Sevian Wins 9LX Champions Showcase Ahead of Caruana, Kasparov

Nine Americans and a retired Croatian consistently put their pieces on the wrong squares at the start of each round. Nine times, they tried to get it right, and nine times, they ended up having to play from unusual starting positions with complicated castling rules instead.  

Wait! We are being told that they agreed to play like this, and in fact were playing a variant known as Chess 960 meant to eliminate opening preparation. Which makes sense, since that retired Croatian guy is better known as 13th world champion Garry Kasparov!


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A devastated Kasparov during the annual Ultimate Minds exhibition preceding the Champions Showdown (courtesy Lennart Ootes/SLCC)


The 2023 Champions Showdown Chess 9LX took place from September 8 through 10 at the Saint Louis Chess Club (SLCC) for nine rounds of Chess 960. Despite Kasparov leading the event ahead of seven active players after the first day, stamina and time pressure got the best of him as the days went out.


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The unlikely champion! (courtesy Lennart Ootes/SLCC)


When the dust settled, it was GM Samuel Sevian finishing with a 7/9 score that was a full point ahead of a field that included GMs Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So, Leinier Dominguez, and Levon Aronian. Also joining the fun were GMs Jeffrey Xiong, Ray Robson, and Sam Shankland. Shankland, in particular, had an excellent event, finishing in a three-way tie for second with 6/9 and wins over Kasparov, Caruana, and Nakamura.




Right from the first round, the games got off to an eventful start with Kasparov playing former Chess 960 world champion GM Wesley So. Note that, for games played in round one, quirks of the variant are preventing them from embedding properly, so please follow links to see the full game. For other games, they will be embedded as normal.


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The now-traditional handshake-meets-fist-bump (courtesy Lennart Ootes/SLCC)


An old saying goes that everyone’s pieces move the same, except for Kasparov’s. This was on display against So, as Kasparov’s weakened king position was of no bother. But one weakening of the light squares around So’s king and Kasparov was ready to pounce. See for yourself here, with the position right before So's fatal 22. c4??.


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How should Black refute White's 22. c4?


Another key encounter was between the Armenian-born GM Levon Aronian and the Armenian-American Sevian. Despite taking place in round one, this ended up being the game that decided the tournament, as Sevian’s eleventh-hour victory from a drawn position (that was previously a lost position) ended up being the difference-maker between Sevian and Aronian, who finished along with Shankland and So a point behind the winner. This miscalculation on Aronian’s part had less to do with the starting position and more to do with the clock, to be sure.


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Does 62. ... Bxc3 win for Black?


Another highlight from the first day included the second-round draw between Kasparov and Nakamura. Nakamura was the only player Kasparov was unable to topple on day one, although it was Nakamura who had a near-miss in the endgame. Can you find an improvement for Black over the text move?



Kasparov’s fortunes started to turn as he squandered a promising position in his fifth round game against Xiong. This game highlights the depths of Chess 960 and why it has captured the interest of so many of the world’s elite players. It’s not just that the pieces start on different squares, but that this wrinkle calls into question whether “basic principles” are always still in effect in the same way. In the position below, Kasparov has a favorable position after 18 moves, and there’s no reason not to blow things up with 19. h4.



Instead, Kasparov brings his knight towards the center with Nf1-d2-f3 and also castles (which involves moving the king and rook to the squares they would be on after castling in Chess 1). As soon as he’s centralized his pieces, completing development in this way, his position has went from better to equal to losing, thanks to Black’s stunning 21. … h5!, winning the e-pawn, the center and, shortly thereafter, the game.

Another amusing position occurred during Sevian’s crucial seventh-round win over Kasparov.



Here, it looks like Black is playing classical chess, albeit with a significant handicap of at least six moves. But what Sevian had actually done is move his light-squared bishop from e8 to c8, reasoning it made sense on a6, and likewise taken the time with several other pieces to put them on more familiar squares. Shockingly, the computer took no issue with any of these decisions, finding it difficult to suggest improvements for Kasparov, whose center quickly collapsed once again.

Everything came down to Caruana – Sevian in the final round, with Caruana having a chance to overtake the leader by half-a-point with a win. The critical moment occurred right after Sevian castled long.



After thinking for under a minute, Caruana followed suit, not realizing he had walked directly into a tremendous attack led by Black’s queen, who quickly coordinated with Black’s bishop and d-rook to provide tremendous pressure. Neither White’s king’s danger after castling, nor its safety in the center after, e.g., 15. c3, were at all intuitive to those of us with more classical intuitions.

As a result, Sevian finished with an undefeated performance of five wins and four draws to take a resounding clear first place. Sevian earned $37,500 for his work. The full prize distribution can be seen below, and is available on the organizers' website.