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John Henderson
By John Henderson

It’s the all-too familiar pangs of heartache for Magnus Carlsen after he was roundly massacred by Wesley So, as the US champion once again inflicted a major defeat on the World Champion in a glamour showpiece final, as he won a crazy second set to capture the Opera Euro Rapid first prize and title on Sunday.

So now looks to have the measure of Carlsen after toppling him in two of the three finals so far on the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour from the Play Magnus Group: the first memorably being the Skilling Open on the final day of November, when he apologised for having ruined the world champion’s birthday celebrations, and now the Opera Euro Rapid, where, unintentionally or not, he rubbed salt into the wounds by again “apologising to Magnus for ruining his Valentine’s Day.”

Carlsen started the more impressive of the two with a solid win in the opening game of the final on Saturday, but inexplicably the Norwegian once again pressed the self-destruct button in the fourth and final game of the set to dramatically gift So to salvage a late 2-2 draw (see today’s game below).

The opening game of the second set started where Carlsen had ended it the day before, with the epic meltdown of a misfiring sacrificial attack that handed the 27-year-old Filipino-born US star not only the lead, but also the match advantage. Carlsen is certainly going through a crisis of confidence with his form, especially when you see his epic miss in game 3 that could have brought him right back into the match.

In today’s diagram, So has just played 18.Qxd4 and Carlsen responds with 18…Bxb3? and goes on to draw – but any world champion worth his salt and with plenty of time on his clock (as Carlsen had) surely had to look at all the possible tactics with the queen and bishop battery hitting on h3? But as the engines all simultaneously went berserk, Carlsen missed the stone-cold killer 18…Nxg2!! and White can’t take the sacrificed knight as 19.Kxg2 (No better is 19.Bxe6 fxe6 20.Kxg2 Nh4+! 21.Kg3 Rf3+! 22.Kxh4 e5 mating) 19…Bxh3+ 20.Kh2 (If 20.Kh1 Qg4!) 20…Nh4! and the knight fork on f3 seals the deal, as White has to defend against it with 21.Qd1 Bg2 22.Kg1 Qh3 and there’s no stopping the mate!

In the fourth and final game, Carlsen once again missed a golden opportunity that would have taken the match to the blitz and “armageddon” tiebreaks – but after again having spoiled his winning prospects, Carlsen could only wait for the fat lady to come on and sing with yet another loss in prospect, but instead So decided to opt for a perpetual check to safeguard the $30,000 first prize and his second Tour victory to take a slim lead in the overall standings.

And with yet another strange performance, the misery continues for the Norwegian, who has still not won a Tour leg nor any other event for that matter since his milestone birthday. Carlsen has admitted that he’s been in a “deep funk” form-wise over the past few months – but after a lacklustre mid-table finish at Tata Steel, followed by nearly self-destructing in the Opera Euro Rapid KO to Daniil Dubov, and like-wise to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, plus crashing to So, he’s in a deeper funk now than the godfather of soul himself, Mr James Brown!

GM Wesley So – GM Magnus Carlsen
Opera Euro Rapid | Final, (1.4)
Two Knights Modern
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.c3 Nf6 5.d4!? exd4 6.e5 It’s a little like the venerable Max Lange Attack – named after the 19th-century German analyst Max Lange – that has largely fallen out of fashion in contemporary master practice, but here with a a more modern twist, as we’ll soon see. 6…d5 7.Bb5 Sensibly transposing into the Two Knights Modern, as the interpolation of c3 rather than 0-0 sees the double-edged and tricky Max Lange approach with 7.exf6 dxc4 8.fxg7 Rg8 favouring Black. 7…Ne4 8.cxd4 Bb6 9.Nc3 0-0 10.Be3 Bg4 11.h3 Bh5 12.Qc2 Bg6 13.Qb3 Ne7 14.0-0 c6 15.Bd3 Nf5 16.Qc2 Nxc3 17.bxc3 Nxe3 18.fxe3 Bxd3 19.Qxd3 f6 So far, sensible play by both sides – and I thought this game was destined to fizzle out to a draw. 20.c4 Bc7?! It just all starts to go horribly wrong for Magnus around here. The safe and sensible plan would have been to play 20…dxc4 21.Qxc4+ Qd5! and there’s nothing in the game. 21.cxd5 Qxd5 22.exf6 Probably a little better was the immediate 22.e4! 22…gxf6?! Voluntarily splitting your own pawns is just adding to the madness. Admittedly, it is a little awkward for Carlsen, but the best move was the solid recapture 22…Rxf6 and now if 23.e4 Qd7 24.e5 Re6 25.Ng5 Rg6! and Black is not without his own resources as 26.Qb3+ Qd5! 27.Qxd5+ cxd5 28.Nf3 b5!? And I find it hard to see that White has anything here with Black mobilised on the queenside and …Bb6 looming on the horizon. 23.e4 Qd7 24.Rad1 Rad8 25.Nh4! The knight heading to the glorious outpost on f5 is going to be difficult to meet. 25…Kh8 26.Nf5 There’s an old adage in chess that a knight on f5 is worth a pawn – and the engine concurs, taking the assessment of the material-even position to +1. 26…c5 27.d5 Unfortunately for Carlsen, there’s no way to exploit the long b8-h2 diagonal with the knight stuck in his throat in f5. 27…Be5 28.Rb1 Stopping any ideas of a rapid queenside expansion with …b5 that would give Carlsen excellent saving prospects. 28…b6 29.Qc4 It is hard to believe that Carlsen spectacularly capitulates in half a dozen moves or so from here, but capitulate he does – and all probably induced by wondering how to navigate his way around the wonderfully-placed octopus Nf5. 29…Rfe8 30.Kh1 Bd4?! Not completely losing per se, but I think it would have been wiser to keep the bishop on that b8-h2 diagonal, even if just to stop So’s next move. 31.Rf4! Rxe4 Forced. Retreating with 31…Be5? falls right into 32.Rg4 Rg8 33.Rxg8+ Rxg8 34.d6! and White’s well on top with Rd1 coming. 32.Rxe4 Qxf5 33.Rbe1 Rxd5?? But this definitely is losing. Carlsen simply had to batten down the hatches now with 33…Be5 34.Rg4 Qd7! 35.Rd1 Bc7! and the long b8-h2 diagonal looks as if it will possibly be Black’s saviour. 34.Rg4! So simply doesn’t miss a trick – the reason the d5-pawn was taboo is that Carlsen has sleepwalked right into a mating net. 34…h5 There’s no defence to Re8+ – if 34…Rd8 35.Qf7! is also mating quickly. 35.Re8+ Kh7 36.Re7+ Kh8 37.Qc1! 1-0 Carlsen resigns with no way to stop Qh6+ mating that doesn’t involve the loss of his queen.

 

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