Morphy at the opera is perhaps the best-known game in the history of chess. American genius Paul Morphy, the top player of the mid-1800s, won a sparkling sacrificial miniature against two aristocracy chess amateurs whilst playing in a box at the Paris Opera House. Now fast forward 163-years, and it’s a different sort of “Opera Game” we have in prospect, as Magnus Carlsen attempts to halt the dramatic slide in his form of late.
Carlsen tops the bill in the third leg of the $1.5 Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, the Opera Euro Rapid – the official browser of the Tour and title partner of the event which carries a $100,000 prize pot – that gets underway on Saturday, with the full 16-player line-up being: Magnus Carlsen (Norway), Ding Liren (China), Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia), Levon Aronian (Armenia), Alexander Grischuk (Russia), Wesley So (USA), Anish Giri (Netherlands), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Teimur Radjabov (Azerbaijan), Leinier Dominguez (USA), Hikaru Nakamura (USA), Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland), Santosh Gujrathi Vidit (India), Sam Shankland (USA) and Matthias Bluebaum (Germany)
The World Champion dominated the fateful pandemic year of 2020 with a run of dominant winning online performances that culminated in the capture of his own signature tour title. But since Carlsen turned 30 on 30th November, his form has slumped with one Norwegian commentator even noting that – in all forms of the game – he has lost more games than he’s won in the intervening period since his birthday.
Despite a last round victory over a nose-diving Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the Tata Steel Masters – the second elite-level tournament since the pandemic – Carlsen only managed an unaccustomed mid-table finish last week in Wijk aan Zee, and he’ll be looking to bounce back to form and his old dominant winning-ways.
But Carlsen faces a trick big clash in the opening round of the Opera Euro Rapid preliminaries, as he comes face-to-face with Wesley So, the man who ruined the Norwegian’s birthday celebrations by beating him in the Skilling Open final back in late November. And the defending Tour champion is still looking for his first title of the new season, as Carlsen then had to watch on from the sidelines during last month’s Airthings Masters final, as an emotional Teimour Radjabov took the title to overtake So and head the Tour standings.
Every move of the Opera Euro Rapid will be streamed live around the world on Twitch and YouTube with coverage from the tour’s broadcast studio in Oslo – and many top grandmaster commentary teams – and in 62 countries on the Eurosport TV network from the knockout stage. Play get underway at 17:00 CET on (11:00 ET | 08:00 PT) on Saturday.
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
83rd Tata Steel Masters, (13)
Grünfeld Defence, Exchange Variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Bg7 7.Qa4+ Not an innocent sideline as it looks – there’s method in the madness with the early queen check. 7…Qd7 Some might wonder what’s the point of 7.Qa4+ and why doesn’t Black simply not reply with 7…Bd7? The reason is that after 8.Qa3 it is now difficult for Black to breakdown White’s central pawns with …c5; and also from a3, if 8…Bc6 9.d5! and the queen covers any embarrassing …Bxc3+ episode. So yes, a simple sideline, but one with a clear purpose. But we do reach a crossroads here, as the two popular moves are 7…Nd7 and …Qd7 – and with MVL being a creature of habit, his preference has always been for the latter 8.Qa3 b6 Now we start to see why …Qd7 was played – MVL intends playing …Bb7 and …c5 to breakdown White’s center 9.Nf3 c5 MVL used to play 9…Bb7 first here – but he was hit by a big TN from Shak Mamedyarov in the 2019 FIDE Grand Prix after 10.Bd3 0-0 11.0-0 c5 12.Bf4!? with Shak going on to score a resounding win. And after that sore loss, it was back to the drawing-board for MVL and the more natural 9…c5 first. 10.Be3 0-0 11.Rd1 cxd4 12.cxd4 Qd6 If Black does nothing, White will play Bd3 followed by 0-0 and Rfe1 with easy central play – so hence the trade of queens. 13.Qxd6 exd6 14.Rc1 Bb7 15.Bd3 Nc6 16.Kd2 Rac8 17.h4 Opening up more space on the kingside, looking to push on with h5 to open the h-file – and the rook lift of Rh4 not only threatens to double the rooks on the h-file and Bh6, but from h4, if needed, the rook can also equally defend White’s e-pawn. 17…Nb4 18.Bb1 Rce8! A brave move from MVL, who seeks to further complicate the game with a timely Grünfeld exchange sacrifice. The “safe” option looked like 18…Rxc1 19.Rxc1 and the thematic way to break down White’s pawn center with 19…f5!? but after 20.Rc7! Bxe4 21.Bxe4 fxe4 22.Ng5 Nd5!? 23.Rd7! (Black hits back after 23.Rxa7?! with 23…Bh6! 24.Nxe4 Bxe3+ 25.fxe3 Re8! 26.Nxd6 Rxe3 and is over the worst of it, with equality in sight.) 23…Nxe3 24.Kxe3 Bh6 25.Rxd6 Bxg5+ 26.hxg5 Rf5 but White’s rook and king look far too active in the R+P ending, as Black is going to be struggling to try to hold the draw. 19.a3 Nc6 20.Ba2 Rxe4 It’s a common Grünfeld theme, sacrificing the exchange for one of White’s central pawns, and looking to activate Black’s minor pieces. 21.Bd5 Na5 22.Bxe4 Bxe4 23.Rc7 a6 24.h5 This time not to open the h-file but to restrict MVL dark-squared bishop – but better looked 24.Ke2 that Carlsen probably felt wasn’t going to be enough to win, as Black has 24…Bc6!? with lots of excellent potential and outposts for his pieces. 24…b5 25.h6 Bf6 26.Bg5 Bh8 27.Rh4 Bd5 MVL has just about managed to keep the game competitive with his ingenious Grünfeld play. Wrong would have been 27…d5? 28.Be7 Re8 29.Kc3! Nc4 30.Ng5! and Black is in deep trouble, as 30…Bf5 (Worse is 30…Bxg2? 31.Rf4 f5 32.Nxh7! and the knight is taboo due to 32…Kxh7 33.Bf6+ Kg8 34.h7+ Kf8 35.Bxh8 etc.) 31.Rf4 and the only way to stop g4 (for now) is 31…Ne5 32.f3 and Black is all but dead with g4 coming. 28.Kc3 Nc4 29.Nd2! [see diagram] If Black’s …Nc4 is removed from the equation, then White should easily be winning – and now, MVL’s position just gets more and more difficult, as the game begins to firmly swing Magnus’ way. 29…Nxa3 30.Kb4 Nc4 31.Nxc4 Bxc4 32.Be7 Even stronger and better was 32.Ra7! 32…Re8 33.Rf4 MVL is effectively beginning to run out of useful moves he can make, as Carlsen starts to squeeze the very life from the Frenchman. 33…f5 It’s a very difficult position for MVL to try to hold, especially when you see how hopeless the position is when the engine tells you that the best try is 33…Be6 but after 34.Bxd6 g5 35.Re4 f5 36.Re2 Bxd4 37.Bc5! Bf6 38.Ra7! White’s rooks are now coming into their own. 34.g4! Kf7? A desperate move in a growingly desperate position. 35.Bxd6+ Ke6 36.Bc5 With the d-pawn protected, MVL has no hopes of being able to save the game. 36…Bf6 37.gxf5+ gxf5 38.Rc6+ Kf7 39.Rxf5 Re6 40.d5 1-0 And MVL resigns, as 40…Bxd5 41.Rc7+! followed by Rxd5 is easily winning.