On Chess: Showdown in St. Louis featured unexpected twists

Nov 19, 2015

Whenever the two best players in any discipline square off against one another, it is an occasion to be savored. American chess fans were especially eager to see America’s best face-off against one another and the Showdown in St. Louis did not disappoint!

The Showdown at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis (Nov. 12-15) showcased America’s two highest rated grandmasters: U.S. Chess Champion, Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana. In a second match-up, Chinese Grandmaster and former Women’s World Champion Hou Yifan played against Indian Grandmaster Parimarjan Negi.

The formats for both matches were unique. It was a four-day event with each day featuring a different chess discipline.

Day one featured a round of “Basque chess” where the players play their opponents in two simultaneous games against one another — one with Black and one with White. The time control was 90 minutes per player for the whole game with a 30 second bonus for each move made beginning from move one. Two hard fought games between Hikaru and Fabiano ended in draws. The players split the first day 1-1.

Day two featured four games of Fischer Random chess played at a time control of 20 minutes per player for the whole game with a 10 second bonus for each move made beginning from move one. In Fischer Random, the pieces are shuffled along the first rank with both armies reflecting the new starting position. There are 960 potential starting positions, so Fischer Random is sometimes called, “Chess 960.”

Former World Champion Garry Kasparov was in St. Louis promoting his new work, “Winter is Coming,” and was available to choose eight potential starting positions. The other four were set by our Twitter audience. Fabiano drew first blood in the match but Hikaru bounced back with two victories to win the Fischer Random games 2.5-1.5.

Hikaru led the match 3.5-2.5 going into day three. Tellingly, in one of his post-game interviews, Hikaru reckoned that he was a favorite in Basque Chess, Fischer Random and Blitz Chess and that Fabiano’s best chances were in the Rapid games. He was absolutely right!

Day three featured four games of Rapid chess with a time control of 15 minutes per player for the whole game with a 10 second bonus for each move made beginning from move one. Caruana drew both games he began with the Black pieces but won both games where he controlled the White pieces. Fabiano took the Rapid games by a score of 3-1. By the end of day three, Fabiano had reversed his “minus one” score in the match and led the match by a “plus one” score of 5.5-4.5. It would all come down to the final day!

Day four featured eight games of Blitz chess with a time control of three minutes per player for the whole game with a two second bonus for each move made beginning from move one. It seemed that everyone was in unanimous agreement: Hikaru as the highest rated Blitz chess player in the world (!) was the prohibitive favorite to win this portion of the match. The only questions remaining seemed to be: Was Fabiano’s one point lead good enough to hold the match tied, or would Hikaru’s presumed victory in Blitz be so great that he would win the match outright.

Fabiano didn’t get the memo and stunned by winning the Blitz chess games 4.5-3.5.

That meant that Caruana won the St. Louis Showdown with 10 points to

Nakamura’s 8 points. This allowed Caruana to claim the winner’s $60,000 purse as well as serious bragging rights in American chess circles.

The other match during the Showdown was even more decisive. Parimarjan Negi won both Basque games to take a 2-0 lead. The commentators were concerned that Hou Yifan, having traveled from China, was in trouble. Could she right her campaign? After all, her experience in Fischer Random chess didn’t exist.

Hou Yifan however played wonderfully, decisively with the Fischer Random games 3.5-0.5, to take a one point lead in the match. Hou Yifan also took the Rapid games 3-1 and held a three point lead going into the final day. Her Blitz skills were on show there as well as she won the blitz games 4.5-3.5 resulting in an impressive final score of 11 points for Hou Yifan to seven points for Parimarjan Negi. For her fine performance, Hou Yifan, picked up a winner’s purse of $30,000.

Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan is a four-time U.S. Chess Champion, ranked within the top-100 players in the world as late as 2007. Now retired from competition, Seirawan is a published chess author and journalist, as well as the star commentator for such elite events as the U.S. Championships and the Sinquefield Cup. On Chess is provided by the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.