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On Chess: Champions showdown shines spotlight on Chess960

Garry Kasparov (facing camera) and Veselin Topalov compete in the Champions Showdown Chess960 event at Saint Louis Chess Club in September 2018,
Lennart Ootes | Saint Louis Chess Club
Garry Kasparov (facing camera) and Veselin Topalov compete in the Champions Showdown Chess960 event at Saint Louis Chess Club.

The opening is considered by many to be a sacred part of chess. Over the course of chess history, an enormous amount of theory has been developed covering the vast branches of possibilities resulting from the starting position.

In the modern era of professional chess, grandmasters will memorize thousands of opening variations, supported by thorough computer analysis. While robust opening preparation is a necessity for any top player, it has led to adverse effects for the sport. Elite competitions are seeing a growing percentage of draws, as it’s becoming more difficult to crack a well-prepared opponent.

To remedy this issue and create intrigue for chess fans all over the world, the Saint Louis Chess Club hosted the Champions Showdown. From Sept. 11 - 14, 10 of the world’s best players, including the legendary Garry Kasparov, competed in a unique and innovative event.

Instead of traditional chess, players competed exclusively in Chess960, also known as Fischer Random. This variant allows for exactly 960 different starting positions as the pieces on each player's starting rank are randomized. With opening preparation thrown out the window, players must figure out things for themselves from the very first move. While Chess960 is most popular in online chess platforms, it hasn’t made much of a splash in the professional circuit.

Upon the commencement of the Champions Showdown, it was announced that Chess960 tournament games would count towards a player’s Universal Rating. This is a big step in legitimizing Chess960 and encouraging future tournaments to be held with the variant.

Over the course of four days, the elite field of grandmasters competed in five one-on-one matches. Each match consisted of six rapid games (worth two points each) and 14 blitz games (worth one point each). With a total of 26 points up for grabs in each match, players needed to score 13.5 points to shut out their opponents and clinch the $30,000 winner's prize.

All matches ended in decisive fashion:

  • Veselin Topalov (14.5) - Garry Kasparov (11.5)
  • Hikaru Nakamura (14) - Peter Svidler (12)
  • Wesley So (15.5) - Anish Giri (10.5)
  • Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (17.5) - Sam Shankland (8.5)
  • Levon Aronian (17.5) - Lenier Dominguez (8.5)

The runners up in each match each received $20,000 for their efforts.
With different starting positions selected on each day of the event, the players had to stay on their toes and continually adapt to new situations. The combination of rapid, blitz, and Chess960 led to a number of exciting and decisive tactical battles. The abundance of blunders, brilliancies and time scrambles were covered in an online broadcast featuring grandmaster commentary by Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade, and Maurice Ashley.

What more can a chess fan ask for? In fact, the unique format of the event was well-received by the players.

Despite losing to Topalov in a tough match, Kasparov was pleased to be part of the memorable event.

“I’m quite happy we did something historical. It’s the beginning of a new era,” he said.

Eric Rosen is an international master and a member of the Webster University Chess Team. In 2011, he won the National K-12 Championships with a perfect 7/7 score. In addition to being an active tournament player, Rosen coaches students from all over the world over the internet.