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John Henderson
By John Henderson

Separated by 40 years to almost the same release date, A Night At The Opera was both the title of the 1935 slapstick movie where The Marx Brothers run amuck in the high-brow world of opera, and the acclaimed 1975 studio album that finally broke Queen to a wider music audience and rock superstardom. Both became firm favourites from first time of watching/listening to – but equally entertaining was watching ‘A Knight at the Opera Euro Rapid‘, as Magnus Carlsen went through the full gamut of human emotions as he somehow survived being eliminated by Daniil Dubov.

After smoothly progressing from the preliminaries of the $300,000 competition – the third leg of the $1.5m Meltwater Champions Chess Tour from the Play Magnus Group – the Norwegian admitted after his near scare against Dubov that his indifferent form is proving to be a big handicap for him, with “one step forward and two steps back.” At one stage, Carlsen looked to be cruising to an easy victory, as he comfortably took the opening set of their quarterfinal match-up.

But the faltering form that has so beset Carlsen since he turned 30 last November worryingly returned in the second set, as he inexplicably lost his queen in two successive quick-fire games in 25 moves that not only brought the mercurial Muscovite back from the dead, but also set the match up for what proved to be a very dramatic speed tiebreaker.The board just went “crazy” – for want of a better word – as a Two Knights Defence turned into a game where three knights took centerstage: first, Dubov looked set to win, but then he not only let Carlsen back in with survival chances, he then preceded to sensationally blunder it all away, allowing the world champion’s knight to bring the curtain down for an unlikely win.

But Dubov never let up, even with the prospect of the fat lady warming up in the wings. He hit back again in the second blitz game to take the match into a nerve-wracking final Armageddon-decider – and with it, Dubov nerve finally cracked, as a very visibly relieved Carlsen could be seen to let out one huge sigh of relief. An exhausted Carlsen said after his ordeal: “It’s a relief, the final result, but a thoroughly disgusting performance on my part and I’ve got to be a lot better.” Carlsen will now play Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the Opera Euro Rapid semifinal, with the Frenchman comfortably beating Levon Aronian two sets to love.

In the second semifinal, it’s a repeat of last month’s Airthings Masters final as US champion Wesley So gets a chance of revenge over Teimour Radjabov, as both beat Jan Krzysztof Duda and Anish Giri respectively.

The two-day semis start on Thursday from 17:00 CET (11:00 ET | 08:00 PT) with every streamed live around the world on Twitch and YouTube with coverage from the tour’s broadcast studio in Oslo – and with many top grandmaster commentary team options on Chess24 – and now with the knockout stages, in 62 countries on the Eurosport TV network.

GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Daniil Dubov
Opera Euro Rapid KO, (Blitz, 1)
Two Knights Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 The Two Knights Defence generally leads to dynamic play on both sides – but we weren’t to realise how dynamic it was going to be! 4.d3 h6 5.Nc3 Bb4 6.0-0 Bxc3 7.bxc3 0-0 8.Bb3 d5 9.exd5 Nxd5 10.h3 Nxc3 11.Qe1 Nd4! Taking full advantage of the fact that the …Nc3 can’t be taken due to the little matter of the fork with …Ne2+. 12.Nxe5 The knights are certainly coming out for this Opera! 12…Nce2+ 13.Kh1? Carlsen misses a big Dubov tactic, and should have played 13.Kh2! Nxc1 14.Rxc1 Nxb3 15.axb3 Re8 16.Qc3 Qd6 17.f4 and while Black has the more promising prospects, there’s no big advantage here that can be seen to be winning. 13…Bxh3! Boom! And with it, a visible shocked Carlsen realised he was in big, big trouble here. 14.gxh3 Nxb3 15.Qxe2 The difference between the two king moves is now that 15.axb3?? Qd5+! 16.f3 Qxe5 17.Bf4 Qe6 and White’s all but dead. 15…Qd5+ 16.Kh2 Nxa1 17.Bb2 Albeit self-inflicted, it’s a difficult scenario that Carlsen finds himself in, but he does have some ‘saving chances’ with play against Dubov’s king – and it will take some precise moves from the Russian to convert his advantage. 17…Rae8? It’s just another chapter in the long, long saga in chess of moving the wrong rook to the right square, as now the f8 rook is virtually out of the game, and also Black’s kingside is a bit cramped. Instead, after 17…Rfe8!  the Black king has a little air to breathe, and also any later Ng6 doesn’t hit the …Rf8; and after the correct …Rfe8, the obvious plans is to bring the other rook to d8 or even the possibility of …Re6 and Rae8 doubling on the all-important e-file. But the ‘moment’ is gone now for Dubov, as Carlsen quickly goes into instinctive survival mode. 18.Rg1! f6?! Another dubious Dubov move that only lands the Russian in deep trouble. Better was the clear plan of 18…Qd6! forcing 19.f4 and only now 19…f6 and Black has ‘chances’, as 20.Qg4 Re7 21.Nc4 (Certainly not 21.Ng6? Nxc2 22.Nxe7+ Qxe7 and Black is a clear two pawns to the better while White also has security worries for his exposed king.) 21…Qe6! forces a series of trades that only helps Black with 22.Bxa1 Qxg4 23.hxg4 Re2+ 24.Rg2 Rfe8 25.Na3 c5 and White faces an uphill task trying to hold the endgame, as ultimately his minor pieces lack squares and co-ordination. 19.Qg4! Now Carlsen is right back in the game, and Dubov’s reply is forced. 19…g5 20.Qf5 Re7?! Dubov has lost the plot at the crucial moment in the game, as he could have heaped a lot of pressure on Carlsen going into the second blitz game, had he simply played 20…Rxe5! that forces a perpetual with 21.Qg6+ Kh8 22.Qxh6+ Kg8 23.Qg6+ etc. 21.Ng6! [see diagram] This is Carlsen’s version of ‘A Knight at the Opera’, with the equine taking centre stage for the big finale – and also note that his queen can’t be taken because of the fork Nxe7+ and Nxf5. 21…Qd6+ 22.Rg3 Nxc2 23.Nxf8 Nd4 The knight is taboo, as 23…Kxf8 24.Bxf6 brings the curtain down, as pinning with 24…Rf7 leads to a mate-in-two after 25.Qc8+ Qd8 26.Qxd8#. 24.Bxd4 After all the complications, it’s now a simple clear-up job for Carlsen, who is not only a piece up but also a position up! 24…Qxd4 25.Ne6 Qe5 26.Qg6+! Rather than the simplicity of trading queens, Carlsen has the presence of mind to realise he has a forced mate. 26…Kh8 27.Qxh6+ Kg8 28.Qf8+ 1-0 And Dubov duly resigns, with the unavoidable mate of 28…Kh7 29.Qxe7+ Kg6 30.Nf8+ Kf5 31.Qd7+ Qe6 [Even quicker is 31…Kf4 32.Qg4#] 32.Qxe6+ Kf4 33.Qxf6#

 

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