Reports Feb 7, 2021 | 10:30 AMby Colin McGourty

Opera Euro Rapid 1: Magnus Carlsen leads after “awesome day of chess”

World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen began the Opera Euro Rapid with a loss to US Champion Wesley So, but he stormed back to win the next four games in a row and end the first day as the sole leader. Wesley and Ian Nepomniachtchi are half a point behind after what Magnus called “an awesome day of chess” on which Teimour Radjabov was the only one of the 16 players to avoid defeat. Hikaru Nakamura, Alexander Grischuk and Ding Liren are among the stars who would be eliminated if the 3-day preliminary stage ended now.

When Wesley beat Magnus in the first game it was hard imagine how the day would end!

You can replay all the games from the Opera Euro Rapid, the 3rd event on the $1.5 million Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, using the selector below - click on a result to open that game with computer analysis, or hover over a player's name to see all his games. 

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Tania Sachdev and Peter Leko.

And from Jovanka Houska, Kaja Snare and David Howell.

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Let’s look at 7 conclusions after Day 1 of the Opera Euro Rapid:

1. Magnus is back

It hasn’t been the easiest of starts to his 30s for World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen. On his birthday last November he lost the final of the Skilling Open to Wesley So and was then knocked out in the Speed Chess Championship semi-finals by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. He ended 2020 by losing to Daniil Dubov in the quarterfinals of the Airthings Masters and started no better in 2021. The 7-time Wijk aan Zee champion went into the final round of this year’s Tata Steel Masters with no chance of 1st place and even with a win ended 6th, his worst result since he finished last as a 16-year-old in 2007.

Magnus talked about his form in an interview before the Opera Euro Rapid began.

It’s all the typical kinds of bad form: over-thinking, and then when you do make quick moves the blunders, and thinking of the best move then thinking again and making another move, because you think that’s even better, and then you just blunder something. So when you’re not in great form and confidence is a little low it’s just a whole lot more difficult.

Magnus said he was grateful to be able to play again so quickly to have the “opportunity to right the ship”.

It’s a matter of pride as well, that I cannot have people’s impression, or my own impression, being that I’m as bad as I’ve played recently. I was thinking in Tata when I was at 50% after 8 rounds - this is just not who I am! How can I look myself in the mirror when I’m 50% after 8 rounds? Usually I should beat this guy, I should beat this guy, I should definitely not lose to that guy, and most of all now I just want to go and prove that I can do a whole lot better than I’ve done recently. It’s not easy of course, but I really want to do better.  

At first it looked as though the Opera Euro Rapid might be more of the same, since Magnus began with a loss to Wesley So. The US Chess Champion played a model game, even getting to demonstrate 18 moves of his Chessable 1.e4 lifetime repertoire!

The position remained sharp and double-edged, but 37…Qg6 allowed Wesley to seize the initiative.

After 38.Rc7!, tying the black queen to the defence of h7 so that Ne6 is now a serious threat, Wesley never looked back. Magnus admitted he was “beaten quite soundly”, but he was able to shrug it off.

It was ok. I knew that Wesley’s a very strong player and I’d decided beforehand that regardless of what happens in the first round that’s not going to affect me. So that was absolutely fine, to be fair, I just wanted to keep going in the same way. That was the main thing after losing the first game - I thought, this can happen, this is no problem, I’m just going to keep going. And fortunately I managed to strike back immediately against Levon and after that I already felt like I was doing well, that I’d already gotten one decent win and everything was going to be fine from now on.

The win over Levon was a silkily smooth conversion of a much better ending that he achieved on move 14, before debutant Matthias Bluebaum was put to the sword with the black pieces in Game 3. Magnus then took on his former second Sam Shankland in Round 4 and made sure to pick an opening they hadn’t worked on together!

It worked like a dream, with Magnus completely winning by move 20 and going on to wrap things up in 33 moves. He’d gone into the round as one of 8 leaders but ended it in the sole lead.

“I would say overall I’m just very happy with my play, the spirit that I had to always try for the maximum,” said Magnus, and he called the final game against Leinier Dominguez, “a lot of fun”. He went for the sharpest of openings…

…though what followed was far from flawless. Magnus allowed a Nf5 shot early on and then potentially gave up the game with 27…Kh6? (27…Kf8! was an only move, when objectively the position should be drawn).

It was almost a brilliancy that Carlsen had calculated that he could bring his king forwards, as he did in the game, after 28.Rh1+ Kg5 29.f4+ Kf5 30.Rf1 g5 31.Nd4+, and here 31…Ke4! would have been the icing on the cake, though 31…Kg6 eventually got the job done. 

There was just one flaw – 28.Rd4! wins for White, since Magnus would be unable to avoid mate on the h and g-files! As he commented:

Apparently I could have been mated at some point, but he didn’t see it and neither did I, so who cares!

“Obviously the result is awesome,” said Magnus, who leads the table after a turbulent first day.

“I don’t think there are many unbeaten players at all after Day 1, so it’s been an awesome day of chess”, concluded the World Champion, and in fact only Teimour Radjabov survived Day 1 unscathed. The Azerbaijan star made four draws and defeated Shankland in an impressive display of technique.   

2. Mouseslips aren’t fatal

The tournament got off to a dramatic start when on move 4 of the first game Alexander Grischuk’s attempt to castle fell short.

Black was instantly close to winning after 4…Nxe4, though perhaps White was fortunate that it was an opening where he was in any case planning to “blunder” that pawn. Grischuk dug in and actually managed to hold a draw, with Anish able to see the funny side as similar opening “novelties” were shared.

Mouseslips are of course an issue, with Russian grandmaster Nikita Vitiugov among those quick to seize on the moment to question the validity of online chess.

On the other hand, this was an isolated moment on a day of 40 rapid games and you could certainly argue whether over-the-board rapid chess features less moments when factors not strictly chess-related influence the outcome. The term fingerfehler (“finger-slip”) was invented for a reason, and we often see games decided by players losing on time when they topple over physical pieces – something that never happens online.

3. Times are tough

One unavoidable issue when organising a global online tournament is that there’s no way to make the schedule convenient for everyone. Here’s a screenshot of the player map just before the start of the day at 17:00 CET.

Magnus, who is back in Norway now but experienced playing from an exotic location much further east recently, commented:

It has to be said that this is a bit of a tricky area, because once you get late into the rounds it’s very late in China, and it’s getting a little bit late in Europe, which is also perhaps not ideal, and then the Americans are probably starting to hit their stride, so I think it’s probably best for them. But in general, obviously, it’s something I’m very conscious of in this tournament, that the 4th and 5th games of the day are probably going to be ones where you have a lot of chances because people are indeed getting more tired.

Ding Liren, who starts his days at midnight, is the most obvious time zone “victim”, though it didn’t stop him reaching the 4-player final of the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour after being one of the most consistent players on that tour. 

This time round he failed to make the knockout of the Skilling Open and had a bad first day in the Opera Euro Rapid, losing three games with the black pieces after a number of uncharacteristic blunders. He did have one bright moment, however, surviving a dicey opening to produce one of the day’s most unusual winning positions.

4. There was no Wijk aan Zee hangover

We’ve already seen that Magnus Carlsen managed to bounce back after a disappointing Wijk aan Zee. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s stay in the Dutch seaside town was disastrous (“I probably underestimated that 25 days there, with all the restaurants closed and a very early curfew, was going to be a bit long!”), but he hit back online to open with wins over Dubov and then So – a rare case of outfoxing Wesley in a drawn rook ending. Maxime then lost to Levon Aronian, but overall it was a good first day for the French no. 1.

Jan-Krzysztof Duda didn’t exactly get back on track after a winless Wijk aan Zee, but he did finally pick up a win, in the last round of the day over Ding Liren – as we’ve seen, the Chinese star wasn’t having his best day, but it’s always nice to beat the world no. 3.

Anish Giri was the player who suffered the toughest blow at the end of the Tata Steel Masters, spoiling a great event by losing the playoff to Jorden van Foreest. He explained:

You always remember your last feat or defeat and in my case it was a loss in a tiebreak, and also in a very stupid way. It was just so honestly dumb what happened there, but I’m very down to earth in general when it comes to losses and wins, so in a way I think there are a lot of good things to take from it as well as some lessons to be learned.

Giri explained that his down-to-earth attitude is also a reason why he’s failed to win more big events, since he doesn’t have the all-or-nothing approach of someone like Hikaru Nakamura. He also felt it was tough to switch from classical to blitz for the Tata Steel Masters playoff and that it would be tough to play rapid in the Opera Euro Rapid:

Thinking is a very tempting thing to do in chess, and it feels so bad to make a move while you are unsure about it, and that is something you have to do as a rapid and blitz player - you have to make moves without being sure.  

In the end, though, the first day didn’t go too badly for the Dutch star. After failing to punish Grischuk’s mouse-slip he survived a near-miss against Dubov before beating Ian Nepomniachtchi.

27.Bxg6! was a nice trick to force a winning endgame, since 27…Qxg6 runs into 28.Qxe5!, using the pin on the 6th rank. After 27…Qxd5 it was plain sailing for White.

Giri then lost to Hikaru Nakamura, the US star’s only win of the day, but hit back to beat Vidit in the final round and maintain a qualifying place.  

5. Nepo sums up the mayhem

Ian Nepomniachtchi finished the day level with Wesley So, just half a point behind Magnus, but it was anything but smooth… starting from the moment he arrived online for the event two hours early!

His summary of his day was also hard to beat.

Every game I played at some point I was blaming myself, like “how can I be that stupid?” Game 1 [a win vs. Duda], for sure, Game 2, obviously, when I led Sasha [Grischuk] to this drawish bishop endgame, Game 3 [vs. Giri], no comment, I just lost it, Game 4 [a draw vs. Dubov, of which more later] I just was speechless, and Game 5, at some point, I had the feeling it might be [Nakamura’s] going to escape with this tricky position, knight against bishop, in a position probably a World Champion would not escape from a first category player.

Ian agreed with Magnus that the reason for the fighting spirit among the 16 players is that half of them will be eliminated after 3 days (and not 4 out of 12 as in the tour's Major events), though he still foresees some calmer play when there’s a group of players on a score likely to be sufficient to qualify for the knockout.

6. Dubov has been doing Dubov things

Daniil Dubov finished Day 1 in 13th place, outside of the qualifying spots, but as so often with the mercurial Russian star he could have finished almost anywhere. He beat Aronian, missed draws at the end in his losses to MVL and So, and took a draw by repetition against Giri by giving rook checks from a8 and a7.

Here, however, after 53.Rxh7! the bishop and pawns would have been too much for Black’s rook. Visually it perhaps looks like 53…Rh2+ wins the rook on h7, but in fact that’s simply met by 54.Kxg6 as the black f5-pawn is of course not defending g6!

And then there was the game that left Nepo “speechless”.

Dubov was four pawns down, and while 34.Bxd4 wasn’t the most accurate move (34.Rge7! and White is close to winning), 19 moves later Daniil had picked up all six black pawns and was winning... only to spoil it two moves later with 55.Re2?

55…Rh4+! 56.Ke5 Rd5+ and White was forced to give up the exchange with 57.Kxe6 Rxg5 (57.Kf6 Rf4+! changes nothing). A mind-boggling draw, and once again chess fans will be hoping that Daniil somehow manages to stumble through the qualification phase and reach the knockout.  

7. It’s not easy to make your debut

Leinier Dominguez (3 losses, 2 draws) and Matthias Bluebaum (3 draws, 2 losses) finished the day in the bottom places on their Meltwater Champions Chess Tour debut, though at least they have a game against the World Champion out of the way. The other debutant, Sam Shankland, also suffered at Carlsen’s hands, but he picked up two wins in which the decisive move was that beginners’ favourite – a double attack on f7!

Sam also lost to Radjabov to end the day at 50%, currently among the qualifiers for the knockout stages, with better tiebreakers than Nakamura and Duda.

If Day 2 is anything like Day 1 you definitely don’t want to miss it, with all the action again live from 17:00 CET right here on chess24

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