Reports Feb 10, 2021 | 10:20 PMby chess24 staff

Opera Euro Rapid QF2: Carlsen survives Dubov ordeal

Magnus Carlsen is through to the Opera Euro Rapid semi-finals despite losing twice in a row in 25 moves to his nemesis Daniil Dubov. The World Champion called it “a thoroughly disgusting performance” but it was thrilling to watch as he finally scraped through in Armageddon. Magnus now plays Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who got the draw he needed on Day 2 against Levon Aronian, while Wesley So took just two games to knock out Jan-Krzysztof Duda. Wesley plays Teimour Radjabov, who won the final blitz game against Anish Giri just when Armageddon beckoned.

This was one bullet Magnus dodged, but he took lots of hits as well

Replay all the Opera Euro Rapid knockout games with computer analysis.

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We couldn’t have asked for a more dramatic final day of the quarterfinals, with the Carlsen-Dubov and Giri-Radjabov matches going to playoffs.

Carlsen 0.5:2.5 Dubov (Magnus won 2:1 in the playoff)

Magnus Carlsen’s 3-game victory over Daniil Dubov on Day 1 of their quarterfinals made it look as though he’d put his loss to the same opponent in the Airthings Masters quarterfinal behind him, but as Magnus said afterwards:

No, the thing is that I don’t put these things behind me, necessarily, so I could win the match but that doesn’t make up for the one that I lost, it just means that I won that one. It’s not going to be easy, regardless of what happened today. I think tomorrow will be tough.

He probably couldn’t have imagined how tough, with the draw in the first game of Day 2 already containing warning signs. Dubov achieved a huge advantage with the white pieces, but a somewhat desperate pawn break allowed Magnus to get back in the game after Daniil reacted badly. 

The World Champion soon took over and was close to a win that would have left Daniil with the almost impossible task of winning two of the remaining three games to reach a playoff. The critical moment came after 43.Be2.

Defending both attacked black pawns with 43…Qb6!, which also targets the black king on f2, would give Black great winning chances, but after a minute and a half of thinking Magnus went for 43…b4?! instead. The way the game developed that looked like giving up a pawn for nothing, but in fact Daniil only survived by the skin of his teeth: 44.Qxc5! Qd2 45.Qxa5! Absolutely the only move. 45…Bg4 46.Qa8+ Kh7 47.Qe4 b3.

And here again White would be lost, with the b2-pawn undefendable and the threat of exchanging everything on e2 and promoting the b3-pawn… if not for 48.e6! Bxe6 49.Qe5. With the queen now defending e2 and b2 the game fizzled out into a draw.

That was the last draw in the match, with things about to spiral out of control for the World Champion. Initially Game 2 was most notable for Magnus finding something very funny, though he wouldn’t reveal what when questioned afterwards.

Despite half the pieces being en prise at that point everything was under control, and it was only on move 18 that things took a drastic turn for the worse for the World Champion.

18.f3! or the uglier 18.dxe4 would have kept White in the driver’s seat, but after over two minutes of thought Magnus went for 18.Bd2?, only to be hit by 18…Bg4!  

After that Black’s attack almost played itself, and Daniil even got to finish things off in the most brutal style imaginable by capturing a pawn with 25…Rxg3+!

26.hxg3 runs into 26…Qh1#, while 26.Rxg3 loses the queen on e2. That was a disaster for the World Champion, but perhaps even worse was how it affected him.

Obviously he’s a good player and he fought well, but there are just so many avoidable mistakes, especially the second game, because what didn’t happen yesterday is that I gave him any life. Yesterday I didn’t give any him life and by that second game, by blundering there, in what seemed to me to be a very safe position where only I can realistically play for a win, by giving him that chance I feel like I gave him so much life and it just completely unnerved me, and after that I was a shell of myself, to be honest.

Magnus talked about a “massive own goal”, which could apply to much of what followed. In the second game he was under pressure with the black pieces but instead of exchanging queens into a tricky but probably holdable ending, he grabbed a poisoned pawn on b2 only to find that 23.Nd1! trapped his queen, since if it moved Dubov would deliver a quick mate!

Magnus resigned a second game in a row in just 25 moves and Daniil had won the second mini-match with a game to spare, meaning we were headed to a playoff.

There was half an hour to recover before the blitz began, but it didn’t seem to help Magnus. He was surprised in the opening and then allowed Dubov’s knights to become rampant.

The white king should have gone to h2, since here Daniil was able to play 13…Bxh3! 14.gxh3 Nxb3!, with the point of gaining the d5-square for the black queen to give check from. After 15.Qxe2 Qd5+ 16.Kh2 it was possibly the first practical slip by the Russian to take the rook on a1 (16…Nd4! based on the 17.Qe4 Qxe5+ 18.Qxe5 Nf3+ trick keeps control). Black was still winning, but the knight faced a tricky task to return to the fray.

Magnus suddenly managed to whip up counterplay against the g7-point, until it was Dubov’s turn to crack.

20…Rxe5! and Magnus would have nothing better than to take a draw with 21.Qg6+ and perpetual check, but Daniil played on with 20…Re7?, only to find that after 21.Ng6! (21…Qxf5 of course runs into the 22.Nxe7+ fork) he was worse, and Magnus went on to regain the lead in the match.

There was light at the end of the tunnel for the World Champion, but more trauma was to follow. First an ill-judged queen trade gave Daniil serious winning chances, but then just when Magnus had completely turned things around and was actually winning a new disaster followed.

After 31…axb5 or 31…cxb5 Dubov would have to retreat his rook while he still could and, among other things, Magnus could then exchange on b6 for what should be an unlosable rook endgame. Instead after 6 seconds he played 31…Bxb6?, falling for the trick 32.Rxb7! Rxb7 33.Bxc6+ and Daniil emerged two pawns up. It was still a difficult task to win the position given the opposite-coloured bishops on the board, but Daniil managed in 101 moves.

It’d hard to imagine how bad Magnus’ state of mind must have been going into the Armageddon game that followed, but as the higher finisher in the prelims he got to choose colour and picked White. The choice paid off on move 16 when Daniil blundered with 16…d5?, allowing 17.Nf6+ Bxf6 18.Qxf6 and total domination on the dark squares.

That should, once more, have been the end of the story, but, as Dubov explained:

I think even in this Armageddon game I blundered this d5, Nf6+ and I was considering resignation, then I decided to play, and then at some point I think it was really close to a draw.

The computer agrees, but the fact it was Armageddon with no increment came into play, and Magnus was eventually able to come out on top, though not before missing one last beautiful chance.

Here Magnus could have walked his king with Kd2-c3-b3 and captured the trapped rook on a4 (the bishop can try to interfere, but Kb2 will oust it from a2 and on e6 White can capture the bishop with his rook). That was spotted by the commentating Peter Leko, but it didn’t matter, as despite Magnus letting most of his edge slip again, the position with an extra pawn was much easier for White to play. The World Champion went on to reach another completely winning position by the time Daniil lost on time.

Magnus was brutally honest afterwards:

I mean obviously it’s a relief the final result, but that was a thoroughly disgusting performance on my part and I’ve got to be a lot better. I feel like the preliminaries were one step forward and this was two steps back, but at least I’m through. It’s better than not being, but overall a very, very disappointing day of chess.

The World Champion’s plan now is to try and forget the whole day in a hurry! Dubov, meanwhile, wasn’t too upset about missing an amazing chance to knock out the World Champion in a major event for a second time in a row. No-one does post-game interviews quite like Daniil.

There is no reaction, really, to be honest. It’s fine… As I said yesterday, I’m actually sort of tired, so the previous match, the match I won, was very emotional for me, I was sort of capable of feeling something after each game, but today I didn’t really care, to be honest. Even winning games was like, it’s one game less after all - that’s it!

Daniil was at least happy to have picked up points against the World Champion despite both players being far from their best, quipping, “he plays like an idiot quite often, but it’s not that everybody manages to use it!” When Dubov was complimented on his style of play, he pointed out it wasn't unique, with players such as Jan-Krzysztof Duda also a breath of fresh air:

I think we have a very big number of young guys who want to play real games, who don’t want to play this Berlin, and who play a lot of decisive games - they’re fine with both winning and losing.

Perhaps Alireza Firouzja is the best example, but for now there’s no-one around at the top of world chess who recalls Mikhail Tal quite like Daniil Dubov.

It was hard to avoid devoting the majority of time to that incredibly dramatic match, which means the other quarterfinals will get less coverage than they deserve.

Aronian 2:2 MVL (MVL won as he won Day 1)

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave will play Magnus in the semi-finals, a repeat of the Speed Chess Championship semi-final won by the Frenchman, after he held Levon Aronian to a draw. Their whole quarterfinal was about thrust and counter-thrust, summed up by Maxime’s early sacrifice in Game 1 of Day 2 being met by Levon taking on e6.

Levon emerged a clear exchange up and a move or two away from consolidating, but 35.Rd4? allowed Black to turn the tables.

35…Bh4! not only hit the e1-rook but threatened Bf2 and the knight on c5, so that Levon had nothing better than to give back the exchange with 36.Rxe2. A few moves later 39…f5! came at a moment when White couldn’t capture en passant and gave the Frenchman connected passed pawns on the kingside that finally won the day.

That left Levon with a mountain to climb, needing to win two of the remaining three games, but to his credit he came close. After a draw in Game 2, Maxime rushed and lost fast in Game 3, but in the end he kept control in Game 4 and could have played on for a win if a draw hadn’t been enough to seal his semi-final place.

So 2:0 Duda

Wesley So raced into the semi-finals of the Opera Euro Rapid by dispatching Jan-Krzysztof Duda in just two games – the Polish no. 1 needed to win on demand after losing the first day, so a 2:2 score wouldn’t be enough. Wesley noted that one of the things that helped him in the match was that he wasn’t put under pressure with the black pieces, and in fact he was better in 8 moves in the first game of the day and eventually eased to victory.

Wesley called Duda “an amazing player”, but pointed out how tough things were:

Today didn’t suit Jan-Krzysztof’s style, because he always plays for a win with both colours, and it backfired today, especially in the second game, because I don’t think he plays the King’s Indian, for example. So he had to go for these risky openings with both colours.

Duda got worse than nothing out of the open, but the way Wesley wrapped up victory was incredibly impressive.

32.Nh4! simply invited the coming onslaught! 32…Nxf2+ 33.Kg2 Bh3+ 34.Kg3 Qf7 35.Ng6+ Kg8 36.Nxe7+ e4 37.Nxe4 Be5+ 38.Kh4.

Now might have been a nice time to resign, since it turns out the king is completely safe on h4 despite being surrounded by four black pieces. Instead Jan-Krzysztof played a couple more moves before conceding defeat.

Wesley revealed his secret weapons afterwards – getting 10 hours of sleep a night... and his cat Zanzibar!

The cats were suddenly taking over...

Radjabov 2:2 Giri (Teimour won 1.5:0.5 in the blitz playoff)

This match-up was every bit as close as expected, with the picturesque closed position at the end of the first game of the day summing up the rapid games.

Things got livelier in the first blitz game, but when that also fizzled out into a draw it seemed to be advantage Anish – another draw and he’d get to choose the colour for Armageddon, when he could pick Black and need only another draw to reach the semi-final. Teimour took the game off the beaten path early, however, with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d3!?, and it seemed to pay off when Anish began advancing pawns too boldly on the kingside. Teimour later regretted not sacrificing on g5 when he had the chance (“if it doesn’t work you’re just a piece down there”).

In fact it was good, but so was what he played, and if there was a missed killer blow it was this one.

17.Nh4! should simply win the game, since after 17…gxh4 18.Qh5+ White wins the f5-bishop with a dominant position. After 17.Nxg5+ Teimour was also doing well, but things got nervy as he ended up playing an ending with very little time on the clock and no increment to come. 

The key moment was perhaps move 28.

After 28.Bc5!, winning the d6-pawn, the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour leader never looked back, eventually winning in 62 moves.

Teimour wasn’t overjoyed by his victory:

I don’t feel happy, to be honest, because I have good relations with Anish and we’re friends, so it doesn’t feel like a victory. It’s just nice to be through, but I don’t feel this kind of happiness as when I do it against the other players.

He talked about preparing for the 2022 Candidates (he’s likely to be invited automatically as compensation for missing out in the current Candidates), while Anish is focused on the event that should finally be resumed this April:

I think my play is good, my preparation is getting better with time, I worked quite hard for the Wijk aan Zee tournament and I’ll continue working hard for the Candidates now… Right now I’m really in the chess mood. I really feel eager tomorrow to look at chess again and I hope my colleagues will not disappoint me and give me also some juicy games tomorrow!

The Carlsen-MVL and So-Radjabov semi-finals are both full of promise, though you’d bet on Magnus and Maxime to provide most of the fireworks! 

All the action is live right here on chess24 from 17:00 CET.

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