see room for improvement regarding Giri’s endgame technique, e.g. IM Gert Ligterink in his final newspaper article (unclear from the article if it is his opinion, or confirmed/admitted by Giri himself) and GM Jan Gustafsson video-analyzing Giri-So, the other queen endgame which I didn’t discuss with Tukmakov. Here Giri’s technique was, according to Gustafsson, sub-optimal – see also his Tweet “The one day I decide to do my video on a non-Carlsen game, these dudes punish me by playing 8 hours and 100 moves.” Of course, it all just means that there is still room for improvement. Later, after Carlsen’s press conference and after many journalists had already left, I still got a quote from Giri who was analyzing his last game with Erwin l’Ami in the press area: Yes, he was happy with his tournament, particularly the second half (he started with 4/8 to finish with 4.5/5).

Then the already mentioned press conference with tournament winner Magnus Carlsen. The overall atmosphere was rather odd as Carlsen was very unhappy with his last-round game against Saric (eventually finishing in a draw), quite revealing the first question from the audience: “You really look sad for a tournament winner … .” Funnily, only my final question put a smile on Carlsen’s face: “What was your worst or toughest game, apart from the one you lost?” Carlsen: “For me, after a tournament if I name every game I am not satisfied with, it’s usually quite a long list” – and had to smile (about) himself while saying so. He then picked his last-round game against Saric, finishing with “I strive to play thirteen good games, but it’s not easy.” Later Carlsen was in a better mood. He was very pleasantly surprised that a local choir had practiced a Norwegian song for him, and there are also some nice(r) pictures from the closing ceremony at the – publicly available – Tata Steel Facebook page. I missed this part because I was already on my way home, seeing the market where the song was performed only from the bus to Beverwijk.

Before that, I had one more interview – in French and in the spirit of “This is also Tata Steel Chess”. Here ‘vous’ made sense as it could either be formal, or plural referring to a group of players … . I had accidentally met Marion Penalver, French participant of an amateur event, before and now again after the last round when the playing hall was already empty and partly without chess boards (in the process of being put away). TR “You play here for several years already, why this event?” Penalver “We have Dutch members in our club, hence … “. TR: “Which club or which city?” Penalver: “Marseille”. TR: “Ah, that’s far away and a different climate this time of the year …”. The interview was held in the entrance area where final standings of the GM groups were already put up – a colleague joined and they looked for ‘Maxime’, happy to find him high up in the table of the A group.

This is it – I got all the interviews I wanted but one, with 16-year old Australian IM Ari Dale from the B group (he had qualified via the highest amateur group 2014). He never appeared in the press area (at least on the days I visited, I missed a possible analysis with Navara) maybe thinking “nobody wants to talk to me anyway”. Then it’s a matter of catching players right after their game in the corridor, but I couldn’t pay close attention to his games – twice I may have been one or two minutes too late. He didn’t even finish in last place as Jan Timman had a terrible event. The tournament organizers still got a relatively cheerful interview with him – based on the people in the background, it was apparently held during the closing ceremony rather than directly after the last round.

Photo gallery: Players mentioned in the report by order of appearance (subject to photo availability), and – in alphabetical order – some that I met hardly or not at all (for various reasons)

November 2017
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