Seirawan (YS): The start position is 'goofy'. Shahade (JS): 'The [position] that we have is nothing like real chess'
Goofy? Nothing like real chess? Were we in for a bout of bashing Fischer's greatest invention? Then I remembered that chess960 commentating is new for everyone, including these two experienced chess commentators. The level of the discussion soon improved when GM Seirawan gave some excellent advice that applies to all start positions.
YS: 'You have to develop a long term plan early. It's very difficult in chess960 (*) how to best use your time. I start very slowly. When I get the feeling that my pieces are finding their natural squares, I speed up. But I start very slowly, then I get faster.'
Here's a diagram of the position used in round one.
When I first saw it, my eye went immediately to the minor pieces on the Kingside. The commentators' first remarks were instead about the Queens.
YS: 'One of the things you have to be really watchful for is Pawns that in regular chess you assume are defended. In chess960, tactical opportunites really happen very early. Unfortunately, because the Queens are buried in the corner, I don't see real tactics breaking out in the first dozen moves or so.' JS: 'I was talking to Eric Van Reem, who wrote the FIDE rules for chess960. He said that some of the toughest positions to play are those in which the Queens start in the corner.'
The discussion quickly moved from generalities to specifics. Seirawan used a technique that I've discovered is particularly helpful : start by examining the castling options, what it takes to achieve them, and where they leave the King.
YS: [Discussing the diagrammed position notes that the move b3, to develop the Queen] 'may open you up to ...Ba3+. I noticed that Anna [Zatonskih] at the board is really studying. I would do exactly as she is, trying to think the long term plan here. I would think that e4, Nf3, Ng3, Bc4, developing the Kingside pieces and then castling O-O would be the natural inclination. It will be interesting, since all five games start from this initial position, what opening plans the White players will develop.' JS: 'It will also be interesting to see how many people wait and look to see how Hikaru [Nakamura] is playing.'
Later in the same session, we had a chance to hear from GM Nakamura directly, who won with White against IM Martha Fierro. I doubt that his thoughts on the position would have helped any of the other players.
JS: What did you think about the starting position and how long did it take you to decide what you would play?
Nakamura (HN): I think the time showed that it didn't take me long to randomly pick something. I haven't played chess960 in quite a while so this was the first time I'd seen a rather unusual position at the beginning of a game.
There are two approaches. Either you can take 3-5 minutes on trying to figure out which move makes the most sense, looks the lost logical, and go from there, or you can sort of randomly pick. I looked briefly at all the first moves and none of them really impressed me.
This morning I had a conversation with a good friend of mine and I told him to give me an idea what to play on the first move. He said, 'Play something to fianchetto the light squared Bishop'. I wanted to play g3, but after ...b5 I wasn't in love with the position. [Interruption] If the Bishop had been on b1, I would have played a3 and Ba2, but the Bishop happened to be on f1. Therefore g3 made the most sense, but after 1.g3 b5, I didn't really like the position that much. I thought 2.Nf3 e5 and I didn't like the feel of the position. Black's going to get a lot of squares in the center.
One thing that I've noticed about chess960 from playing a couple times in Germany is that when you try to play these openings where you don't put Pawns in the center, like Alekhine's Defense or the Pirc/Modern, those sorts of setups, you tend to get in a lot of trouble because the pieces don't go on the squares they normally should. Therefore you usually want to play in the center. I had already agreed that I was going to move the Bishop to g2 if I could, but g3 wasn't any good, so I had to play g4.
With Nakamura, you're never completely sure if he's taking things seriously, but the idea to start with 'fianchetto the light squared Bishop', no matter what the start position, was new to me. The conversation continued,
JS: So you had your eye on the Queen on a8.
HN: It works out that way. Clearly I knew what the starting position was going to be ahead of time, so that's why I made this agreement to put my Bishop on a light square.
JS: So you knew like 10 minutes before the game?
HN: I just knew. I'm psychic.
YS: Being psychic and a chess player, that's a good combination. So after g4, how did she play? Could you take us through the moves? JS: We liked the position she got.
HN: Martha made very standard moves. I think she played ...e5. Since Martha's not that familiar with chess960, I thought that playing something a little more offbeat made some sense as opposed to say, the game Lahno - Cao, where they found a way to transpose back into a normal position which you could reach out of a Ruy Lopez or one of those systems. I figured it was to my advantage to throw Martha off very early in the game. That's why it also worked out.
There's a lot more to the discussion, but you can listen to it yourself if you're interested. In my next post, I'll continue with another game from the event.
(*) Throughout the commentary, different people use different terms to describe the game that I call chess960 on this blog. In transcribing the remarks, I'll adhere to my own convention.