So Wins Four Straight in Opera Euro Rapid, Advances to Semis

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Wesley So (photo Lennart Ootes)


Grandmaster Wesley So found an itch he didn’t like in the Champions Chess Tour: a rare blunder, late in an endgame -- and fatal, too.  

So he scratched it.  

In the second game of the Opera Euro Rapid quarterfinals on Tuesday, the US Chess Champion uncharacteristically dropped a bishop in a delicately balanced endgame, featuring his three minor pieces up against Polish GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda's queen. Worse, the mental slip came just moments after the American had found equality after a grueling middlegame by setting up a fortress - though he had just chosen to push out of the locked position in a probe for the win. The overlook of the elementary tactical shot left the American shaking his head. 


Duda-So in the Opera Euro Rapid Quarterfinals
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GM Wesley So greedily snatched a pawn with 70. .. Bxf2 -- but what did he miss?

“At the end of the day, there are going to be a lot of mistakes because of the short time control,” So said. “The most important part is to not make the last mistake.” 

To his credit, it was the last mistake he would make in the entire match. So did more than scratch back after the blunder, moving on to win four gorgeous victories in a row to dispatch Duda and secure the American’s spot in the Opera Euro Rapid semifinals. With four games in each of two sets, So won the first set Tuesday 2.5-1.5, then clinched the match on Wednesday 2-0. 

"After I lost the second game, I thought it was all going to be downhill after that,” So said. “But Jan-Krzysztof is the kind of player who is very aggressive, and so he gives chances for his opponent to come back, and chances to complicate the game." 

Indeed, the final four games of the match saw the American clearly turn the tables against his young opponent’s aggressive style. Once past the howler in game two, So’s successive wins displayed more of what has come to be expected from the U.S. champion: patient and precise chess, seizing advantages for dazzling attacks, and textbook endgame perfection. 


Wesley So in the Opera Euro Rapid
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GMs Wesley So and Jan-Krzysztof Duda in the Opera Euro Rapid quarterfinals.

Here, coming in Wednesday’s second game and marking his fourth win in a row, So never released pressure against a closed King’s Indian Defense, increasing his advantage with nearly every move. An early 11. g4 helped clog up Duda’s opening development, and when the Polish GM was finally ready to attack it with 24. .. f5, the move simply invited 26. Ng5 and signaled the American’s attack. That knight proved lethal, stampeding around the kingside to win a pawn, rook and bishop before finally being captured at 39. .. Qxf5 – setting the black queen up for one last discovered attack. 

[pgn][Event "Opera Euro Rapid KO 2021"] [Site " INT"] [Date "2021.02.10"] [Round "1.22"] [White "So, Wesley"] [Black "Duda, Jan-Krzysztof"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "E94"] [WhiteElo "2770"] [BlackElo "2743"] [PlyCount "79"] [EventDate "2021.02.09"] [EventType "rapid"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. Nf3 O-O 6. Be2 Nbd7 7. O-O e5 8. Be3 c6 9. d5 c5 10. Ne1 Ne8 11. g4 f6 12. Kh1 Rf7 13. Rg1 Kh8 14. a3 Qe7 15. b4 b6 16. Rb1 Nf8 17. Nf3 Rb8 18. a4 Nd7 19. a5 Qf8 20. axb6 axb6 21. Qd2 Nc7 22. b5 Ra8 23. Ra1 Rxa1 24. Rxa1 f5 25. exf5 gxf5 26. Ng5 f4 27. Qc2 Nf6 28. Bd2 Re7 29. Rg1 f3 30. Bd1 h6 31. Nxf3 Nxg4 32. Nh4 Nxf2+ 33. Kg2 Bh3+ 34. Kg3 Qf7 35. Ng6+ Kh7 36. Nxe7+ e4 37. Nxe4 Be5+ 38. Kh4 Bf5 39. Nxf5 Qxf5 40. Nxf2 1-0 [/pgn]

The Opera Euro Rapid began Saturday as the third leg of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, a series of 10 elite online events spread across the 2021 calendar, organized by World Champion Magnus Carlsen and his Play Magnus Group. So was one of the original group of 16 Grandmasters invited to the kickoff event, the Skilling Open last November, and has earned automatic invitations to each successive event due to his performances. Each tournament begins with a three-day, round-robin preliminary between the 16 players, and then the top-8 performers move on to a knockout bracket to determine the winner. Advancing to the bracket earns all eight players an invitation to the next event, and eight new GMs are rotated in to keep the fields fresh. 

Ironically, US Chess had its best representation yet in the Opera Euro – with four Americans invited to its 16-player field – though it was only So who made it through the preliminary stage, claiming the bracket's third seed by scoring 9/15 in the round robin. Both GMs Hikaru Nakamura and Sam Shankland narrowly missed qualification, finishing 9th and 10th place respectively. Shankland scored 7/15, missing eighth place by a half point. Nakamura, as the world’s No. 1 blitz and No. 4 rapid player who had reached the bracket stage in each of the first two events, was pushed out of eighth place by Russian GM Daniil Dubov due to tiebreaks. 


Opera Euro Rapid Preliminary Standings
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courtesy Champions Chess Tour

Even worse, Nakamura's miss of the bracket came largely from the round-robin's final round – at the hands of his fellow statesman, Shankland. The two were paired for the last game on Monday, Nakamura with the white pieces and needing only a draw to secure his place in the bracket. Worse still, at one point Nakamura appeared in complete command of the game and was cruising to victory, before fantastically stumbling. 

Nakamura enjoyed easy development in a Rauzer Sicilian and was forcing Shankland’s pieces backward when the rooks started liquidation at 24. Rxc1+. Leaving Shankland without any hopes for aggression, Nakamura looked poised for a final assault on the black king with 34. Qh7 – though the effort was gone faster than it came. Nakamura's faulty line of attack allowed Shankland to offer a queen trade, which was refused by Nakamura at the expense of his e-pawn. Soon, Shankland’s queen was on the attack, with Nakamura’s 40. Bh4 coming as the howler, leaving his knight to be trapped on the rim. He never recovered. 

[pgn][Event "Opera Euro Rapid Prelim"] [Site " INT"] [Date "2021.02.08"] [Round "15.4"] [White "Nakamura, Hikaru"] [Black "Shankland, Sam"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B67"] [WhiteElo "2736"] [BlackElo "2691"] [PlyCount "115"] [EventDate "2021.02.06"] [EventType "rapid"] 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 Nc6 6. Bg5 e6 7. Qd2 a6 8. O-O-O Bd7 9. f3 Nxd4 10. Qxd4 Be7 11. h4 Qc7 12. Qd2 b5 13. Kb1 b4 14. Ne2 a5 15. c4 bxc3 16. Nxc3 Rb8 17. a4 h6 18. Be3 O-O 19. Nb5 Qb7 20. Bd3 Rfc8 21. Rc1 d5 22. e5 Bb4 23. Qf2 Ne8 24. Ba7 Rxc1+ 25. Rxc1 Rc8 26. Rxc8 Qxc8 27. h5 Kf8 28. g4 Qc6 29. Bb6 Bc8 30. Na7 Qxa4 31. Qe2 Qd7 32. Qc2 Bb7 33. Bb5 Qe7 34. Qh7 f6 35. Qh8+ Kf7 36. Bd3 Qf8 37. Qh7 fxe5 38. Bd8 e4 39. fxe4 Qd6 40. Bh4 dxe4 41. Bc2 Qa6 42. g5 hxg5 43. Bxg5 Qxa7 44. Qg6+ Kf8 45. h6 Qg1+ 46. Ka2 Bd5+ 47. b3 Qf2 48. Kb1 Bc3 49. Bc1 gxh6 50. Qxh6+ Kg8 51. Qg5+ Ng7 52. Qd8+ Qf8 53. Qc7 Bf6 54. Qxa5 Nf5 55. Ba3 Qc8 56. Bc5 Nd4 57. Bd1 Nxb3 58. Bxb3 0-1 [/pgn]

Also appearing in the Opera Euro was GM Leinier Dominguez-Perez, who had a rough first two days in the preliminary stage but finished strong on Monday scoring 3.5/5, including three of his four wins in the event. His fourth win, in another case of American backstabbing, came over So in this Ruy Lopez Berlin on Sunday. It was one of only two losses for So through the preliminary stage.

[pgn][Event "Opera Euro Rapid Prelim"] [Site " INT"] [Date "2021.02.07"] [Round "7.3"] [White "Dominguez Perez, Leinier"] [Black "So, Wesley"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "C67"] [WhiteElo "2758"] [BlackElo "2770"] [PlyCount "91"] [EventDate "2021.02.06"] [EventType "rapid"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. O-O Nxe4 5. Re1 Nd6 6. Nxe5 Be7 7. Bf1 Nxe5 8. Rxe5 O-O 9. Nc3 Ne8 10. Nd5 Bd6 11. Re2 c6 12. Ne3 Be7 13. Nf5 Bf6 14. Qe1 d5 15. Ne7+ Kh8 16. Nxc8 Rxc8 17. g3 Qd7 18. d3 Nd6 19. Bf4 Bxb2 20. Rb1 Bf6 21. Bh3 Nf5 22. Bxf5 Qxf5 23. Bd6 Rfd8 24. Rxb7 Bd4 25. Be5 Bb6 26. Bc7 Bxc7 27. Rxc7 h5 28. Rxa7 Rb8 29. h4 d4 30. Re5 Qf3 31. Kh2 Kg8 32. Re4 Rf8 33. Ra5 Rb5 34. Rxb5 cxb5 35. Rxd4 Ra8 36. Rf4 Qd5 37. a3 Qc5 38. Qb4 Qxc2 39. Qxb5 Qa2 40. a4 Rd8 41. Qc4 Qxc4 42. dxc4 Rc8 43. Kg2 Kf8 44. Rf3 Ke7 45. a5 Ra8 46. Ra3 1-0 [/pgn]

The Opera Euro Rapid resumes with its semifinals on Thursday, with the first set of four games beginning at 11:00 a.m. eastern. The second set of games will be played Friday. So will play against Azerbaijani GM Teimour Radjabov, the winner of the last Champions Tour event, the Airthings Masters in December. The other side of the bracket pits French GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave against Carlsen. 

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