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John Henderson
By John Henderson

Back in the 1920s, world champions Emanuel Lasker and José Raúl Capablanca made serious attempts aimed at rejuvenating chess that involved a 10×10 board and extra pieces, all in order to combat what they perceived to be a threat to the game with the growth of opening theory. Their proposals were rejected, but seventy years later, another iconic world champion, the enigmatic Bobby Fischer, succeeded where his predecessors had failed.

Fischer Random (or Chess 960) was his brainchild, and arguably this is one of the most revolutionary proposals to change the game as we know it. What Fischer did was make subtle changes to the rules of another chess variant from the 1850s, Baseline Chess, to make it have more in common with classical chess. His twist is that, while both players start with shuffled symmetrical pieces on the back-rank, everything stays within the parameters of chess with the bishops placed on opposite coloured squares, and the kings between the rooks to allow for “normal” castling.

In the past decade or so, Fischer Random has grown in popularity. Last year, in the Henie Onstad Art Center in Høvikodden, just outside the Norwegian capital of Oslo, Magnus Carlsen beat one of Fischer’s successors as US champion, Hikaru Nakamura, in a high-profile unofficial world championship match – and after the success of that event, FIDE have now given its full backing and patronage to stage the first official World Fischer Random Championship at the same venue.

As “reigning champion”, Carlsen was directly seeded into a four-player semi-final for the 2019 World Fischer Random Championship that takes place all of this week. To help find Carlsen’s potential challengers, Chess.com were brought onboard to stage a number of online qualifiers that also saw Fabiano Caruana, Ian Nepomniachtchi and Wesley So added to the mix. The top prize is $125,000, with $75,000 for the runner-up, $50,000 for 3rd and $40,000 for 4th.

The semi-final pairings also produced considerable interest, with the rivalry intensifying between Carlsen and Caruana, and the second semi-final seeing So playing Nepomniachtchi. The scoring system is also novel, with the 12-game matches contested over three different sets of time-controls of 4 games: stage 1, 45-min for 40 moves plus 15-min to finish the game (scoring 3 points for a win and 1.5 points for a draw); stage 2, 15-min games (with increments), scoring 2 points for a win; and finally, 3+2 blitz games, with normal scoring.

The idea is to give preference to wins in the longer time-controls – and Carlsen and So took full advantage of the bonus system in play during the opening two days of their matches.

Semi-final scores:
Carlsen 7½-4½ Caruana
So 9-3 Nepomniachtchi

Photo: The combatants for the title | © Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Magnus Carlsen
World Fischer Random Ch., Semi-final (3)
(See diagram for starting position)
1.f4 b6 2.f5 f6 3.Nb3 Amazingly, the consensus of the commentators was that this already may well have been a serious mistake for Caruana, as this move just hinders the natural development of his pieces, particularly his bishops. 3…c5 4.d3 d5 5.Ng3 e5 6.fxe6 Qxe6 7.Qf2 0-0 8.0-0 Ng6 9.e4 dxe4 10.Nxe4 Nc7 11.Bh5 Qd5 Centralising the queen, but stronger was 11…f5!; the reason not so obvious but after 12.Ng3, suddenly there’s a major threat looming of …Qc6 and …Bb7 with a big hit on g2. 12.Bf3?! It all starts to go so, so wrong for Caruana here. His position is difficult, but his only try to stay competitive is with 12.Bxg6! hxg6 13.Bf4. 12…Qd7 13.Ng3 Ne6 14.Be4 Bc7 15.Bd2 Bb7 16.Bxb7 Rxb7 17.Rbe1 Rbb8 18.Re4? And this just compounds Caruana’s problems, as it invites Carlsen to play what he wants to play. 18…f5! 19.Ree1 Rbe8 Thanks to Caruana’s misstep with 18.Re4? Carlsen has basically been given a free tempo to continue piling on the pressure. 20.Bc3 Nef4 21.Bd2 Rxe1 22.Rxe1 Nd5 23.c4 Nde7 Even stronger was the immediate 23…Ndf4! 24.d4 f4 25.Nf1? Puzzling, to say the least, as this is yet another bizarre missteps from Caruana, as he now sees his position crumbling. He simply had to play 25.Ne4 as now 25…f3 can be competitively met with 26.Ng5 fxg2 27.Qxg2 and the threat of the knight invasion into e6 offers White excellent chances of equality. 25…f3 26.gxf3 Nf5 The difference in the position is the coordination of the pieces – Caruana’s pieces are disorganised and lack mobility, while Carlsen’s are not only active but are now poised to make a deadly strike. 27.Re4 cxd4 28.Nxd4 Ne5 29.Nb5 Nh4!! The hit on f3 is huge – winning huge! 30.f4 Nef3+ 31.Kh1 Qc6 32.Nc3 Ng5! Not only winning material but Carlsen also very efficiently squashes any possibility of Caruana having any slim hopes whatsoever. 33.Ng3 Nxe4 34.Ngxe4 Qxc4 35.h3 Ng6 36.f5 Qd3 37.Be3 Be5 0-1 Caruana resigns, as there’s no real way to stop …Bxc3 and …Qxf5 easily winning.

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