The deadlock in the World Fischer Random Chess Championship was broken in both semifinals, with favorite Magnus Carlsen notching up a second win with black over Fabiano Caruana, while Wesley So blanked a moody Ian Nepomniachtchi to take a commanding six-point lead in their duel.
That gap looks formidable, but the scoring system offers chances for recovery: the third day of play features four 'fast rapid' games with two points per victory, and four blitz games with normal scoring.
Despite a natural tendency to focus on what most people would consider the 'top' board, where Carlsen clearly established a grip on the position early, it was again the brawling So and Nepomniachtchi that grabbed the attention of neutral observers. On day one this could be attributed to the Russian GM's high velocity aggression. Today the players again squared off early, but Nepomniachtchi falling behind on the clock was a sure signal that he was feeling pressure.
Nepomniachtchi was openly disappointed with his spoiled chances in two wild games yesterday, and this mix of confidence and sloppiness appeared to influence his play in game three. The turning point was probably a quick decision that looked motivated by emotion rather than calm. The temptation to lash out with a tactical trick proved both irresistible, and too dangerous.
The final phase of the game had echoes of their first, when Nepomniachtchi escaped an ending a piece down thanks to a few pawns and plenty of checks, but this time a very focused So made no mistake in the technical phase.
Meanwhile, back in the Caruana-Carlsen death match, the course of the game could be read simply by watching the body language. The Norwegian was gradually developing a predator posture in his seat, and the normally imperturbable American appeared to be sagging in his. Caruana explained at the end of the day that he had forgotten that Black could castle so quickly, and that he was simply worse after this.
From the player interviews it became clear that even though this is Fischer Random, every available minute is being used to try and penetrate the mysteries of opening theory. The start position is known roughly 15 minutes before play begins, and there is a longer break between the two games. Some of the players have an assistant here, and whatever free time arises is being used to bring the curse of opening 'prep' to FR.
Caruana said afterwards that the loss with white today was especially painful since this was one of the best start positions (amazing that that can already be certain?), and Wesley So demonstrated some very amusing preparation in his interview with the Chess.com broadcast team at the end of the day. Of course, we are still just talking about mapping a variation or two - and being out of prep anyway after two or three moves - so opening theory is still just at the stage where it can be called charming rather than comprehensive.
So's choice of opening move was one the commentators were wondering most about, but Nepomniachtchi 'avoided the main line' and went his own way ... on move two. He told So after the game that he had gotten his planned move order wrong. Opening considerations aside, the Russian set the position and himself on fire very early, and spent most of the game sacrificing bits of material for no real compensation. So was again careful, clinical and ruthless when ahead, and must be a huge favorite to reach the final, though Nepomniachtchi's ability to combine speed and danger should guarantee further excitement.
No matter how much is said about how big an advantage White has in some Fischer Random positions, those more swayed by physical evidence must remain unconvinced. Black is scoring very well in general, and the players with white in the second game didn't have much to show for slightly longer preparation time. Carlsen got a bit less than nothing as Caruana applied classical teachings in pure form, grabbing a firm share of the center and castling quickly. The resulting struggle was what we expect from the top two rated chessplayers in the world, a tense, tough and vacillating duel that ended in a draw - though Black had the most fun.
Carlsen was quietly furious with himself afterwards, visibly struggling with his temper during the post-game interview with Norwegian TV. "Now I'm just really irritated by a really bad game," he muttered, adding that explaining further would only depress him by having to list up all the mistakes he had made.
A few closing quotes as the semifinals go into their third and final day. Wesley So told NRK that he actually likes this kind of chess more. "I can play my own chess, play more creatively."
Caruana spoke with the Norwegian broadcasters about FR at more length, and said that he felt a key factor was avoiding very big mistakes: "Not just the openings are different, but the patterns, and chess players are very reliant on pattern recognition." He explained that he was on the verge of making serious blunders several times during the quarterfinals because of unusual details in the positions. And one more thing, relevant to tomorrow's showdown: "I'm actually looking forward to the faster time controls."
The FIDE World Fischer Random Chess Championship continues on Oct. 29 at 17:30 CET, 9:30 a.m. Pacific, and can be watched live at www.Chess.com/TV and www.Twitch.tv/Chess. Day two broadcast can be seen here.