Reports Sep 12, 2018 | 11:21 AMby Colin McGourty

Chess960 Showdown 1: So and MVL shine

Garry Kasparov traded wins with Veselin Topalov as the 2018 edition of the Champions Showdown got underway in St. Louis. Two of the four games were decisive in every match, with only Wesley So and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave avoiding defeat. Wesley racked up the biggest score, 4.5:1.5 against Anish Giri, while MVL’s crushing blitz demolitions of Sam Shankland lit up a day of chess when the randomized opening position offered a good combination of dynamic possibilities and “normality”.

Kasparov was back in competitive action as he faced Topalov in St. Louis | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

The 2018 Champions Showdown features five individual matches, each for a $50,000 prize pot, with $30k for the winner and $20k for the loser, or $25k each in the event of a tie. Each match consists of six 30 minute + 10-second delay rapid games, with wins worth 2 points, and 14 5+5 blitz games, with normal scoring. On Day One two rapid games were followed by two blitz games, and you can replay all the action using the selector below:

You can also replay the day’s live commentary, including interviews with Garry Kasparov, Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So and Veselin Topalov:

Before each of the first three days, and twice on the final day, a Chess960 position is randomly picked out. The players then have an hour to ponder how they should approach it – consultation is allowed, with seconds or super-GM buddies, but no chess engines!

Let’s take a look at how the matches went on Day One:

Kasparov 2.5 – 3.5 Topalov

It’s now 13 years since Garry Kasparov announced his retirement on March 10th, 2005. Garry had ended his professional chess career with a 9th victory in the Linares supertournament, but the final round ended on a bitter note, with defeat to Veselin Topalov. That gives the current match a potential revenge narrative, though there's also mutual respect. Topalov back then went on to make Garry’s world no. 1 spot his own, at least for a while, and the 43-year-old Bulgarian, who has passed the age Garry was when he quit, is also in semi-retirement himself. Since he was mercilessly crushed 10.5:1.5 in blitz by Hikaru Nakamura in last year’s Champions Showdown he’s played just one supertournament, starting with two wins but losing his last three games in Shamkir, while he recently lost a match against Ding Liren.

Some advice from the master before battle commences? | photo: Austin Fuller, official website

Chess960 has its advantages for the players, with Garry commenting:

It was a very odd feeling this morning. I just realised that unlike in my previous life, or even last year in St. Louis, there’s nothing to look at, no preparation, no opening lines to check and analyse briefly with the computers…

When the day’s position was revealed, though, there was work to do, with no body of theory to draw on. Garry noted the fact there were knights on a1 and h1:

I have to say I was not mad about the opening position. I don’t like fianchettoed knights! I prefer it with the bishops. It’s a tricky position.

Wesley So was among those who pointed out it wasn’t the wackiest position they could have faced:

Other than the knights on the rim the position is very logical, and all the pieces are on good squares - any pawn move in the centre will open the diagonals… The white king is very safe and can protect the h2-pawn right away.

It was possible for either player to castle short on move 1, as Hikaru Nakamura and Magnus Carlsen had done in a 139-move game from their Chess960 match, though Garry decided first to allow himself to play Bobby Fischer’s favourite move. After all, it was Fischer Random Chess...

The first game soon looked like “normal” chess, and ended in a draw by repetition when Topalov agreed with Kasparov that White had sufficient compensation for a pawn deficit. The second game was much more fun, with Veselin describing it as “real Fischer Random”. It began with the move of the day, 1.c4, with the opening choices of the players as follows:

  • 1.c4 – 10 games
  • 1.d4 – 5 games
  • 1.e4 – 4 games
  • 1.f4 – 1 game: take a bow, Peter Svidler! 

And it also began with the most memorable opening of the day. 1.c4 attacks the h7-pawn immediately, and four different players (Giri, Svidler and Dominguez as well as Topalov) would go on to take the gambit pawn in the line: 1.c4 e5 2.Qxh7!?

Nakamura later commented, “Lev shut it down with 1…c6 in his game against Leinier, but none of us saw it and we played 1…e5”, but it seems Black has absolutely no reason to fear the pawn grab, and in fact Dominguez, who most certainly had seen the move 1...c6, played 1…e5 himself, in the very next game!

After 2…Ng6! Black is immediately ready to chase away the white queen with tempo, and when Garry followed up with the bold 5…b5!, 7…d5 and 8…c5 he soon had a fantastic position. This is where he felt rusty, though:

The challenge is when you’re out of form, it’s a good position, there’s so many options, and the clock is ticking… I looked at this move and that move, and actually I played quite poorly.

On move 9 he could simply have picked up an exchange:

8…Ba5! has no good reply, but here Garry noted the difficulty of playing Chess960 with unfamiliar piece placements:

That’s the problem with the geometry. You don’t expect the bishop to go to a5 and the rook on e1 to be trapped.

After 8…e4?! Topalov was soon able to play a powerful exchange sacrifice and eventually go on to win an ending. Both players were happy with their performance on the day, with Veselin commenting:

Somehow I could play very quickly and many moves I did were good and the natural moves. I played very quickly, and I was satisfied with my play.

Veselin Topalov unaware of the approaching beast... | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

The first blitz game was relatively balanced, and then in the final game of the day it was time for Kasparov to pounce, after a miscalculation by his opponent:

Garry felt Topalov was also blind to the new geometry of a Fischer Random position here, since he missed that after 16.Rxe6?! Qxe6 17.Bb3 Black was actually able to cover everything with 17…Nd5 18.Qd3 Nac7, and it turns out the knight on a8 saves the day. The conversion after that was far from smooth, with Kasparov down to just 7 seconds at the end. Topalov could have drawn with 40.Nxh4, but instead he blitzed out the losing move 40.Qxg6?? Garry said he “needed some luck today”, but the 55-year-old hasn’t lost his predatory instincts and pounced with 40...Qe2+! and mate-in-3:

Garry gave his own verdict, and a prediction:

Topalov has the lead since his rapid win counted double, but will his strategy be enough?

The correct way, the best way, to play Garry is just to ignore that you’re playing Garry, to focus on the position… the strongest weapon is the best moves!

Svidler 2.5 – 3.5 Nakamura

Nakamura - Svidler saw lots of all-out attacking action... and fun! | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

After a relatively quiet first game the second was wild:

Hikaru Nakamura got to “refute” the 1.c4 e5 2.Qxh7 pawn grab, developing a ferocious attack against Peter Svidler’s aesthetically pleasing but unconvincing kingside setup:

16.Rd1? here turned out to be the losing move, when it was met by 16…e4!, which included the brutal threat of 17…Re5, trapping the queen. Svidler was forced into a queen sac “not because life is good” (as the Russians say), but there was no staving off defeat. Peter’s fortunes turned in the first blitz game, though, where he survived what looked like a lethal attack and won with a counterattack. 

In the final game he played another aesthetically pleasing move, 1.f4!? in front of his king on f1, in the last game of the day. That original approach almost worked, but he couldn’t quite convert an advantage and with a draw goes into Day 2 with a one-point deficit. He didn’t seem too upset about how things had gone:

Giri 1.5 – 4.5 So

Anish Giri had recently won an online match against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and was getting into the spirit before his match against Wesley So…

…but things went badly wrong in the second rapid game. Anish is renowned for his opening knowledge, but in an unfamiliar position he ended up all but lost by move 10, with Wesley making no mistake in taking home the full point.

Giri and So were both slickly dressed | photo: Austin Fuller, official website

The chance to hit back came in the first blitz game, but Giri found the wrong moment to show off that he’d studied how to play chess960!

19.fxe5! gives White a crushing attack (Bh3+ is just a check), but instead Giri demonstrated how to castle very long in Chess960 with 19.0-0-0?, putting his king on c1 and his e1-rook on d1. The only other player to castle queenside all day was Levon Aronian, who managed to do it in consecutive games, but also with unconvincing outcomes. After 19…Bxe4 most of White’s advantage had gone and then an endgame blunder allowed Wesley to pick up the full point. A draw in the final game left Giri with a lot to do, especially as his opponent is a fan of the game - “I like chess960 better than regular chess”, Wesley told Maurice Ashley.

MVL 4 – 2 Shankland

The St. Louis Chess Club is the scene of Sam Shankland's greatest triumph, but facing MVL at blitz was always going to be tough | photo: Spectrum Studios, official website

For the first two games this was a tense struggle in which Sam Shankland, a newcomer to chess at the very highest level, had the upper hand. Then in the blitz games Maxime Vachier-Lagrave let slip the dogs of war! 14…Ne3+!! was the best looking move of the day…

…though arguably Maxime's brilliant queen sacrifice follow-up was better: 15.Bxe3 fxe3 16.Nf3 exf2!! 17.Nxe5 Bh4! 18.g3 Bh3+ 19.Rg2 Bxg3! White resigns. What a massacre!  

Sam survived two moves more in the next game, but it wasn’t getting any more pleasant. There was a chance for him to seize the advantage on move 11, but it was a hard ask to find in a blitz game:

11…Bc7! prepares to meet 12.Nxg7? with 12…Be5!, and the fact the white queen on b1 is undefended means Black is actually close to winning. In the game 11…f6? was met by 12.Nxg7!! anyway, when 12…Kxg7 would run into 13.Bxf6+!, and this time it’s the undefended black queen on b8 that falls. Sam tried to stumble on with 12…Bc7, but it was a hopeless task:

After 21…Kxh7 22.Qd7 Black can only delay mate on g7 for a couple of moves.

Aronian 3.5 – 2.5 Dominguez

Aronian gets a pep talk from Svidler before the games begin... | photo: Austin Fuller, official website 

Levon Aronian was the only player to grab a win in the first round of the day, and it was an utterly convincing one. Leinier Dominguez played slowly and fell victim to one of those kingside attacks where the attacker barely needs to sacrifice any material:

We already mentioned the second game in which Nakamura felt Aronian’s 1…c6 “shut down” the move 1.c4, but there was no shutting things down after that. The 3rd game was perhaps the wildest of the day, with first Dominguez and then Aronian squandering huge advantages before Leinier finally picked up a full point in the last game of the day. That was another messy encounter, and one which Levon had good chances to survive, but he went astray towards the end… and then when it rains, it pours:

32.e6+! was the simple winning blow, picking up the h8-rook.

Can Garry hit back? | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

So that was Day 1 of the Champions Showdown, but there are three more days, and 16 more rounds, to go. Follow all the action live here on chess24 from 20:00 CEST!

See also:

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