“Wesley So, first World Champion in Fischer Random.” The American’s 13.5:2.5 victory over Magnus Carlsen made many headlines like this one.
First World Champion? Nah. Already in 2001 there was a World Whampion in this different kind of chess, Peter Leko. At that time there was also a world federation, a world ranking, a rating system. And, perhaps most importantly, a catchy name that makes the game marketable: Chess960.
Since the term “Fischer Random” does not describe what the game is about, it is hard to get for the general media and people with a marginal interest in chess. “Chess960” is the better choice. Anyone who reads “Chess960” understands immediately: this is chess, only different. “Fischer Random” lacks catchiness as well.
Twenty years ago German chess organizer Hans-Walter Schmitt was wondering what the game should be called. He initiated a study that revealed the best name: “Chess960”. And that’s the name under which FIDE put it into its statutes, urged to do so by Schmitt who had big plans for the new game.
Recent German media coverage shows what happens when general media has to deal with a term that they assume their readers won’t understand: “Fischer” fell away, “random” remained, “chess” was added. Suddenly Carlsen and So were playing “random chess”. Which sounds more like dice than strategy and tactics.
Besides: Do we really want to carry on the name of a crazy anti-Semite for all eternity? Yes, Fischer invented it, but his exposed place in chess history is safe anyway.
Although the game is to be found as “Chess960” in the FIDE law, it was played under a different name in the newly created World Championship. This has little to do with honoring Fischer but with potential litigation. The trademark “Chess960” has long been secured by Rex Sinquefield from Saint Louis. The domain chess960.com on the other hand belongs to Hans-Walter Schmitt from Bad Soden who also continues to maintain a world ranking.
The revolution from below didn’t work
Back in the day Schmitt tried a revolution from below. He wanted to make chess960 popular among amateurs, but to arouse their enthusiasm proved to be a tough affair. Chess960 lacked deaft horses playing it permanently. Under Schmitt they played only once a year. In 2009 Levon Aronian became the last 960 World Champion of the Schmitt era, then the German’s international ambitions fell asleep. On his local island near Frankfurt Schmitt continues to promote chess 960. He’s still hosting a German championship each year, local championships as well.
By himself the amateur will rarely try out something new. But anyone who plays 960 must leave his comfort zone. Instead of relying on schemes in the opening, the chess960 player has to think about castling from the first move on. He needs orientate himself in unknown waters, early shipwrecking being a constant threat.
Professionals love that. “I’d rather play 960 than classic chess,” Wesley So said before becoming world champion. Former world junior champion Parham Maghsoodloo would like to play more chess960 and expects that to happen automatically. “The chess of the future” is what Indian wonder boy Nihal Sarin calls Chess960. Same with Luis Engel, German youth champion and second youngest German grandmaster. This list could easily be continued. A top grandmaster who finds chess960 stupid has never revealed himself.
Professionals long to cut off the monstrous opening apparatus today even more than at the time Hans-Walter Schmitt began promoting Chess960. Back then, computer chess and the associated proliferation of the opening theory had just started. These days, the knowledge required over the board has become so large that it is hardly manageable even by top professionals.
20 years later: a revolution from above
This is probably the main reason why the new game is picking up speed again, this time a revolution from above, the more promising model: the superstars play it, the people follow.
Magnus Carlsen won a 960 match against Hikaru Nakamura with 14:10 in 2018, becoming inofficial World Champion. In Saint Louis a number of world-class grandmasters played 960 matches (with game being called “Chess960” , their trademark). The response to both events was so good, the players so happy that the World Championship has now been given an official format and the Saint Louis tournament has been repeated.
What is missing apart from a consistent, catchy name is an organizational structure that makes the game marketable. As a good capitalist, Rex Sinquefield will not give the brand “chess 960” to FIDE or chess.com for free and just like that. Schmitt says that no one ever spoke to him about whether or not he could build on the structure he had created 20 years ago already.
In the meantime, the people at FIDE ask themselves how to proceed. “Is it fun and show? Or a new dimension of our game?, ” vice president Emil Sutovsky wondered on Facebook.