The Final Test Begins In The World Fischer Random Chess Championship
The favorite took an early tumble at the hands of his main rival. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

The Final Test Begins In The World Fischer Random Chess Championship

JonathanTisdall
GM JonathanTisdall
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49 | Chess Event Coverage

Both semifinal matches ended in deadlock after day one—tied 3-3 after a pair of slow-rapid duels. In terms of entertainment, Fischer Random at the very highest level delivered. Ian Nepomniachtchi and Wesley So traded punches in two violent brawls that both ended in perpetual check.

The spotlight match had to be the classical title "rematch" between local hero Magnus Carlsen and his quietly confident archrival Fabiano Caruana. They traded three-point wins as Black in dramatic fashion, and it was the American "challenger" who had reasons for frustration at the end of the day's play.

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In Caruana's qualifying march from the quarterfinal stage, he set clear standards in a very limited number of games. He announced that he felt that tried and true classical principles should still apply to the game, despite its random starting positions, particularly the importance of the center. He also demonstrated a frightening ability to strike—hard—with black in the first game of his matches.

Coupled with Carlsen's famed tendency to be a slow starter, this could have rung alarm bells when the draw for pairings set up Carlsen-Caruana in a match many had hoped would be the final. Carlsen has also been a surprisingly ardent supporter of eliminating any advantage held by a reigning champion. The setup for an inaugural Fischer Random world-title cycle opted to seed him into the semis, a disputable decision that is at least less advantageous than classical tradition. Maybe, Carlsen wondered, with a new discipline, being seeded later would mean he'd be handicapped by having less serious experience?

NRK TV hosts  (from left): Norwegian IMs Torstein Bae and Atle Gronn, and program anchor Ole Rolfsrud. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

This assortment of ingredients added up to a rude shock to Norwegian viewers glued to their TVs—Carlsen is popular prime-time entertainment for the nation, no matter what the guy is playing.

Speedy Nepo had plenty of time to keep an eye on the rest of the competition. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

The Caruana trends dominated the first game, with the American seizing the initiative, thanks to a recurring series of tactical nuances that rebuffed an overoptimistic early offensive. The clock was soon on his side as well, and despite Carlsen conjuring up a visually complex ending, Caruana took a 3-0 lead with continued crisp calculation. The TV experts have long been impressed by his steely nerves, and rued the technical hitch that put the heart monitors out of action for the day. "Does he even have a pulse?" they wondered, as he coolly dispatched their hero.

Caruana: Cool, confident, calculating. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Meanwhile, some fairly high-level drama was unfolding in the Nepomniachtchi-So match. That game had a very similar but more extreme course. The Russian GM built up a massive advantage out of the opening and did it at his patented turbo pace. At the critical moment, Nepo opted for an ambitious but slightly artificial path, forsaking queenside castling and bringing his other rook into play instead.

So thoughtful. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

So immediately demonstrated his vigilance, castling himself and setting in motion a neat tactical escape. Just as in the other semifinal, this table-turning resulted in an extra piece for Black, but So complicated his task beyond repair by making an understandable decision to trade the last rooks.  

In the half-hour break between rounds the players relaxed and consulted their seconds, who presumably are working feverishly to try and expand FR opening prep beyond the first move or two. Carlsen's sister Ellen told TV viewers that her brother, who is an elite Fantasy Football player, had been more interested in the football results than dissecting his game.

Game two peaked first in the So-Nepomniachtchi duel. Another tense affair with Nepo again building a dangerous attack and So cleverly clawing back to gain balancing counterplay. Nepomniachtchi was very chatty about how he viewed his first day at the FR championship, and his initial reaction was one of disappointment.

Not satisfied. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

"I feel robbed" was his first summary, and he was very annoyed about game one. I found this quite interesting to observe; I can't help feeling if I'd escaped with a draw after being down a piece vs. So, I'd have some feelings of relief, but Nepomniachtchi seemed more concerned about having let his own early advantage slip. I suppose that is what makes up a top killer's psychological outlook. But as he talked his way through the day's action, he seemed to mellow a bit.

In the end-of-day interview with the Chess.com commentary team, Nepo summed up: "After the first game I was very disappointed with myself. Could be much better ... but, of course, it could be much worse."

My candidate for game of the day would be the nervy second battle between favorites Caruana and Carlsen. The Norwegian also came under early pressure as Black but showed that he was up to an intense tactical duel with Caruana, something he hasn't been keen on in "regular old chess."

Russian GM and Fischer Random specialist Andrey Deviatkin told me that he felt "some starting FR positions leave Black with no choice but to enter tactical duels," but confessed he was not sure if that applied to the one we were seeing on day one. He also tweeted this fascinating observation during play:  "The second games of the semifinals are already more balanced and of higher quality (so far). I think it's because it usually takes both players and spectators some extra time to tune in for #FRchess, similar to some complicated music."

The crowd entranced. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Chess.com.

Caruana managed to keep a lid on things but eventually went astray in a complicated double-rook ending that shouldn't have posed any danger but ended in the familiar chess scenario of a long series of tricky tests from the classical champ, and he cracked under the pressure. 

A violent start and a delicate ending—or as Carlsen dryly summed up to NRK at the end of day one: "I lost the first and won the second. Better in the opening, then played badly, the second was the reverse."

Determined to strike back. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Chess.com.

Some thoughts after our first bit of data-gathering in these very early days of top-flight Fischer Random chess. Is there a practical first-move advantage? Once again we see Black scoring very well, and it would not have been shocking to have seen Black win all four of the day's games. Nevertheless, there was also definite White opening pressure, and I think Deviatkin hits the nail on the head when suspecting some kind of acclimatization takes place—and that the standard of play will continually improve. We can hope that this won't mean that the level of violent excitement will decline in return. 

How serious an event is this, and what is at stake? Well, the rewards are obvious: a world title, a lot of cash—there is a very decent $125,000 first prize—bragging rights. But I would argue, especially if I were the winner, that there is even plenty of classical chess cred to claim as the FR world champion.

The more we see how "chessy" the variant is and when we consider how completely it levels the playing field but razes the vast forest of opening theory, then it is natural to see Fischer Random as a possible measure of raw ability—the profound understanding of overarching chess harmony and principles, and, of course, the untouched sea of the endgame. Will the winner leave here feeling he has proved a point about the ultimate in brain-to-brain combat and a return to a purer human duel?

You can find all the games from Day 1 in the player below:

Something to think about while following the action: The FIDE World Fischer Random Chess Championship continues on Oct. 28 at 17:30 CET, 9:30 a.m. Pacific, and can be watched live at www.Chess.com/TV and www.Twitch.tv/Chess. Day one broadcast can be seen here.

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