How Wesley So Became the Fischer Random World Champion

There are countless chess variants, some enjoying more popularity than others, but none have gotten as much recent attention as the brainchild of Bobby Fischer: Fischer Random Chess, also known as Chess 960 or FRC. A high profile match took place last year in Oslo between Hikaru Nakamura and Magnus Carlsen, jumpstarting a renewed interest in Fischer Random. Since then, the Saint Louis Chess Club has hosted the “Champions Showdown,” an event featuring four separate Fischer Random matches between elite players, one of whom has (for two years running) been Garry Kasparov. This really expanded the audience for Fischer Random, and I can only see its popularity rising in the upcoming years. For those unfamiliar with the rules of Fischer Random, it basically has the same rules as standard chess, but the starting position of all the pieces are shuffled. Unlike Shuffle Chess, however, there are a couple of requirements: The bishops have to be of opposite color, and the king has to be placed in between the two rooks in order to enable castling. This preserves some of the dynamism that chess has, while also leaving plenty of room for creativity. I got the opportunity to play in the 2018 Fischer Random Championships in Reykjavik, and just last September I worked as a journalist for the latest Champions Showdown. This gave me to chance to gain some experience with the variant, both as a player and as an observer of people who actually know what they are doing. Many of the same qualities that make up a great chess player are the same ones that are required in Fischer Random. There are some specific ones, however, that I think are especially critical:
  1. Strong Sense of Danger. Unlike normal chess, you are on your own from move one. This means you have to be particularly aware of what your weaknesses are, which pieces are bad, and when you should castle. Letting your guard down at any moment can be fatal.
  2. A Practical Approach. The perfect is the enemy of the good. This is especially true in Fischer Random. Kasparov often got great positions in his match against Caruana in St. Louis, but he burned all his time trying to figure it out all the intricacies, and ended up throwing away many of his advantages. It is imperative you give up the idea of finding the “perfect” continuation, and simply try to harmonize your pieces properly.
  3. Flexibility. While it is quite common for a standard pawn structure to arise from a random starting position, trying to force one is generally a bad idea. Sometimes it is best to play symmetrically, while other times starting with an early b3 or g4 makes sense. The best Fischer Random players allow the position of the pieces dictate how they open the game, not their personal preferences in standard chess openings.
Of course, it is easy to talk in generalities. The following three examples, one from the quarterfinals and two from the semifinals of the World Championship, illustrate a few common Fischer Random motifs. [Editor's note: our pgn app can't handle FRC positions, so we include Friedel's analysis in text format here and provide a replayable version via the ChessBase cloud.]
Hikaru Nakamura (2745) Wesley So (2767) World Fischer Random 2019 (1.13), 04.10.2019 It is very important to keep your guard up in Chess960, even as early as move one. In this position, for instance, White makes a threat with his first pawn thrust. 1.c4 Not only does this innocuous pawn move open up the bishop, but it attacks the hanging pawn on h7. Unlike in chess, it is possible for a pawn to be undefended in the starting position, and such weaknesses should be watched like a hawk. How should Black respond here? 1...c5! An excellent response, and a typical pattern when the bishops start off in the same corner. 1...Ng6 looks natural, but after 2.c5! Black has a serious issue. It is possible to develop one bishop with b6 and the other with c6, but opening both is extremely difficult! I played this trick on GM Sabino Brunello in a similar position at the European Fischer Random Cup in Reykjavik, and he was unable to develop his b8 bishop all game. 2.0–0 After this the game more or less proceeds normally. 2.Bxh7 Bxh2 looks crazy, but as the h2/h7 bishops are the only dynamic aspect of the position, it is unlikely White can use the extra tempo too effectively.
Fabiano Caruana (2812) Magnus Carlsen (2876) FIDE World Fischer Random Semi-Finals (6.1), 29.10.2019 1.g3 d5 2.b3 e6 3.Qh3 g5 4.Bxh8 Rxh8 White has numerous options in this position: Developing a knight, fighting for the center with c4 or d4, and even a move like Qh5 makes sense. Fabi, on the other hand, made another choice. 5.0–0 Castling can often occur earlier in Fischer Random, and can even be legal as soon as move one! There can be drawbacks to castling too early, however. Once your king has chosen a side, it can never reconsider. This is true in standard chess as well, but there we typically know when it is safe and when it isn't, and we also have an idea of where our opponent's pieces our going. In Chess960, we are far less aware of the common patterns, and therefore castling should be treated with a degree of caution. It is generally a good idea, but timing is everything. 5...h5! With this move, Magnus not only launches an attack, but he corners Fabiano's queen on h3. While objectively the situation might still be unclear, it proved too difficult to handle for the White pieces, and Black won in decisive fashion. 6.c4 d4 7.e3 Nc6 8.Ne2 d3 9.Nec3 N8e7 10.Ne4 Qh6 11.f4 g4 12.Qg2 h4 13.Nbc3 0–0–0 14.Ng5 Rdf8 15.b4 hxg3 16.hxg3 Nxb4 17.Rb1 Nbc6 18.Kf2 f5 19.Rb3 e5 20.Nd5 e4 21.Nxe4 fxe4 22.Qxe4 Qh2+ 23.Bg2 Nf5 24.Qe6+ Kd8 25.Rxd3 Qxg3+ 26.Kg1 Ncd4 27.Rxd4 Qh2+ 28.Kf2 Qh4+ 29.Kg1 Nxd4 30.exd4 b6 31.Qe5 Rh7 32.f5 g3 33.Re1 Rhf7 34.Re4 Qh2+ 35.Kf1 Rxf5+ 36.Rf4 Rxf4+ 0–1
Magnus Carlsen (2876) Fabiano Caruana (2812) FIDE World Fischer Random Championship (8.1), 29.10.2019 1.d4 f5 2.b3 Ng6 3.Nd3 b6 4.0–0–0 One Fischer Random concept that Hikaru Nakamura mentioned was to be careful of blocking central pawns with knights. It is tempting to develop knights towards the center, but they end up hindering your central pawns and other pieces. 4...Nd6 To be fair to Fabiano, it makes more sense to do this with a fianchettoed light-squared bishop, but it still blocks central play and makes the bishop on f8 feel sad about its life. Perhaps a setup with e6–d5–Nd6 would be more advisable. You'll notice that in a few moves White had full central control, and Black was forced to waste time later fixing the knight. 5.f3 0–0–0 6.Ng3 f4 7.Nh5 Qd5 8.Nhxf4 Nxf4 9.Nxf4 Qa5 10.e4 e5 11.dxe5 Nf7 12.Kb1 Bb4 13.Re2 Nxe5 14.Qe3 Bc5 15.Qd2 Bb4 16.Qc1 Ba3 17.Bb2 Bxb2 18.Qxb2 Qc5 19.Red2 a5 20.Nd5 Bc6 21.a3 Kb7 22.b4 axb4 23.axb4 Qf8 24.Ne3 d6 25.Nc4 Ra8 26.b5 Bd7 27.Nxd6+ cxd6 28.Rxd6 Ra7 29.Rxd7+ Nxd7 30.Rxd7+ Kb8 31.Rxa7 Kxa7 32.Bc4 Qc5 33.Bd5 Re7 34.Qa2+ Kb8 35.Qa8+ Kc7 36.Qc6+ Qxc6 37.bxc6 Re5 38.f4 Rh5 39.h3 Rh4 40.f5 Rf4 41.g4 h6 42.c4 Rf3 43.e5 Rxh3 44.f6 gxf6 45.exf6 Re3 46.f7 Re1+ 47.Kc2 Rf1 48.Kd3 Kd6 49.Ke4 Rf6 50.c7 Kxc7 51.Ke5 Rf1 52.Ke6 Kd8 53.Be4 1–0 The 2019 Fischer Random World Championship started with three qualifying rounds, all taking place on Six players, all elite GMs, qualified for the quarterfinals. They joined Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura, who were automatically seeded by virtue of being runners up to Carlsen in the World Championship and unofficial Fischer Random World Championship matches respectively. The quarterfinal round, which also took place on, was pretty wonky. It consisted of four matches with two longer time control games, two rapid games, and two blitz games. The longer the time control, the more the game was weighed, which makes quite a lot of sense. The strange part was that they needed three qualifiers to join Magnus in the semis, so losers were not automatically eliminated. The eventual champion, Wesley So, actually got demolished by Hikaru Nakamura in his first match. But he recovered nicely with narrow victories against Svidler and Fedoseev. Nakamura, meanwhile, lost to Caruana in his final match, while Nepomniachtchi qualified by beating Iranian phenom Firouzja in two separate matches. This all looked pretty weird to me, and I’d suspect they will rethink it next year. The semifinals and finals took place in Norway from October 27th to November 2nd. Fabiano would get to avenge the 2018 World Championship by taking on Magnus in the first match, while So took on Nepomniachtchi in the other. Neither match was particularly close, with Carlsen and So clinching victory before the players even got into blitz games. This meant Magnus and Wesley would play for the title, while Ian and Fabi would play a match for 3rd place. The American #1 fought well, but Nepomniachtchi took the match convincingly. The title fight, however, was easily the most surprising. Wesley So absolutely demolished the World Champion with an undefeated 13.5-2.5 score. Wesley outplayed Magnus in nearly every game, and decided the match in his favor after only six games total, four wins and two draws. The following two games highlight how he accomplished this milestone in his career.
Wesley So (2767) Magnus Carlsen (2876) FIDE World Fischer Random Championship (10.1), 31.10.2019 This starting position is not so different from standard chess, but it is very important to be careful with the queen in the corner- it has a tendency to get shut out of the game. 1.d4 b6 In chess this would be considered "offbeat" for a first move, but with a queen on a8 stopping e4 it makes a great deal of sense. 2.Ng3 Ba6 Once again, this move might appear nonstandard, but Magnus simply wants to discourage e4. 3.b3 e6 4.c4 d5 5.e3 Be7 6.Nc3 Ng6 7.Bd3 0–0 8.0–0 Nd7 After numerous logical developing moves, the players find themselves in quite a standard-looking Queen's Indian. Sure, the knights on g3 and g6 are slightly odd, and typically the queens would be more centralized. Despite this, most of the same concepts apply, and therefore knowledge of those structures really comes in handy. 9.cxd5 Bxd3 10.Rxd3 exd5 11.Nf5 Whoa, what's this here then? It is important not to get nonchalant when transposing to a "normal" position, since quite often one piece that is slightly different can really change things. 11...Rfe8 Black has no real choice but to give up the bishop, This is not necessarily the end of the world, but he has to be very careful not to allow e4 with an unopposed dark-squared bishop. 12.Nxe7+ Rxe7 12...Nxe7 I myself prefer this recapture, as I don't think the knight on g6 is so hot, and a transfer of Nf5–Nd6 could become useful. 13.b4 Wesley tries to clamp down on the c5 break, but I'm not sure I like this approach. White would like to open the dark-squared bishop, and it will sit pretty on b2 if c5 is played. I also don't think d5 will be much of a weakness in the position we'll find ourselves in. 13.f3 c5 14.dxc5 (14.Ba3!?) 14...Nxc5 15.Rdd1 and while I still prefer White, perhaps the weakness on e3 will give Black enough counterplay.; 13.Rdd1 followed by Qb1 and slow improvements also has some merit. 13...Nf6 14.b5 c6 15.a4 h5 It is understandable that Magnus wants to create kingside counterplay, but this move is both commital and slow. 15...Qc8 improving the queen looks natural. 16.h3 Qc8 17.bxc6 Re6 18.f3
This was quite an important moment in the game. How would you recapture on c6? 18...Rxc6 It is tempting to make this active recapture, but allowing the e4 break in such a position is quite risky. I'm sure Magnus knew this and thought he had things under control, but I believe he underestimated Wesley's resources. 18...Qxc6 keeps an eye on the e4 break. 19.e4 dxe4 20.fxe4 Ne5 This move might be inaccurate, but this is the only reason you'd go down this path. 21.Re3 Nc4 22.Ref3 Rxd4 Magnus has no choice but to take up the gauntlet. 23.Nd5 Rxe4 24.Bh6 Wesley opts for a much more enterprising approach. I'm curious if this move escaped the World Champion's attention when pursuing this line. 24.Nxf6+ Rxf6 25.Rxf6 gxf6 26.Qxf6 looks quite dangerous for Black, but probably he can defend after 26...Qc5+ 27.Kh1 Qe7 I still would rather be White, but perhaps that is only my bias towards less drafty kingsides. 24...Ne8 This move is no blunder, but it certainly gets quite scary from here on out. 24...Qd7 defends for Black according to the silicon beast, and after 25.Rg3 Qxd5 26.Rxf6 Qe5 is the crucial move, played with or without Qc5+ thrown in. 27.Rxg7+ Kh8 28.Qxe5 Nxe5 29.Rxc6 Nxc6 30.Rxf7 Rxa4 Black is up a pawn, but White is no worse with the powerful rook and bishop. This would likely end in a draw. 25.Bxg7 Nd2 26.Rxf7 Nxf1 27.Rf8+ Kh7 28.Be5 So far, both players are finding all the best moves. This is particularly impressive given the time control and complexity of the position. These guys are the best for a reason. Don't try this at home, folks. 28.Rh8+ Kg6 29.Rh6+ (29.Be5 is best, and similar to the game.) 29...Kf7 leads nowhere, and in fact just loses for White. 28...Rc1 29.Rh8+ Kg6 30.Ne7+ Kf7 The only safe option. 30...Kg5 31.Rg8+ Kh6 (31...Kh4 32.Bf6+) 32.Bf4+! followed by Qh8 mate is rather unpleasant. 31.Rh7+ Ke6 The counterintuitive 31...Kf8 might actually be more accurate, as the king on e6 turns out to be quite awkward. 32.Nxc8 Rxa1 33.Bxa1 Ng3 offers better drawing chances than the game. 32.Nxc8 Rxa1 33.Bxa1 Ng3 34.Rxa7 This incredibly natural move may not be best. 34.Re7+ Kd5 (34...Kf5 35.Rxe8 oops) 35.Kf2 is apparently quite promising for White, but it is difficult to play this way with little time. 34...Nf5 35.Bh8 moves like this look fancy, but really he just wants to get the bishop out of the way. 35...Re2 After so many accurate moves, the World Champion finally blunders. 35...Rc4 was the more accurate path to the 2nd, and after 36.Nxb6 Rc1+ 37.Kf2 Rc2+ Black's active rook and coordinated knights should offer excellent drawing chances. 36.g4! hxg4 37.hxg4 Now Re7+ will prove deadly. 37...Ne3 37...Ng3 saves the piece, but after 38.Re7+ Kd5 39.Nxb6+ Kc6 40.Rxe2 Nxe2+ 41.Kf2 the two pawns should be enough to secure the win. It should be noted that after 41...Kxb6 42.Kxe2 Black can't play 42...Ka5 due to 43.Kd3 (43.Be5 actually doesn't work, since Black gets the king back in time. 43...Kxa4 44.Kd3 Kb5 45.Ke4 Kc6 46.Kf5 Kd7) 43...Kxa4 44.Kc4 and the g-pawn will prove decisive with the king cut off. 38.Re7+ Kd5 39.Rxe8 Rg2+ 40.Kh1 Rxg4 41.Rxe3 Rh4+ 42.Kg2 Rxh8 43.Nxb6+ Kc5 44.Rb3 From here on Wesley shows exemplary technique to reel in the point. It may look simple, but with no time on the clock it is easy to screw up such endgames. 44...Rh4 45.Rb5+ Kc6 46.Rb1 Rh5 47.Nc4 Rh4 48.Nb6 Rh5 49.Nc4 Rh4 50.Nb2 This looks awkward, but Black can't maintain the pin on the b-file, and White's king will head over unimpeded. 50...Kb6 51.Kg3 Rd4 52.Kf3 Ka5 53.Ke3 Rd8 54.Rh1 Rd5 54...Kb4 55.Rh5 55.Rh4 Rg5 56.Kd3 Rc5 57.Rc4 Rh5 58.Kc2 Rh3 59.Rc3 Rh6 60.Kb3 Rb6+ 61.Ka3 Rc6 Magnus still got jokes. 62.Rc4 62.Rxc6 is stalemate. 62...Rh6 63.Rc5+ Ka6 64.Kb4 Rh1 65.Rc6+ Ka7 66.Nc4 Kb7 67.Rb6+ Ka7 68.Rg6 Rb1+ 69.Ka5 Rh1 70.Rg7+ Kb8 71.Ka6 Rh5 One last trick. 72.Rg8+ An incredibly complex battle that was truly decided by one bad blunder. It should be noted that Wesley put loads of pressure on the World Champion with energetic play. This win gave the American some momentum, and he certainly made the most of it throughout the rest of the match. 72.Nb6 Ra5+ was the hope, of course. 1–0
Magnus Carlsen (2876) Wesley So (2767) FIDE World Fischer Random Championship (12.1), 01.11.2019 This starting position is far from normal. The rooks are placed in the corners, but the central bishops are often awkward, and castling is likely to prove quite challenging. Unlike in many other starting positions, the players had very different ideas on how to play this one. 1.a4 I know top players are moving their rook pawns earlier these days, but this is a bit excessive, no? Despite the different strategies and nuances associated with Chess960, developing pieces and controlling the center are still quite important. 1...e5 2.a5 d5 Of course it was possible for Wesley to stop the a6 push, but he determined that central control was more vital. Carlsen, meanwhile, is hoping that the pawn on a6 will prove to be enough of a nuisance that it makes Black's life annoying. 3.a6 b6 4.d3 Nd6 5.e4 Magnus decides to sacrifice a pawn in order to fight for the center. While I'm skeptical of the a-pawn push, this follow up makes a lot of sense to me. White wants to open the position in order to take advantage of Black's weak queenside light squares. 5...dxe4 6.dxe4 Nxe4 Wesley takes up the gauntlet, as well he probably should. 7.Qe2 This move, on the other hand, I really can't get behind. It blocks the light-squared bishop and invites Black to improve his position. 7.Bf3 f5 8.g4!? is one logical continuation, and the position looks far from clear. 7...f5 8.f3 Nd6 9.Qxe5 Magnus wins back his pawn, but Wesley's pieces come flying out with tremendous force. 9...Bf6 10.Qf4 0–0–0 Even to a Fischer Random novice, it is clear something has gone horribly wrong for White. 11.Nge2 11.Nd3 might offer better chances, but White's situation still looks bleak. 11...g5 12.Qe3 12.Qb4 c5 13.Qb3 Bf7 is no better. 12...Bxb2! Wesley uses tactics to snag a pawn, and White gets no compensation whatsoever. The World Champion fought on gallantly, but ultimately was unable to cause any sort of real problems for Black. This win more or less sewed up the Championship in So's favor. 13.Bc3 Bxc3 14.Nxc3 Qf6 15.h4 Nc4 16.hxg5 Nxe3 17.gxf6 Nxf6 18.Nd3 Rg8 19.Be2 Rxg2 20.Nf4 Rg8 21.Bd3 Rd4 22.Nce2 Rd6 23.Kb2 c5 24.Rae1 c4 25.Nc3 cxd3 26.Rxe3 dxc2 27.Rc1 Kb8 28.Rxc2 Bd7 29.Re7 b5 30.Rf7 Rxa6 31.Ncd5 Nxd5 32.Nxd5 Rd6 33.Ne7 Rh8 34.Rc5 a6 35.Nxf5 Bxf5 36.Rcxf5 h5 37.Re5 h4 38.Ree7 Rb6 39.Kc3 h3 40.Rh7 Rxh7 41.Rxh7 Rf6 42.Rxh3 Kb7 43.Kd4 Kb6 44.Ke5 Rf8 45.f4 b4 46.f5 a5 47.Rf3 a4 48.Kd4 Kb5 49.Kd3 Rc8 50.f6 b3 0–1 And so Wesley So became the first official Fischer Random World Champion. In one of his interviews afterwards, he remarked how “free” he felt while playing. There was no opening prep to worry about, no lengthy computer lines to memorize, and he was able to show the world his best chess. While I don’t think standard chess should be thrown by the wayside, I would be quite interested in seeing more elite Chess960 events, as well as more open events for the rest of us. I also believe that Fischer Random events with classical time controls would be worthwhile, giving people the opportunity to actually try to figure out their positions. Meanwhile, I’ll be looking forward to next year’s Fischer Random World Championship. Will Wesley continue to be a dominant force? Will Magnus come back with a vengeance? Will another challenger take the title? I certainly look forward to finding out.