Fischer Random - 2015 Showdown in Saint Louis

Fischer Random chess has been a controversial chess variant for some time. With the semi-random way the game starts (there are positions that cannot be played as they give White too big of an advantage), it is impossible to predict exactly how the games will begin and therefore it is impossible to have any kind of theoretical knowledge. Even though the players had eight positions to study before the match - four of which they would play - it was almost an unanimous approach not to calculate variations before the match started. One could be driven crazy analyzing so many positions from the very first moves!

The afternoon started well for Fabiano Caruana. In his first game of the day he was black against Hikaru Nakamura, and the #1 player in America decided to sacrifice a pawn with the White pieces. His superior piece coordination always gave him plenty of compensation, but slowly he let go of the requirements of the positions and allowed Black to untangle. An opposite color bishop endgame was reached and Caruana took game number one with some precise calculation to promote his pawns.

Things improved dramatically for Hikaru in the next two games. From the opening Black’s position was already more pleasant than his opponent’s, and going into the middlegame Black’s fabulous bishop on d4 gave Caruana serious headaches. The sidelined knight on a4 was a poor counterpart for such a magnificent piece, and although Caruana was by no means lost yet it was a poor position for him. A blunder cost White his f2 pawn, and after that Hikaru steamrolled his way to victory.

Game three was similar. Caruana’s opening left him in a desperate position early in the game, and White’s tactic with Bb7+!? was enough to win a pawn, but according to Fabiano, Hikaru did not even need to do that to gain the advantage. White entered an endgame up a pawn after the tactical exchanges, and it was all suffering for Caruana. To his credit he managed to almost equalize the game at a point, had he found a very specific sequence, but he did not manage to and eventually White’s extra pawn was enough for a full point.

In the last game of the day Caruana’s opening was again insufficient. He found himself in a passive position, but very cleverly he jettisoned a pawn to gain counterplay. Black found himself with an extra pawn and the advantage, but White’s activity was not easy to deal with. Hikaru took the day 2.5-1.5 and now leads by one point.

Yesterday was a rough day for Hou Yifan, who started her Showdown in Saint Louis with a 0-2 loss. However, she showed today why she is the top female player in the planet with an incredible comeback. Despite never having played Fischer Random in a tournament setting, she showed absolutely dominance over the nuances of development, pawn structure and piece placement in every single game. The story was very similar in the first three games: Hou Yifan was able to obtain a better position from the opening strategically, gaining an advantage in space. After this Parimarjan Negi found himself in difficult positions, eating away at his clock in attempt to find any kind of useful plans or moves to liberate his position. Hou Yifan was in no mood to led his opponent out of her binds, and she capitalized her advantages three times in a row with marvelous execution.

After a 0-3 start Negi finally pulled himself together and established a good position with the black pieces, which somehow resembled some kind of symmetrical English from normal chess. It was clear that Black had a very slight pull in the position, but the locked nature of the situation made a draw the most likely result. Negi overpressed, and he found himself in some trouble after he was forced to put his knight in the atrocious a8 square. Hou Yifan missed a winning shot at the end, but despite this the draw was good enough for a 3.5-0.5 score in the Fischer Random chess and an overall lead of 3.5-2.5 going into the rapids of day three.

Fabiano Caruana remarked after the day was over the “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." It simply shows you how complex chess can be, and how complex chess 960 is even for top players!