The Champions Showdown Chess960 matches are underway in St. Louis, with the fan focus being on the clash between the legendary Garry Kasparov and Veselin Topalov. It is Topalov, the Bulgarian grandmaster, who leads the match after the second day of play.

In an interesting turn of events, this year’s Champions Showdown—the well-known match format in St. Louis, usually held a bit later in the year—is played with Chess960 only. With Garry Kasparov being back at the board, it’s also the debut for the 13th classical world chess champion in this format of chess, which was strongly advocated by the late 11th world champion Bobby Fischer.

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In any type of chess, it’s great to see Kasparov back at the board. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Saint Louis Chess Club.

Five matches are being played this week for a total prize fund of $250,000 ($50,000 each):

  • Garry Kasparov vs Veselin Topalov
  • Hikaru Nakamura vs Peter Svidler
  • Wesley So vs Anish Giri
  • Sam Shankland vs Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
  • Levon Aronian vs Leinier Dominguez

The event started on Tuesday with two rapid games (30 minutes + 10 seconds delay) and two blitz games (five minutes + five seconds delay). This is the schedule for the first three days, and then on Friday we’ll see eight more blitz games. 

A new Chess960 position is chosen after every four games. For the score, the rapid games count double: each rapid game is worth two points, and each blitz game one point.

The story so far is one we already knew: Chess960 can be both “funky” (as Shankland put it) and quite similar to regular chess, but in any case, there is no real opening theory.

A nice detail, however, is that the players get to spend an hour before the start (between noon and 1 p.m. St. Louis time) to prepare in the playing hall. For instance, on day two the Americans Nakamura, Shankland and So worked together; Aronian sat down with MVL and Kasparov analysed with Svidler. Giri worked with his regular second, Erwin l’Ami.

They seem to enjoy this analytical session (without reaching a clear conclusion about what is the best first move!), like they seem to enjoy their laptop-free mornings!

Nakamura, Shankland, So analyzing

Nakamura, Shankland and So analyzing their next starting position. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Saint Louis Chess Club.

Garry Kasparov vs Veselin Topalov — score after day two: 4-8

The first position given to the players gave them the option to castle on the first move—something we also saw in the match between Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura in February.

Topalov didn’t do that in his rapid game as White vs Kasparov. After his first clash with Kasparov had ended in a draw, the Bulgarian GM went for an early pawn grab typically possible in some Chess960 positions. Like other players did in the same position, Kasparov sacrificed that h-pawn.

He got a beautiful pawn center and was just better, but 8…e4 was premature and allowed Topalov counterplay. Topalov was up material in the endgame, and this time Kasparov’s compensation was not enough.

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For the two blitz games, the position was the same. Again the players started with a draw, and then it was Kasparov who finished off with a win. He didn’t level the score, because blitz is worth half compared to rapid.

The game seemed decided by Topalov playing a combination on move 15 that was flawed. However, Kasparov’s play in the technical phase (after winning an exchange) wasn’t perfect (“I played very poorly” —Kasparov), but Topalov’s wasn’t either!

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Kasparov noted that both his missing 8…Ba5 in the first game, and Topalov missing his Na8-c7 protecting the d5-knight, were because of the different “geometry” in Chess960, where pieces tend to be on very unnatural squares. As a result, the classically trained human mind can miss relatively easy tactics.

Topalov, who was Kasparov’s opponent in his last classical game (Linares, 2005), said that facing his old rival was “quite intense” and that he did “better than expected.” He added: “The best way to play Garry is to to ignore you’re playing Garry and focus on the position. The strongest weapon is to play the best moves.”

He did just that in the first rapid game on Wednesday, where he basically outplayed Kasparov after the latter completely forgot that castling queenside was legal for White.

Not being fully aware of the rules, at end of the game Topalov wrongly promoted (pushing the pawn to b8 and pressing the clock before turning it into a queen), but the position was so lost that Kasparov could only resign.

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Topalov-Kasparov St. Louis

Topalov asks the arbiter about the correct procedure, but then Kasparov just resigns. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Saint Louis Chess Club.

The second was drawn, and then the blitz saw the same: one draw, and one win for Topalov. He ended up trapping a bishop, although Kasparov admitted that his position was rather unpleasant: “Blunders don’t happen all of a sudden. It’s a result of you being uncomfortable.” 

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Still showing traces of his love of opening theory, Kasparov remarked: “I think what we’re learning, gradually, by playing so many games with these positions is that it’s highly unlikely that some positions will be so much better for White than others. The biggest fear was that there will be positions where White has a tremendous advantage.”

Kasparov Ashley St Louis

Kasparov with Maurice Ashley. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Saint Louis Chess Club.

Hikaru Nakamura vs Peter Svidler — score after day two: 6-6

After a draw, the second game in this match saw the same pawn sacrifice on h7, but Svidler decided to give his h-pawn back right away. The game saw more remarkable rook maneuvers by Nakamura, who gradually got a winning advantage.

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Nakamura found the games and the openings so far “very interesting.” | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Saint Louis Chess Club.

Svidler won the blitz 1.5-0.5, In the first, Nakamura went for 1.d4 instead, and got a very promising position thanks to an exchange sacrifice. But as the time on the clock was ticking away, he started losing the thread.

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Kasparov with Svidler and Mikhail Khodarkovsky

Svidler on analyzing with Kasparov: “Today I got to discuss chess with Garry. It’s very difficult to describe how good this makes me feel.” | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Saint Louis Chess Club.

About day two, Svidler said: “It sounds funny to even say those words but I think Hikaru thoroughly out-prepared me today. He had ideas where I had none, frankly!”

After three draws, the Russian GM leveled the score by winning the last blitz game. That one saw a crazy finish with Nakamura getting a winning attack (43.Qd3+ g6 44.Bxf7) but Svidler countering, and winning despite missing a forced mate.

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Wesley So vs Anish Giri — score after day two: 9-3

Wesley So has been crushing it in St. Louis so far, and is leading his match by the biggest margin of all. In fact, he said he much prefers this type of chess over regular chess: “I feel more relaxed. I’m ready to play creative chess.”

The American GM didn’t have a clear explanation of his big lead that resulted from four wins and for draws: “Somehow the wins kept coming. I think Anish’s time management wasn’t very good today. And I was just copying his moves!”

The most interesting game was this one from day one, again with the pawn sacrifice variation we’ve seen before:

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Wesley So Champions Showdown

Wesley So is doing very well. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Saint Louis Chess Club.

Sam Shankland vs Maxime Vachier-Lagrave — score after day two: 5.5-6.5

Shankland is holding his own against Vachier-Lagrave, being down the smallest possible margin after two days. Today he revealed that he trained for the match quite seriously, with four different positions against three different opponents.

Vachier-Lagrave’s beautiful win in the first blitz game was the best game of the day:

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Tony Rich of the Saint Louis Chess Club (left) reveals a new position to the players. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Saint Louis Chess Club.

Levon Aronian vs Leinier Dominguez — score after day two: 8-4

Aronian is clearly enjoying himself in St. Louis with this format. Before his interview on Wednesday with Maurice Ashley, he asked whether there would be any dancing happening in the evening (Ashley dances salsa often). 

Aronian, when asked about this: “It’s part of preparation. When you’re playing against a Cuban player, you should dance salsa!”

In one of today’s rapid games, he played a speculative rook sacrifice, which reminded of a game he played with Grischuk last month in the same playing hall. “I knew it was extremely sharp and might not work for me, but that’s my brand of chess. I have to stay true to myself,” Aronian said.

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Related post:

https://www.chess.com/news/view/topalov-leads-chess960-match-vs-kasparov-after-day-2