GM Kaufman on Fischer Random & The Irvine Grind
By GM Larry Kaufman   
August 6, 2010
GM Larry Kaufman at the US Open in Irvine, CA, Photo courtesy

After six days at the US Open/Jerry Hanken Memorial, I've already played 15 tournament games! I'm in clear second at the Open with 5.5 out of 6, I shared first place in the Fischer Random tourney with 3.5 out of 4, and I won the Game 15 Championship outright with 4.5 out of 5. I was the only GM in the side events, but there were a few masters in each. I'll focus on the Fischer Random event for this blog.

For those who are unfamiliar with it,  Fischer Random chess, also known as Chess 960, is the version of shuffle chess invented by Bobby Fischer in which the starting position is randomly chosen from among 960 possibilities. The arrangement of the pieces on the back row is decided by some random method (digital clocks now support this), with the conditions that the king must be between the rooks, the bishops must be of opposite color, and the Black and White setups are identical. In this event the method used was to have the youngest child present point to one square after another while the TD drew pieces (other than rooks and king) at random from a bag. It's not a purely random method as the child could in theory use strategy to try to get positions he liked, but it wasn't a problem in practice. Castling is always possible on both sides with the usual stipulations, but the king and rook end up in the same positions as in normal chess, so castling can look rather strange. For example with rooks on a1 and c1 and king on b1, White castles kingside by moving b1 to g1 and c1 to f1!

The idea of the game is to throw out opening theory and force the players to think for themselves from the start. Although I have a reputation as an opening theoretician, the idea appeals to me and so I wanted to play in this event. I have played a few games on ICC at blitz speed, but this was a rare opportunity to play fairly serious games (25'+5" delay).

In general the games tend to end up looking more or less like normal chess, thanks in part to Fischer's castling rules and of course to the human tendency to head for familiar situations. Here is one example, my first round game against the TD, Expert Damian Nash. After my 21st move as White, the following position arose:
Black to Move

The position looks rather like it came out of a Dutch defense in standard chess, though the bad bishop on b6 looks a bit strange. White has a substantial advantage. Black continued 21...Rg6. I could and perhaps should have simply played g3, but I went for 22.Bxf5 Rxg2+ 23.Kf1 Qb5+ 24.Bd3 Qc6.
Now in mild time pressure I erred with 25.e4? (25.Qb8+ Kf7 26.Qf4+ Kg8 and then 27.e4 would keep the advantage)  
Black to Move

 25...Bc7! (preventing Qb8+ with the idea of ....Rg6 next move) would have given Black the better chances. Fortunately for me Black blundered with 25...c4?? and when I took his rook he had to resign as he can't take the bishop due to mate.

Unfortunately the  Fischer Random event only drew 12 players (for comparison the Game 15 event had 21). People need to get used to the idea, but I think most of those who try it like it.

Some complain that many of the starting positions are too bizarre or unaesthetic or too favorable to White, but perhaps these are good trade-offs for the benefit of getting to think for yourself from the start. The principal alternative to  Fischer Random to minimize the preparation aspect is Kramnik's proposal to play normal chess but with the openings chosen by ballot from some list, as is done in checkers. Personally I am attracted to Kramnik's idea even more than Fischer's, but perhaps that's because I have experience with nearly every respectable opening.

The event was deemed not ratable (even on the USCF quick scale), but it was agreed before the event to have it submitted to the "World New Chess Association" in Germany, which maintains ratings for Chess960. If it catches on in the US, I suppose we'll need a rating system for it here.

GM Larry Kaufman vs. Jim Dean, Photo courtesy

As for the Game 15 event, I had bad positions in all of my three Black games, but somehow I ended up winning all three of them. Despite being tired out from five rounds of this, I played a good game last night in the main event against Moussa and won.

(Ed. Note-corrected from IM Shipman game, which was a draw)

I also won my sixth round game against Jim Dean.

Who says old guys can only play one game a day?

GM Larry Kaufman will also be blogging from the
US Senior Open, set for Boca Raton, Florida, August 23-28.