Day 5 – Decisions, emotions, conclusions

After the spectacular and confusing end to the slower control games the night before, it would be easy to think that Nakamura might have rising hopes. Trailing 7-9 with eight ‘fast-rapid’ (10 mins + 5 sec increment per move) games to play on the final day, Hikaru’s task was still clearly uphill, but his greater experience at FR chess should make him more dangerous at the faster controls.

The flip side to this argument is that Magnus gets progressively stronger the faster chess gets, and is the undisputed number one, rating-wise and often more, at rapid and blitz. Once again, the decisive underlying factor will probably be the great question behind this event – how different are FR and ‘normal’ chess?

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A joyful Magnus Carlsen arriving the Henie Onstad kunstsenter for the final day. Photo: Lennart Ootes
A joyful Magnus Carlsen arriving the Henie Onstad kunstsenter for the final day. Photo: Lennart Ootes

Personally, I made my mind up about the impending result when I saw the players arrive. Magnus was obviously in a great mood, actually grinning from ear to ear and bubbling with energy. The smoldering fury he gave off the night before had vanished completely. I have enough experience as a Magnus watcher to know one very basic thing – there is absolutely nothing more dangerous than a calm and happy Carlsen.

The first 4-game session of the day was a tremendous battle, which started with one of the neatest wins of the event from Magnus, who ruthlessly exploited a tactical error from Nakamura to win a very a-pawn themed game. The next two games featured jaw-droppingly tenacious defence, first from Naka, then an insane battle of 138 moves where Nakamura showed some fine high-speed technique to earn a winning but terribly difficult to convert advantage that Carlsen eventually managed to hold despite enduring torture. There were enough tough, high-speed decisions in this game to last a week.

Norway's Minister of Culture Trine Skei Grande made the first move on the final day. Photo: Maria Emelianova
Norway’s Minister of Culture Trine Skei Grande made the first move on the final day. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Nakamura pulled out all the stops as black in game 12 but a third consecutive draw resulted, leaving Carlsen with an 11.5 – 8.5 lead and with Nakamura needing far too many points – 3.5/4 for armageddon, a sweep to maintain the title. The players looked and sounded mildly punchdrunk as they headed into a much needed break.

The match was decided in game 13, with the familiar pattern of Nakamura pushing things a little too hard, and Magnus showing that a weird start position doesn’t do much to change the basic chess ingredients – he still manages to bring power and harmony to bear on the board, no matter how odd some aspects of the position may be for a while.

Magnus Carlsen during the final day. Photo: Maria Emelianova
Magnus Carlsen during the final day. Photo: Maria Emelianova

This was the only stage of the event where Hikaru lost his bounce, and after a crushing Carlsen win in game 14 as well, the American was visibly annoyed with the beating he was now taking. As the final start position for games 15 and 16 was drawn by the computer, Hikaru dolefully assessed the setup for NRK-TV as ‘It doesn’t matter – it really doesn’t matter’.

He did manage to pull himself together and win one of his best efforts of the event and stem the Carlsen avalanche, and after an even battle in game 16, the final tally was Carlsen 14-Nakamura 10. In post-event interviews Magnus was more and more enthusiastic about his experience here, and said he looked forward to doing this again and to instigating some more official sort of title process.

Magnus Carlsen becomes the world Fischer Random champion!

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Opslået af Fischer Random Chess på 14. februar 2018

I can’t help feeling immense sympathy for people who have battled with honor and charm against Carlsen. Both with Karjakin in NY and with Nakamura here, you get to see how incredibly tenacious, skilled and determined they are, and how they tackle the ordeal of eventually being ground down by the champion’s frightening combination of power and focus. Nakamura could not quite find the right formula to maximize his chances, but maybe the real problem was how fast Magnus adjusted and how fundamentally ‘chess’ the variant is.

The FR event as a whole certainly seemed to be a resounding success. NRK seemed very pleased with response and viewing figures, Yasser Seirawan told me that peak chess.com numbers were higher than peak Sinquefield Cup numbers, and positive reactions were easy to find. #nrksjakk trended in the Twitter top ten in Norway during a _Winter Olympics_. The Norwegian Championship organizers announced they would hold an FR tournament during the event this summer, and some surprising cheers of support could be seen from strong GMs like Shankland and Shirov.

NRK's Line Andersen interviewing Magnus Carlsen in front of the crowd at the Henie Onstad kunstsenter. PHoto: Lennart Ootes
NRK’s Line Andersen interviewing Magnus Carlsen in front of the crowd at the Henie Onstad kunstsenter. PHoto: Lennart Ootes

My impression from speaking to a range of spectators was that this was simply great entertainment. Very strong players welcomed the erasure of opening theory and amateurs proved far less attached to the classical starting position than more serious players. In some sense, inexperienced chess lovers seemed to feel they had just gotten 959 new games to go with their boards and pieces.

For me the big surprise was just how well FR delivered on its goal. This was much closer to chess as we know it than most pundits expected, and the obliteration of opening theory was even more thorough. I don’t understand how anyone who takes the time to get acquainted with the variant could not be impressed. No one is campaigning to do anything to the classical game, so I can’t see a drawback, or a threat. It is something new, immense, but still totally familiar, and ties in to the vast majority of what we know, recognize and love about chess.

NRK's studio on the last day, with one of Norway's biggest hopes, IM Johan-Sebastian Christiansen in the studio. Photo: Maria Emelianova
NRK’s studio on the last day, with one of Norway’s biggest hopes, IM Johan-Sebastian Christiansen in the studio. Photo: Maria Emelianova

The complaints about the exhaustion and draw death of chess have gone on for ages, but with the advent of engines it is surely only a matter of time before the inhuman and homework aspect of competitive chess hits a tipping point, and regardless of how exhausted chess may not be, the attraction of something fresh, practically infinite, yet completely familiar will finally catch on.

A quote posted prominently on chess960.net, the most modern name for the variant, says: “Chess960 is healthy and good for your chess. If you get into it and not just move the pieces to achieve known positions it really improves your chess vision.” — GM Levon Aronian

Well, that’s quite an endorsement. And can the weirdness really even help your ‘normal’ game? It wouldn’t surprise me – because it just isn’t that ‘abnormal’.

It is worth remembering that this possibly ‘game-changing’ event owes a great deal to one of Norway’s visionary and combative artists. Photographer Dag Alveng wanted to stage it as part of his retrospective exhibition at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, and if you are anywhere near it, you should pay a visit, both for the art and the venue, Alveng’s work is on display until May.

Nakamura and Carlsen on the flanks, along with Bærum Mayor Lisbeth Hammer, tournament organizer Jøran Aulin-Jansson and artist Dag Alveng. Photo: Maria Emelianova
Nakamura and Carlsen on the flanks, along with Bærum Mayor Lisbeth Hammer, tournament organizer Jøran Aulin-Jansson and artist Dag Alveng. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Alveng’s career began with a controversial exhibition designed to galvanize how photography was viewed by the artistic establishment, and featured a series called ‘Walls’, where he mounted images of the locale’s walls precisely over the bit of wall photographed. I regret not taking the chance to ask him if there was a rebellious streak in the idea to combine chess and the troubled legacy of Fischer in this exhibition, which includes a series of photos of world champion tombstones.

The legacy of this event will be a chance to reawaken ‘Chess959’. TV has a new plaything, Norway has a new and enthusiastic ‘unofficial’ world champion, and this combination usually means action. I hope, and expect, to be seeing you here again, soon.