Nakamura-Caruana Day One: Double Draw In Basque

Nakamura-Caruana Day One: Double Draw In Basque

| 14 | Chess Event Coverage

Bobby Fischer's chair became an unwitting star in his world championship match with Boris Spassky, but today in St. Louis, the chair was important!

The opening afternoon of Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana's "Showdown in St. Louis" -- a circus act of four chess formats in as many days -- produced two draws in "Basque chess." Players compete on two boards simultaneously with opposite colors, with rolling office chairs gliding them back and forth across the hardwoods between the battles.

The progenitor of the format is the city of San Sebastian in Northeast Spain, which is in Basque country and has held several of these matches in the past.

GM Hikaru Nakamura and GM Fabiano Caruana played and scooted with celerity today.

The top two Americans produced two draws, which ended close to one another. They are thus tied 1-1. The remaining days will see four Fischer Random games at G/20+10 (Friday); four rapid games at G/15 +10 (Saturday); and eight blitz games at G/3+2 Sunday.

All games count equally, which seems to favor the player more known for blitz prowess, Nakamura (although both have won a Death Match!).

"I think it's normal," Caruana told of the points accumulation. He said even if they go into Sunday tied, "our chances are pretty close."

Nakamura wished today's Basque counted for only one total point (instead of two), as the interrelated nature of the games made it more of a combined match game. He said going down 0-2 would have been tough to overcome.

He told that he was most looking forward to the rapid on Saturday. Nakamura said he considers himself the favorite in both Fischer Random (he's played much more of it than Caruana) and blitz.

The intimacy reminiscent of the inaugural Sinquefield Cup -- only four players.

Today's games were both fighting, but neither player got too sizable of an edge. There were a few moments that had Nakamura worried.

In Caruana's White game, he played the Rossolimo and accepted Nakamura's pawn sacrifice, then left his rook in take to activate his queen. Her infiltration meant Black could not be better (at various moments White could force a perpetual).

Games via TWIC.

In the adjacent game, Nakamura played the Trompowsky but admitted to being worried again, although this time much earlier in the game.

So what did the players think about their first forays into Basque chess? 

"It was very difficult to know how to use your time," Caruana said.

"It shoudn't really differ from normal chess but somehow it is different," Nakamura concluded. "I don't know why, but it is...Somehow it doesn't feel quite right."

All graphics courtesy Spectrum Studios.

Both players agree that the most disturbing aspect is when your clocks are running on both boards. "You want to get out of that situation as soon as possible," Caruana said.

Day two will feature another innovation, and fan input. The four Fischer Random games will feature starting positions selected by GM Garry Kasparov and voted on by the public via the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis's Twitter account. The club is releasing four polls, spaced out over many hours, so depending on when you read this, you may still be able to have your say.

First you'll have to see the positions explained by Kasparov, which you can do here or by watching the video below:

One reason to trust Kasparov's selection of possible back-rank mayhem? He once nearly made Karpov play Fischer Random mid-game!

Caruana told that he recently practiced Fischer Random on the internet against someone north of 2750. As for which positions in the poll he preferred, he only allowed that the position with knights and bishops switched would be one of his choices (position number one).

Nakamura didn't do much preparation before arriving in St. Louis, but plans on doing one hour or so each morning. Historically he's played much more Fischer Random than his opponent; the variant fits his commonly stated preference for sidestepping theory and "just getting a chess position." 

"In terms of experience, it doesn't really exist," Nakamura said. "Just like normal chess, there's always a position where you're out of theory."

In the "undercard," two university students faced off on the other side of the room. Stanford University student GM Parimarjan Negi took both games from former women's world champion GM Hou Yifan, who is currently in college in China (but who is coming off a win at the last FIDE Women's Grand Prix). Their game wasn't completely separate from the super-GMs -- at one point Hou Yifan's chair slightly bumped Caruana's as they slid sideways with their backs to each other!

It looks like both GMs are playing "ghosts," but in fact this is the most common positioning in Basque, since it's unwise to have your clock running on both boards.

The two have known each other since competing in the same World Youth Championship about a decade ago. Negi had never played Basque in a competitive event, but Hou Yifan had. In fact she won the event at the 2014 World Mind Games.

Negi took the first game today. The only question was when Hou Yifan should resign to focus on trying to hold her worse endgame two feet away.

"At some point she was too ambitious when she played 17...Bh5," Negi said.

With clocks ticking much lower than in Caruana-Nakamura, commentator GM Maurice Ashley proposed abandoning the seated position. "I'd ditch the chair and just playing standing up!"

Although never in time pressure, Nakamura took Ashley's advice.

Even that may not have been enough to help Hou Yifan, as her wayward foray to get a passed a-pawn eventually cost her an 0-2 start.

She said she that she went after the a-pawn instead of the simple and reflexive 13. Kxg2 because she wanted to make the game interesting, "but my pawn doesn't buy White anything...his bishops were very strong."

Hou Yifan said her plan going forward was to "try to do something better than today." Like Negi, she joked that she may even log in to Twitter to vote for what she wanted to play tomorrow ("I guess one vote won't make a difference." -- Negi).

She arrived in St. Louis nearly a week before the other three players. Coming from China, she wanted a chance to regulate her sleep schedule and also to see some of the sights. This is not her first time playing in the U.S. In fact, it was her trip to compete in Hawaii that created the scheduling conflict that caused her to relinquesh her world title.

GM Hou Yifan, no longer perfect in her Basque career, but still trying to go two-for-two in her career in American events.

You might think her early arrival in St. Louis would make her the most prepared, but all players were thrown a curveball this morning when an "emergency meeting" convened to adjust some fine points to the gaming (the time control for Basque was raised from a base of 30 minutes to 90 -- Hou Yifan's previous Basque experience came in a G/20+10 time control).

Negi has talked openly (in this excellent interview) about chess taking a backseat in his life. He told he hasn't looked at a physical chess board in "seven or eight's a strange feeling." Coming back to chess in this non-classical format has been "much less stress for me."

He said that he was completing coursework up until the night before the match began, but he hopes to set the rest aside until after the weekend concludes.

Is Nakamura holding anything back so as to not reveal his plans for the Candidates' Tournament in March 2016 (in which both he and Caruana will be competing)? 

"I'm absolutely thinking about the Candidates," he said. "I have somewhat of an idea of what I'm going to do."

The next three days the action will begin at 1:00 p.m. local time (GMT -6). All remaining games with commentary can be viewed at

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