Raymond Keene

Philidor’s heir

Philidor’s heir
Text settings

There was a time when France was the dominant power in world chess. When Howard Staunton commenced his remarkable series of match victories in the mid-1840s, his ascent was seen as an assumption of the sceptre wielded by that great 18th-century master of the game, André Danican Philidor. After Philidor came Labourdonnais, who was succeeded by St Amant, and it was Staunton’s annihilation of the French champion at the Café de la Regence in Paris in 1843, which heralded the end of French hegemony over the chessboard.

It is true that Alexander Alekhine, the mighty Russian champion, represented France in the chess Olympiads of the 1930s, but he was anything but a homegrown Francophone. Now though, at last, a true heir to Philidor has emerged in the person of French grandmaster Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, the victor of the elite tournament in St Louis, where even the reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen succumbed to Gallic ingenuity and persistence.

The scores in St Louis were: 1. Vachier-Lagrave 6; 2= Carlsen and Anand 5½; 4= Karjakin and Aronian 5. Meanwhile, the top five world ratings after St Louis reveal a leap by Vachier-Lagrave to seize the no. 2 spot: 1. Carlsen 2827, 2. Vachier-Lagrave 2804, 3. Kramnik 2803, 4. Aronian 2802, 5. Caruana 2799.

Carlsen–Vachier-Lagrave; St Louis 2017

(see diagram 1)

A complicated game has resulted in a winning position for Carlsen. 46 Rg2 This throws away all White’s advantage. 46 Rd2 wins material for which Black cannot gain sufficient compensation. 46 ... Bh3 47 Rxg3 Bxf1 Now the position is approximately equal. 48 Rf3 This is a very odd blunder. After 48 Bxd8 Rxd8 49 Rf3 the game will very likely be drawn. 48 ... Be2 This simple attack against the rook means that Black wins material. 49 Bxd8 Bxf3 50 Bxb6 Carlsen manages to wriggle around but Vachier-Lagrave easily navigates his way to a simple endgame with an extra pawn. 50 ... axb6 51 Bc6 Be4 52 a7 Rd8 53 Nd6+ Rxd6 54 Bxe4 Rd8 55 a8Q Rxa8+ 56 Bxa8 Ne5 57 Kb3 f4 58 Kc2 Kg7 59 Kd2 Ng6 60 Kd3 Nxh4 61 Ke4 f3 62 Ke3 Kf6 63 b4 c4 64 Bd5 Kf5 65 Bxc4 Kg4 66 Kf2 Ng6 67 Be6+ Kf4 68 Bf7 Ne5 69 Bxh5 Nd3+ 70 Kf1 Kg3 71 Bf7 Nf2 White resigns After 72 c4 Ng4 the pawn will promote.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s win against Wesley So was an impressive demonstration of the power of the bishop pair in an open position.

Vachier-Lagrave–So; St Louis 2017

(see diagram 2)

White’s next opens the position to get his bishops working. 33 f4 exf4 34 Nxf4 g5 35 Nxe6 Kxe6 36 exf5+ Nxf5 37 Bg1 Nd4 38 Re1+ Kf6 39 Rf1+ Ke7 40 Re1+ Kd8 41 Be4 Nxb3+ 42 Kc3 Nd4 43 Bh2 Black resigns Bc7+ and Bxb7 are coming.