General Sep 2, 2019 | 10:30 AMby Colin McGourty

Kasparov returns to face Caruana in Chess960

The 13th World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov faces world no. 2 Fabiano Caruana in a 20-game rapid and blitz match as the Champions Showdown: Chess 9LX starts today in Saint Louis. There are three more matches – Wesley So vs. Veselin Topalov, Leinier Dominguez vs. Peter Svidler and Hikaru Nakamura vs. Levon Aronian as the players compete for $200,000 in prizes. We preview the upcoming action.

Garry Kasparov and Fabiano Caruana faced each other in Ultimate Moves | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

I: Garry Kasparov is back!

There’s nowhere else to start but with the return of Garry Kasparov. Few things in chess compare with the excitement of seeing one of the greatest players of all time back at the chessboard, though we’ve been spoilt in recent years:

  1. In 2015, 10 years after his retirement from professional chess, Garry was lured back to the board by Rex Sinquefield to play a rematch against Nigel Short. That ended in an 8.5:1.5 massacre by the former World Champion.
  2. In 2016 Garry took on the US big three of Nakamura, So and Caruana in a blitz tournament after the US Championship, with Garry finishing 3rd, 1.5 points behind Hikaru, half a point behind Wesley and a whole 4 points ahead of Fabiano!
  3. In 2017 Garry played in a competitive event, the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz, finishing in 8th place, above Anand and Nakamura and only half a point behind 5th placed Caruana.
  4. Then in 2018 the game switched to Chess960, when Garry took on another old rival, Veselin Topalov, in the 2nd closest of the five matches.

You can’t accuse Garry of ducking a challenge, as this year he’s turning things up a notch by taking on world no. 2 Fabiano Caruana. During the Sinquefield Cup broadcast Yasser Seirawan asked Garry, essentially, if that was a good idea! The response:

Yes, but look, it’s not classical chess, it’s not real chess, it’s Chess960, and at the end of the day, it’s fun. There will be definitely a lot of fun, and again, I have to say that Fabi definitely doesn’t play his best tournament.

Of course the claim that Garry, even so long after his retirement, would do anything merely for fun is impossible to believe. It was evident in his angry response when he felt the opposing team had cheated at the end of the first Ultimate Moves games, even though that was a purely fun event. And if natural instincts aren’t enough Fabiano Caruana’s trash-talking at the start of the Ultimate Moves will have done the trick!

I think I just want to give Garry an idea of what’s going to happen next week!

Watch the genuine shock from some of Fabi’s colleagues:

II. What’s in a name?

As you can see, this year’s event is not merely called “Chess960” but has a new logo!

If Chess 9LX has you puzzled, it’s because it’s a mixture of our normal system of numerals and Roman numerals! L = 50 and X = 10, to make a combined 60. It looks good, but you might ask if a game that already has at least two competing names, Chess960 and Fischer Random Chess, needs a third. Plus, if you’re going Roman, you might consider using the Roman version of 960, CMLX (C = 100, M = 1000, and the C before the M means you take that away to make 900). Or if you wanted to keep 9 separate you could use the Roman version for that, IX (I, of course, = 1). We conducted a scientific survey 

In any case, the 960 refers to the 960 possible starting positions, as the pieces on the back rank are randomly swapped around at the start of the game. That means the players can forget all the opening theory they’ve ever struggled to learn, with Garry commenting:

I’m always very excited to come to St. Louis and play chess, and with 960 again I don’t have to torture my memory about games played in the 80s!

III: A familiar format

This year has exactly the same match format as a year ago, with the players competing in six 30-minute + 10-second delay rapid games (worth 2 points for a win) and 14 5-minute + 5-second delay blitz games. On the first three days a new position will be drawn at the start of the day before the players contest two rapid games and then two blitz games. On the fourth and final day the players will compete in 8 blitz games, with a new position also chosen halfway through.

To be fair to Peter, only a couple of pieces were in the wrong place... | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

As in 2018 the players will have an hour to analyse the new position (or half an hour on the final day). Will Kasparov and Svidler work together again after Peter infamously managed to misremember the new position and he and Garry spent 29 of their 30 minutes analysing an incorrect position before Anish Giri pointed out the mistake?

IV: Svidler and unfamiliar positions

Peter Svidler won the unofficial Chess960 World Championship in Mainz, Germany for three years in a row from 2003-2005, and he should be confident going into his match against new local St. Louis resident Leinier Dominguez. Peter’s particular skillset came up in a recent interview with Jennifer Shahade for her poker podcast The Grid, where Jennifer pointed out that Peter’s talents were ideally suited to the game:

Jennifer: What part of your success do you think is attributable to this photographic memory?

Peter: Some, but I don’t think it’s that much, to be honest. I think the question exactly why am I good, if I’m good at all, has not been a primary one for me. What I realised at some point is that I am an exceptionally gifted practical player. I feel quite safe saying that, and you know, for me if I end up saying something good about myself it means that I’m really convinced this is true, and I am a very, very gifted practical player. I understand important break points in the game – obviously in a chess game there are a ton of decisions where yes, there is maybe a mathematically correct decision, but the price of that decision is not very high. The best move is perhaps +0.60, it gives you a slightly better position, and the 2nd best move will be +0.50, and you are not giving up much by not finding the best move in this position. But there are break points in games, not in every game, but in most games, where it’s very important that you notice that this decision is actually kind of defining and you dedicate your energy in that moment to solving it properly.

I understand initiative quite well, I’m a very good player with initiative, but I think my most prominent actually useful skills are more to do with actually being able to deal with the challenge of playing a game once it’s started. Memory is much more about preparation (…) I always felt that if you give me a playable position by move 15 where I don’t know anything and my opponent doesn’t know anything I’m ok with that. I don’t really mind at all!

Of course another player with that skill is a certain Magnus Carlsen:

Peter: If I say I’m very comfortable playing a position completely unknown to me as long as it’s also unknown to me opponent, Magnus takes this and kind of multiplies this by a couple of orders of magnitude, because he believes, as I guess I do, but he can prove he is correct, his results kind of show that he’s correct, he believes that he is just better than anybody else in the world at simply playing chess, if you take the theory out of it.

The whole podcast, although initially focussed on poker, is well-worth a listen, especially as one of the poker players mentioned extensively is a certain Alexander Grischuk!

V: Aronian on Chess960

The player who took Peter’s Chess960 crown is Levon Aronian, who was the Mainz champion in 2006 and 2007 before his title was taken by Hikaru Nakamura, his opponent this year in St. Louis! That match looks too close to call on the surface, with both players having won their matches in 2018, while Hikaru also had the experience of losing 14:10 to Magnus Carlsen in an “unofficial World Championship” match in Norway last year.

Levon Aronian and some other decent kibitzers during Ultimate Moves | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Levon is perhaps the biggest advocate of Chess960 around, as we saw when he answered the questions of Alejandro Ramirez during Round 11 of the Sinquefield Cup:

Alejandro: Is Chess960 superior to normal chess?

Levon: 100%!


Absolutely! It’s a much better game.

Do you think that we should incorporate it more and more into the tour?

I would just be ecstatic to see more of Chess960. The thing is I understand with all this harmony and things that people feel, but one thing that most of us don’t understand, and we don’t accept, is that most of this harmony was just made up by the previous generations and also by the computer engines. You put a different computer engine and the harmony is totally different!

I do believe that chess960 is just a much richer game, but it’s not as accessible to amateurs.

It’s a much more difficult game to learn?

A long time ago I read this book by Hesse, before I knew the game of Chess960 - Herman Hesse, the German writer - and he wrote this book about the game and he described it as a mix of music, mathematics, chess and literature. It was a made-up game, the Glass Bead Game, and that’s what I see in Chess960. It’s a combination of the harmonies and also some sort of atonality, if I can use the musical term, so yeah, it’s just perfect. I don’t see why we don’t have more tournaments!

VI: Two more winners meet

Perhaps the toughest match to predict is So-Topalov, between two players who also won their matches in 2018 (So beat Giri and Topalov, as mentioned, beat Kasparov). Wesley So will be looking to hit back after the disappointment of losing two of the last three games in the Sinquefield Cup, while the form of Veselin, already in semi-retirement, is always hard to guess.

Wesley So will take on Veselin Topalov | Crystal Fuller, Grand Chess Tour 

VII: The shadow of the World Cup

One issue Topalov, Caruana and Kasparov don’t have is playing in the 2019 World Cup, that starts in a week’s time in the oil-rich Siberian city of Khanty-Mansiysk. Peter Svidler described his schedule after leaving St. Louis on Friday:

I will fly home, repack, have half a night’s sleep and then I’m going to Khanty to play the World Cup.

Wesley So gave a preview:

At least the players won’t need to worry about wasting any opening preparation during the Chess960 event, and they all should have a relatively easy first round. Round 2 will be tricky, while by Round 3 the pairings predicted by the seeding numbers include Svidler vs. Nakamura!

  • Leinier Dominguez vs. Alder Escobar Forero (R1), Kacper Piorun (R2), Wang Hao (R3)
  • Wesley So vs. Sergio Duran Vega (R1), Anton Demchenko (R2), Vidit (R3)
  • Hikaru Nakamura vs. Bilel Bellahcene (R1), Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu (R2), Peter Svidler (R3)
  • Peter Svidler vs. Carlos Albornoz Cabrera (R1), Ruslan Ponomariov (R2), Hikaru Nakamura (R3)
  • Levon Aronian vs. Essam El Gindy (R1), Parham Maghsoodloo (R2), Maxim Matlakov (R3)

We’ll of course broadcast all the games of the World Cup here on chess24 (you can check out all the pairings now), but first there’s the Champions Showdown: Chess9LX! 

Once again Jennifer Shahade, Yasser Seirawan and Maurice Ashley will be commentating live from St. Louis from 12:50 local time, 19:50 CEST each day. Watch all the action live here on chess24.

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