Reports Feb 12, 2021 | 12:28 AMby Colin McGourty

Opera Euro Rapid SF 1: Carlsen & So take the lead

Magnus Carlsen could afford to miss mate-in-2 and still beat Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in three games after what he called “a day of very good chess”. It was a big improvement for the World Champion, who felt he began the semi-final with a model game. Wesley So and Teimour Radjabov, meanwhile, defied all expectations by trading blows for the first three games before Wesley managed to hold a draw in the 4th and take the lead in the match. We’re currently on course for a repeat of the Skilling Open final.

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

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

And from David Howell, Jovanka Houska and Kaja Snare.

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There was no slowing down in the semi-finals, with five of the day’s seven games decisive:

Magnus Carlsen 2.5:0.5 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

There was a big question mark over what kind of form Magnus Carlsen would be in after some gut-wrenching moments in his quarterfinal victory over Daniil Dubov, but the first game of the day couldn’t have gone better for the World Champion. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave persisted with the Grünfeld Defence he tends to play against Magnus and seemed to get a completely innocuous position out of the opening. A few moves later, however, and it had all gone horribly wrong, until 29…Nb8? was simply a losing move.

Both sides have an equal number of pawns and the same minor pieces, except all of White’s army is better placed. 30.Nd5+!, attacking two undefended pawns and the king, forced 30…Bxd5 31.exd5 and only now, much too late, did Maxime take his first long think of the day. Peter had all the time in the world to draw arrows illustrating how completely the white bishop would dominate the black knight.

Maxime later commented:

I certainly didn’t play my best, but Magnus was very close to his best. In the first game I underestimated my issues and played carelessly.

The game only lasted a few more moves: 31…b6 32.h5! a5 33.bxa5 bxa5 34.Kc5 f5 35.Bb5 Kd8 36.Kd4! and Maxime threw in the towel.

The king is simply headed to capture the f5-pawn, and if the black knight tries to move it’ll be immediately eliminated. “I managed to win a model game in the first one” was Magnus’ summary, and it was hard to disagree.

Game 2, however, was a reminder of how quickly things can go wrong in chess. The opening was uncomfortable for Magnus…

…and then it seemed from his reaction that he was in deep trouble when 37.Rd1 appeared on the board.

Positionally Black was close to busted, but it turned out there was a solution – 37…Bxb4! 38.Nxb4 Rc5! and suddenly Magnus was ok, then even better when Maxime responded quickly and poorly. “I missed some things but fortunately it was not too bad”, was how the World Champion summed up the incident afterwards.

Magnus reached an endgame a full exchange up, but was unable to convert as Maxime held a 72-move draw.

The third game saw Maxime persist with the Grünfeld, and in fact the same line that featured in Carlsen’s Tata Steel Masters last-round win just a couple of weeks ago.

This time Magnus exchanged queens, however, later explaining:

In the third game it was definitely a conscious decision. I thought we’d more or less get out of theory and just get a queenless middlegame, which I thought would suit me fairly well.

For most of the game things went like a dream for White.

Here Magnus gave up the exchange with 24.Rxc6! and was later asked by David Howell whether that had been courageous:

No! Not that kind of sacrifice. I feel like that’s one of the least courageous sacrifices I have ever made. Basically yes, I do lose a rook for a bishop, but I have a strong pawn for it and the bishop pair as well as wonderful centralisation, so it’s clear that I’m not running any risk other than accidental blunders.

One mistake was all it took for Black’s position to go from bad to lost, and Magnus pounced with the pawn break 32.e6! It seemed he had it all worked out, but in fact he’d missed the clincher in the position after 33…Kh8:

34.Rc8! leaves black defenceless against the threat of 35.Bd4 mate next move, or rather all the defences just give up so much material that it’s the equivalent of resigning. Magnus, however, blitzed out 34.Bd4+, a line he revealed he’d only gone for because he’d missed that after 34…Rxd4 35.cxd4 Bxd4 36.Bf5 Black could play 36…Ra7.

He spotted the missed mating idea just too late:

You’re not really supposed to miss mate-in-2s I think, at this level, so that was really crazy! … It’s very typical. I feel like there should be something in the position and then I realise it right after I made my move. I see how I could have won and at that point I thought this game was going to be a draw and I still have a difficult task in the last game, but fortunately it all came apart for him at the end. Still, it was never a very easy draw, but I guess one that he should generally make.

Magnus did well to keep things together until finally catching Maxime with 49.Rd8+!

49…Kg7 runs into 50.Bd5+ and there’s no good way to parry the threat of mate with Rg8#. Maxime played 49…Kf7, but after 50.Bxh7 there was no stopping White’s pawns and he resigned.

Maxime felt it was a deserved victory for his opponent but will still have a chance to come back: “I will have to play better, and if I manage to put Magnus under pressure then anything can happen”.

Wesley So 2.5:1.5 Teimour Radjabov

Almost everyone had predicted a lot of draws in this match, but instead it started with three decisive games in a row. Teimour was happy with his play overall but said he was, “sometimes maybe a bit over-pushing, tired of making a lot of draws, but that also makes it very exciting for the spectators”. Wesley also chimed in by saying, “If they decided to change chess so a draw is not a result, I’m all-in for that!”

The first game was a 3.Bb5 Sicilian where Teimour missed the chance to get counterplay and came under a fierce attack on the kingside. Wesley played brilliantly, but the final attack could have been parried.

It’s a brave move to make, but in fact 43…Kg8! draws, not fearing the open g-file since 44.Rg1+ Rg7 gives White nothing. In the game 43…Kf8 ran into 44.Rg1 Rf7 45.f6! Rxf6 46.Qh7! and Black resigned.

Teimour needed to hit back, and he did immediately, using a line of the Queen’s Gambit Declined that he’d previously played with the black pieces. It worked to perfection as White ultimately got an extra pawn in a rook ending, but just after our commentators explained that the game might last forever Wesley crumbled almost immediately and the scores were level.

The mini-match turned on the 3rd game, where Teimour Radjabov regretted his choices. “I just decided maybe Wesley’s not in a great mood so I can play on”, he said of his decision not to go for liquidation with a4 as he had in a very similar position against Alexander Grischuk in the prelims. Shortly afterwards Wesley had begun to take over, but the bishop sacrifice Teimour decided on was a case of the cure being worse than the disease.

As we saw in the quarterfinals against Jan-Krzysztof Duda, there’s no-one in world chess better at refuting unsound attacks than Wesley So, and that’s just what he did as he went on to claim the full point.

Teimour had to win on demand in Game 4 to tie the match, but when he failed to grab a pawn on move 15 Wesley was able to consolidate and draw with some ease.   

That means Teimour must now win Friday’s rapid match to force a playoff, or the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour leader will be out. Maxime will also be out to upset the World Champion – he needs to look no further than Daniil Dubov in the quarterfinals to show how that can be done despite getting outplayed on Day 1.

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

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