By Jonathan Tisdall
The 2022 FIDE World Fischer Random Chess Championship is about to begin. The event will get its second official edition, this time in Reykjavik from 25-30 October 2022 — 50 years after Iceland's capital first captured the attention of the classical chess world, when it hosted the legendary Fischer-Spassky title match in 1972.
The survivors and the seeds
The road to Reykjavik has been either grueling or easy, depending on the route taken. The qualification format is still in its infancy, and has tried to strike a balance between being unusually open to the wider chess world than a traditional title cycle, while also accommodating seeds and wildcards. The final eight here is the same amount as the traditional chess world's Candidates Tournament, but there is one less ‘open’ spot since the champion does not sit and wait outside as a 'final boss', but joins the quarter-finalists in Fischer Random (FR).
The FR titleholder, US Grandmaster (GM) Wesley So, is joined by dethroned runner-up — and classical world champion — Magnus Carlsen. Two players have been granted wildcard berths in the event: local representative and top-rated Icelandic GM Hjörvar Steinn Grétarsson, and FIDE presidential pick Ian Nepomniachtchi, two-time classical title challenger, and semifinalist in the inaugural FIDE Fischer Random championship in Norway in 2019.
They will be joined by a quartet that have fought their way here over a horde of online competitors. Two of these — Vladimir Fedoseev and Matthias Blübaum - emerged from the chess.com online site qualifiers, open only to FIDE titled players. Fedoseev will be a familiar face for Fischer Random fans — an aggressive, creative player, he was eliminated by remorseless champion So in the quarterfinals in 2019. German GM Blübaum is an exciting newcomer to the late stages of this event.
The qualifiers held by online site lichess represented the 'democratic' format of this particular world championship, with the first stages open to all players, so even those without titles or big credentials could test their skills at this form of the game, and dream of adventuring far in the competition. The two winners were, nevertheless, decorated GMs. US GM Hikaru Nakamura is not only one of the best-known players in the world thanks to his popular streaming endeavors, he is a Fischer Random shark as well.
When the effort to revive and raise the variant as a serious alternative to the classical game got off the ground in 2018 with an unofficial title match in Norway, Nakamura took on 'conventional' world champion Carlsen. Hikaru was chosen based on his 2009 match win over elite GM Levon Aronian, which was the final hurrah of the first series of elite FR events in Mainz, Germany. Read more on the history of the Fischer Random World Championship here.
The other lichess qualifier in Reykjavik is Uzbekistani prodigy Nodirbek Abdusattorov. The just-turned 18-year-old has already managed to acquire an Olympic gold team medal and a World Rapid Chess Championship title for his trophy cabinet.
From group to KO
The players will be divided into two groups of four, with two advancing from each section, in World Cup football style.
The semifinals and finals will be elimination matches, and the final day will also see duels involving all of the players to determine each of the prize spots, depending on where they placed earlier. Besides the FIDE world title at stake, the players will be competing for a purse of USD 400,000, and a hefty first prize of $150,000.
A return to human combat
Historically, interest in playing chess variants with the piece positions shuffled has been fueled by a desire to make a break with charted knowledge in the opening phase of the game. As classical chess has been transformed by the influence of engine power, this long-held fear that the game was being overly worked out has finally become more realistic, with vast amounts of memorized 'perfection' beginning to burden top-level chess.
The vista of 959 uncharted territories means that Fischer Random more or less erases book learning, and that players are on their own from virtually the first move. The starting position will be revealed a scant 15 minutes before the start of play, and the players can consult with one designated human assistant — but no one and nothing else — in the brief intervals before the games begin.
This opening clean slate makes Fischer Random hugely appealing to many — maybe most? — elite players, who are freed from their usual intense and meticulous levels of preparation, and can play with discovery and delight again.
Paradoxically, it is often this aspect of the variant that can be an obstacle to acceptance with amateur players, who can feel lost without their favorite openings. In practice, this part of the game can be a great leveler, with stronger players more likely to stray or err early than would ever happen under 'traditional' circumstances.
It is rare that a Fischer Random game never reverts to looking like 'chess', with how, and how long, this process takes being one of the most fascinating aspects of its play.
The games rules are extremely simple: the pieces on the players' first row are shuffled at random, with two factors kept in mind — the bishops must not be on the same color square, and there must be a rook on either side of the king, to allow for castling. The rules of castling are the same as classical chess — but it is often the most shocking and eye-catching element of the variant, since it usually happens from a very different starting point.
For this event, the starting position will be redrawn at random if, by some chance, the classical set-up emerges from among the 960 alternatives.
The chief arbiter will be Omar Salama, who has vast experience at major FIDE events, and is also both a FIDE Trainer and International Organizer. The rest of the officiating team are arbiters Shohreh Bayat and Ingibjörg Edda Birgisdottir — the latter will have the position of "Fair play officer".