Sixteen years ago, Bobby Fischer, the reclusive and temperamental American former world champion, was asked during a media interview in his adopted sanctuary hometown of Reykjavik, Iceland if he still played chess. Referring to a chess variant he introduced to the world in 1996, he replied: “Only Fischer Random. I don’t play the old chess anymore. The old chess is dead; it’s been played out.”
The game as we know it was not played out and dead as Fischer alluded to, but to avoid the rapid growth in opening theory aided by computer databases containing millions of games, the former world champion had refined the rules to the early 19th century variant called ‘Baseline Chess’ – with the first-rank pieces being randomly shuffled before each game – only with his twist being that he had devised a way to successfully include kingside and queenside castling.
It then became more universally known as ‘Chess 960’ because – with Fischer’s twist – there are 960 different starting position, one of which including the “old chess” he believed to be dead. In 2001, the Mainz Chess Festival in Germany held the first ever unofficial Chess960 World Championship and Grandmaster-level rapid tournament that proved a very popular annual event for players and fans alike, that sadly ended in 2009.
That glorious eight-year run in Mainz saw Peter Leko, Peter Svidler, Levon Aronian and Hikaru Nakamura capturing the Chess 960 unofficial world title. And earlier this year, there was renewed interest once again in Chess 960 with a special challenge match in Norway between World Champion Magnus Carlsen and Nakamura, as the Norwegian world No.1 beat his American rival to claim the bragging rights to the unofficial title.
Now Rex Sinquefield’s Saint Louis Chess Club has got in on the Chess 960 act – and in a big way, by organising one of the world’s first elite-level Chess 960 events, ‘The Champions Showdown’, running 11-14 September, not only features many of the world’s elite players vying for the $250,000 prize pool, but it also proved enticing enough to lure former world champion Garry Kasparov out of retirement once again!
The Champions Showdown consists of five Chess 960 styled 20-game matches between Garry Kasparov and Veselin Topalov, Hikaru Nakamura and Peter Svidler, Wesley So and Anish Giri, Sam Shankland and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and Levon Aronian and Leinier Dominguez, featuring rapid and blitz and with a different starting position each day.
Kasparov 2-2 Topalov; Nakamura 2-2 Svidler; Giri 1-3 So; Shankland 1-3 MVL; Aronian 2-2 Dominguez
Photo: It doesn’t matter if you are retired and not up-to-speed with opening theory, Mr Kasparov – there’s always Chess 960! | © Lennart Ootes / Saint Louis Chess Club
GM Veselin Topalov – GM Garry Kasparov
Champions Showdown, Rapid (2)
1.c4 e5 For both players, a missed opportunity! Faced with a similar starting set-up earlier this year, Carlsen and Nakamura just couldn’t pass up the chance to legally start the game with 1. 0-0 0-0!! 2.Qxh7 Ng6 3.Qh3 Rh8 4.Qg3 b5 5.cxb5 Qxb5 6.0-0 d5 7.Nc2 c5 8.d3 e4 Kasparov has sacrificed a pawn for this position, clearly hoping that, with his imposing pawn centre and more mobile pieces, he’d soon be over-running Topalov – but he’s missed that the key move he’d banked on is easily refuted. 9.dxe4 dxe4 It was clear from Kasparov’s body language, as seen in his baseball-like bobblehead routine, he must have thought that 9…Bc7 was just killing – but he’d overlooked that after 10.f4! Rxe4 11.e3 White has everything covered, and now has the better development of his pieces with moves like Nf2 and Bf3 ( or even Be2-d3). 10.Qa3! And this pin is a further nuisance for Kasparov. 10…Kg8 11.Ng3 Topalov, a pawn to the better, now simply gets on with the job of developing his pieces – and further rocking Kasparov with a nice positional exchange sacrifice. 11…Ba5 12.Be3! Bxe1 13.Rxe1 Topalov’s positional sacrifice is fully justified. He has the better-developed pieces, already won one pawn, and now he’s targeting Black’s two weak queenside pawns on c5 and a7. 13…Nb6 Kasparov just has to get on with making the best out of a bad job now, by mobilising his pieces and forget about defending those weak pawns. If 13…Re5 14.Qxa7 Nb6 15.b4! Na4 16.bxc5 Nxc5 17.Nd4 Qd7 18.Qb6 and White will be following up with Bc2, a4 and Ra1 and simply pushing the a-pawn quickly up the board. 14.b3 Better was 14.Bxc5 Nf4 15.Ne3 with a big advantage. 14…Nd5 15.Bxc5 Ngf4 Under the circumstances, Kasparov menacingly moving his pieces towards Topalov’s king is his best option – but the Bulgarian opts for a safety-first policy by forcing the trade of queens. 16.Qa4 Qxa4 17.bxa4 Nc3 Kasparov may well have missed a good saving shot here with 17…Rh6! that brings his rook into the game – and it indirectly defends a7. 18.Nd4 Nxd1 19.Rxd1 Rd8? Too optimistic. Kasparov tries to maximise the potential of his pieces, but he really had to defend his a-pawn with 19…a6 to stop Topalov getting a passed a-pawn. 20.e3 Nd3 21.Bxa7 Bb7 It could well be that, with little time left on his clock, Kasparov had intended 21…Nb2 but only at the last moment realised that after 22.Rc1 Nxa4 23.Nc6 Re8 24.Bd4! White’s pieces are all active and threatening to strike, while Black’s knight is somewhat bereft of squares. 22.a5 With the knight anchored on d4 and the a-pawn pushing up the board, Black is simply lost. 22…g6 23.f3 Kh7 24.Bb6 Rd7 25.Nxe4 Topalov wins another pawn and forces the trade of more pieces, all of which makes his unstoppable a-pawn even more of a winner. 25…Bxe4 26.fxe4 Ne5 27.Rc1 Ng4 28.Nf3 Re8 29.Bd4! Setting up a nasty trap. 29…f6 There was no time to chase down the a-pawn. If 29…Ra8 30.h3 Nh6 31.Ng5+ Kg8 32.a6! Black can’t capture the running a-pawn due to the back-rank mate. 30.h3 Ne5 31.a6 1-0 Kasparov resigns, as there’s no way to stop a7 and White easily engineering a way to queen the pawn.