19 January 2019

First Post, New Year

The first post on this blog for the year 2019 is an appropriate time to reflect on the chess960 activities of 2018 -- and what a year it was! Of the 24 posts I wrote during the year, I count four that were for top-level chess960 events:-

Should I retire the 'rare birds' series, last seen in (Not so?) Rare Birds, Summer 2017 (July 2017)? No, I'm a patient person, so I'll give it more time. I haven't seen any relevant announcements and all of the events mentioned above could have been one-offs.

Chess960 was dropped for Chess.com's 2018 Speed Chess Championship, where Hikaru Nakamura defeated Wesley So in the final. It never made much sense to include a single chess960 game in a tournament for traditional chess, although the exposure for chess960 can only have helped. As for 2018's '1st Chess.com Chess960 Championship', I note that it wasn't the '1st annual' event and I'll keep watching for any announcement of a '2nd annual' tournament.

Does a decline in top-level chess960 events mean a decline in the number of posts for this blog? Of course not! I might actually find the time to study some of the many top-level chess960 games that were played in 2018...

29 December 2018

'Hitting the Mainstream!'

Seen in Chess Life Kids, December 2018 (p.12): '960 Bugs on My Chessboard?' by FM Mike "FunMaster" Klein. The article started,
Chess is fun. You could play it for days on end (don’t forget to eat!). But using those same 32 pieces, chess players have invented dozens of other variations of chess to make sure the game never gets stale. Two of the most popular "variants" are Bughouse and Chess960. Yes, they are a bit silly, but they also allow for a different kind of creativity. Even the world’s most elite grandmasters play and compete in both!

No one will argue that bughouse isn't a variant -- the four players' strategies have little to do with traditional chess -- but I'll raise my hand once more to question the word when used with chess960. It is, after all, one of the first bullets in Top 10 Myths About Chess960 (May 2012)...

No.2: 'It's a variant of traditional chess'

...and I've given the better part of at least one post to the subject, Chess960 Encounters, Past & Future (October 2011), where I said, 'The classification of chess960 as more than a variant is not a simple difference of opinion on semantics.'

Let's get back to the rest of the Chess Life Kids article. The magazine appears six times per year, is 24 pages long, and is the 'Official Scholastic Publication of US Chess'. FM Klein's article was featured on the December 2018 cover, and was introduced on the contents page with 'Chess variants are hitting the mainstream!'

The three page article gave a page to bughouse and a page to chess960. A page was enough to explain the basics of chess960, i.e. the meaning of the name, the setup of the pieces, the 'funny' castling rules, and examples of castling ('Weird!'). It also gave the main reason for playing it.

So why did Bobby Fischer propose this game? Simple -- studying openings is useless. You know how masters can play 20 or 30 moves of "book"? Well, there’s no such thing in Chess960. Pretty much every game is an unexplored kingdom of newness and some grandmasters think more creativity is possible.

That paragraph gives me plenty of justification to overlook negative words like 'silly', 'funny', and 'weird'. Instead I'll concentrate on the positive : explaining chess960 to a new generation.

The introduction of bughouse to the U.S. chess scene preceded the introduction of chess960 by almost 25 years, a full generation. In Fischer Random Bughouse (July 2011), I once showed that the two chess offshoots can even be merged. That would make yet another 'unexplored kingdom of newness'.

22 December 2018

Knight Opposition

Last month I looked at two books by Gene Milener, one entirely on the subject of chess960, the other a coda to the first work:-
  • 2018-11-17: Chess960 Phase Zero • 'Gene Milener's groundbreaking book "Play Stronger Chess by Examining Chess960"' (2006)

  • 2018-11-24: Milener's Month • 'Milener's epilogue' in his more recent book (2018)

My focus on the two books at the same time was rewarded by an insight that had eluded me for years. In 'Play Stronger Chess', Milener wrote (p.130):-

Due to the particulars of the chess1 setup and to the fact it never varies, we do not think of knights as having a light v. dark shade aspect anything like bishops have. But again, it is healthy to consider the possibility that our chess experiences have been harmfully limited by our exclusive adherence to chess1.

For analyzing chess960 setups it is useful to gently apply the idea that each knight is either a light or dark knight, though only for the first portion of the game. These square shadings are central to a setup feature we can call "knight opposition". Some chess960 setups have knight opposition, strongly or weakly, while others have no knight opposition.

My reaction to this was, 'So what?' What difference does it make whether the Knights start on the same color square? The explanation on the following three pages did nothing to alleviate my lack of understanding. In the second book, in 'Milener's epilogue', the author wrote (p.373):-

A non-traditional start setup would offer welcome relief from: [...] The maximization of Knight opposition created by the one traditional setup. Knight opposition is seen in common cases such as when Nb8-c6 follows Ngl-f3, leaving both Knights in a tilt shape with each other. The two Knights oppose each other's pressures on the same center squares of d4,e5. Setups where the two White Knights start on squares of the same shade provide welcome variety from the traditional setup.

That was my 'Aha!' moment. The start positions of the Knights determine how they will engage each other in the opening moves of the game. In the traditional start position, the Knights enter the game during the earliest moves and then proceed to spar for control of the center squares. The same sequence happens in nearly every traditional opening (like the Ruy Lopez and the Queen's Gambit) : first the Pawns enter the play, then the Knights, then the other pieces. The Knights enter the battle with regard to the position of the Pawns, and the other pieces follow their lead.

Several years ago, the 'Chess960 Jungle' blog made a similar observation in a post Chess960: Naming the Knight Pairs (May 2011; 'Military Knights', 'Chivalry Knights', etc.), then went on to discuss the different combinations in subsequent posts. Since I failed to grasp the importance of the concept than, it would be worth my while to review all of those relevant posts.

24 November 2018

Milener's Month

In the first post this month, Chess960 Phase Zero, I explored an important concept from Gene Milener's first book 'Play Stronger Chess by Examining Chess960'. In the second post for this month, I'll return to New Book by Gene Milener (September 2018), where I wrote,
Since there is no way I can ignore the mention of my name in a printed book, I'll come back to the subject in another post. [...] I have at least two posts to write: a continuation of 'Promise of Chess960' and a reaction to Milener's epilogue.

In a section of his epilogue titled 'Mark Weeks and GeneM Disagree', Milener summarized our disagreement in two bullets:-

1. Disagree about Corner Bishops
2. Disagree about 'Random'

I have nothing particularly new to say about either of these topics. About the first, I've posted several times:-

About the second, which Milener covers in a section of his epilogue titled 'Changed My Mind: "Random" Is Bad' I've posted even more, usually in passing. See, for example:-

Moving on to more interesting topics, in one of the end notes to his epilogue Milener mentions the 2016 Carlsen - Karjakin match:-

A World Chess Championship match was held between M. Carlsen - S. Karjakin in 2016/November. After the first seven games were drawn, Karjakin won game 8 when Carlsen recklessly pressed in a draw-ish endgame. Even though a third of the match remained, everyone knew that there might not be enough games left for Carlsen to generate a win and tie the match. That rigid reality sucks excitement from these chess matches. For comparison, imagine that only one of the first eight games ended in a draw, as in nearly every other sport.

While I'm writing this post, the 2018 Carlsen - Caruana World Championship match has reached game 11 out of 12 regulation games. The first ten games were all drawn. This apparent bloodlessness has led to the usual handwringing that something has to be done to improve professional chess. It doesn't matter how artistic or creative the individual games might be, an event is judged by its final score. Spotted on Facebook: Karjakin, during the live commentary..., from the challenger in the 2016 match:-

Karjakin, during the live commentary of #CarlsenCaruana, game 6, on a Russian "Match TV" channel: "Indeed, the classical chess has already been... no, of course by no means has it been exhausted or become boring... but... there is some sort of tiredness, so to speak. We have just seen this today – Black can equalise very rapidly. And at times, indeed, one would like to play for fun. And the fun is... talking of the classic rules, it's the rapid and blitz; while talking about experimenting, #FischerChess is an extremely interesting game which has not been researched yet -- the players have to think from the very first moves. Maybe, in the long term – let's say in the coming 20 years – I think there might be a massive transition to #FischerChess. In some time, when it's entirely... when the theory and powerful engines simply force this transition."

That Facebook post was created by Andrey Deviatkin, also seen on this blog in 'The Essence and the Rules of Chess' (June 2017). Instead of a 'massive transition', perhaps some sort of an evolution is possible. How do we get from here to there?

17 November 2018

Chess960 Phase Zero

In Chess960 at the Open Library (July 2018), I located a digital copy of Gene Milener's groundbreaking book 'Play Stronger Chess by Examining Chess960', and in The Promise of Chess960 in 2006 (August 2018), I looked at part one of the book. In this post I'll start to look at part two.

The first four chapters of part two deal with the four phases of a chess game. 'Four phases?', I can hear you ask. In Milener's own words (p.108),

There are four phases to any chess game. Phases two through four are well known as the opening, the middle game, and the endgame. We have never before called it by a name, but I call the first phase the setup phase.

He goes on to explain,

In the chess1 realm the setup phase has not been recognized as a phase at all. This is because the chess1 setup never varies the way it does in chess960. In chess1 we instead talk about opening "theory", referring to the accumulation of at-home pre-game calculation and analysis of the chess1 setup position.

As part of the chess1 setup phase we also have the devised opening principles given by Aron Nimzovich in his My System, which was also written at home. The setup phase is different in chess960. Yes, there can be at-home thought and preparations as part of the chess960 setup phase (as this book should demonstrate). But in chess960 the setup phase comes alive and requires original thought in real time, in the several minutes after the pieces are set but before the clocks are started. This chapter is devoted to the topic of handling those pre-game minutes.

Where Milener writes 'chess1', I prefer to use the notation 'SP518' (meaning start position 'RNBQKBNR'). It's not a terribly important distinction, but it does reinforce the idea that traditional chess is a subset of chess960. What is important is the recognition that there is a distinct phase to a chess game called the 'setup phase'. Until now, the setup phase was usually something like this:-

Exercise: Place all 32 chess pieces into a bag or a box. Shake thoroughly. Dump all of the pieces on to the board. How fast can you place them on their traditional SP518 squares?

The title of the first chapter in Milener's part two is 'Strategies for the Modified Setup Phase'. In other words, how do we go from a random chess960 start position to playing the first move for White in that position? Milener starts with a question: 'Do the Chess1 Opening Principles of Nimzovich Remain True for Chess960?' Instead of analyzing Nimzovich, he quickly switches to Reuben Fine, an author I've also referenced at various times in the past. Milener's answer to 'Do the Opening Principles Remain True?' is a solid yes-and-no.

The next section is 'Rationalization of Setups: How?' By 'rationalization', I understand 'classification' or 'categorization' of the 960 setups into a smaller number of positions having common characteristics. I discussed this recently with an email correspondent, where I wrote,

The problem is that given an obvious similarity -- Bishops in the four corners (to use a well known example) -- the tactics++ depend on how the other pieces are initially placed. Then you start to analyze each position individually, which defeats the purpose of the exercise.

Milener apparently agrees and his suggestions boil down to something like my post, A Framework for Chess960 Opening Theory (April 2009). It appears to be the only sensible direction to make further progress.

After the initial discovery of the setup phase, the most important section of the setup chapter is probably 'List of Setup Attributes'. I've copied the section's central table (p.119-120) into the following image.

While I don't necessarily agree with these six choices -- 'Is there Knight opposition?' is far less important than 'King fort' -- they nevertheless provide a basis for further discussion. I particularly like the inclusion of 'Corner piece mobilization'. In SP518, the corners are conveniently occupied by the piece which is best suited for that square, the Rook. The other three pieces face challenges to their development from the corner which are not present in their development from other start squares.

Coming back to the world of traditional chess as we know it, the 2018 World Championship is currently underway. Before any moves were played in the match, the two players, GMs Carlsen and Caruana, spent many months working on the setup phase, although no one called it that. It is called instead 'opening preparation'. In traditional chess, it's a phase where psychology plays the dominant role.

The next chapter in Milener's book, 'From Setup Attributes to Opening Moves', covers what happens after White's first move is played. Gene Milener deserves credit for being the first chess960 adherent to work through the most important difference between traditional chess and chess960 : a previously unknown phase.

27 October 2018

A Googly Gadget

I usually reserve discussions of web anomalies for my main blog Chess for All Ages (see link under 'Resources' in the sidebar), but this time the occurrence was so specific to chess960 that I'd like to discuss it on this blog. The image below is a screen capture that I took the last time I searched on my favorite topic (after 'chess'). That big dot near the left is a small version of my head that appears on this blog's sidebar and the text to the right of it says 'Your Site on Google'. That sits above the URL:-

The rest of the box says,

See how your site has been showing for this query for the past 90 days and compare to the previous 90 days:
- Clicks 0
- Impressions 100
- Average position 25,2

Each of those metrics is currently subtitled 'No prior data'. I suppose that after 90 days, some prior data will be displayed.

Google search on 'chess960'

I saw the box this week for the first time while recording my weekly look at web statistics. It's something I do to make sure that my various web resources are performing normally. If I detect an anomaly, I can act on it before it becomes a bigger problem.

The bottom of the box says, 'See ways to improve', which expands to show two pieces of advice. The first is a link to the same 'Performance' page I displayed in a blog post last month, Google Search Console; the second is to a Google page, Help people find your site on Google (support.google.com).

I don't know how many days the three metrics cover. All I know is that they weren't there a week earlier. The reason I look at chess960 search results is to track the position of this blog and of a couple of reference pages:-

I look at the first five pages of Google results and record the position of the resource. One curiosity I've noticed is that those two reference pages (both on mark-weeks.com) rarely show up in the search results at the same time. Sometimes one appears in the first five pages and the other does not appear at all; sometimes the other appears. There is no pattern to predict which one will show up. I occasionally scroll down more than five pages to see if the other one is buried deeper, but it's never there. Google search results often defy explanation.

Don't think I'm ungrateful. Thanks, Google! I'm sure the data will be useful in a Googly sort of way.

20 October 2018

Kasparov Discusses the Showdown

Last month I posted about the Champions Showdown, St. Louis:-
The event was played 11-14 September, and is documented on the official site, Champions Showdown: Chess 960 (uschesschamps.com).

Here's a video from the Saint Louis Chess Club.

2018 Champions Showdown: Kasparov’s Interview - Day 4 (7:40) • 'Published on Sep 16, 2018'

The description says simply,

Grandmaster Garry Kasparov shares his thoughts after his games on Day 4. He has lost to Topalov. • 2018-09-14: USChessChamps.com

The date pegs the video to the last day of the Showdown. Before the games the players had time to analyze the start position selected for the game. GM Kasparov said,

What happened today, I still can't find the explanation. We spent 29 minutes with Peter [Svidler] analyzing a different position. [...] I don't want to spread blame, but actually Peter looked at the position. It's my fault; you just have to look at it yourself. [...] One shift and everything's different. Absolutely everything. It's not that you can reuse the patterns. Absolutely everything changes - the geometry, the structures, the way of developing the pieces. If I hadn't looked at the position at all, that would have been better.

The former World Champion donated his $20.000 prize to chess in Africa.