French Grandmaster Maxime Vachier-Lagrave made an entry into the Candidates chess tournament as a wildcard but proved his mettle as he was in joint lead with 4.5 points alongside Russian GM Ian Nepomniachtchi after 7 rounds.
With the Coronavirus threat making FIDE halt the tournament, the 29-year-old gets a chance to recharge his batteries and come back fresh for the remaining rounds in the competition.
In a chat with TOI, Maxime spoke on the tournament, his preparations and more:
You were included after Teimour Radjabov withdrew. Did the pressure of not having to prepare make it any easier mentally to be in the tournament?
I’ll take that as a no. Let’s just say there was no need to ask questions. And I had to be prepared at the same level as the others to have a chance. By the way, I arrived much better prepared than I’ve been lately. During the tournament, there were concrete lines where I was able to show that I could compete with the preps of all the other opponents.
Many have said the event shouldn’t have gone ahead in the first place. What’s your take?
I understand those who say the tournament should never have started. For me, in fact, the FIDE and the organizers tried to do their best to make the tournament possible, knowing that there were not many players. A lot was done. Generally speaking, it seemed possible and for a long time I thought the tournament could even go to the end. Obviously, the conditions were not ideal for anyone. But from a strictly health point of view, there were no more risks for the players during the tournament than elsewhere. I’m even taking much more precautions now in France! The only big criticism I can make of the organizers is the opening ceremony with more than 1,000 people. Otherwise, generally speaking, everything has been done to ensure that the sanitary conditions are respected for the players. Of course, with the information we’ve been getting as we’ve gone along, over the days and weeks and weeks afterwards, we tell ourselves that the tournament shouldn’t have started.
What was your first reaction on getting a wildcard for the Candidates?
At first, I just knew there was a possibility that a spot might open up. I didn’t even know who it was at the time. So I just made arrangements to be ready. In case it became official, I called up Étienne Bacrot and my manager Laurent Vérat. I did everything in a hurry, my suitcase because I had a lot of laundry to do. Then I went to work in the south of France with Etienne. I didn’t have time to think!
How difficult was it to get into match mode since you were on a vacation in New York when you were called up?
The advantage was that I was fresh, available, and ready to rework chess in competition. The hardest part was getting back into tournament conditions, so I was able to play some good training games. That’s what I managed to do, and I started to become optimistic for the tournament. I could see that my brain was working! My apprehension was that other people’s level of preparation was really higher than mine. And in fact, it wasn’t. Afterwards, it’s also clear that I’m a lot fresher than in 2019, because I’ve played a lot less.
Radjabov has said that he now wants to be part of the Candidates and has asked FIDE to make it a 9-player event when it restarts. What would you say to that?
I think it’s just too late. I understand his situation and I understand his frustration. It’s very unfortunate for him, but we can’t restart a cycle now.
Does the halting of the tournament make it difficult to maintain the momentum you gained in the first half of the competition?
We’ll never know what would have happened if the tournament had gone on. And I’m not going to predict the future. I’m just going to make sure I’m ready when the tournament starts again. After that, for sure, with the good momentum I had, if I had kept the level of play I had in the first half of the tournament, I had a good chance of winning it. So I’m going to make sure that I arrive next time with the same level of play.
How do you see yourself training for the next few weeks?
In the next few weeks, I don’t think I’m going to do much. I just don’t think the tournament will resume for another six months, according to the most optimistic estimates. So I’m going to be monitoring the health situation, both as a concerned citizen and as a player. When I see improvements in the world, when the borders can open up again, it will be time to work seriously, because there will be a kind of countdown that will start before the candidates tournament starts again.