So Set for Weekend Clash with Carlsen in Opera Euro Finals

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Carlsen vs. So, Photo Grand Chess Tour

US Chess Champion Wesley So has advanced to the finals of the Opera Euro Rapid, earning a weekend date with the World Champion. 

The Minnesota Grandmaster defeated Azerbaijani GM Teimour Radjabov in the tournament’s two-day semifinal match, winning the first four-game set on Thursday by a score of 2.5-1.5, and then needing only three games on Friday to score 2-1 and secure the match win. 

So will now play World Champion Magnus Carlsen in the event finals, another two-day, two-set match that begins Saturday. 


Opera Euro Rapid Knockout Bracket
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courtesy Champions Chess Tour

The Opera Euro Rapid is the third leg of the $1.5 million Champions Chess Tour, a series of 10 elite online events throughout the 2021 calendar which has been organized by Carlsen and his Play Magnus Group. Each event invites 16 of the world’s elite chess players to compete through a nine-day tournament, featuring games with a rapid time control. The tournaments begin with a round-robin preliminary stage, and then the top-eight players advance to a knockout bracket that narrows to a winner. 

So was one of the original GMs invited to the Tour’s kickoff event, the Skilling Open last November, and has earned automatic invitations to each successive event; the free entries have been awarded for reaching the knockout bracket in each tournament. Saturday marks the second time So and Carlsen have squared off in a Champions Tour final: the American won the Skilling and its $30,000 top prize by defeating the World Champion on his 30th birthday. 

The Opera Euro began last Saturday and featured four Americans in its original 16-player field, though So was the only one to advance out of a hard-fought preliminary stage, after scoring 9/15 and earning the third seed in the knockout bracket. He first took out Polish GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda in the quarterfinals, closing the match with four straight wins, and the American was equally as convincing against Radjabov in the semis.  

The Azerbaijani is champion of the Tour’s last event, the Airthings Masters in December, and was stout in an otherwise bloody Opera Euro preliminary, with 14 draws in 15 games. But Thursday's first set of the semifinal was fighting and saw three wins with the white pieces, including two for So behind the king's pawn. In the first game of the day, Radjabov tried a Sicilian defense that maintained balance until both players fired up pawn storms on opposite sides of the board. It was So on the kingside who drew attention first, opening up the h-file and invading with a queen and rook. Radjabov’s defense was commendable, though a misstep under time pressure with 43. .. Kf8 allowed entry. 

[pgn][Event "Opera Euro Rapid KO 2021"] [Site " INT"] [Date "2021.02.11"] [Round "2.11"] [White "So, Wesley"] [Black "Radjabov, Teimour"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "B30"] [WhiteElo "2770"] [BlackElo "2765"] [PlyCount "91"] [EventDate "2021.02.09"] [EventType "rapid"] 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 e6 4. O-O Nge7 5. Re1 a6 6. Bxc6 Nxc6 7. d4 cxd4 8. Nxd4 d6 9. c4 Be7 10. Nc3 O-O 11. Nxc6 bxc6 12. Bf4 e5 13. Bg3 Be6 14. b3 f6 15. Re3 Qb6 16. Qe2 Rfd8 17. Rd1 Rd7 18. h3 Rad8 19. Red3 Bf8 20. Kh2 Qb7 21. f4 Kh8 22. f5 Bf7 23. Qf3 h6 24. Bf2 Qb4 25. Be1 Qb8 26. Kh1 Qb7 27. g4 a5 28. h4 Be7 29. Bf2 Kg8 30. Be3 a4 31. g5 axb3 32. axb3 hxg5 33. hxg5 fxg5 34. Qg4 Bf6 35. Bxg5 Kf8 36. Rh3 Ke7 37. Rh7 Qxb3 38. Bxf6+ gxf6 39. Rxf7+ Kxf7 40. Qg6+ Kf8 41. Qxf6+ Ke8 42. Qh8+ Kf7 43. Qh5+ Kf8 44. Rg1 Rf7 45. f6 Rxf6 46. Qh7 1-0 [/pgn]

Friday’s second set began with two quick draws, repeating positions after 35 moves and then again after just 19 moves. But the US Champion iced the match with the black pieces and a beauty of a third game. The white king never found a castle against the US Champion's Nimzo-Indian, and 12. Nf4 allowed an early check and strong reposition. Several pawns hung in the balance, but So’s attack was meant for heavy lifting with 16. .. Rab8-Rb2+. His follow-up 18. Nd3+ was the stunner, interfering with the queen-and-rook battery, and forcing her off the board for a knight and rook. The Azerbaijani tried to shell in a fortress, but So found the sacrificial 27. f4! to crack things open. 

[pgn][Event "Opera Euro Rapid KO 2021"] [Site " INT"] [Date "2021.02.12"] [Round "2.23"] [White "Radjabov, Teimour"] [Black "So, Wesley"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "E20"] [WhiteElo "2765"] [BlackElo "2770"] [PlyCount "104"] [EventDate "2021.02.09"] [EventType "rapid"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. f3 c5 5. d5 O-O 6. e4 b5 7. Nh3 bxc4 8. Bxc4 Nxd5 9. Bxd5 exd5 10. Qxd5 Nc6 11. Be3 Ba6 12. Nf4 Qh4+ 13. g3 Qf6 14. Kf2 Bxc3 15. bxc3 Rab8 16. Rad1 Ne5 17. Bxc5 Rb2+ 18. Rd2 Nd3+ 19. Qxd3 Bxd3 20. Rxb2 Qxc3 21. Nxd3 Qxd3 22. Be3 f5 23. Rd2 Qb5 24. e5 Qxe5 25. Rhd1 a6 26. Rxd7 Re8 27. R7d3 f4 28. Bxf4 Qe2+ 29. Kg1 Qxa2 30. R3d2 Qb3 31. Kg2 h6 32. Rd8 Rxd8 33. Rxd8+ Kf7 34. Rd7+ Ke8 35. Rd2 a5 36. Re2+ Kf7 37. h4 a4 38. Be5 a3 39. Re4 a2 40. Re2 Qb5 41. Re1 Qxe5 42. Rxe5 a1=Q 43. Re4 Qb2+ 44. Kg1 Qd2 45. Rf4+ Ke6 46. Re4+ Kd5 47. Re8 Kc4 48. Re4+ Kd3 49. Re8 Qc1+ 50. Kg2 Qc2+ 51. Kg1 Qb1+ 52. Kg2 Qa2+ 0-1 [/pgn]

Carlsen’s play of late has been manic; two weeks ago saw an uninspiring 6th place finish in a return to the board at the Tata Steel Masters, and last weekend saw the Norwegian dominating online with six wins and 9.5/15 in the Opera Euro’s preliminary stage. Earning the knockout bracket's No. 1 seed, his quarterfinal opponent was a rematch with GM Daniil Dubov, who had shockingly knocked Carlsen out of the Airthings Masters.  

In the Opera Euro, the Russian upstart showed his intentions to stay a thorn in the World Champion's side, using aggressive play to swindle several positions and perhaps even force a few gaffes from the Norwegian. Despite winning the first set, Carlsen couldn't seem to find the final blow against Dubov, and the match could only be settled after a blitz playoff and then Armageddon. Carlsen's semifinal against Frenchman GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave followed the same pattern of inconsistent play, first showing model games in the Grunfeld and then missing mate-in-two. Again the match was decided only after splitting a pair of sets, and then a pair of blitz playoff games, and Carlsen winning Armageddon. 

"Magnus is the favorite in every tournament he plays, so it's better to just not be over-optimistic,” So said, when asked if Carlsen's erratic play might make the American the favorite this weekend. “Of course, it depends on whether he has a good day or a bad day.” 

The Opera Euro Rapid's final match begins Saturday and concludes Sunday, with each day playing as one set of four games. If the match is tied one set apiece after Sunday, the champion will be decided by a pair of blitz playoff games and, if needed, Armageddon. First moves both days are at 11:00 a.m. eastern.

All tournament information, including live play with commentary, may be viewed at the official Champions Chess Tour website