Over the long and storied history of the game of chess, there have been numerous attempts to change the game we love – some interesting, others rather pathetic. Chess, as we know it today, is the result of an evolution from the original version that was invented thousands of years ago. Therefore, it is understandable that so many people try to invent new nuances to the game, especially when they attempt to tag their name alongside it.
But when a world champion comes up with a new kind of chess, everybody takes notices. Back in the 1920s, Emanuel Lasker and José Raúl Capablanca both decried ‘the death of chess’ by too many draws, and touted changing the board dimensions and adding extra pieces. Neither proved popular. But in one of his more lucid moments after winning the world crown, Bobby Fischer refined the rules to the early 19th-century variant ‘Baseline Chess’, calling his 1990s version ‘Fischer Random’.
It involved the placement of the first-rank pieces being randomly shuffled before each game, and now more or less universally called ‘Chess960’ because there are 960 different starting position. Fischer’s twist to the ancient variant was devising a way to successfully include normal kingside and queenside castling, with the king and rook(s) – no matter where they are placed – going to their more regular squares. And with this refinement, Fischer Random was born and proved universally popular with the masses.
And this Friday sees two of the game’s biggest rivals, Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura, duking it out in one of the biggest-ever purses for a Fischer Random (Chess960) match that will be staged at the Henie Onstad Art Center in Høvikodden, outside Oslo, Norway. The 16-game Nakamura vs Carlsen Fischer Random match will run 9-13 February and has a total prize fund of 1.5 million Norwegian kroner (just shy of $200,000) with 60 percent going to the winner, and 40 percent to the loser.
Not only that, but the Fischer Random match-up between these two career rivals will also receive the full media treatment. Norwegian national broadcaster NRK will cover the event live on television, and online there will also be an English-language commentary, powered by Chess.com, provided on site by GM Yasser Seirawan and IM Anna Rudolf.
The main difference between Fischer Random and regular chess is that there’s no opening theory exists, so from the very start, players have to have their wits about them by quickly having to adapt to the new board set-up for each and every game. And while Carlsen has a big plus score against Nakamura in regular chess, the four-time US champion goes into this match-up being the favorite, as he’s the superior Fischer Random player. Nakamura also holds the ‘unofficial’ world title in Fischer Random, after beating Levon Aronian in a match back in 2009 in Mainz, Germany.
And when both went head-to-head in early January in the Chess.com Speed Chess Challenge Final, although Carlsen easily won the regular blitz stages, it was Nakamura who reigned supreme when it came to the Fischer Random ‘mini-match’, comprehensively winning 2.5-0.5, so he at least took some bragging rights going into their upcoming Norway match this week.
Today’s diagram is the Chess960 starting position at the end of the first blitz (5min + 2 sec) session of the recent Nakamura vs Carlsen Speed Chess Challenge Final in January – just shuffle the pieces on your board to match the diagram above, and follow the game. Also remember that when it comes to castling, the king and rook(s) are placed on the same squares as in a regular game of chess.
GM Hikaru Nakamura – GM Magnus Carlsen
Chess.com Speed Chess Challenge Final, (Chess960)
1.e4 e5 2.Nbc3 Ne6 3.g3 Bc5 4.Na4 If anything, the game is decided on who best makes use of the bishops and the development of the awkwardly-placed queens on h1 and h8 – and here, Nakamura is quick to realize that he can gain the bishop-pair with this move. 4…d6 5.Nxc5 dxc5 6.f4 Nd7 7.Bh3! Nakamura is going to try and milk everything he can from being the better to adapt to activating his bishop-pair. 7…0-0-0 8.Qf3 Kb8 9.Ne3 f6 10.c3 exf4 11.gxf4 g5 This is forced, as Carlsen had to find a way quickly to get his queen into the game otherwise he risked being run over by Nakamura’s better adaption to the board set-up. 12.Bxe6 Bxe6 13.d4 Nakamura has ceded the bishop-pair – but in return, he has total dominance of the center of the board. 13…cxd4 14.cxd4 f5!? Carlsen finds an ingenious pawn sacrifice to bring his pieces to life. The point is that, if now 15.e5, Black has 15…g4 followed by …Nb6 and a solid blockade of the crucial d5 square. 15.exf5 Bxf5 16.fxg5 Be4 17.Qf2 Qxd4 18.Nc2 Qc4? In hindsight, Carlsen should have exchanged queens with 18…Qxf2 and good prospects of a draw with the notorious bishops of opposite colors. 19.0-0-0! As often happens in Chess960, a dramatic castling can easily be overlooked – and this one leaves Carlsen struggling to hold the position following a nice tactical resource. 19…Qxa2 20.Rxe4! Rxe4 21.Rxd7! Rc8 Unfortunately Carlsen can’t mobilize his rooks with 21…Rde8 as 22.Qc5! will lose a vital tempo forcing 22…Rc8 anyway. 22.Rd3! With the not-too-subtle threat of Ra3 mating the Black king! 22…b6 23.Qf3 Re5 24.h4 With Carlsen’s rook tied down on c8 defending c7, Nakamura gets on with the job of making his kingside pawns and minor pieces the big game-winner. 24…Qc4 25.Bd4 The bishop not only defends b2 but it also controls vital squares in the path of pushing the kingside pawns further up the board. 25…Re1+ 26.Kd2 Rb1 27.h5 Qb5 28.Qg3 Re8 29.g6! Carlsen finally gets to activate his other rook – but it is all too little too late now, as the g-pawn quickly rolls up the board. 29…Qxh5 30.g7 Rd1+ 31.Kc3 Rxd3+ 32.Qxd3 Rg8 It’s effectively all over, as Carlsen can’t do anything with the threat of the pawn on g7 ominously hanging over his position. All Nakamura need do now, is exchange queens and get his knight into the game. 33.Qe4 Qg5 34.Qe5 Qxe5 35.Bxe5 h5 36.Nd4 h4 37.Nc6+ Kb7 38.Ne7 Rxg7 39.Bxg7 h3 40.Be5 c5 41.Kc4 a6 42.Bh2 1-0