Reports Feb 10, 2021 | 9:56 AMby Colin McGourty

Opera Euro Rapid QF 1: Carlsen, MVL & So lead

Magnus Carlsen admitted it was “not an ideal pairing” for him to face Daniil Dubov, who dumped him out of the Airthings Masters, but so far the World Champion has avoided a repeat after winning Day 1 of their Opera Euro Rapid quarterfinal with a game to spare. The other matches went the distance, with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave scoring a single win to beat Levon Aronian, while Wesley So came from behind to defeat Jan-Krzysztof Duda. Anish Giri looked in trouble after losing to Teimour Radjabov, who was unbeaten in 18 games, but he won on demand to draw the first day of their match.

You can replay all the games from the knockout stages of the Opera Euro Rapid, the 3rd event on the $1.5 million Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Peter Leko, Tania Sachdev and Johan-Sebastian Christiansen.

And from David Howell, Jovanka Houska and Kaja Snare.

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It’s a tough challenge to come straight from 15 rounds of cut-throat qualification action to start playing knockout matches, and that might partly explain why almost every game on Day 1 of the quarterfinals could have ended decisively. In the end just over half did. 

Let’s take a look at the matches one by one:

Magnus Carlsen 2.5:0.5 Daniil Dubov

Magnus could understandably have had some trepidation going into this match, having suffered for 122 moves in their qualifying game and famously losing to Daniil in the quarterfinals of the Airthings Masters. In Game 1, however, things went smoothly for the World Champion as he soon built up a big advantage out of the opening and then seemed to have things under control when complications began. That didn’t mean it was easy.

Here only the fearless 31.Kh1!, played with around a minute on the clock, was winning for White. Dubov was even shorter on time and the game ended fast: 31…Nxe5+ 32.f3 Qxb5? (32…Nxf3 would at least prolong the struggle) 33.Re1 Nxd3 34.Rd1 Pinning and winning! Daniil resigned.

The Russian later commented:

Game 1 was a very decent game. I think he just played very well and I sort of played decently as well, but in general I cannot say I played way below my standards. I think I was just outplayed and it’s sort of well-deserved.

The next game at first was going perfectly to plan for Magnus.

What followed backed up what Peter Leko had said, but 26…Qd6? gave away all the advantage.

Dubov would later comment:

I want to say that Magnus is actually quite far away from his best game as well. I think in Game 2 he simply blundered this Qc4 idea, and he was very lucky to end up being just slightly worse and not lost, because it could also just be dead lost.

After 27.Qc4+! Kf8 (27…Kh8? 28.Qf7! and White wins) Daniil had spotted 28.Ng5!

28…fxg5? 29.Rf1+ would be game over, so 28…Qd4+ was forced, as was 29.Qxd4 Nxd4 30.Nxh7+! Kg8 31.Nxf6+! gxf6 32.Bxb7 and White was a pawn up, but the game soon fizzled out into a draw.

Magnus was having déjà vu:

It’s a bit funny that we started pretty similarly to the other match we had, and then the second game was also a draw, with some chances for both sides, and then I lost the third, so clearly the emphasis today was to play a good solid game in the third and I think I managed that. I quickly got a nice edge and I don’t think he had any chances after that.

Daniil met 1.e4 with 1…d5, the Scandinavian, but it wasn’t a good advert for an opening often considered somewhat dubious.

Daniil was given no chances as the match ended in three games. 

He said afterwards:

In both Games 2 and 3 I blundered many, many things, so obviously Magnus is a better player than me, but when he’s also in better shape than me then it becomes critical. If we are both playing our a-game or b-games then I can fight, but when I’m playing c-game versus his b-game I’m obviously dead. Just hope to get my brain back tomorrow!

What can Daniil do differently on Day 2 when he tries to level the scores and force a playoff? Kaja Snare suggested some opening surprises, but the Russian responded:

In my case bringing surprises is not a surprise in general. Everybody knows it will happen most probably.

Magnus, who called it “job half-done,” agreed:

We’ll certainly prepare, but I’ll be ready to be surprised, for sure. I think he has something in store for me!

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave 2.5:1.5 Levon Aronian

This was a repeat of the Airthings Masters semi-final won by Levon Aronian, who also won their game in the preliminary stage, and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was coming from a terrible tournament in Wijk aan Zee. As Levon pointed out, however, class is permanent:

He’s a brilliant player and having one bad tournament is not a big deal. I think everybody has them, even Magnus one year in Norway he almost came last, so when you have a gift, and Maxime has a brilliant mind, nobody can really take away that gift from you.

In this match it was Maxime who was on the front foot, letting big winning chances slip in the first game. It didn’t matter, since in Game 2 he crashed through with the black pieces after gaining a winning advantage by move 13. There were multiple blows, with 21…Qxa4! (there was a knight on a4) perhaps the most striking.

Levon had a great chance to hit back in Game 3, but described his play as "sloppy" – in fact it was almost a mirror-image of Maxime’s miss in Game 1. The French no. 1 then kept control in the final game to clinch victory on Day 1. He commented afterwards:

I know that I’m capable of playing chess, no matter what one tournament can say, but of course it’s very good to stop the bleeding in this fashion. It’s the life of every chess player, every sportsman – there are going to be some disappointing events. I just have to make them as minimal as possible.

Meanwhile Levon's dog Ponchik also expressed his view of the current situation!

Wesley So 2.5:1.5 Jan-Krzysztof Duda

This match saw the most drama, with the first game already featuring missed chances by both sides before ending in a draw. Game 2 was full of mind-blowing tactics, with Wesley So giving up his queen for a rook and bishop just the beginning. Here’s the position after 24…Re5:

There’s only one way for Jan-Krzysztof Duda to keep the balance, but he found it! 25.Nc6+! Bxc6 26.Bxe5 f5! 

27.Bxc7+! Kxc7 28.Rc4! Ne5! 29.Qe3 and White was still alive.

Soon rooks were traded for a position where White had a queen against three minor pieces, and although computers at one point spotted a win for Duda the prevailing expert opinion was that the minor pieces would gradually be able to pick up the white pawns and bring Wesley victory. There were indeed moments when pawns could have been picked up, but after a long and tense battle Wesley picked up one that was poisoned!

Wesley later commented:

Actually when I lost the second game I thought it was all going to be downhill after that, but Jan-Krzysztof is the type of player who is very aggressive and so he gives chances to his opponents to come back and chances to complicate the game. He doesn’t play for a draw or all that nonsense, but he just goes all-out.

Wesley hit back immediately in Game 3, though it took a 103-move grind to convert a slightly better ending into a win. Perhaps the last thing Duda wanted in the final game was to get tortured again in a technical position, but the outright aggression of 10.g4!? would eventually backfire.

Wesley defended brilliantly and took over when the chance arose. He said afterwards that his schedule, with the games starting at 10am, is perfect for him.

Anish Giri 2:2 Teimour Radjabov

We billed this match-up as a clash between two immovable objects, after Teimour went unbeaten through the 15 preliminary rounds while Anish suffered just one defeat. In Game 1 of their match, however, both players had big winning chances, with Anish on top for most of the game only to allow a big chance for his opponent near the end.

Atavistic chess instincts warn you not to bring your king into the centre of a board with queens with a move like 44…Kxg6!, but here it should be winning. Black would just be a pawn up with the dynamic duo of queen and knight and the juicy threat of jumping to c3 with the knight at some point in the near future. Instead, with 1 second on his clock, Teimour played 44…Qxg6? and after 45.Qxe5 Nf6 46.Bd4 Qf7 a draw was agreed.

Game 2 was a quick draw, while Game 3 was a repeat of the scenario of Game 1, except this time Radjabov did seize the chance to take over with the black pieces and squeeze a win out of what looked at first glance to be an easily drawn ending.

Anish now had to do what no-one had managed in 18 games and beat Teimour on demand, and he had to do it with the black pieces! It looked like mission impossible, but afterwards Anish gave advice on how to go about a must-win game.

There is no real tip. Just you have to keep obviously the game going, and it depends. The most clichéd answer in must-win cases is that you shouldn’t go for the opponent’s throat right away, because that’s what he’s kind of expecting. He’s there, waiting, completely put himself together, ready for you to jump at him right away and then he will defend. You should, the cliché is, apply the pressure slowly and while the game will go on and on and on, then towards the end he’ll get tired, he’ll no longer expect the blow, and then you can beat him. That’s the approach that famously Kasparov used against Karpov in his must-win situation with the white pieces in one of his matches, and he managed to win that game.

You have to realise also it’s not that you have to win, it’s that you have to make sure your opponent doesn’t get a draw, so as long as the game continues and there is no draw in sight you do have chances.

It may be a cliché, but that’s as good a description as any of what Anish went about doing, with Teimour’s defeat a case of death by a thousand cuts. By the end Black had an overwhelming position.

That means we go into Wednesday’s Day 2 of the quarterfinals with Dubov, Aronian and Duda all needing to win their 4-game matches to force a blitz, and possibly Armageddon, playoff. If Giri and Radjabov again drew 2:2 their quarterfinal would also go to a playoff.

Tune into all the live action right here on chess24!

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