Big Swings As Nakamura, Hou Yifan Channel Inner Fischer

Big Swings As Nakamura, Hou Yifan Channel Inner Fischer

They call it "random," but GM Hikaru Nakamura's and GM Hou Yifan's pieces were quite coordinated Friday at the Showdown in St. Louis. Both players took leads in their matches, especially impressive for Hou Yifan as she began the day on a 0-2 deficit.

After day one's Basque Chess, the players shifted to four games of Fischer Random, also known as Chess960, played at the rapid time control of G/20+10. Nakamura dropped game one but took 2.5 of the next three against GM Fabiano Caruana, while the former women's world champion won three straight against GM Parimarjan Negi and missed a chance to possibly make it clean sweep, drawing game four.

The six decisive games that started the afternoon gave much fodder for those who think quicker time controls are the future of chess, although the lack of theory played an equal part too.

GM Fabiano Caruana told Chess.com that he didn't think this match would bring him closer to GM Hikaru Nakamura.

There are no PGNs for Fischer Random, due to the fact that the notation system cannot understand the castling rules. But that's not unique to the code; even Hou Yifan admitted she didn't understand the castling rules until recently (she studied them to ensure mastery).

"I'm just trying to know the basic rules of Fischer Random," she told Chess.com afterward. "At one point I got confused about castles."

Instant fianchetto! Fans of Indian setups can get really into Fischer Random.

It's easy to do -- you play your entire life "knowing" that a rook or king off the starting square disqualifies castling, but all of the sudden you have to retrain your brain. In case you've never played, the rules are that the starting position necessitates the king start somewhere between the rooks, and to castle, an unmoved king and unmoved rook without pieces in between land on the proper "normal" castling squares (hence post-castling the king and rook will appear to have normally castled on the correct squares).

Confused? Bewildered? Well, the games were played on Friday the 13th!

Nakamura didn't have to worry about castling with two hands in this game -- the rook just jumps the king, already on g1!

This variant creates a unique challenge for this report, as showing full games is not possible in the usual format. Instead, you will find some of the most important positions, usually post-castling! For those wondering which of the four Kasparov-chosen starting positions won the Twitter voting, they were positions 2, 3, 6, and 7. If you want to watch the full replay with every single move, you can do so here.

In game one, Caruana took the first lead in the match by slowly winning an opposite-colored bishop ending. First, the starting position:

Nakamura offered a pawn early on to get a pair of strong bishops (shades of one-half of his Basque play yesterday) but eventually Caruana got his pawns going and won the opening game from this position:

"I just lost my mind; it's bit silly," Nakamura said of his play in the opening round.

The starting position of game two:


The players opened with a "c3-Sicilian" but Nakamura slowly took several pawns and won on time as Caruana ran out in a worse position.

"I think Fabiano kind of didn't sense the danger in the second one," Nakamura said.

Hou Yifan won her second game in a row by taking over many open files for her bonus rook.

Negi was plagued by constant time trouble more than any of the other players today. He admitted having to silently remind himself to get back to basics -- telling himself to "control the center" and other beginner axioms.

"You have so many options at first," he said. "Now there are like all these options and suddenly I had no time left...I was defending, even with White."

Arbiter Tony Rich was busy today, ensuring proper setups, castling rules, notating, and even helping with the live relay!

He briefly considered studying all eight possible starting positions with an engine (what else would you expect from a computer science student from Stanford?) but eventually decided that wouldn't be terribly fruitful. Hou Yifan brought up a good point when questioned about this by Chess.com: Can current engines even analyze positions where castling is allowed from illegal formations?

Game three saw Hou Yifan taking the overall lead in the match by winning her third in a row by obliterating the Indian GM's king. Here was the starting position:

She missed the prettiest chance to close things out. See if you can spot the tactic for Black that would have ended her task with style:

Nakamura got an advantage right out the opening. You don't often see a bishop sac on b7 so early, but that's the nature of the Fischer Random:

With so much action, the players ran out of steam in the final round. Nakamura had an extra pawn but didn't think that offered any chances. Besides, he reminded that even though the event featured variants, the goal was still to win and keeping his lead was the prime directive (it stands at 3.5-2.5, the same as Hou Yifan's margin).

Images courtesy Spectrum Studios.

He said tomorrow'a rapid chess is "the big test...We are most evenly matched."

As previously stated, the Chinese star might have missed an opportunity to make it clean sweep today:

Negi said he didn't come into today with much of plan, nor was there much time in between games to contrive one. He did figure something out for game four.

"In the last game, I was like, 'She's playing really well, maybe [I] should copy her moves,'" he said (Negi matched her opening moves).

So would he like to play more Fischer Random? "I didn't play it much before and I don't want to much right now!"

Caruana said the variant was "pretty stressful." He said that the myriad options from the outset could be unsettling. "I didn't want to linger about all the possibilities. The opening didn't go well for me."

Caruana said the time control didn't play a big factor today.

Did the speedy time control play a part in his lack of success today? He didn't think so, delivering the line of the day: "It's taken us hundreds of years for us to understand just the starting position of chess. I don't think a few extra minutes is going to matter."

The players had quite the day -- besides the four rapid-length games starting from unfamiliar positions, they each awoke early to visit children at Vogt Elementary, a school with a chess program partially sponsored by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. The school is part of the Ferguson-Florissant School District, the same municipality ravaged by riots over the past year.

The kids of Vogt Elementary, the grandmasters, school official, and chess club founder Rex Sinquefield at far right.

The "meet, greet, and play" event featured none of that turmoil. It was a simple gathering of chess-playing kids meeting the superstars of their sport.

This local boy shows off his new playing cards.

Dr. Leslie Washington, the school's principal, likes to hug people she meets, and said, "Not in my wildest dreams [did she expect such talent to enter her school]. Words cannot express how excited I am."

Caruana and his new fan.

Dr. Joseph Davis, the district's new superintendent as of this summer, was equally as buoyant (his son attends Vogt). He told Chess.com that as for his new district, "It will be known as the highest-quality school district in the country.

Nakamura won a game with a queen, rook, knight, and bishop missing, but this kid didn't seem to mind.

"People of power and means believe in public education," said Davis. "The challenges we know are great, and we can't do it alone." He expressed hope that the Boeing planes that take test flights over the school will one day be designed by the kids in attendance.

Hou Yifan gives her new student the thumbs up after mastering a concept.

"My son says he can beat me in chess, and at this point I acquiesce," Davis said.

They aren't "rookie cards" but the kids still got them autographed.

The next two days the action will continue at 1:00 p.m. local time (GMT -6). All remaining games with commentary can be viewed at Chess.com/TV. Saturday is rapid chess and Sunday is blitz.


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