Fischer Random Chess: A Dream Deferred

In what was perhaps the most exciting chess tournament we’ve seen in some time Hikaru Nakamura won the 2022 Fischer Random World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland. The American legend lost only once in the entire tournament and took a handsome prize of $150,000 after winning an Armageddon game again Ian Nepomniachtchi.

GM Hikaru Nakamura, 2022 Fischer Random World Champion
Photo by David Llada

It marked the 50-year anniversary and same city of Bobby Fischer’s victory over Soviet rival Boris Spassky in a match that captivated the world. After being detained in Japan for nine months he was granted a release and emigrated to Iceland where he become an Icelandic citizen. He died in 2008 and is buried in Iceland. Several players visited his gravesite on the rest day. Fischer dedicated his life to chess and is arguably the greatest player, not only in terms of his play but in terms of chess theory and ideas. His dream was to make chess more interesting and with his innovation of “Fischer Random Chess,” he certainly succeeded.

Nakamura was often compared to Fischer during his years as a child prodigy raised in New York. Nakamura proceeded to break most of Fischer’s age records which were then broken by players such as Ray Robson, and Samuel Sevian and further lowered by talented juniors such as Abhimanyu Mishra. However, Nakamura has been memorable for his durability in elite chess, particularly in the faster time controls.

The Real Deal

Known as a brash teen, he was dismissed as a serious competitor and known for his blitz prowess. In 2010, The Chess Drum ran an op-ed piece titled, “Is Nakamura the Real Deal?” He was thought to be a one-dimensional player and not a world championship candidate, but all of the naysayers were disproven. Nakamura carried this confidence over the classical realm, eclipsing the 2800 barrier and rising to #2 in the world.

GM Hikaru Nakamura at the 2004 World Open. Copyright © 2004, Daaim Shabazz.

GM Hikaru Nakamura at the 2004 World Open
Photo by Daaim Shabazz

Now at almost 35, he has become the face of streaming in the chess world and has earned several high-profile sponsorships. His streams routinely attract 25,000 viewers a night, a tremendous platform to promote the game in interesting ways. While many may contend that Nakamura’s chances to compete for a world classical championship have passed, he barely missed getting his chance after a last-round disaster in the 2022 Candidates Tournament allowing Ding Liren to take the runner-up to Ian Nepomniachtchi.

Fischer’s Ghost

Fischer Random is a relatively new world championship tournament being only the second edition. Wesley So won the inaugural event in 2019. His latest victory followed daily recaps of his games in a very entertaining style. This appears to be a method of training for the four-time U.S. champion, who still works effectively with Kris Littlejohn, a low-level master. Nakamura recently ventured into a more controversial realm with his commentary on the Hans Niemann story. He drew some criticism and was later named as a defendant in a $100 million lawsuit. However, he was able to focus and still hold his daily streams.

The 2022 Fischer Random tournament is in the throes of an Internet Chess boom and the event captured so many intrigued observers. This was exactly what Bobby Fischer thought would inject life into a sport that had been plagued by “draw death.” Fischer had this to say.

“I love chess, and I didn’t invent Fischer Random chess to destroy chess. I invented Fischer Random chess to keep chess going. Because I consider the old chess is dying, it really is dead. A lot of people come up with other rules of chess-type games, with 10×8 boards, new pieces, and all kinds of things. I’m really not interested in that. I want to keep the old chess flavor. I want to keep the old chess game. But just making a change so the starting positions are mixed, so it’s not degenerated down to memorization and prearrangement like it is today.”

Bobby Fischer, Radio Interview, 27 June 1999 (Dagupan, Philippines) 

Fischer was critical of chess being analyzed to the point of being trivial. Many tournament competitors can produce very intricate lines of opening preparation up to 30-40 moves. This was where Fischer (after his retirement) began calling chess “pre-arranged” given the precision of the games. Today, this phenomenon is even more prevalent given that chess competitions have also moved online. Many of the elite players competing on the circuit have played each other so many times that it is difficult to get a winning advantage.

Fischer Random changed this rendering decades of opening preparation and data analysis less important than an overall understanding of positions. It was apparent that players felt a bit disoriented when given a position other than #518 (RNBQKBNR). There are 960 positions and during the Fischer Random tournament, they were given 15 minutes to study the position.

Magnus Carlsen made an interesting argument about Fischer Random role in chess by saying the variant should be played in classical form while classical forms should be played faster. In essence, Fischer Random would replace the current form of classical (position #518). This is what Fischer was driving at.

The Beauty of Randomness

Fischer Random produces many interesting positions that are unfamiliar to us. The pawn structures and piece play are unlike what occurs in position #518. Fischer Random isn’t harder but is simply a variant in which we lack experience. Admittedly there are positions that are evaluated as being as good as +.50 for white after the first move where the norm is +.22. What is clear is that Magnus Carlsen is not the best at this form of chess, but he did have a moment against Ian Nepomniachtchi.

The move 13…Bxb3+! was a thunderbolt revealing so many tactics at once… smothers, deflections and back-rank demolitions. On 14.axb3, black continues 14…Rxf4!! The knight can’t touch the rook because after 15.Nxf4 Qxb3+ 16.Ke1 Nc2+ white is mated after 17. Rxc2 Qb1+ and the classic smothered mate after 17.Kd1 Ne3+ 18.Ke1 Qd1+! 19.Rxd1 Nc2#

Carlsen also vanquished future contender Nordibek Abdusattarov to take third place. The young Uzbek started off in the preliminaries with 10/12 but faltered in the knockout stage losing six out of seven games to Nakamura (0/3) and Carlsen (1/4). While a bright future is in store for the Olympiad champion, it may not be his time yet. Meanwhile, the chess world is settling down after what had been a totally chaotic scene with the Carlsen-Niemann controversy.

It is the view of this writer that Fischer Random should be serious consideration to become more widespread. It should also be included as part of the World Chess Championship which could include classical, rapid, blitz, and 960 (classical). Fischer Random, not faster time controls in #518, is the future. Bobby Fischer had a plethora of ideas, but his chess variant may turn out to be his biggest contribution. It has also helped to produce another World Champion.

Congratulations Hikaru Nakamura!

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