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Interview of Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Rank No 2 in Chess (Rapid) Worldwide, by Jerome Bloch

Jerome Bloch: Can you tell us how you are using computers in your competitive routines? 

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave: Well, there are at least two ways. The first one is related to our competitors. I use databases like chess base to get a clear picture of the style of my competitors. For example, if I had to prepare a match against Elvira Berend (Luxembourg world champion over 50years old who will attend the event) with white, I would see that she tends to play in a certain way against specific opening. I can also get statistics about her performance in each line. 

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JB: A bit like a tennis player will hammer the weak side of his opponent ? 

MVL: Exactly. And on the other hand, computers allow us to explore complex lines in a milliseconds. Alphazero, the program developed by Google has popularized new moves and therefore new ways to solve old problems. He was just given the rules of chess, and within a few hours, having played millions of games against himself, he self-improved so much that it had clearly become impossible to beat by other machines, even the strongest ones! This was really impressive, not just because of its pure strength, but also because Alpha Zero managed to revisit entire areas of chess with brand new concepts. The current World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, publicly admitted that the overwhelming results he had in 2019 were partly due to the study of Alpha Zero’s games. 

“Make sure to collect as much data as you can about your competitors

in particular and about the market in general. ”

JB: How would this relate to people working in the financial sector? 

MVL: One aspect is related to competition: make sure to collect as much data as you can about your competitors in particular and about the market in general. There are huge amounts of data available today and free. You just need to invest the time and resources to collect and analyze it. The other aspect is linked to supercomputing. I am confident that powerful calculation can enhance the work of risk managers, asset managers, Treasurers and so on. 

JB: Is that the main key to achieving top performance in the digital era? 

MVL: Fortunately not, otherwise we would organize computer matches all year long. Humans remain in the driving seat because calculation does not win the match. You make the difference with creativity, stress management and the ability to identify.

JB: How do you achieve this? 

MVL: If I knew it, I would be world champion already! People often ask me the importance of talent vs hard work. I guess that you need a lot of both! But the most important aspect is to have a long term strategy and to stick to it. 

JB: Do you mean that there is a strong volatility in chess performance? 

MVL: If you only look at the short term results, you might have this impression, but with solid fundamental and healthy work ethics, you will see performance improving over time. I guess that the same rules apply in portfolio management. 

JB:How do you prepare for a match against the dominating champion “Magnus Carlsen”?

MVL: You can have two main approaches. The conservative one and the aggressive one. It all depends on the context. If you decide to play conservative, you can choose to play a line you know really well or one that keeps the position simple and facilitates draws. The aggressive way means to look for a novelty - a move that has never been play before - and to try and gain an edge by preparing the next move with your trainers and computers while he probably has to figure it out over the board. But you also need to keep in mind that chess is played with different time controls: the world championship is played over 100 minutes, with 30 seconds increment after every move and an additional 50 minutes after the 40th move while other tournaments are played in rapid – 25 minutes or blitz – 5 minutes. It is just like in tennis where you can be a champion in single matches but a Top 50 in double or vice versa. 

JB: The shorter the time control, the more room for creativity? 

MVL: It is not as simple as that. You can also prepare well for a blitz. But it is easier to destabilize your opponent in faster time controls. 

JB: Finally, what advice would you give to financial professionals? 

MVL: Well if you are not into it, you may consider learning the basics of chess, as a mean to improve your performance at work. You can play on your phone a blitz match in less than 10 minutes and improve your creativity, your stress resistance and your self-confidence. We sometimes play Pro-chess tournaments where a Pro is teamed-up with a businessman. Some of them are really talented. In business as in chess, it is all about solving problems and achieving a sustainable performance! 

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