Hikaru Nakamura has failed to qualify for the knockout stages of the Opera Euro Rapid after losing a totally winning position against Sam Shankland in the final round. That allowed Daniil Dubov to sneak through in 8th place and set up another clash with Magnus Carlsen, after the World Champion topped the prelims for a 3rd Meltwater Champions Chess Tour event in a row. Anish Giri matched Magnus’ score and is still on course for a Valentine’s Day final against his rival, but Ian Nepomniachtchi, Alexander Grischuk and Ding Liren are all out.
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Replay the day’s action with the live commentary from Tania Sachdev and Peter Leko.
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The Opera Euro Rapid preliminary stage is over, with the bottom
8 players all eliminated while the top 8 go forward to the quarterfinals.
Let’s take a look at each player in turn.
The final day wasn’t a classic Magnus Carlsen performance – he lost to Ding Liren and was losing or close to it at some point in all the remaining games – but the World Champion nevertheless topped the preliminary standings for a 3rd tour event in a row. After turning round a tough opening to beat Vidit in the first game of the day, qualification was never in doubt.
I was on the back foot for most of the day, but at the end of the day what happened today didn't really matter so much since I was already through, and maybe it was a little bit harder to be motivated today.
Magnus’ 4-game winning streak on Saturday had been the boost he felt he needed.
I feel good. Saturday was a great day of chess for me, which is already huge, so I definitely feel ready for the next challenges and certainly with more confidence than I had after Tata.
Anish Giri was edged into 2nd place by scoring one win less, but he also lost only a single game and qualified with consummate ease after a win over Matthias Bluebaum on the final day. It was an impressive comeback, both from the heartbreak of losing the Tata Steel Masters playoff to Jorden van Foreest and from failing to qualify for the knockout in the Airthings Masters. Talking of which…
A final against Magnus ending on Valentine’s Day remains a possibility!
Wesley began the event in spectacular style by beating Magnus and drew just one game in the first eight as he raced to a +3 score. Normal service was resumed after that as Wesley cruised to qualification by drawing his final seven games. The Skilling Open winner will again be a feared opponent in the knockout stages.
Levon also began the tournament with 7 out of 8 decisive games before things quietened down, and once again his dog Ponchik was providing the inspiration.
A 27-move crush of Ian Nepomniachtchi in Round 12 put him firmly on course for qualification, while Levon could also have played on, if he’d needed to, in the final position against Hikaru Nakamura in the following round.
French no. 1 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave will be Levon’s opponent in the quarterfinals, a chance for Maxime to gain revenge not just for a loss in Round 3 of the prelims but a semi-final defeat in the Airthings Masters.
Maxime had to do things the hard way on the final day, starting with a 116-move defence of a pawn-down position against Hikaru Nakamura. Maxime was also losing to Radjabov at one point, but quickly dispatching Ding Liren in the penultimate round meant he could go into the final round with Black against Magnus without needing to do anything dramatic. In the end he even had winning chances before that game ended in a draw.
The Polish no. 1 was one of the heroes of the final day, despite feeling his chances had gone when he was well-beaten by Leinier Dominguez in Round 12 to leave him a point adrift of the Top 8. He said he was in “kamikaze mode” as he went for a piece sacrifice against Dubov in the next round that led to one of the craziest games we’ve witnessed in a long time. A lot had already happened before the queen sacrifice 33.Qxg8+! (capturing a rook on g8) seemed to wrap up victory:
33...Kxg8 runs into 34.d7!, but after 33...Nxg8 34.e8=Q it turned out that was just the beginning! Dubov put up great resistance and when Duda missed a less than obvious only move it was suddenly equal. The game should logically have ended on move 48.
48…Qc2+ 49.Kh3 Qh7+ 50.Kg2 Qc2+ would have been a draw by perpetual check, but Daniil felt it was Duda who had to prove a draw and instead made a second queen with 48…b1=Q?. In fact it turned out Duda was able to dodge all the checks while creating a queen of his own and finally wrap up victory!
Daniil still managed to enjoy it.
I think still it was a very fun game, and we were playing rapid. It’s very difficult to play brilliant moves, but at least it was fun to play and probably fun to watch, I hope - four queens, you don’t see it every day!
And he was glad that Duda qualified.
So first of all, congratulations, buddy! I want to say that I’m happy for Jan-Krzysztof to qualify, because normally he manages to beat me and miss qualification, so basically it makes no sense, he wins the game and it’s like a lose-lose. This time at least it brings him to the KO stage, which is fun.
Don’t miss their post-game interview.
Duda now faces a daunting match against Wesley So in the quarterfinals.
It’s a difficult opponent, for everyone, obviously, but for me especially, I guess. I’m looking forward to this match, but Wesley is extremely strong, especially when he’s sure about his capabilities. He’s winning against me all the time, so he will be for sure, but it will be fun and a great experience for me.
It should perhaps be added that although he lost to Wesley in the preliminary stage that was only after a misclick on move 74 in what had been a tricky but drawn ending.
Meltwater Champions Chess Tour leader Teimour Radjabov had one of the most remarkable routes to qualification – winning in Round 2 against Sam Shankland and drawing every other game to feature prominently in the tournament stats.
In so far as it was a strategy it could have backfired, since Teimour only just qualified and was risking losing out on the “head-to-head” and “most wins” tiebreakers to other players. There was also a potential banana skin, with Levon Aronian in with a chance of getting revenge for the Airthings Masters final when they met in the final round of the preliminaries.
In the end it all worked out, however, and it has to be said that Teimour didn’t just make lifeless draws – he had serious winning chances against both Magnus and MVL on the final day. He now faces Anish Giri in the quarterfinals, which may be a case of what happens when two immovable objects meet, since Anish only lost one game in the prelims.
Teimour can put his full focus on online chess since he’s not involved in the Candidates Tournament after pulling out over what later proved absolutely justified pandemic concerns. In an interview on the eve of the Opera Euro Rapid he explained that he doesn’t regret his choices and expects to get an invite to the next Candidates as compensation.
Daniil is a huge fan favourite for his always enterprising play, but the lack of a pragmatic bone in his body makes him a nightmare to watch in qualifying events. He went into the final day on -1 but came out punching with impressive wins over Leinier Dominguez and Ding Liren, with the Chinese no. 1 lost on move 15.
After 15…Nxh2 16.bxc6 Ng4 17.cxb7 the b-pawn is a monster. Ding spent over 10 minutes (the players start with 15) on 15…Nxf2 but just resigned a piece down three moves later.
Dubov was suddenly in a qualifying position, but as we’ve seen, he threw away the chance for a draw in the next game against Duda and was back in trouble. Nevertheless, he came very close to beating Magnus (again) in a 122-move game where the World Champion must have been very relieved when the 50-move rule kicked in i.e. a game is drawn if no pawn has been pushed or piece captured in 50 moves. As he put it, “Against Magnus I was only given 150 moves, otherwise we would still be playing this game!”
That meant Daniil went into the final round with Black against Grischuk thinking he was in a must-win situation, only to be forced to concede a draw in 87 moves. As it turned out, however, that was enough for qualification – and to set up yet another quarterfinal against Magnus. Daniil famously won that contest in the Airthings Masters and repeated his mantra:
For me it will be great fun as always. He’s still my favourite opponent, so I’m obviously very happy to play him again.
By this stage Magnus may not share that enthusiasm, but he’ll certainly be plotting his revenge.
It was a tough day for Hikaru, with his three opening draws including a 116-move squeeze against MVL and a dicey game against Aronian, but it seemed he’d shown his champion’s quality by getting the result when it mattered to beat Matthias Bluebaum with Black in 86 moves.
Hikaru went into the final round against his US rival Sam Shankland knowing a draw might well be enough, but it seemed no calculators would be required when he got off to a dream start and built up a totally winning position. The clearest illustration of that is perhaps move 34.
34.Nc8! Bxc8 35.Qxc8 is essentially zugzwang. White can do
nothing and wait for his opponent to fall on his sword, or the idea of Bd8
followed by Qd7 will likely win a piece.
Instead, however, Hikaru took two minutes before going for a more “standard” kill with 34.Qh7!?, only to realise to his horror after 34…f6 35.Qh8+?! Kf7 36.Bd3? Qf8! that all his advantage had gone.
Soon afterwards only a tricky sacrificial attack would have saved Hikaru, but when he missed that he found himself lost - and it was perhaps symbolic that the knight that could have won the game was now stranded on a7.
There was no reprieve, with Hikaru ultimately knocked out on the tiebreak of most wins - three to Dubov’s four - since their head-to-head game had been drawn. For the first time on the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour or the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour, Hikaru had failed to reach the knockout stages, but he’s sure to be back.
That game capped an impressive tour debut for the 2018 US Champion, with Sam also having chances against Grischuk and Nepomniachtchi on the final day. As he explained himself, three losses in four games on Day 2 ultimately proved to leave him with too much of a hill to climb.
Ian is the other knockout regular to miss out on qualification, and the way it happened was arguably even more of a shock than the case of Nakamura. After reaching +2 on the first day, the Russian no. 1 seemed to be cruising with six draws in a row, but then the wheels fell off.
He was lost in 20 moves against Aronian before blundering a pawn on move 12 against Bluebaum. That seemed to mean only a win against Dominguez in the final round would be enough to qualify, but as it happened, after pushing too hard and falling into a mating attack with the white pieces, Ian had to watch as it turned out a draw would have been enough to qualify ahead of Dubov and Nakamura.
If Vidit had found a tricky win against Magnus Carlsen in the first game of the final day he could have fought for qualification, but the loss that followed ended those hopes. It was still a very decent outing for the Indian star, who picked up some nice wins and was never a pushover.
It was a case of what might have been for tour debutant Leinier Dominguez, who was out of contention and had suffered six losses before really catching fire. Leinier’s three wins in his last four games, against Duda, Grischuk and Nepomniachtchi, wreaked havoc with the event, crushing the dreams of two and almost three players.
From the moment Alexander mouse-slipped on move 4 of his very first game you could guess that this wasn’t going to be his event, and amazingly the 3-time World Blitz Champion went on to win just one game – and in that one he blundered a piece and missed a simple win against Ding Liren. The final nail in his coffin was an opening disaster against Dominguez, where it was enough for Leinier to follow Jan Gustafsson’s Chessable course to be winning in 10 moves with Black!
It was always going to be tough for German no. 1 Matthias Bluebaum on his tour debut, but wins over Aronian and Nepomniachtchi meant there were definitely positives to take from the event. The negative was that he lost six and drew two of his games with the white pieces. On the other hand, losing to the likes of Carlsen, So, Giri and Nakamura can happen with either colour.
The Chinese no. 1 and world no. 3 was unrecognisable, with one of the most shocking statistics his score of 0.5/8 with the black pieces. There were glimmers of the real Ding, such as beating Magnus with an almost flawless display when the World Champion over-pressed on the final day, but otherwise the less said the better. The obvious explanation for the result is the brutal schedule of playing from midnight to 5am in China, combined with some internet issues, though Liren starred in the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour despite the games usually starting at 11pm. Perhaps the situation with the interrupted Candidates is also weighing on his mind?
It’s now on to the quarterfinals, with Carlsen-Dubov and the other matches starting today, Tuesday 9th February, at the same time of 17:00 CET!
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