Carlsen, Nakamura in high-stakes Chess960 match

by Macauley Peterson
2/9/2018 – Dubbed the "unofficial world championship in Fischer random chess" (a.k.a. Chess960), World Champion Magnus Carlsen and former Chess960 World Champion Hikaru Nakamura face off in a 16 game rapid and blitz match over five days, February 9th to 13th in Hovikodden, just outside Oslo, Norway. The psychedelic image below comes from an interactive quasi-3D animation by Pnkt design and web agency, which is also responsible for key graphics on the official site of altibox Norway Chess.

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Move over Mainz

Chess960 is back in the spotlight for the first time in several years, as a high-profile match gets set to launch on Friday in an Oslo suburb. World Champion Magnus Carlsen will try to grab yet another title (even if an "unofficial" one) facing American Chess960 specialist Hikaru Nakamura in 16 games over five days.

The pair will play two rapid games a day beginning on Friday, February 9th, at 17:00 and 20:00 CET (11:00 am and 2:00 pm EST), for the first four days, and then eight blitz games on Tuesday, February 13th. The time control for the rapid is unusual: 45 minutes for the first 40 moves and then 15 minutes for the rest of the game, with no increment. For the blitz it's 10 minutes plus 5 seconds increment from move one. The starting positions will be repeated so that each players gets a chance to play with both white and black.

Revival of Chess960?

Bobby Fischer came up with the idea of Chess960 (as it was called in Mainz after a public vote) or Fischer Random Chess (as Fischer naturally preferred), where the pieces are placed in a random order on the last rank, yielding 960 possible starting positions. Top grandmasters have dipped their feet in the ocean of Chess960, but the format hasn't really caught on, and has never been universally supported online, due to the variant's castling rules. Until recently the electronic boards from DGT had trouble displaying the games, and ChessBase account holders will need to login to their Windows client software and connect to PlayChess to view the special Chess960 thematic room where the live games will be available.

It's been nine years since the last Mainz Chess Classic Chess960 match, which saw Nakamura clearly outclass Levon Aronian in the four-game final 3½ : ½.

Nakamura and Aronian in 2009

Nakamura and Aronian in Mainz, 2009 | Photo: Macauley Peterson

Since then, there has been some Chess960 played at the Saint Louis Chess Club during the 2011 "Kings vs Queens" Scheveningen team exhibition, and more recently, the variant played a minor role in the online-only Speed Chess Championship, but this match will be the first major over-the-board Chess960 event since the last Mainz Chess Classic in 2009.

Media effort

The Norwegians are pulling out all the stops, with the national broadcaster NRK providing full live coverage in Norway. NRK previously broadcast lavish chess productions for the 2014 Chess Olympiad in Tromso as well as all of Magnus Carlsen's World Championship matches. So Norwegians can expect a first-rate show.

They are even planning to have the players hooked up to heart rate monitors to relay biometric data into the live broadcast, an idea that has been often discussed but never implemented in a serious competition before.

For the online international audience, a live commentary webcast with GM Yasser Seirawan and IM Anna Rudolf, will be available in English.

Effect on opening theory and preparation

GM Jon Ludwig Hammer, who has served as Carlsen's second as well as a chess commentator for another Norwegian broadcaster, TV2, argues that the decision to play positions with both colours could have unintended consequences.

There’s three hours and fifteen minutes between when the starting position is known and the second game starts. I’d go so far to call it unprofessional if the players didn’t exploit this and had seconds trawling the starting position, developing theory on the fly, and with the help of previously played computer games.

The conventional wisdom is that with 960 possible starting positions, opening theory more or less goes out the window, and players often cite this as a plus — being able to come to the game fresh and excercise creative judgement from move one without the burden of computer-checked theory committed to memory. But Hammer has his doubts, in the long run:

I genuinely believe having Fischer Random as the main way of playing chess would lead to a massive increase in opening theory, very contrary to the beliefs of its supporters. Now though, when Fischer Random is more of a curiosity, it is very free of computer analysis in the opening.

The rationale for having the players play both colors is that some of the possible starting positions heavily favour one player — with White's score reaching upwards of 60% in chess engine tests for a few piece configurations, such as this one:

 

But as Hammer notes, in the unlikely event that this position (or one similarly unbalanced) does arise, the player getting the white pieces in the second game may have a significant chance to benefit from a crash course in opening theory between games.

Nakamura and Carlsen

Nakamura and Carlsen have been rivals now for a decade, having played 99 tournament games going back to 2005 | Photo: frchess.com

Nakamura has thought a lot about Chess960, and already shared some general strategic tips in a pre-match interview:

I think the first thing is how similar it is to a normal game, whether to castle or not castle. The second thing is looking at the center and looking at which pawn to push. I feel like in 960 it’s very rare to move a knight in the first move and just develop normally. First I see if I can develop like g3, Bg2 and castles for example or something similar. If it’s more complex, then in the center if I have Queen on c1 and king on e1, I am never going to play e4. e4 versus c4 or d4, it just depends.

Carlsen certainly doesn't underestimate his opponent's experience in this format, as he told NRK:

"He has done very well in the few Fischer Random tournaments that have been arranged earlier. So he's probably among the toughest opponents you could get there," said Carlsen.

We expect a lot more insights from the players as the match gets underway.

Nakamura talking to NRK's Kaja Snare on Thursday

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Macauley served as the Editor in Chief of ChessBase News from July 2017 to March 2020. He is the producer of The Full English Breakfast chess podcast, and was an Associate Producer of the 2016 feature documentary, Magnus.