The Randomness of Chess - First Move Chess -First Move Chess

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Fischer Random is chess Jim, but not as we know it. It’s alien to us because it’s chess where the pieces are randomly placed in the back row (decided by a computer from 960 different starting positions – though in the Nakamura-Carlsen Fischer Random Match at the Henie Onstad Art Center in Høvikodden, outside Oslo, Norway, is actually “only” 959 positions, as they removed beforehand the option from the computer position-generator of a regular game set-up) with several caveats — the Bishop’s must be on opposite colors and the rooks must be on either side of the King to allow for castling.

And with that refinement, Bobby Fischer’s brainchild was born out of the many problems he faced following his return to chess in 1992 to face old foe Boris Spassky; and especially with how theory had dramatically developed during his long, 20-year absence from the game. His logic of why there should be random pieces on the board was to discourage opening preparation and analysis, which he believed now made the game too regimented in the new digital era of strong computers and massive multi-million game databases.

And such has been the advance of computer influence in chess now, I wonder how Fischer would have reacted to not only the opening but now many technical endings also being influenced by the march of the machines? Take, for example, the Nalimov Tablebase that so reliably informed us what the result – with perfect play – was going to be in game 4…only for Hikaru Nakamura to make a monumental blunder that allowed Magnus Carlsen to take first blood in the 16-game match.

It was a tragic ending for Nakamura, especially with it coming at the conclusion of a truly epic tussle between the two rivals – and a tussle that showed all the difficulties and problems of for players in Fischer Random, as they strive in their attempt to make a seamless transition from the “random” to the “regular” position.

But with no increment after move 40 (except for an addition 15 minutes on the clock), the pressure defending a technically difficult position and then ending ultimately took its toll on Nakamura’s clock (he was left with just two minutes to complete the game; with Carlsen having over six minutes). What Nakamura had to play at the end was 67…Kh7! and keep oscillating his king around the h7-h8-g7-g8 squares, and it is just a technical draw, so says the all-knowing endgame tablebase.

But as everyone knows full well, “technical” and “reality” can be two different things in chess – and there was also an added irony in the Carlsen does have “previous” here, as his coach, Peter Heine Nielsen was quick to point out, by winning a technically drawn Q+P ending from an almost carbon-copy position against Levon Aronian from the 2007 Elista Candidates in Russia – the only difference being that in that game, he had only one g-pawn on g4 but the kings and queens in virtually identical positions!

That said, I dare say that if the game had gone on with Nakamura playing correctly, then Carlsen would have done the sportsman-like thing by offering a draw before Nakamura flagged.

Match score:
Nakamura 3 – 5 Carlsen

Photo: Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura interviewed by Line Andersen on NRK | © Maria Emelianova/chess.com

GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Hikaru Nakamura
Fischer Random Rapid (45min + 15min), (4)
1.d4 c5 A very bold decision from Nakamura! Normally in Fischer Random, in the early stages, especially when you are Black, you don’t want to risk opening the game up, unsure of what will happen. 2.dxc5 Qxc5 3.f3 Qc7 And this was Nakamura’s rationale for playing the way he did, as the queen and bishop battery down the b8-h2 diagonal, makes it difficult for Carlsen to quickly castle to get his king to safety and develop his h1 rook. These are the little things that give you early headaches in Fischer Radom. 4.Qd2 f5 Dutch-like, and solving the problem of how to develop his g8 bishop and stopping Carlsen easily playing e4. 5.c4 Bxc4 6.Bxf5 Nd6 7.Bc2 Nc6 8.Rc1 Bf7 9.Bb3 0-0 10.Bxf7+ Nxf7 Another option was 10…Rxf7 further preventing White from playing e4 due to the pin on the king down the half-open f-file. 11.e4 e6 12.Ne3 a6 13.Bf2 Nfe5 14.Nd3 Nxd3 15.Qxd3 b5 16.Qd2 Qb7 17.0-0 Bf4 18.Bg3 Both sides have successfully castled without too much trouble – and now we enter the”regular” phase of the game, as the position takes on the appearance of a normal game. However for Nakamura, his big problem is going to be how to defend his very backward d-pawn – and key to exploiting that d-pawn for Carlsen is exchanging off the bishops, as now Nakamura has no control over the all-important d6 square. 18…Bxg3 19.hxg3 Rac8 20.Ng4 Carlsen is not just depriving Nakamura’s knight of central squares by covering e5, he also threatens the awkward Qg5 and Black will have to keep his rook on f8 to prevent any nasty Nf6+ possibilities. 20…Ne7 21.Qg5 Ng6 22.Rxc8 Rxc8 23.Rd1 There’s nothing really in the position, but Carlsen does have that backward d-pawn to bite on. Realising this, Nakamura bravely decides that activity is his best hope of not falling into a trademark Carlsen grind. 23…Rc2! There’s an added sting to this move – if the g4 knight moves, then Black has …Qa7+ followed by …Qf2! and White in deep trouble. 24.Qd8+ Nf8 25.Kh2 The sign of a good player is not rushing a position, taking a time-out for a safety-first prophylactic move – and this one avoids any awkwardness with …Qa7+. 25…Rc5 The threat of …Rh5+ could well prove awkward for Carlsen. 26.Rd6! b4! Despite the difficulty of defending this position, full credit to Nakamura for finding all the right moves under pressure to stay in the game – and here 26…b4! stops Carlsen playing b4 fixing Black’s queenside pawns. 27.Rb6 Qa7 28.e5 Rc8 After finding 26…b5!, I thought Nakamura would have bravely followed up with 28…Rb5!? 29.Rxb5 axb5 and Black’s b-pawns may well be isolated and doubled, but White can’t easily get to them – and meanwhile, how will White defend a2? And faced with that dilemma, White will have to bail-out now with 30.Qg5 Ng6 (Definitely not 30…Qxa2?? 31.Nh6+! Kh8 32.Qd8 and White is mating.) 31.Qd8+ Kf7 32.b3 Qd4 33.Qg5 and a likely draw, as there’s no way for either side to make any constructive progress. 29.Qe7! It all now gets very difficult for Nakamura, as taking the rook loses – and he has the additional problem also in that he can’t defend his b4-pawn. 29…Ng6 The rook is strictly off limits: 29…Qxb6?? 30.Nf6+! Kh8 (30…gxf6 31.exf6) 31.Nh5 and White is mating. 30.Qxb4 h5 If it wasn’t for this move, Black would be losing – but with it, Nakamura should – just! – stay in the game. 31.Rb7 Qc5 Nakamura doesn’t do passive – and besides, it losses anyway after 31…Qa8 32.Rxd7! hxg4 33.Qxg4 and White will have a winning advantage when the knight is recaptured. 32.Qe4 hxg4 33.Qxg6 Qd5 In the heat of battle, the centralizing queen move does look right – but the silicon-certainty of the engine soon tells us that the risky 33…gxf3 was also holding after 34.Rxd7 Qxe5 35.Qf7+ Kh7 36.Qxf3 Rc2! 37.Qd3+ Qf5 38.Qxf5+ exf5 39.Rb7 a5 and despite being a pawn down, Black will easily hold the notoriously drawn rook and pawn ending. 34.Rb3 gxf3 I think the pressure was beginning to tell on Nakamura by this stage, as he was the one doing all the defending and falling behind on the clock. I thought the logical way to go, though, was with 34…Qxe5 35.fxg4 Rb8 36.Rc3 (If 36.Rf3 Rf8! and swapping rooks is a draw.) 36…a5 and I can’t see how White makes progress with the handicap of the tripled isolated g-pawns?  But I suppose a pawn is a pawn, and the one player you don’t want to be facing in the ending when you are low on time (and with no increment, save for an extra 15 min at move 40) is Magnus Carlsen! 35.Rxf3 Rf8 36.Rd3! Nakamura has to be careful with Carlsen’s rook and queen being so active. 36…Qxe5 37.Rxd7 Rf5 This should have been good enough to draw – but Carlsen somehow manages to extract just a little bit more blood from the proverbial stone. 38.Rd8+ Rf8 39.Rd7 Rf5 40.Rd8+ Rf8 41.Rxf8+ Kxf8 42.b4 Qe2 It just looks so darn difficult for Carlsen to win this with his king where it is and threats of repetition with …Qh5+ and …Qd1+ etc. But now the game begins to swing in Carlsen’s favor with there being no increments other than the extra 15 minutes at move 40, and Nakamura now some six minutes behind on the clock. 43.a4 Qa2 44.a5 Qc4 45.Qb1 Kg8 Also good was 45…Qb5 followed by …Kf7 – how will White make progress here? 46.Qe1 Kh7 47.Qe3 Qxb4 48.Qd3+ In theory, the more pawns that come off now, the easier it will be for Black to draw. 48…g6 49.Qxa6 Qc5 The critical stage of the endgame – there’s no way for Carlsen’s king to avoid being chased around the board by Nakamura’s queen. 50.Qb6 Qh5+ 51.Kg1 Qd1+ 52.Kf2 Qd2+ 53.Kf3 g5 54.Qxe6 Carlsen reluctantly has to abandon his dangerous a-pawn now. The point of 53…g5 is that it deprived the White king of an escape route via f4 – so now if White pushes the a-pawn with 54.a6 Qd1+ 55.Kf2 Qd2+ 56.Kf3 Qd1+ and the White king is caught in a perpetual. 54…Qxa5 55.Kg4 Qa8 56.Qf7+ Kh8 With the Black king close to g-pawn queening square, it should just be a draw and the endgame tablebase confirms this. However, if the Black king was over on the queenside, White wins. 57.Qh5+ Kg7 58.Qxg5+ Kh8 59.Kh3 Qa1 60.Qd8+ Kg7 61.Qe7+ Kg8 62.g4 Qc3+ 63.Kh4 Qb2 64.Qe8+ Kg7 65.Qd7+ Kg6 66.Qd6+ Kg7 67.Qd5 Kg6?? Calamity!  Nakamura was down to his last two minutes and was certainly feeling the pressure – but this is just a really bad mistake from the American that gift wraps the win for Carlsen. 68.Qg8+ 1-0 It’s tough playing Magnus, especially when the pressure is on and you are very low on time. Nakamura had blundered his way into either a mate after 68…Kh6, losing his queen after 68…Kf6, or 68…Qg7 69.Qxg7+ Kxg7 70.Kg5 and a lost king and pawn ending.

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