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John Henderson
By John Henderson

After a bad run since turning 30 at the end of last November, Magnus Carlsen’s indifferent form continued with an opening round defeat to reigning US champion Wesley So that made for quite a dramatic start to the Opera Euro Rapid preliminaries on Saturday – but that loss only served as a big wake-up call for the World Champion, as it spurred him back to life and his winning-ways that was reminiscent of the Carlsen of old. Well, the 29-year-old version at the very least!

Carlsen went on a roll with a four-game winning streak and back into more familiar terrain with the outright lead by the end of the opening day. But in arguably the most decisive game – in more ways than one – in the tournament came with Carlsen’s final game of day 2, when the leader looked set to go down against his old rival and fellow chess influencer, Hikaru Nakamura, before psychology and the intervention of a finely-crafted swindle ultimately played a decisive part not only in the game, but also the qualifying chances for the US speed maven!

Apart from the online Tour, one of the other few “joys” during numerous pandemic lockdowns has been the time to read some quality chess books, and none comes more highly-recommended than David Smerdon’s The Complete Chess Swindler from New in Chess – just recently added to the Play Magnus Group‘s growing stable of top chess companies – that rightly went on to win the 2020 English Chess Federation’s Book of the Year title, the chess publishing industry’s most prestigious annual award.

“Chess is a cruel game” says the Aussie grandmaster author. And mastering the dark swindling arts can unwittingly provoke an opponent into errors that can turn the tables and escape with a draw – sometimes even stealing the full point, as Nakamura discovered to his horror, with his seemingly unlikely and very abrupt demise at the hands of Carlsen!

“I didn’t quite think that he would go for 33…Re1,” said Carlsen after the game. “When you spot such a move, especially when you have a couple of minutes like he actually had, you sort of want to check that it actually works.” But for Carlsen, the successful swindle came as a “massive relief”, with the unexpected win over his old foe all but securing the Norwegian qualification into the final eight with a day to spare.

The win allowed Carlsen to extend his lead at the top, and with it came an unassailable place into the “business end” of the quarterfinals. And while Carlsen went on to tie for first place in the preliminaries with Dutchman Anish Giri, for Nakamura, it was always going to be an uphill battle to make the cut.

But battle is what Nakamura does, and on day 3 he looked to have just done enough to scrap into the final eight with what looked a clear winning position in the final round against fellow countryman Sam Shankland, before tragedy and another cruel reversal of fortunes, and only able to look on in clear frustration with the shock defeat just enough for Daniil Dubov to dramatically snatch the final qualifying spot on the narrowest of tiebreak scores.

Now instead it’s the mercurial Muscovite who gets his big chance for another top-billing knockout matchup with Carlsen in the Opera Euro Rapid – the official browser of the Tour and title partner of the event – which carries a $100,000 prize pot, and is the third leg of the $1.5m Meltwater Champions Chess Tour from the Play Magnus Group.

Preliminary final standings:
1-2. Magnus Carlsen (Norway), Anish Giri (Netherlands), 9½/15; 3. Wesley So (USA), 9; 4-5. Levon Aronian (Armenia), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), 8½; 6-7. Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland), Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan), 8; 8-9. Daniil Dubov* (Russia), Hikaru Nakamura (USA), 7½; 10-11. Sam Shankland (USA), Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia), 7; 12-14. Santosh Vidit (India), Leinier Dominguez (USA), Alexander Grischuk (Russia), 6½; 15. Matthias Bluebaum (Germany), 5½; 16. Ding Liren (China), 5. (*Dubov takes final qualifying spot on tiebreak)

Quarterfinal pairings:
Carlsen – Dubov
Giri – Radjabov
So – Duda
Aronian – Vachier-Lagrave

Every move of the Opera Euro Rapid quarterfinal matchups will be 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. Play get underway at 17:00 CET on (11:00 ET | 08:00 PT) on Tuesday.

GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Hikaru Nakamura
Opera Euro Rapid | Prelims | (10)
Queen’s Gambit Declined
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Be7 5.Bf4 More common in the QGD is 5.Bg5, but this flexible move is not as innocent as it looks. Although relatively young, theory- and popularity-wise, it has impeccable English historical roots, having been first played in 1887 by the leading English master, Joseph Henry Blackburne (1841-1924), and then played at the great Hastings 1895 tournament, regarded as the world’s first super-tournament. But the player who did much to pioneer this line, and bring it to prominence, was Hungary’s Lajos Portisch, who through the mid 1970s and into the ’80s, won many wonderful endgames using this system. The cudgels were then taken up in the noughties by Vladimir Kramnik and Veselin Topalov – and now championed by Magnus Carlsen, and with many battles against Nakamura with it. 5…0-0 6.a3 c5 7.dxc5 Bxc5 8.b4 Be7 9.e3 a5 10.cxd5 Nxd5 11.Nxd5 exd5 12.b5 Nd7 13.Be2 Nc5 14.0-0 a4 15.Be5 Equally as good, and perhaps even slightly better, was 15.Nd4 covering the b3 square and denying the Black light-squared bishop the f5 and g4 square. 15…Nb3 16.Ra2 Despite not moving from this square again, the rook plays a decisive role in what becomes a high-class swindle that’s worthy of an entry in a second edition of David Smerdon’s book! 16…Be6 17.Nd4 Bd6 18.Nxe6 White can’t snatch the pawn with 18.Bxd6 Qxd6 19.Nxb3 due to the intermezzo 19…d4! and Black has the upper-hand. 18…fxe6 19.Bb2 Rc8 If anything, Nakamura’s position is to be preferred, as the – for now, anyway – the …Nb3 just makes Carlsen’s life somewhat awkward, and it is not all that easy to play around the knight. 20.g3 Qd7 Connecting the rooks, protecting e6 and eyeing-up Carlsen’s loose b5-pawn. 21.Bd3 Qf7! Stopping Carlsen’s attacking ambitions with Qh5, which would at least get the Norwegian out of a hole – and at the same time, attacking f2 and indirectly defending the d5-pawn, opening the way for Black to play a possible central break with …e5. 22.e4 Forced, otherwise Carlsen would have to contend with …e5 etc – on the downside, it opens up new possibilities of Nakamura piling the pressure on f2 with …Bc5. 22…Bc5 23.exd5 exd5 24.Be5 Carlsen’s survival instincts doesn’t let him down, with the Norwegian’s bishop heading to f4 to take some of the pressure off of f2. 24…Rce8 25.Bf4 h6 26.Qg4 Carlsen is hanging in there, but at the cost on his clock time having to think his way out of all these difficulties – and in a way, this handicap works in the world champion’s favour, as we’ll soon see. 26…Re6 27.h4 h5 28.Qd1 Rf6 There’s nothing much in the game, but with a clear time advantage and his pieces more threateningly placed, Nakamura would have been licking his chops at the prospects of perhaps downing his long-time rival and fellow chess influencer. 29.Kg2 g6 30.Bh6 The engine prefers 30.Be5!? but after 30…Rf3 31.Bf4 Rxf4 32.gxf4 Nd4! with his time handicap, this position may well have been too “messy” for Carlsen to contemplate allowing, and for this reason he wisely opts for the simpler approach. 30…Re8 31.Bg5 Rfe6 Nakamura’s pieces are well-placed and coordinated, but there’s still nothing in the game, and Carlsen has kept his wits about him to cover all the tricks – and even the big one that Nakamura fails to spot! 32.Bc2!?! A chess fan following the game on Chess24, and obviously swayed by the instant engine-analysis, was quick to point out in the chat that Carlsen “missed the better” engine move of 32.Bb1 – but what he fails to appreciate is that this was a deliberate ploy by Carlsen, as the engine doesn’t go in for psychology and the likelihood that, even in dire time-trouble, he was cunningly laying a trap and setting Nakamura up for a big swindle…and his American foe is only too happy to oblige him! 32…Re1?? Incredulously, after thinking for well over two minutes here, Nakamura fails to spot that his tactic is flawed due to a high-class swindle! Well, of course, the swindle doesn’t work if you obligingly play the engine’s all too “correct” 32.Bb1! which would have more directly covered against the threat of …Qxf2+ in the flawed tactic. 33.Bxg6! 1-0 [see diagram] Played almost instantaneously by a relieved Carlsen, and the top-class swindle wins the house – well, at the very least a piece and the d-pawn, as now the Ra2 covers against …Qxf2+. And with it, a frustrated Nakamura could only offer his resignation.

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