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Wesley So on becoming the first Fischer Random World Champion

by Satanick Mukhuty - 04/12/2019

The Fischer random chess or Chess960 is hailed to be a game of pure wits where elements of theory and extensive home preparation are rendered practically useless and the players are demanded to rely more on their intuition and over-the-board creativity. It therefore came as a surprise to many chess fans last month when Magnus Carlsen, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest natural talents that the game of chess has ever seen, was sheerly dominated by Wesley So in the World Fischer Random Championship 2019. The 26-year-old Filipino-American Grandmaster created a sensation by beating the mighty Norwegian in the finals of the tournament with a sweeping score of 13.5-2.5! How did he do it? IM Sagar Shah caught up with the man himself at the Tata Steel Chess India.

An interview with the first World Champion of Fischer random chess  

Wesley So (left) in action against Magnus Carlsen | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Sagar Shah (SS): Wesley you became the first official World Champion of Fischer Random chess a few days ago, how has life been since then?

Wesley So (WS): Well, it is very good to win against Magnus and also to win the first Fischer Random World Championship. I am actually quite surprised with the amount of news coverage, not only in the chess world or Norway but also in Philippines. It seems that they thought that I am number two in the World now (laughs). I guess the title of World Champion in any type of chess is huge!


SS: You know, it is said that if you are good at Fischer Random it means that you are good at hardcore chess. There is no theory in it, there is no opening. That's why many people were surprised that you could beat Magnus so easily in this because in terms of pure chess skills everyone thinks that there's no one superior to him. How do you explain this result?

WS: Well, first of all it is only one match and secondly, the format is much different than the [classical] chess World Championship. We also play in different time controls, we also have different scoring system, and we also play only three days. So there is not enough evidence, there is not enough info to claim that one player is better than the other. May be in future when we start to have more Fischer Random games and tournaments then we will have more info and start having a Fischer Random rating also. But right now it is too early to say who is the best player.

The final score between Wesley So and Magnus Carlsen in the Fischer Random World Championship

SS: Well, this is typical Wesley! Always very modest, always very humble. Well, we will not get into asking you too many out of chess questions and straightaway get into your games. This is the second game of your match and you were shown the initial position fifteen minutes before the game actually began. What did you do in those fifteen minutes?

WS: I prepared a little bit with my laptop, the chess960 engine that I have. It is surprising actually, the online qualifiers that I played before didn't allow you to use the computer or any electronics whatsoever but for this over-the-board tournament the players were allowed to use an engine.


Wesley So - Magnus Carlsen, Game 2

This was the initial position the players had to start with in the second game of the match!

SS: But fifteen minutes is just too less right?

WS: Yes, it is not enough. It is just good for preparing the first three or four moves so that you don't blunder a pawn or end up in a worse position. This is actually the second game, in the first game Magnus got a very pleasant position out of the opening. He was White and I was fortunate to save it, but in this game he actually surprised me with 2...Ba6?! which is probably a bad move but over-the-board it is not so easy to refute it.

Surprisingly, the second move 2...Ba6 by Magnus is already a mistake because White can simply grab more space here with d4-d5 followed by e4. Wesley however chose the inaccurate 3.b3 and the position was soon equalized. 

SS: And also one would assume that he had prepared something in those fifteen minutes when he might have looked into this Ba6 idea...

WS: I am not so sure if he prepared anything because usually in between games he went out for fresh air, took walks. So I don't know how deeply or if at all he prepared this. Also probably he didn't have a second with him. 


SS: But this was your second game so you had a bit more time to prepare here right?

WS: Yes, we had about one hour but that was actually our dinner break. Also I didn't want to overtire myself by looking too long at the computer screen, so probably I prepared only for about ten or fifteen minutes.

There was hardly any time to prepare in between the games | Photo: Lennart Ootes

SS: Well, it seems once you are three or four moves into the game the position sort of starts clarifying. But initially it is always difficult to guess what's the best...

WS: Yes, the first position is always very interesting. Here, for instance, the queen on a1 is very badly placed and there is a very real chance that it could get out of play.


SS: So why don't you start here with something like b3? Does it not make sense?

WS: I guess b3 is fine but then you have to spend another tempo activating your dark-squared bishop with Bb2. Another reason why it might not be the best is that after 1.b3 d5 2.Bbb2 c5 Black can get good control of the e5 square with Nc6 followed by Ng6; White can't challenge that because he can't get his knight to f3. 

Wesley practically explains why he thinks 1.b3 is not the best move for White. 

SS: Yeah these are some very valuable points you are making because you are trying to understand a completely new position. We are getting to see how you analyse such a position. It is quite difficult to make sense of it after years have been spent in this initial position with rooks on the two sides followed by knights and bishops!

WS: That's the thing about chess960, every position has sort of some imbalance and a little bit of difference.


Download Game 2 with analysis and replay it on ChessBase

Magnus really had his back to the wall in this match | Photo: Lennart Ootes

SS: This was a good confidence boosting win for you and then you move to the second day of the finals. So how do you prepare for the next day? It is certainly not possible to look into all 960 positions and be prepared!

WS: Yeah of course, I just try to work on my tactics here and there and stay sharp. Also I try to remember how Magnus plays.


Wesley So - Magnus Carlsen, Game 3

This was the initial position in the third game of their match. This time the bishops were in the middle of the board!

SS: In this game you had once again the white pieces. What about this position? The queens here are much better placed but bishops are in the center. How do you like this?

WS: Well, it is a very complicated position because here actually it is not the queens but the kings which are badly placed because they are so far away from the queens, and also there are so many pieces hindering castling kingside.


SS: But you could castle queenside easily once you vacate the c1 and d1 squares.

WS: Yes, but you don't want to be forced to castle only on one side of the board. You want to have both castling possibilities ready, because if you castle too early on one side then black can make his plan of attack accordingly. So it makes sense to keep both options open.


In the second game too the Filipino-American Grandmaster registered an emphatic victory. Magnus erred once again early on with 3...c5 which allowed his in-form opponent to gain some important tempos. And then it was a strategic mistake on move 26 that sealed his fate.


Download Game 3 with analysis and replay it on ChessBase

Wesley proved to be the superior Fischer Random player in the match | Photo: Lennart Ootes

SS: So you were already looking at the championship now or was it too soon?

WS: Yes, each of these games was worth three points each and I was surprised to be leading by six points! But after I won the fourth game I was like 95% sure that I could pull it off.


SS: Okay, so in the fourth game you had the same position to start with except you were Black. Magnus opened with a2-a4 then followed it up with a5 and a6, were you surprised with this choice?


Magnus Carlsen - Wesley So, Game 4

Magnus's lashing out of the a-pawn in the opening in the fourth game was perhaps the most provocative!

WS: Yes, I was surprised at first to see 1.a4. It is actually not a bad move but it made me realize that he probably spent his time between the rounds just walking outside rather than preparing. Because clearly 1.e4 is the best move and is the one which fights for the advantage. When he played 1.a4 I knew he just wanted to avoid my preparation.


The fourth game ended one-sidedly in favour of Wesley as Magnus blundered as early as move seven to slip into a very unfavourable position. The critical moment and the entire game is presented below.

7.Qe2 proved to be the decisive mistake for Magnus as after 7....f5 8.f3 Nd6 9.Qxe5 he went on to lose too much time with his queen while his opponent grabbed more space on the kingside. Wesley suggested 7.Nd3 as a decent alternative and stated that after 7.Qe2 everything went wrong for his opponent.

Replay game 4 of the match along with analysis


SS: I really love how you are trying to make sense of a position that is completely new!

WS: Well, I like chess960 because the pieces and pawns are all the same. It is basically 100% chess. I was reading my interview on with David Cox from few months ago, and at that point I already said that chess960 is my favourite game even though I hadn't won anything yet at that point except my match against Anish. But already without any experience I liked it. I didn't have any idea back then that I would win the first Fischer Random World Championship.

It was a moment of great pride for Wesley So's manager and foster mother Lotis Key to see Wesley winning the first Fischer Random World Championship | Photo: Lennart Ootes

SS: Okay so final question to you Wesley before we call this off. Let's say someone wants to improve at Chess960 then what would your advice be to them? How should they improve?

WS: Yeah I am actually planning to make a chess video series for chessable on this pretty soon. Somehow I got an unexpected popularity with people after winning this tournament, so I will be doing a video series right after Wijk Aan Zee for ChessAble.


SS: Well, it is very interesting because Magnus bought out ChessAble recently and now you have beaten Magnus and are recording a video with them! (laughs)

WS: Yes, it is pretty unexpected actually. We will see how it goes. Probably they expected Magnus to win and their plan was to make the series with him but sometimes things don't go according to plan (smiles).


SS: Sure, but it is very good that they are doing this video series with you. I wish you good luck for it and I am sure I am going to watch it and learn how to improve at chess960. Thank you.

WS: Sure, thank you!

Watch the complete interview with IM Sagar Shah and get to know the first official World Champion of Fischer Random Chess more closely!

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