Quarterfinals Kick Off
October 4, 2019

After a long process of qualifiers and knockouts, the first FIDE World Fischer Random Chess Championship began its crescendo movement with the quarterfinals. Since this is an inaugural event, and quite a complicated one, let's start with the framework.

This stage of the title process is designed to send three of the eight qualified to the semifinals and final in Norway at the end of October. This odd number allows the 'reigning champion', Magnus Carlsen, who defeated the last 'official' titleholder, Hikaru Nakamura, in a challenge match last year, to join the event and complete a four-player semifinal. 

Carlsen is seeded, but not all the way to the final.

Day one of the quarterfinal produced four match-winners, who advance to the third and final day of the stage. Day two is the Lazarus round, with the four losers contesting matches to claim two return tickets to the event. The final day will see three men eliminated, and the three survivors going on for the live, over-the-board event in Norway.

The road to the FR crown features long working days from now on; each duel is made up of three mini-matches, showcasing different time controls. The first pair being 'slow rapids' - 45 minutes for 40 first moves, 15 minutes for rest of game, no increment, wins worth 3 points; then two 'fast rapid' games - 15 minutes plus 2 seconds increment, wins worth two points; followed by a pair of 3 minutes plus 2 seconds increment blitz games, wins worth one point. If this ended in deadlock, then 'normal' Armageddon, 5-4 minutes, no increment and Black having draw odds. 

It seems to me that the format is easy to discuss from two different angles. There must be a temptation to celebrate the total lack of opening theory by also adjusting the speed of play, so that everyone can contemplate the sudden presence of abundant ignorance and use plenty of time to try to work things out... But it would be rather jarring to see a modern variant evolve at a classical pace.

It reminds me of an argument advanced by IM Greg Shahade, that if chess emerged now, no one would dream of having competitions where games took all day, which always makes me think about someone trying to invent test cricket now, and suggesting contests take five days and have breaks for meals. The slow stuff is very nice once you know it, but no one has the patience to invent things like that any more.

Peter Svidler can happily contemplate FR or cricket.

Once we come to terms with the fact that very serious (chessy) events take place pretty quickly nowadays, then I think the format being trialled here has obvious attractions - three markedly different speeds being a real test of versatility, and the slower games are heavily weighted. There was plenty of excitement generated, and plenty of blunders, as hours of tension built up, and nerves were stretched ever thinner as the games became faster.

With four matches to watch, a quick focal point helps. The Hikaru Nakamura-Wesley So and Ian Nepomniachtchi-Alireza Firouzja tussles were quite solid and sedate in stage one, and Vidit Gujrathi-Vladimir Fedoseev and Fabiano Caruana-Peter Svidler started with bangs. 

Svidler had the toughest opponent - Fischer Random or not, we've seen enough already to know that 'chess' favorites have flourished in the event so far - but the Russian GM also has one of the best FR CVs, having held the world title during the variant's first blossoming in the Mainz tournaments in the 2000s.  Caruana had gotten some FR experience against Garry Kasparov in St. Louis recently though, and this looked most relevant as the quarterfinal started.

This was a shocking bit of early violence, and revealed one of the great attractions of Fischer Random. While commentators Danny Rensch and Robert Hess could inform viewers that the slow rapid section's start position was considered one of the better ones for white, black was the side producing the goods in most of the games. This was particularly clear in the Vidit-Fedoseev brawl, which did not have a dull moment.

Fedoseev being the lowest rated player in the event was mentioned several times, but Vlad's would be an argument that ratings can be relative. Two years ago he was 2733 and one of the hottest Russian prospects - at age 24, he's hardly over the hill. He is a creative and nearly reckless player, which might explain the lack of stability. It certainly explains the abundance of entertainment. Here is how he bounced back.

In the 'fast rapid' games Fedoseev went completely berserk, sacrificing way too many pawns before conjuring up a mating attack in Vidit's time trouble.

Vidit fans could feel that their man had been a bit unlucky...

The final rapid game was just fantastic viewing. Kick back with some popcorn and enjoy the non-stop creative aggression from both sides, and the insane final scramble with no time and crazy tactics.

The other match to end before the blitz stage - or be decided before the blitz stage - all three mini-matches were played even if the result was clear earlier - was Nakamura-So. Hikaru took the lead in the first fast rapid game in a steady endgame of rook and opposite colored bishops.

In the return game, So was doing exactly the same thing when he suddenly... blundered a rook. 

Meanwhile, Svidler's pressing with Black finally paid off in the first fast rapid game, which meant he was within a point of Caruana going into the blitz section. 

Always cool and collected, Caruana displayed his steel nerves to dispatch Svidler.

After surviving the first blitz game with white - suffering when having the first move seemed to be a recurring theme of the Caruana-Svidler match - Svidler looked to be on his way to forcing Armageddon with another black victory...but a serious error let his chance slip.

This left the surprisingly quiet Nepomniachtchi-Firouzja match, which spontaneously combusted in the blitz section.

Firouzja nearly booked a safe spot in the quarterfinal climax.

This couplet had a very clear theme of queens starting cornered. Firouzja looked set to be buried alive in the first blitz game, when suddenly... his pieces came screaming into the black position from out of nowhere.

With the speedy and powerful Nepo suddenly on the verge of being sent to the loser's bracket by the Iranian teenage sensation, the favorite produced a new variation on the theme, flattening Firouzja before the queen ever got out of the box.

And so the day ended with Armageddon. After winning the right to choose colors, Alireza contemplated the start position and chose white. The game was tense, but the burden of only a win being enough was too much. In the end Firouzja had to try too hard, and Ian was ready to punish.

'Nepo' focused and delivered on demand.

The pairings for the 'come-back' round have been drawn: Vidit will face Firouzja, guaranteeing that youth will get one of the six play-off spots in day three. It also means that one of the pre-event favorites, Svidler or So, will have no chance at a semifinal berth in Norway.

The event stream can be viewed here, and is well worth a look. Besides the live coverage and commentary, there are two excellent interviews, one with FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich, and the other with top US player and world number two, Fabiano Caruana.

Day Two action takes place on October 5.