Battle lines are drawn: Group stage ready to begin
October 24, 2022

By Jonathan Tisdall

The opening ceremony for the official 'Fischer Random' world title — a chess variant where the pieces are shuffled around out of their usual starting positions — was held in Reykjavik on Monday evening. The capital of Iceland is also celebrating the 50th anniversary of the historic classical chess duel between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, which put both country and game into the spotlight.

Groups first

The eight qualified Grandmasters took part in a double-drawing of lots, as they were first placed in two preliminary groups, and then made a second round of choices to determine the order of the games.

Reigning Fischer Random champion Wesley So, and the runner-up in the previous title event, classical World Champion Magnus Carlsen, were placed in different groups, to keep a possible favorites rematch alive for later stages. After this, chief arbiter Omar Salama distributed the remaining pairs of evenly rated players by offering his outstretched fists, one of which concealed a pawn. 

Each of the players given a choice: Hikaru Nakamura, Vladimir Fedoseev and Matthias Blübaum — picked an empty hand, and joined Carlsen in Group B. Ian Nepomniachtchi, Nodirbek Abdusattorov and Hjörvar Steinn Grétarsson were placed in the defending champion's Group A.

Pairings second

Next, each of the players were called up to choose a hidden number, folded underneath a wooden pawn, to determine their order of play. This resulted in the line-ups for the first day of play:

Round 1:

Group A

Grétarsson - So
Abdusattorov - Nepomniachtchi

Group B 

Blübaum - Nakamura
Carlsen - Fedoseev

Round 2:

Group A

Nepomniachtchi - Grétarsson 
So - Abdusattorov

Group B 

Fedoseev - Blübaum
Nakamura - Carlsen

The routine

The start position — one of 959 possible — will be chosen at random, 15 minutes before the beginning of each round. The players will play one game with each color from this starting position. They can only consult with their designated assistant in this short window of time before the two games are played, and cannot use any notes or devices. 

The player who wins the two-game match will score two points. A drawn match will score one point each. A lost match scores no points.

The time control is so-called 'slow rapid': Each game is 30 moves in 25 minutes, plus 5 minutes for the rest of the game after move 30, plus 5 seconds increment per move starting from move 31.

Round one will begin at 15:00 GMT (17:00 CET).

Possible highlights

While the sharp styles of the players and the unexplored territories of Fischer Random should guarantee exciting games, a few match-ups are worth mentioning. Local attention will doubtless be focused on the starting duel between Icelandic Grandmaster Grétarsson and defending champion So. 

The long-running rivalry between Carlsen and Nakamura, who contested the unofficial Fischer Random title match in 2018 that sparked the revival of interest in the variant, should also pack a punch.

Assistants and supporters

Perhaps the biggest attraction of Fischer Random chess is how it eliminates the huge body of opening preparation built up over decades, and now enhanced with superhuman machine assistance. With this in mind, some of the players have opted for moral support from family or friends over a designated assistant.

For example, Champion Wesley So is here with his mother, and emphasized how much he loves the difference Fischer Random provides, saying he clearly prefers it over classical chess, with its hours of opening preparation and kids wielding long, memorized, computer-generated variations. Playing Fischer Random is better, he says — but harder.

At least as happy

Arguably the most fascinating choice of assistant has been made by Hjörvar Steinn Grétarsson, who is aided by his childhood coach, former top Icelandic Grandmaster Helgi Olafsson. Grétarsson says that this assignment made Helgi at least as excited as Grétarsson himself was when he got a wild card spot in the event. 

The choice also has neat historic echoes. Helgi became Bobby Fischer's close friend when the former world champion eventually immigrated and setted in Iceland, and he had the rare and possibly very valuable privilege ... of playing Fischer Random with Fischer himself.