Reports Feb 13, 2021 | 12:26 AMby Colin McGourty

Opera Euro Rapid SF 2: Carlsen-So final as Magnus wins thriller

Magnus Carlsen will take on Wesley So in the Opera Euro Rapid final after the World Chess Champion was taken all the way to Armageddon by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Results-wise it was almost a carbon copy of the Daniil Dubov quarterfinal, but Magnus said he had a lot more fun and was “happy to have played a good game at the end when it really mattered”. Wesley So, meanwhile, cruised into the final with two draws and a convincing win over Teimour Radjabov. It’s not over for Teimour, however, as he now plays MVL in the 3rd place playoff.

It's Carlsen-So in the final, a repeat of the Skilling Open final that Wesley won on Magnus' 30th birthday

You can replay all the games from the Opera Euro Rapid knockout stage using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s commentary from Peter Leko, Tania Sachdev and Erwin l’Ami.

And from Kaja Snare, Jovanka Houska and David Howell.

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Once again, as in the quarterfinals, it was Magnus Carlsen who needed Armageddon to win a knockout match, while Wesley So wrapped up victory with room to spare.

Before getting to the Carlsen vs. MVL drama let’s take a quick look at how So made it to the final.

Wesley So 2:1 Teimour Radjabov

Wesley came into Day 2 of his semi-final against Teimour knowing that it was enough to draw all the games, and in the first game of the day he showed he’d come fully armed. In the Queen’s Gambit Declined line he’d lost on Day 1 he varied with 11…c5 instead of 11…e5 and made a draw with consummate ease. Wesley later said he’d prepared the first 20 moves or so and that it was “a big deal”, “because if you aren’t pressing with the white pieces then psychologically it’s very difficult to bounce back”.

Game 2 was over almost before it began, with Wesley happy to take a lightning fast draw with the white pieces. Teimour didn’t object either, no doubt reasoning it was better to focus all his efforts on an attempt to win with the white pieces in Game 3. To that end, he played the hyper-aggressive 4.f3 Nimzo-Indian, but once again So knew exactly what he was doing.

This rare move was played by Ding Liren against Alireza Firouzja in the 2019 World Cup that Teimour Radjabov won after beating Ding in the final. Instead of Firouzja’s 11.0-0, that led to a 23-move draw, Teimour chose the new 11.Be3?! after a minute’s thought, but after 11…Ba6, with his king stranded in the centre, White's position was already looking shaky.

Soon 16.Rad1?! allowed 16…Ne5! and Teimour had nothing better than the near-forced sequence that led to the beautiful 18…Nd3+!

The communication between the white rook and queen is cut-off, so that 19.Nxd3 would lose to 19…Rxd2+, while 19.Ke3 is met by 19…Nxf4, with Qxc3+ to follow. The only viable option was giving up the queen with 19.Qxd3 and hoping the ensuing position could be held.

Wesley suspected it might be a fortress, but when he won the a2-pawn he was able to push his own pawn until Teimour had to give up his bishop. The Azerbaijan star chose not to play on with rook against queen.

Afterwards Wesley was his usual modest self, claiming he’d felt like an underdog before the match and had won because, “overall, today wasn’t Teimour’s day”.

To the suggestion that he should adopt Dubov’s approach to put pressure on Magnus in the final, Wesley agreed, though he was drawing the line at playing the Scandinavian Defence!

Teimour's event also continues:

Carlsen 1:3 MVL (Magnus won 2:1 in the playoff)

The parallels between this match and Magnus Carlsen’s quarterfinal against Daniil Dubov were remarkable. In both cases Magnus won 2.5:0.5 on Day 1 after winning two games with White, before blundering and losing two games in a row on the second day so that the match went to a playoff. In the playoff Magnus won the first blitz game with White, lost the second with Black, then clinched the match with White in Armageddon.

Magnus, however, felt the similarities were deceptive:

I would have to say this was very, very different from the match against Dubov. I felt in that match I made it very, very difficult for myself. I feel like today it was more Maxime playing well and posing me some very difficult problems... I’m still making horrendous blunders in some of these games, but at least I had a lot more fun today than I did against Dubov, and I felt like I played better at the very least, and I think also Maxime did great today.

He noted, “I was just in a good mood today and even losing some games didn’t particularly ruin that,” which you could see from his preparations for the very first game - Magnus later wouldn’t reveal what music he was actually listening to!

The game itself was tough for Magnus, who seemed to mix things up on move 11 and was soon a pawn down.

The answer was a resounding no, so that the World Champion was condemned to spend the rest of the game trying to hold that miserable position. In the end it took 67 moves, but he managed – which requires a change of music!

Game 2 saw Maxime get good play in the 6.Qd3 Najdorf, but Magnus found a stylish way to end the game.

35.Rxa6! Qxa6 36.Ne3! Rc6 37.b5! was by no means necessary, but it was a sign the World Champion was firing on all cylinders.

Game 3 then seemed to be going well for Magnus until he made one of those “horrendous blunders” he mentioned. 17…Ne7?? simply let his bishop be trapped by 18.b4, when at least Magnus could see the funny side!

Maxime converted the extra piece with no trouble, but Magnus had a free roll in the final rapid game. If he won with the white pieces he’d draw the day’s match and reach the final, but otherwise it didn’t matter if he drew or lost – he’d still be in a playoff.

The World Champion didn’t exactly go out all guns blazing, but he did get a comfortable advantage against Maxime’s Grünfeld, only to spoil things in the space of a few moves. 22.e5?! objectively seems to give up any winning chances since after 22…Rfd8! the only move to keep the balance was 23.Bd4, while after 23.Nd4? Magnus had clearly missed the reply 23…Qe4! Peter Leko explained why that was so good.

In fact the game wasn’t quite over, but then in his disappointment Magnus managed to mouse-slip 24.Qd3?? instead of 24.Qd2.

An amusing finish, but either way it was a position where Magnus was incredibly unlikely to get the win he needed.

That meant a blitz playoff, and suddenly in the first game it was the Magnus we’d seen on Day 1 of the match again. They played a line of the Grünfeld with an early exchange of queens where Maxime had made a relatively easy draw against Magnus in the Airthings Masters Prelims, but this time Maxime varied with 9…Nd7?! instead of 9…e5.

That didn’t look like an improvement, and Magnus immediately seized the chance to put his knight on d4, eyeing the gaping holes on e6 and f5. What followed was total positional domination, or “a flawless victory”, as Erwin l’Ami described it.

Magnus now only needed a draw, but he played the Sicilian and lived to regret it. He didn’t have too many regrets, however, later commenting:

I feel like in the second blitz game especially, I really felt like he put some very difficult questions to me that I couldn’t solve.

The first shocker was 13.b5!?, that was played so fast it may have been home preparation, though a cursory glance with the computer suggests Black would be on top after 13…Bxc3, if he could safely navigate the complications.

Magnus quickly decided not to go down that particular rabbit hole, which seemed to pay off when an uncomfortable position was suddenly “resolved” by 20…d4!

It came very close to forcing complete equality, but a very tricky sequence of moves – for both players – saw Maxime retain a nagging edge until Black cracked around move 30.

Maxime is threatening the pawn on f5, since Bxf5 Rxf5 would be met by Re8+ and back-rank checkmate. You can’t defend with g6 due to Rxh7+ and another checkmate, but Magnus could have parried the threat by pushing his h-pawn to give his king some “luft” with h6 or h5. Instead after 30…Rd4?! 31.Bxf5 Black was in trouble, though the computer suggests 31…Rd6, trying to bring out the knight, would give him chances. Instead after 31…Rd2? 32.h4 Maxime converted brilliantly, ultimately trading down into a winning pawn endgame.

That meant Armageddon again for Magnus, and as the higher-placed player in the preliminaries he got to choose the colour. Conventional wisdom suggests Black, who gets 4 minutes to White’s 5 but only needs to draw, is the favourite, but as against Dubov, the World Champion picked White. He explained:

I think it really depends on the opponent and how the match is going and so on. It’s not a coincidence that I chose White against two very aggressive and sharp players. To me again, it was obvious. I struggled mightily with Black in the last couple of games against him and I thought, yeah, a minute up, an interesting position, should sort of be fine. I thought if it comes to that, Plan B is to flag him, so it felt like a really obvious choice today to go for White.

Magnus was happy to play the same Grünfeld as in the 4th rapid game, and while it was Maxime who varied first with 10…f5 instead of 10…Nb4, the result was another promising position for Magnus. This time his advantage just grew and grew, until the position was ripe for a knockout blow – Peter Leko spotted 27.Qh6! just before Magnus played it.

In fact, as you can see, Peter also spotted 31.Rxa5!, that would have finished the game sooner than Magnus’ 31.Qe1, but it was the kind of position that you don’t mind playing a little longer! Magnus even game himself a clap at the end.

That meant Carlsen had taken revenge for losing to Dubov in the Airthings Masters quarterfinals by beating him in the quarterfinals here, and taken revenge on MVL for losing to him in the Speed Chess semi-finals by beating him in the semi-finals – leaving only Wesley So in the final after losing to Wesley in the Skilling Open final. For Magnus “revenge” wasn’t the right word, however:

I would still say that a win of mine against somebody is not equivalent to them beating me, so I wouldn’t call it an absolute blow-for-blow revenge, but certainly I would rather call it, if I were to have a good result in the final and win, it would be a step towards some kind of redemption for my last tournaments rather than revenge.

In any case, it promises to be an intense battle between the two players who finished numbers 1 and 2 in the preliminary stage, while Radjabov will take on MVL for 3rd place and also, of course, cash and Tour points.

Tune in for more play that's likely to range from the sublime to the ridiculous! All the action is live right here on chess24 from 17:00 CET.

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