Chess960 battle: Nakamura vs. Carlsen?

by André Schulz
10/18/2017 – In February, 2018, there may be an unusual exhibition match held between Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura, playing Chess960 (also known as Fischer Random). The competition is planned for the Hening Onstad Art Center in Bærum, Norway. It's funding is not yet fully secured, but Carlsen's manager is confident. | Photos: Alina L'Ami

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Chess960 with the World Champion

Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura will put on show playing Chess960 next February, Norwegian media site reports. The competition is planned as a supporting program for an exhibition by the photographer Dag Alveng at the Hening Onstad Arts Center in Bærum, a municipality near Oslo, where Carlsen grew up. The exhibition contains references to chess and the photographer himself is obviously also a chess fan — at least he is listed with FIDE, albeit with no rating or tournament history.

Hening Onstad Arts Centre in Bærum, Norway | Google Maps

The idea for this competition came from the former president of the Norwegian Chess Federation, Jøran Aulin-Jansson, together with the artist. The budget for the match is estimated at 3 million NOK, about 320,000 euros. The municipality of Bærum wants to provide half of the amount. The prize money for the two players should also be raised by sponsors.

The competition's funding is not yet secured, but at least Magnus Carlsen is apparently open to the idea, according to his manager Espen Agdestein.

"He will play in a tournament in January, and Magnus likes to play a lot of chess, so this is a good time", Agdestein is quoted as saying.

Nakamura won the unofficial "Chess960 World Championship" as part of the Mainz Chess Classic in 2009, defeating Levon Aronian in a four-game match 3½-½.

"There are no contracts signed yet, but the winner does not get poor",  says instigator Aulin-Jansson, noting that the support of the local government gets the match a long way towards being realized. It's also not certain whether the games will be played in the Art Centre or elsewhere.

Close-up view of Hening Onstad Arts Centre | Google Streetview

The photographer Dag Alveng, born in 1953, exhibits his work in many major museums around the world. His paintings are part of the permanent exhibitions at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Folkwang Museum in Essen, the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, the Stedeijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the museet for velvet art in Oslo and last but not least the Henie-Onstad art center in Bærum. Alveng has also published a series of books and organized numerous exhibitions. Between 1986 and 1996 he shuttled constantly between New York and Oslo. He currently lives in Oslo.


A New York moment

A post shared by Dag Alveng (@dagalveng) on

Master Class Vol.8: Magnus Carlsen

Scarcely any world champion has managed to captivate chess lovers to the extent Carlsen has. The enormously talented Norwegian hasn't been systematically trained within the structures of a major chess-playing nation such as Russia, the Ukraine or China.


Translation from German: Macauley Peterson


André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.
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rubinsteinak rubinsteinak 10/26/2017 10:28
Ok, ngnn, I'll step into the breach. 1. e4 e5 2. c3. Your move. I'm not asking you to play a whole game here. From the sound of it, I'd rather let fgkdjlkag take up that task, but I do think it is worth pointing out that your claim that 1. e4 e5 and 1. d4 d5 "just equalise and white cannot do much about that" is easily falsifiable. How about you try the black side of your postulated starting position and you get a double KP or double QP opening against Magnus? Per your claims, you should emerge from the opening (say 10 moves later) with equality, right? If not, why not? At what move did Magnus regain his opening move advantage and why? I would contend you would succumb to Magnus MUCH more quickly from your postulated starting position (reversed bishops and knights) and a double KP or QP opening than you would from the orthodox starting position.

The reason has to do with maintaining the opening move advantage in a practical vs. a theoretical setting. In Fischerandom, practical attempts acquire a much more significant weighting than theoretically "best" moves because we won't know the theoretically best moves. The reason being that there are too many different opening positions to study, even with a computer, to discover the theoretically best move even 5 moves later, let alone on move 25 like some of the heavily theoretical opening variations we have today. Yes, you could study your postulated opening position and develop some theory out to move 10 (this would take a LOT of work, but let's say you did it), but then you may go hundreds and hundreds of tournament games and never encounter your studied starting position. In his WHOLE professional career, Fischer played fewer official games than the number of starting positions in Fischerandom. It would be colossal waste of time to try to derive opening theory for each position. I say all of this to make this final point: we will not know the theoretically best moves from any starting position, and if we did we wouldn't remember them, so your contention that the double center pawn opening in your postulated starting position equalizes for black will not be proven, and in practice I would assert that white will have no problem playing for an advantage.

But for fun, here are some straightforward lines where I just make "normal" moves: 1. e4 e5 2. c3 Ne6 3. d4 exd4 4. cxd4 seems pretty good to me for white. Or 2...c6 (keeping symmetry) 3. d4 and if exd4 4. cxd4 and I have my central majority. Or I could play 3. Ne3 and let you play 3...d5 4. exd5 cxd5 giving you a central majority, but then I have 5. Qb3! attacking d5 and b7. Feel free to suggest other moves, but I don't think it's going to be as simple as you make out.

By the way, below you seemed to be saying flip only the King bishop and King knight, but you must have opposite colored bishops, so the Queen's bishop and knight have to flip too. That's probably what you meant, but I'm just clarifying my starting position for the foregoing analysis.
ngnn ngnn 10/26/2017 04:31
My claim was never that all FR positions are non-dynamic and ugly. My claim was that many of them are, for example the one I mentioned. It was about one spesific position and I asked you to show any variation where white, which you didn't. And no, I did not ask any super-deep analysis with no inaccuracies, that would obviously be impossible. Just any half-reasonable attempt to show that white can try to keep the first move advantage, since to me it seems that after 1.e4 or 1.d4 symmetrical responses just equalise and white cannot do much about that.

Of course my knowledge comes from hundreds of years of opening theory, I never claimed otherwise. Which doesn't make the variations any less valid. And yes, while it's not immediately obvious that 1.d4 d5 2.c4 is not a true sacrifice in the classical setup, today you don't need the earlier generations' wisdom and literary to prove that. A modern computer realises very quickly without any opening database that 2.c4 is the strongest move, giving white some +0.2-0.3 advantage and the engine also tells you black cannot try to keep the pawn.

I would still be interested to hear, if you can see any active attempt for white in that particular position after 1.e4 e5 or 1.d4 d5, or any other strong first move - feel free to use a computer to generate those lines. Because otherwise it seems it's pretty much true what Angelo Pardi said and what can be seen in a lot of FR games between GMs too: it always begins with shuffling and "fixing up" the position. And no, I don't think that's because the GMs are not creative enough or don't see the opportunities there are. I begin it's because many of the starting positions the opportunities *are not there*. Thus, the KIA type of approach is the best option available. You seem to assume that all starting positions are about as interesting and it doesn't matter how the pieces are placed. But this is as believable as saying that all middle game positions are as interesting and as dynamical, which they obviously are not - some are dull, others are sharp and exciting, and I think the same is true when it comes to starting positions.

And if it has happened in a game of yours that you won a rook in five moves, well it's not exactly proof that the starting position you had is rich in possibilities (which it could be of course), it's only proof that your opponent was a patzer and made one terrible move.
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 10/24/2017 12:34
@ngnn, I have played many FischerRandom games. If you have not played many, then it is impossible to have ideas such as the ones you have put forth. I have sacrificed pawns in the opening. There are many positions in which there is a weakness that allows the possibility of starting a quick attack, not only on the King, but on a weakness in the opponent's position. I once won a rook in fewer than 5 moves in a tournament game. I have played beautiful FischerRandom games with middlegame sacrificial attacks, also I nearly trapped an opponent's queen out of the opening after he took what I thought was a poisoned pawn.

I am more than a little perplexed that you do not realize that all your knowledge of the standard opening comes from hundreds of years of opening theory (or at least 150 years since when the international chess rules became more or less standardized). It is not at all obvious without extensive analysis that 1. d4 d5 2. c4 is not a true pawn sacrifice. It is only known because so many games have been tried in this opening and is has been extensively analyzed, and the people you have played have this historical knowledge, even if only from the opponents they have played. How you can have an immediate idea of the opening possibilities of any one of the other 959 positions taken at random, much less ALL the positions, without hundreds of years of theory for each position, is beyond me.

The comment by Angelo Pardi is equally ridiculous.
tomohawk tomohawk 10/22/2017 09:06
I think it would be very easy to create sharp positions right from the start - if you allow the players to place their pieces in alteration and not necessarily symmetrically. For example, if you are Black you could wait to see where White puts his K then put your K in a different sector of the board.
ngnn ngnn 10/22/2017 03:19
If 2.Nc3 is played by Magnus Carlsen, it doesn't mean the move is good. It means it's playable. But there is also a reason why it's much less common than 2.c4, which is a serious try for an advantage. If 2.Nc3 were the best option for white after 1.d4 d5, 1.d4 would allow black equalise easily and the move would certainly be less popular than 1.e4 because . Luckily, chess is more interesting than that - with the classical setup, that is.

And no, I did not claim that the classical setup is the only one among the 960 positions where the pawn next to the K is only defended by the K. But in many of those 959 it's virtually impossible to try any kind of a direct attack in the opening because the king is simply too well protected.

Instead of your attempt of sarcasm and playing the role of a misunderstood pioneer, what about giving us some concrete examples of the interesting possibilities of the position with Nf1 and Bg1, otherwise similar to the classical setup? Something where white can try getting the opening advantage without allowing black equalise comfortably. Show us some gambit, pseudo gambit, something similar to 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3... I am honestly curious to see what you come up with. Because to me, that position honestly seems really cramped and without much opportunities, the best I can think for white would be some KIA type of slow manoeuvring. But I am open to change my mind if I am proven there is some hidden depth in that position.
Angelo Pardi Angelo Pardi 10/22/2017 12:58
It seems to me that 960 games tends to look a lot like Reti and English set-up in classical games, ie semi-closed games with an hypermodern look (but without the sting of a Gruenfeld). By contrast, the classical positon can lead to a whole lot of different games. Look for example a Berlin, a Najdorf, a modern Giuco Piano, a Gruenfeld, a King's indian, a French... Those openings leads to completely different games with completely different ideas and strategies.
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 10/21/2017 06:54
I take back my comments regarding how interesting the classical setup is. Clearly it is obvious that after 1. d4 d5 2. Nc3 is no good (although it has been played by top players, including a transposition by Magnus Carlsen). Moreover, the classical setup is the only one out of 960 positions in which a pawn being defended only by the King, and which features a true pawn sacrifice - 1. e4 e5 2. f4. There are no possibilities for real pawn sacrifices in the other starting positions. I also see that you have worked out all of these ideas on your own, including 1. d4 d5 2. c4, in which 2. c4 is not a true pawn sacrifice.
ngnn ngnn 10/20/2017 11:36
To clarify what I meant by saying that the classical setup is more interesting, let's look at the two most obvious opening moves, 1.e4 and 1.d4. After the symmetrical reply 1.e4 e5, white has 2.Nf3, putting pressure on black's e-pawn. After 1.d4 d5, 2.Nc3 is no good, but white has 2.c4, challenging black. This is a pseudo sacrifice, as black cannot hang on the lawn after 2. ...dxc4. However, 1.e4 e5 2.f4 is a real gambit and a true pawn sacrifice - with ideas like Nf3, Bc4, d4 taking centre control and in many variations attacking f7, which is a weakness because it's only protected by the king... however, all this changes if you swap the KN and KB in the initial position. In that case, QG and KG don't make sense any more. And while I don't claim to have analysed all 960 positions, and some certainly offer more options than others, it seems to me that in general, FR positions lack dynamics and trying any gambit - pseudo or real - just falls flat, leaving you a pawn down with no compensation whatsoever.
tomohawk tomohawk 10/20/2017 03:47
I don't see why the players should be bound to a specific Chess960 setup. Why not start the clocks with a board filled only with pawns on their initial rows and then allow the players to place their pieces where they want, one at a time, in alternation?
Advantages of this: 1) Black gets an opportunity to decrease or maybe eliminate the White advantage of first move (since Black has an informational advantage for this stage of the game); 2) the stronger player is more likely to play these first eight moves better than his opponent giving him a greater edge; 3) players can study various setups and counter-setups and come to some sort of conclusion as to which are the best pre-starting positions. This balances pre-game preparation with over-the-board skills.
ngnn ngnn 10/20/2017 02:00
I don't think that the classical setup has been chosen randomly or that we are fond of it only because we are so used to it. Of course, it plays a role. But some kibitzers seem to assume that any other of the 960 positions would work just as well. In fact, I believe chess has been successful and survived through centuries exactly because the classical setup makes the play interesting immediately, at move one. Imo, this can not be said about many Fr positions. Chess might even have disappeared as a game with some of the duller Fr starting positions.
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 10/20/2017 01:56
@satman, you have ignored what I said. You consider the orthodox starting position "beautiful" because you are used to it. If all the books and games you had ever seen, and played in tournaments, was from a different, initial position, you would find that position beautiful and the current one unorthodox.
thijscom thijscom 10/19/2017 11:36
@genem Very interesting - I agree it would be interesting to have something between normal chess and Fischer Random chess.

If coordinated, maybe this could even be taken a level further: at the start of each year (or every two years, or whatever) a random position is drawn, which is then used throughout the year in various top tournaments. Then one could actually start developing some chess theory in this position, and games at the end of the year would be very different from the ones played at the start.

Maybe FIDE could use this to reinvigorate the Grand Prix cycle: use a new position for each cycle, so that the GP cycle stands out from other events.

Probably it's all wishful thinking though - making such changes happen is tough.
Mtc666 Mtc666 10/19/2017 10:41
I don't agree with GENEM on putting the position out well ahead of time and using it throughout the whole tournament, but I think he/she is on to something. The assessment that sitting down to the random position would lead to survival play rings true. Additionally, players may try to quickly reach comfortable positions based on classical play. How to address this without creating a scenario where the players would have teams doing analysis and computer modeling? Maybe take GENEM's idea and reduce the amount of time? For example, imagine the players arriving and having an hour or two on their own (no seconds) to ponder the initial setup. Then, all ideas would be theirs, and plans could be developed. Any which way, this would be an awesome thing to see, and as noted by others, maybe we'll see more and more in the future.
offpister offpister 10/19/2017 04:59
A GM coach I worked with, who is a deep thinker in chess and chess theory, routinely studied computer chess960 games to study how a computer seeks to harmonize the peices. Seeing harmony among peices as an essential element of classical chess, and an area that lacks proper understanding and weight in chess analysis, this GM saw chess960 as played by computers as among the most fertile grounds for learning effective thinking processes in chess. He also routinely had even his best students face the discomfort of playing FR--and let's be honest the first thing I feel when I sit in front of a FR setup is a profound sense of discomfort!
satman satman 10/19/2017 04:52
Where I'm coming from is that I don't go along with the view that the orthodox starting position is just one among 960 positions which has somehow, randomly become the norm for no logical reason.
Just looking at the starting position of Chess it's obvious that the pieces are on their 'right' squares - it's not only natural, it's beautiful.
Nothing else can match it.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that the alternatives are not chess... ok maybe I would.
Magic_Knight Magic_Knight 10/19/2017 04:36
I've fairly confident this match will happen. Nakamura loves challenging Magnus for years now. And Magnus was never one to back down from a challenge, especially from Naka of all people.

And when this challenge goes down, I predict Magnus is going to win by a confident margin b/c Magnus was never one who was big on memorizing opening lines anyways.
tipau tipau 10/19/2017 04:09
@satman I'm also perplexed by your point of view. The only way your comments make sense is if you believe the only things to be learnt from a chess game are related to opening theory. That's clearly not the case. Many things, from attacking dynamics to endgames are applicable across all starting positions and playing FR and studying your games will help develop them. When it comes to opening theory I also think you have it the wrong way around. What can be learnt about the opening in regular chess is only 1/960th of what could be learnt in FR, not the other way around. That's a big attraction, as it's much harder for players to prepare deep analysis on all positions and memorise it.
rubinsteinak rubinsteinak 10/19/2017 04:01
@satman I think you're over-emphasizing the effect the starting position has on the game as a whole. To say that you will learn only a fraction of what you learn or observe when using the classical starting position seems illogical. There is nothing special about the classical starting position. It doesn't magically generate positional principles or tactical possibilities that don't exist from other starting positions. And if the classical starting position does lead to certain nuances that cannot be found from other starting positions, guess what, those other 959 starting positions WILL also lead to certain nuances that are not found in the classical starting position, thus increasing our understanding of chess as a whole.

Also, regarding your point about spending the first 10 moves "repairing your position," I've heard this argument from Yasser Seirawan. What I think is actually going on here is that we are so used to the classical starting position and all of the principles associated with it, that we try to force a FR position into that old mould, thus "making sense" of the position because it becomes familiar to our pattern recognition. Yes, center control, piece development, and king safety will always be important in the opening, but the importance may be skewed from different starting positions. Remember, if your opponent cannot take advantage of a given "weakness" or "defect" in your position, is it really a weakness or defect? My point being, the starting position is still symmetrical, so the race to "fix" your position may be an illusion, because your opponent can't "take the center" or "launch an attack" any more than you can, because he has the same piece coordination issues that you do.

@fgkdjlkag regarding your comments on opening theory, I also gave this some thought. While I agree that some *very* rudimentary opening theory might eventually emerge for each starting position, I am unconvinced by your argument that, say, 2000 games from a given starting position will yield any opening theory beyond just a few moves. The reason being that in those 2000 games, you will be lucky to get any 2 games that follow the same first 10 moves. Now, if you postulate the evolution of chess opening theory over a 1000 years, you might see some theory develop then, but can you imagine trying to memorize it?? My intuition suggests that the top players would have general principles that they associate with each starting position.

@Raymond Labelle You make an interesting point, that some starting positions may actually give the first move more weight than the classical starting position. I think that's a bridge we cross when we come to it. If such a position(s) exist, I would suggest removing them from the pool of starting positions.

@macauley Well, that's unfortunate. I don't want to see a classical chess game in a FR match, especially if the match is 4 games. 25% of the match is then classical chess? Not exactly ideal.
satman satman 10/19/2017 02:55
I'm not saying nothing interesting can happen in Chess960, of course it can. However because there's so little chance of similar positions recurring it doesn't have much meaning.
But maybe I was inaccurate saying 'nothing' could be learnt - in fact what is learnt is 1/960th of what would be learnt in an orthodox game.
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 10/19/2017 02:20
@satman, I am completely perplexed by your understanding of FischerRandom. How is the answer going to be "nothing"? There is an endgame in FischerRandom. There is a middlegame. In fact, I would argue that there is much more to be learned from FischerRandom. You are going to see pawn structures that have never been seen before. In a recent international tournament, there was a game between Svidler and Aronian with a novel pawn structure and the players had no idea how to handle it. Ashley commented on it. And they ended up agreeing to a draw a couple moves later in a very rich position. That is what happens in the standard chess. But the middlegame structures are going to burgeon in FischerRandom and immensely contribute to the understanding of chess.

Do you really think the orthodox starting position would seem natural if it had not been used for hundreds of years? If someone went back in time and selected one of the other 959 positions, then today everyone would be arguing how weird the current orthodox position is when that came up in a FischerRandom game.

Regarding opening theory - of course it will develop. If there were millions of starting positions then I would see some of the points made, but with 960 possible positions there is huge scope for memorized opening theory. Since millions of games of chess are played per year, that means that there would be literally thousands of games played in each of the 960 positions each year.
satman satman 10/19/2017 11:38
"The starting position of what people have been playing is artificial."
That's a pretty weird comment!
The orthodox starting position is anything but artificial, on the contrary it's completely natural.
What we see in FischerRandom is that in most cases we start off with awkward, unnatural set-ups, and the first 10 moves consist of the players repairing their positions.

But there's a more important philosophical question mark over FischerRandom.
The game of Chess can be looked at as a Project, the aim of which is to understand the game of Chess.
So when played by masters every opening novelty, every new strategy in the middlegame, every advancement in endgame theory add to our understanding.
But in FischerRandom, when a game of is over and we ask: What has been learnt?
The answer is always going to be: Nothing.
genem genem 10/19/2017 10:37
Discard the 'Random' from Fischer Random Chess!

It would be more interesting for the Tournament Organizer to pre-announce the one non-traditional start setup that will be used for the entire match. This would lead to more interesting opening play, with a battle of somewhat thought out ideas.

Instead, setups chosen randomly only moments before the first move yield survival play, and no grist for debates about opening theory. The chess world has a big gap in its experience with the opening phase of chess, because some of our current opening principles are really mostly just esoteric tactical facts about the only rank-1 arrangement we have yet explored. Thoughtful opening play with another chess960 setup might show that the so-called opening principle that the Queens should not be developed too early is sometimes terrible advice.

It would also be highly interesting to see how players would battle for the center if both of White's knights (and therefore both of Black's knights too) started setup on squares of the *same* shade of each other - to reduce the traditional knight opposition such as we see between White's g1-Knight and Black's b8-knight (on squares d4 and e5).

The problem is not that the players have knowledge of the opening moves from home study. The problem is that they have too much knowledge, leading to too much repetition too deep into the game. Goldilocks agrees with me that some forehand knowledge of the opening moves is better than zero knowledge and is better than today's extreme knowledge.
Raymond Labelle Raymond Labelle 10/19/2017 03:59
Fischer promoted chess 960, from the idea that opening preparation should not be a determinant factor. Also, it frees the players from opening preparation. When players memorize the first 22 moves, well, it is not the same. And opening preparation is heavily assisted by computers.

However, maybe it could happen that a position advantages White more than in traditional position - just a thought, maybe not - maybe someone examined this aspect closely. But still - strong arguments in favour of it, even replacing classical chess
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 10/19/2017 03:16
I agree with @emerlion, hopefully a standard time control.

@rubinsteinak, I am curious why you think Nakamura is as strong as Carlsen in FischerRandom. I don't know that anyone has seen Carlsen play, but as his strength is not known in the opening, I imagine he would do quite well.

Chess960 is more real than regular chess. The starting position of what people have been playing is artificial.
macauley macauley 10/19/2017 01:10
@rubinsteinak: In fact it's 960 — the traditional starting position is of course possible, however unlikely!
rubinsteinak rubinsteinak 10/19/2017 12:21
Technically, they would be playing Chess959, as the traditional starting position is not part of the pool. I'm excited to see the match, as I think Nakamura is probably as strong or stronger than Carlsen in Fischerandom. People can complain that this isn't "real chess," but it's probably more "real" than classical chess, at this point. That was Fischer's last great insight, and to whatever extent his non-chess ideas veered into madness after 1972, his chess mind was always seeing the road ahead more clearly than others.

Bobby pioneered the idea of physical fitness being important for top-level chess, he changed the Candidates system to prevent collusion amongst players, and, probably most notably, but simultaneously his least-recognized contribution, is the elimination of adjournments and the use of the Fischer Clock, which utilized incremental time for each move made.

His last, and largest, contribution is Fischerandom chess. In fact, this match between a World Champion and a very high profile GM may turn out to be a turning point or milestone that we look back on in 20 years. Following this match, I would expect to see a Fischerandom tournament with the top players at some point in the next 5 years. Over time, classical chess will continue to be played, but FR will slowly take over. If Magnus embraces FR, you could see the transition occur much faster. All in my humble opinion.
macauley macauley 10/18/2017 11:45
@daftarche - Hi, thanks for your comment. Just to clarify, this is rather more than a rumour. It's a tentative plan, with half the funding in place and comments from the Carlsen side (via Agdestein), as reported in two Norwegian media sources. Given the players and the format, it seemed fairly newsworthy, despite some lingering uncertainty.
stu_benedict stu_benedict 10/18/2017 11:37
"Chess960" IS real chess.
KevinC KevinC 10/18/2017 10:28
This will be fun. Despite Naka not being in the top three, these are clearly the two most interesting players in the world today.
Metaphysician Metaphysician 10/18/2017 08:52
Better than nothing, but how about they play real chess, not "Chess960"?
daftarche daftarche 10/18/2017 08:32
so everything is just a vague idea. no clear comment from either sides, no money secured, playing conditions unknown etc. basically it is just a rumor. well done chessbase.
emerlion emerlion 10/18/2017 07:24
Hoping this is at standard time control...