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John Henderson
By John Henderson

Will the real Magnus Carlsen who haunts the depths of the Opera Euro Rapid finally be revealed to claim his first Tour victory? The reason for asking is that, after a horror show-worthy run of indifferent form, no one knows anymore which Carlsen is going to show up from one day to the next in the third leg of the $1.5m Meltwater Champions Tour from the Play Magnus Group.

A case in point was looking to have re-found his form only to throw Daniil Dubov the unlikeliest of lifelines in their quarterfinal match-up. First we all saw the Magnus of old, as he effortlessly pushed Dubov off the board; and looking set for victory, the phantom of in a “deep funk” Magnus reappears to inexplicably gift the young Muscovite a brace of queens, seeing the match surprisingly being extended to a nerve-wracking series of blitz and Armageddon-tiebreakers.

And history repeated itself in Carlsen’s semifinal encounter with Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, with the Norwegian once again looking to be effortlessly cruising into the final following a masterclass of instructive ‘simple chess’ to take the first set, easily drawing the first two games of the second set, and looking to be sitting comfortable in the third game…only for another disaster to befall him.

With MVL in today’s diagram position having just played 17.e5, the phantom Magnus took off his mask to responded with the ‘brain freeze’ howler of 17…Ne7??, heading for d5 or f5 and into e3, though blissfully unaware that 18.b4! is losing a whole piece, with the bishop now having no retreat squares due to the blunder. Worse was to follow. Carlsen was angry and now on full tilt, where he proceeded to lose the fourth game in under 25 moves, again dropping his queen, just as he did twice to throw Dubov a lifeline. And after the two-game blitz tiebreaker ended in a nervy win apiece, the real Magnus was revealed again in the Armageddon-decider, as he easily pushed MVL aside with a trademark win to reach the final.

By contrast, his opponent in the final will be US champion Wesley So, who didn’t put a foot wrong as he dominated Teimour Radjabov in their semifinal match, easily beating the Azeri by two sets to love. And with it, we now have an intriguing repeat of the Skilling Open final when So ruined Carlsen’s 30th birthday back at the end of November – a fateful date that since has seen the world champion jinxed by bad form and the worst run of his professional career.

It all promises to be a chandelier-dropping finale. Can Magnus finally turn full circle by beating So to end the hoodoo, or will the in-form US champion continue to haunt Carlsen by inflicting on him another tournament loss?

The Carlsen v So final, as well as the third-place play-off – MVL v Radjabov – takes place on Saturday and Sunday from 17:00 CET (11:00 ET | 08:00 PT) and 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 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Opera Euro Rapid | KO Semis, (1)
Grünfeld Defence
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Bd2 While this looks a little strange, the whole nub of the Grünfeld Defence revolves around Black chipping away at White’s pawn centre supported by his bishop on g7. This tricky and trendy move attempts to prevent it, as after a …Nxc3, White will play Bxc3 and contest the diagonal. 5…Bg7 6.e4 Nb6 As noted above, avoiding 6…Nxc3 7.Bxc3 when Black doesn’t have the usual counter-play against White’s centre. 7.Be3 The flip-side to this annoying little system is that – with the …c5 break ruled out – now the liberating …e5 break increases in strength because of the loss of tempi spent with the dark-squared bishop. 7…0-0 8.h3 This is all just ‘simple chess’ – something that an in-form and focused Magnus is the supreme master of – at its very best, just denying Black a logical square for his light-squared bishop on g4 putting pressure on d4. 8…e5 9.Nf3 exd4 10.Bxd4 Nc6 11.Bxg7 Qxd1+ 12.Rxd1 Kxg7 13.Bb5 There’s not much in the game, but Magnus’ deft handling of this opening-to-endgame scenario is the Magnus we love and know, and in this game eerily very reminiscent of another Nordic star, the great Ulf Andersson, whose ‘calling card’ through the 1970s and 1980s was revelling in trading queens early doors in positions such as this, and then going on to relentlessly grind out many wonderful and instructive endgame wins. 13…Nb4 14.a3 a6 15.Be2 Nc6 16.Nd4 Again, Magnus simply wants to trade more pieces as he will have the better endgame prospects – but you would never believe that the game would be all be over and dusted in just 20 moves from this position! 16…Nxd4 17.Rxd4 Be6 18.0-0 Rfd8 19.Rfd1 Rxd4 20.Rxd4 Kf6?! It’s not losing per se, but White’s rook dominating the d-file is Magnus’ big ace here, and you can’t really blame MVL for looking to trade the rooks off with …Kf6-e7 and …Rd8 challenging the d-file – but it proves to be a flawed plan, and despite how awkward it might well be, Black’s best option was probably to keep the rooks on the board for now. Instead, perhaps best was 20…g5 just to try and stop White gaining more space on the kingisde with his 4-3 majority there. 21.f4 Ke7 22.Kf2 Rd8 23.Ke3! Again, simple chess at its very best – if MVL wants to trade the rooks, then doing so means Magnus’ king will now be very active and strategically better-placed in the middle of the board, and this indirectly leads to MVL rapid downfall. And you begin to realise what a predicament the Frenchman is in, as even the engine is now calling for keeping the rooks on the board with …Rf8, despite the loss of tempi. 23…Rxd4 24.Kxd4 f6 MVL thinks that if he can hunker down by keeping Magnus’ pieces out of his camp with a sort of fortress, then he will survive – but Magnus finds a way to breach the Frenchman’s defences. 25.h4 Nd7 26.b4! It is dangerous to give Magnus a freehand to grab more space as he now does, but MVL is banking on the premise that he can build a fortress-like structure to keep the world champion out. 26…h6 27.a4 g5 28.g3 gxf4 29.gxf4 Nb8 30.Nd5+ Bxd5 31.exd5! I wonder if MVL overlooked this possibility, believing that Magnus was going to play 31.Kxd5 allowing 31…Nd7 and trying to hold the line by waiting to see how White intends making a breakthrough? If so, then sadly he badly misjudged Magnus’ intentions, as he clears the way for Ke4-f5 and Black’s can’t hold the line on the kingside – and now we see why it was so important to try to keep a set of rooks on the board! 31…b6 MVL is in dire straits. If 31…Nd7 32.Ke4! and there’s no stopping Kf5, and if 32…Nb6 33.a5 Na4 34.Kd4!, suddenly the knight is very short of squares. Also, if 31…Kd6 32.Ke4! the king is getting to f5, where now 32…a5 33.bxa5 c5 34.Kf5! and White’s kingside pawns will win any race. 32.h5! Just fixing Black’s h-pawn, and setting up the decoy winning plan of Ke4-f5 to induce the fatal error from MVL. 32…a5? MVL is well and truly bust and opts to hang for a sheep than a lamb – but either way he was lost after 32…Kf7 33.Ke4! c6 34.Kd4! Ke7 35.Bf3! Kd6 36.dxc6 Nxc6+ 37.Bxc6 Kxc6 38.Ke4 and the K+P ending is easily winning for White, with the safe passage of his king to g6 via f5. 33.bxa5 bxa5 34.Kc5 f5 Black’s knight is effectively in complete lockdown, marooned back on its original starting square, and no better was 34…Nd7+ 35.Kc6 Kd8 36.Kb5! Nb6 37.Bf3 and the a-pawn falls. 35.Bb5 Kd8 36.Kd4 1-0 MVL resigns, as Carlsen’s king now waltzes over to the kingside with Kd4-e5 to capture the f5-pawn for an easy win.

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