“I'd like to apologise to Magnus for ruining Valentine's Day," said Wesley So after defeating Magnus Carlsen in the final of the Opera Euro Rapid after also beating him in the Skilling Open final on the World Champion’s 30th birthday. Wesley won the first game of the day after a misjudged sacrifice, but Magnus had great chances to hit back in Games 3 and 4 if he’d trusted his intuition and sacrificed at the right moments. Teimour Radjabov finished 3rd after a shocking blunder by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave cut the 3rd place match short.
You can replay all the games from the Opera Euro Rapid knockout stages using the selector below.
And here’s the day’s live commentary from Peter Leko, Tania Sachdev and guests Sam Shankland and Harikrishna.
And from David Howell, Jovanka Houska and Kaja Snare.
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Teimour Radjabov needed just two games to seal 3rd place after MVL committed chess suicide in the second game, while Wesley So’s win in the first game of the day proved enough after a series of missed chances by Magnus.
Let’s briefly look at that 3rd place match.
At stake in this match was $2,000, the difference between finishing 3rd ($8,500) and 4th ($6,500), as well as a 5 tour points difference, but it’s fair to say such matches are not always popular among the players. Teimour called this one, “completely unnecessary because it’s totally overshadowed by the finals”, while Maxime, who had beaten Daniil Dubov to finish 3rd in the Airthings Masters, suggested through his play that he wasn’t in the mood for this fight.
It might also, however, just have been that the first game went so badly for Maxime. Needing to win in rapid chess to force a playoff, the French no. 1 met 1.Nf3 with a surprise, the Dutch Defence 1…f5!?, and played fast until 12…fxe4?
13.Ng5! was an early cold shower, since Black is losing material due to the threat of taking on g7 and e4 and the queen coming to d4 with check, hitting e4. Teimour’s sequence of 13…Bf5 14.Nxe4 Nxe4 15.Qd5+ Rf7 16.Bxg7 wasn’t the most precise, but when the dust had settled it left him a clear pawn up and, despite Maxime putting up resistance and at some point completely equalising, the game ended in a 103-move victory for White.
That was a bitter blow for Maxime, and the game that followed was bizarre. Despite falling a pawn behind the Frenchman didn’t spend more than 33 seconds on a move all game, and had around 19 minutes on the clock (the players start with 15) when instead of making a simple draw he made what Teimour called “an epic blunder” for a player of Maxime’s strength.
Moving the king to f4, f3, h4 or h3 would be a draw, but here Maxime played 46.Rxg5+?? and, after 46…Kxg5! (not 46…fxg5?? and it is a draw), the black king had the opposition and wins a position that anyone who has ever studied any chess endgame theory knows. The black king is able to support the f-pawn's quest to become a queen.
It may well be that consciously or unconsciously Maxime had no appetite to fight to win the next two games on demand, while Teimour’s best guess was exhaustion after the 9-day event without a rest day.
Or perhaps Maxime had a Valentine’s date planned!
The final match was never anything less than a huge fight, though it did also get off to a strange start.
Wesley had won most of the opening battles on the first day of the Opera Euro Rapid final and at the start of Day 2 he managed to outplay Magnus in an old line of the 3.Bb5 Sicilian. “I think Magnus messed up the opening,” said Wesley afterwards, but Black’s position still wasn’t bad enough to justify the out-of-the-blue 14…Bxh4?
The way the game developed this just looked like a terrible blunder, and objectively it was, but as Magnus calmly noted, it “didn’t work at all because I’d just missed the sequence that he had”. It was only after the precise 15.gxh4 Nxh4 16.Nxh4 Qxh4 17.Re3! f5 18.Rg3! that White was better:
Black’s main idea is 18…fxe4 and the threat of mate on h1 if he gets the chance, but the only move 19.Rg4! would defend and simply win the game. Magnus instead went for 18…0-0 but after 19.Nf3 Qh5 20.Ne5 he had nothing better than to exchange queens, when there was no longer any hope of a happy ending for Black.
Wesley had therefore opened with a win, but while trailing to the US Champion is one of the toughest places to be in chess, it was perhaps the psychological impact of that failed sacrifice that would be most important in the coming games.
Game 2 was the one relatively quiet clash on Sunday, but Magnus unleashed a new move in a sharp line of the Italian and ultimately had chances in a heavy-piece endgame.
32.Rf1, threatening to win a rook with Qf6+, seems to win a pawn one way or another, though there would still be a battle ahead to win the game. Instead Magnus went for 32.Rd4 and 33.Rg4+, a plan Sam Shankland had suggested on our live broadcast, but the game fizzled out into a draw. If that was a missed chance, however, it was nothing compared to what followed!
Magnus later summed up his day:
I’m a bit frustrated today. Obviously losing is ok, to Wesley. He clearly had the most convincing tournament coming up to today, but I do feel as though I missed quite a lot of chances today, and that’s the frustrating part. Particularly that at several points I did not trust my intuition and I trusted him more there, because he was playing so quickly and confidently that I couldn’t really get myself to believe that he was missing a lot of things, mainly in the third game.
Wesley later had some regrets about not simply playing for a draw with the white pieces, and it was easy to see why. This time Magnus was Black against the Italian and got to line up his pieces against the white king. On move 16 he could have pulled the trigger!
“I really need to take on h3, that’s what I feel, regardless of whether it works!” said the World Champion. As Magnus pointed out, 16…Bxh3 17.gxh3 and now 17…a4!, rather taking immediately on h3 with the queen, was very strong. “The thing is throwing in a4 is not a novel or particularly difficult idea if you start looking for things there,” commented Magnus, but his main point was that he should have trusted himself to go for the sacrifice anyway.
He noted an example line without a4 of 16…Bxh3 17.gxh3 Qxh3 18.Bxf4 Nxf4 19.Ne3 Rae8 20.Ng5 Qh6 21.Qg4 and he stopped calculating thinking White was fine.
It turns out it’s not only computers that have "depth horizons" when they give the wrong evaluation because of not looking one move further! Magnus called it, “a big mistake, obviously, because I just win on the spot!” 21…Qxg5! 22.Qxg5 Nh3+ does win there, but it’s worth noting that 21.Bxf7+! instead of 21.Qg4? holds the position – one of those reasons that 17…a4! was needed to make everything work.
Magnus instead spent two minutes on 16…exd4!?, but in fact it worked out well, since after 17.Nxd4 Bxd4 Wesley went for 18.Qxd4?
“My first reaction was, ‘what, he can’t take with the queen on d4, this can’t be it!’ and he also did it very quickly”, said Magnus. But again, he spent over three minutes before deciding against any of the available sacrifices. 18…Nxg2! was lethal, but Magnus had missed the crucial move after 19.Kxg2 Bxh3+ 20.Kh2 Nh4 21.Qd1.
21…Bg2!, with Qh3 to follow, and there’s no good way to defend against checkmate.
Instead after 18…Bxb3? Wesley even had some winning chances, though it was perhaps good for the World Champion’s mood that he ended up being the one pressing in an ending before the game finished in a draw.
That meant Magnus had the white pieces in a must-win situation in Game 4, and yet again he played the Italian and things went perfectly. As he commented:
I could definitely feel after the opening that my position was winning, and it would only take a few accurate moves to win.
There would be multiple chances, but the clearest was after 22…a4:
23.Kh1!! was the clincher, but after 23…axb3 24.Rg1+! Kh8 Magnus had again missed the key move:
25.e6!, threatening to bring the bishop to e5, just wins. 25…f6 loses to 26.Qf5!, since the black bishop no longer has support on g6 and the queen can come to f4 to threaten mate.
There was criticism during the game that pointing out such engine-inspired lines as 23.Kh1 is barely relevant to human play, but the move was very much on the World Champion’s radar.
My intuition was screaming that Kh1 wins, just screaming! The thing is it wins, and it’s not very difficult. Kh1, axb3, Rg1, Kh8, and here I was looking at all sorts of Qe3s and all this, but the thing is I just needed to consider e6 and that’s just game over on the spot, so that was really, really bad as well, because if I see Kh1, I think at least practically speaking the game is just over, because if he can’t do anything immediately here he’s just dead. Strategically he’s absolutely busted since my attack is just unstoppable.
After 23.Bd1?! there were, as mentioned, more chances for Magnus, since 23…Qg5+ was inaccurate (23…Ba5! 24.Rf1 was an important inclusion to let Black’s queen come to d2 in some lines), but Wesley ultimately triumphed after finding one precise move he felt Magnus might have missed – 29…f6!
From there on the only question was the size of Black’s advantage and whether we would see any slips from Wesley. We didn’t, although he did pass up a chance to end in style.
49…Qh4+! is mate-in-4, with 50.Kg2 Rd2+! essentially all you need to see to play it. On the other hand, it was also stylish how Wesley didn’t give Magnus a chance and forced the World Champion to accept a repetition that ended the match with a draw.
Wesley made it a double fist pump at the end…
…and later apologised to Magnus, unnecessarily, for celebrating on camera. That ended an impressive tournament for Wesley, who had also managed to defeat the World Champion in the Skilling Open final. He described his feat:
It’s big. It’s totally unexpected. To beat Magnus in any match is a huge honour and it’s a real pleasure to do so, because just playing him already gives you a lot of experience, and honour and stuff, and to beat him twice in a match is just unheard of really.
Wesley, who put his success partly down to taking a break from chess just before the event and sleeping 10-11 hours each day, currently has a legitimate claim to be the master of online rapid chess, though he admitted it took him a while to get into the mood.
Right after the pandemic hit last year I was very badly-motivated and wasn’t working on chess, but now thanks to the Magnus Chess Tour and the Champions Chess Tour it gives the players hope and gives them motivation to study.
He said he’d had similar motivational issues with over-the-board chess.
At the end of the day I just want to be able to play some good chess and not make any mistakes. I remember four or five years ago that was my goal in every game that I played, but then I lost motivation and stuff, so hopefully we’ll get back to the point where I can avoid playing some bad games. In the last few years I’ve had many, many bad games and some of them are quite embarrassing, so I use them as motivation to work harder.
Wesley was planning a well-earned rest and some Godzilla and Hong Kong viewing with his family…
…while for Magnus there was a lot to think about. He summed up:
It’s clear by the play today, and also some other days, that while there are definitely some good things to my play, I don’t trust myself fully and this shows in critical moments, and it’s hard to say what exactly I can do about it at the moment. Wesley is very strong, but as you could see today, he’s also extremely beatable.
That means that Magnus has yet to win an event on this year’s tour, while he won all but one event on last year’s Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour.
The Meltwater Champions Chess Tour standings reflect that, with Wesley now top, edging out Teimour Radjabov on the tiebreak of having won more events, while Magnus is in 3rd place.
The Top 8 qualify automatically for the 12-player $200,000 Major to be held from March 13-21, which is likely to be the second edition of the Magnus Carlsen Invitational. What will Magnus do in the month before that?
I’ll definitely try to get some new ideas for the next tournament, at the very least. I definitely need to freshen up even more. I feel like I tried that in the preliminaries, but it didn’t quite work out in the knockout. That’s one thing, and just to try in general to build up physically and try and get some energy and so on. I don’t think I particularly need like a massive break or anything. I don’t feel nearly as disillusioned as after the last few tournaments.
So there are positive signs for the World Champion, but as he summed up, “regardless of what chances I had today I didn’t take them, and in the tournament as a whole he was better, so he deserved to win”.
We hope you enjoyed the show and will stick around for all the upcoming events. Don’t miss our Shows page, where you’ll find, for instance, that Vidit, Giri, Harikrishna, Radjabov, Peter Svidler and in German Jan Gustafsson and Rustam Kasimdzhanov are all making appearances today!
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