Photo: Lennart Ootes

Day Three: Are we (all) having fun yet?

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this Fischer Random match – and to my mind at least, there are very many exciting aspects – is that we are learning more about this fascinating variant by the minute. Reporting on the FR match day by day can be tricky since, by the very nature of the event, there is almost no historical context to use while examining the games.

More photos by Lennart Ootes and Maria Emelianova/chess.com in our gallery

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So it was very interesting indeed to chat with Eric van Reem, the man who used to organize the Mainz Chess Classic and the associated Fischer Random/Chess 960 events that produced champion Nakamura. Eric said that, in his experience, the games evolved during the Mainz period of elite events from 2001 through 2009. It was his impression that in the early days, players strove to normalize the odd starting positions and steer play towards more classical patterns. But as they grew more familiar with FR, this became less common and the weirder untested grounds of the random set-ups were embraced.

Eric van Reem (right) with Chief Arbiter Hans Olav Lahlum. Photo: Lennart Ootes
Eric van Reem (right) with Chief Arbiter Hans Olav Lahlum. Photo: Lennart Ootes

The play in games 5-6 on day three mirror this well, and also fit in with Atle Grønn’s experimental experience mentioned here yesterday – that he expected weirder positions and fewer draws. After the breakthrough win in game 4, which came from a fairly familiar massage built up from a quite recognizable structure, we had a day of nons-top violence, and games that strayed further and further from familiar channels. And black won both.

I think it is fair to say that Hikaru Nakamura was the pace-setter on day three, thanks to his predictable pattern of playing very quickly and provocatively in the early phase. In game five this paid off as Magnus Carlsen took up the challenge, sacrificing a pawn for attacking chances. A combination of clever defence, long Norwegian thinks, and constant American tactical concentration meant that Magnus staggered narrowly over the time control, but with a technically lost position. 5-5, and instant revenge from the FR champ.

Magnus Carlsen started the day with a loss, but immediately struck back and won game 6 to maintain the lead in the match. Photo: Maria Emelianova/chess.com
Magnus Carlsen started the day with a loss, but immediately struck back and won game 6 to maintain the lead in the match. Photo: Maria Emelianova/chess.com

Game six followed the same pattern, this time with Nakamura tossing a pawn to the wind to build up what looked like fearsome pressure, only to be dismantled by Carlsen’s pinpoint defensive accuracy. 7-5 to the chess champ, and the wildest day of the event.

While watching top flight players discussing how their opening preparation extended to just past move 1, and engine evaluations disagreeing and oscillating wildly offers some great entertainment for spectators, it was the end-of-day reactions from the players that provided an added surprise. They are having fun now, too.

Sure, both men got up from the board after their respective defeats with the customary angry glares, these disappeared in seconds. There are always animated discussions of the trickier moments of the games afterwards. And, in a lengthy joint interview after game six, both players seemed to be in strangely high spirits, and both claimed to be quite content with the games they lost.

Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura being interviewed by Line Andersen of NRK. Photo: Lennart Ootes
Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura being interviewed by Line Andersen of NRK. Photo: Lennart Ootes

They also agreed that both games had been great fights, extremely interesting, and best of all, less and less conventional. A consensus seemed to be emerging – this variant is inspiring and entertaining to play as well as watch. And that the further the games stay from the beaten path, the more fun they are to play.

This development is a high-speed version of what Eric mentioned, and in a few days the positions we have seen have gone from ‘shockingly normal’ to ‘thankfully’ weirder and decisive. The winners are eager to examine the games in great detail, late in the evening with viewers on site and online. See if you also spot what seems to be a novel sense of curiosity and exploration from their commentary.

The first two days had made me wonder if it was Magnus or the innate qualities of the game that made it possible to normalize the positions regularly, and if one strong, determined player could ‘stabilize’ the random openings more often than not. Now I imagine it will take a lot more data gathering before I can decide whether this is even a question worth asking – as the degree of oddness of starting position might be the essential factor. And, if Magnus’ enthusiasm for the weirder territory continues to grow, we might not see ‘normalization’ here again at all.

The match remains finely balanced, with one day of slower games left. The race to 12.5 points concludes on day five, with eight games of blitz, weighted at one point per win.

Watch Nakamura-Carlsen Fischer Random Match, Day 3 from Chess on www.twitch.tv