One thing on my mind today is having to put things in closed quotes all the time. ‘Unofficial’, and ‘World Champion(ship)’ and ‘titleholder’.
Sitting next to me, often, in the press room is Eric van Reem, who has a rich chess CV, and most relevant here is his having organized the Mainz events, which laid the foundation for having someone to call any kind of Fischer Random world champion.
This World Championship event in Norway is a kind of time machine, and it is not trying to turn clocks back. With Fischer Random/Chess 960 the idea is to refresh the game by erasing opening theory, and this is an amazing journey, to see nothing but unexplored terrain stretching out in hundreds of different and completely new directions. It makes you wonder about how stunned people were in the Golden Age of chess, when the (very) odd Sicilian or ‘Queen’s Pawn Game’ was essayed, and making White’s Bf1 go Spanish rather than Italian was where all the action was headed. Here that kind of adventurism is available on move one, and in 959 varieties.
What it also means is that we are, for the time being, in the past in terms of titles and organizations. Mainz started a short but grand tradition, created a group of elite players, and no one grumbles too much about claiming its last champion – Hikaru Nakamura – as the titleholder, even if there is no great official power to rubber stamp this. And like the old days, challengers arise where there is interest and financial backing. No one should argue about Norway being the place to rustle up interest now, and with an official world champion and prime-time TV coverage, this is a grand experiment and opportunity to revitalize Fischer’s legacy.
Game one, day two was Nakamura’s turn to start with white, and the players seemed more inspired from their first glance at the start position the computer offered up. ‘More unusual’ was the mutual verdict, and both men seemed to have a bit of a smile about what that could mean. The result was the most nerve-wracking game so far, with advantage swings and a hanging black flag, resourcefulness from both sides, and yet another draw. All world title matches have to start with a series of draws…
There were two very striking aspects of Game 3 – how quickly the position could re-enter the realm of ‘normal’ positions, and how incredibly important castling is in FR. Nakamura is well aware of this and mentioned it as the first thing he considers when seeing a start position, but today his king position nearly proved fatal.
The second game of the day provided more evidence that we are seeing patterns develop in the match. Nakamura appeared to be actually prepared for a few moves with black, contrary to the expressed worries that being white in the second of paired games was a practical advantage due to preparation time, but the lingering advantage of the first move overcame what looked like a very natural developing plan. Hikaru played quickly and apparently smoothly, but did not quite equalize nevertheless.
Once again the position steadily transformed into one virtually indistinguishable from ‘chess chess’ and once again this meant the appearance of the nagging pressure that is Magnus Carlsen’s trademark. The FR champion showed tremendous defensive resourcefulness, and would likely have survived if the games ended with a time increment, but having to defend a nasty but drawable queen ending with time running out was the lethal combination that finally broke the match deadlock. Challenger Magnus Carlsen won and now leads 5-3 after 4 of the 8 slower games, which count twice as much as the blitz games on the final day.
NRK-TV commentator and International Master Atle Grønn was particularly struck by how consistently and relatively quickly the games so far reverted to the patterns and structures familiar from classical chess. As research for the event, he played several hundred FR games, and his impression was that the positions here were going to be far, far weirder, and the results more decisive.
The likely verdict is that a very high level, Fischer Random does steer back to the game very much as it is known and loved, but that opening theory as we know it is completely obliterated. In other words, this match is providing strong evidence that Bobby Fischer’s hopeful brainchild may indeed do precisely what he intended it to – breathe life into chess, while killing the curse of opening exhaustion.
The rest of the event will provide more data, and also gives Hikaru challenge of trying to raise and maintain the weirdness factor, since it is the unexplored aspect of FR that is behind his title, and the iron technique of the older version that is Magnus’ forti.
Follow all the action again with game 5 and 6 on Sunday at 5pm CET. Below you can replay the commentary by Yasser Seirawan and Anna Rudolf.
Day Two, Part 1
Day Two, Part 2