Day one

The score after two games in the unofficial World Championship match between Hikaru Nakamura and Magnus Carlsen is 2-2 after two draws. Here is GM Jonathan Tisdall’s report after the first two games with Maria Emelianova’s photos.

by Jonathan Tisdall.

15 minutes before game one, a computer display on NRK-TV picked the placement of the pieces for the start position. Chess World Champion and Fischer Random challenger Magnus Carlsen assessed the random order as ‘fairly normal’, while unofficial but very much reigning FischerRandom champion Hikaru Nakamura was not as convinced, hinting that there was plenty of room for strangeness.

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The event continued to impress in terms of Norwegian enthusiasm – not just big crowds and prime time TV coverage, the first move of the match was made by Prime Minister Erna Solberg.

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg making the first move of the first game of Magnus Carlsen vs Hikaru Nakamura. Photo: Maria Emelianova
Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg making the first move of the first game of Magnus Carlsen vs Hikaru Nakamura. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Playing white in game one Magnus had the ability to make his assessment more authoritative, making the game quickly look ‘shockingly normal’ as he put it afterwards. The result was a token advantage that fizzled out to a drawn ending, and looked very much like classical chess indeed.

When using his advantage of the first move, Nakamura put his own stamp on play, keeping things aggressive and original much longer, and bringing a lot of pressure to bear on Magnus early. Despite time pressure, Carlsen gradually clawed his way back and again gained a ‘normal’ endgame superiority, but after scrambling to the time control on move 40 the game was in balance and the second draw was recorded. The two players had a long and animated discussion about the critical moments of the game.

Photo: Maria Emelianova

For the technically interested, the key questions were whether Nakamura missed a big advantage with 12.Bxf6!? planning Rc3 next; whether 21.Rxe7 was advantageous; and how much better was Magnus in the Q+N ending?

During the session the computer engine used by NRK indicated a clear black advantage in the last phase of the game but the players felt Magnus’ pressure was symbolic. Supercomputer Sesse appeared to vindicate human judgement, rarely budging much from total equality as a verdict.

Chess.com commentator Yasser Seirawan, whose grandmastery also extends to Fischer Random, summed up the first game as cautious and exploratory, and game two as “explosive from move 3”.

Photo: Maria Emelianova
Photo: Maria Emelianova

If there are any preliminary conclusions to take from Day One, they are: classical chess skills and position types are going to be seen, sooner or later. The clash of styles has an interesting extra angle as the ‘weirdness’ level is an extra factor, with Magnus quickly finding a way to normalize and Hikaru striving to keep things more unusual.

Preparation time is not likely to make a noticeable dent on the mystery level of FR opening theory – both players appeared to have used the interval between games to prepare with an assistant, with the result being that Magnus thought he was OK to the depth of … his _first_ move, and Nakamura hoping to predict _two_ – anything more than that being unrealistic, he said.

Doubts about the fairness of being able to prepare for the second game, in the FR traditional format of playing two games from the same position, to suggestions that the start position be determined seconds before play begins, seem to be addressing concerns that can be saved for the future. Classical chess continues to be played with massive preparation, engine assistance and full mutual knowledge of the start position, and continues to be rich, often.

Whether the FR players are starting from zero or … two seems close enough to the total erasure of theory to make the point. We are seeing chess games that are fresher in the start phase than we’ve seen in hundreds of years.

NRK is broadcasting live from the match and have a total of 40 people working behind the scenes. Photo: Maria Emelianova
NRK is broadcasting live from the match and have a total of 40 people working behind the scenes. Photo: Maria Emelianova