Showdown in STL: Chess 960 chaos

by Albert Silver
11/14/2015 – In many ways, this was the phase of the exhibition matches that promised the biggest surprises. Not so much in results, but the positions, as Chess 960 was on the menu today. While still chess at its core, it meant shuffled pieces, unorthodox castling and no opening preparation of any kind. While Nakamura and Caruana had a tight match, Hou all but wiped Negi off the board.

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Chess 960

The matches also presented some technical challenges that caused some slight delays. The reason was that while many software support playing games with the Fischer Random variant, transmitting it, meaning receiving the moves from an outside source and then broadcasting them presented a special challenge.

These were eventually ironed out, but it was an interesting experience for spectators to watch these unusual games played by such high level players. In order to accommodate the unpredictable nature of these new positions, and the complete lack of anything remotely resembling opening preparation, the time control was set to 20 minutes plus a 10-second increment, a slightly slower pace than the next day's rapid game stage.

To understand both the technical difficulties and the practical ones
for the players, here is the starting position of one of the games
between Caruana and Nakamura. Aside from the obvious strange
position of the pieces, it bears mentioning that both sides can castle.

After eight moves: 1. d4 d5 2. e3 Nc6 3. g4 g5 4. Ng3 Ng6 5. c4 dxc4
6. Na3 e6 7. Qc2 Qe7 8. Nxc4 Black opts to play... 0-0-0! How does
this happen and where will the king and rook go?

This is the position after 8...0-0-0. Although the player will indeed
'move' the king to castle, the king ends in exactly the same square
it started on, while the rook swings around. Welcome to Chess 960!

Hikaru Nakamura vs. Fabiano Caruana

Fabiano Caruana has a few questions regarding the piece placement, notably the king

This brings smile to Tony Rich, the chief arbiter

Game one for Caruana and Nakamura showed that both players were versed in the unusual nature of the game, which is important to cope with the discomfort of the unknown. The position played out fine, and the play seemed headed towards a draw with an even endgame, but suddenly Nakamura "lost his mind" as he himself put it, and after several serious mistakes, he lost the game.

After a bad start, losing game one, Nakamura bounced right back in games two and three

He bounced back shortly thereafter with two wins in the games two and three, then in game four they drew and the day's hostilities concluded in Nakamura's advantage with a total of 3.5-2.5 heading into tomorrow.

When interviewed by Maurice Ashley  after the last game, Fabiano commented that his basic strategy had been to try to play quickly and not waste too much time fretting over the many unknown and unknowable possibilities of the starting position. Maurice asked him whether he felt that focusing on playing fast over studying the position had been a mistake, to which Caruana replied, "It's taken us hundreds of years to understand just the normal starting position in chess so I don't think that an extra ten or fifteen minutes is going to help me over the board."

Hou Yifan vs. Parimarjan Negi

If Parimarjan Negi had given Hou Yifan a severe drubbing the previous day, winning their Basque Chess match 2-0, the roles were completely reversed for the Chess 960 stage. Hou Yifan proceeded to demolish the likable Indian 3.5-0.5, even missing a chance to stick it at him for a full 4-0. The positions really did not suit him, and he admitted later that he had seen a few games of Fischer Random before, but had never actually played a game himself. Hou Yifan did not suffer from this handicap, and leveraged her edge in experience to the fullest. After a 0-2 start, she had ended the day leading 3.5-2.5.

Hou Yifan had every reason to be smiling after today

Photos by Austin Fuller


Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications, and the content creator of the YouTube channel, Chess & Tech.


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