23 August 2014

Nakamura's Chess960 Openings

In a comment to my previous post, Rare Birds 2014, HarryO informed about an upcoming match between two GMs. To quote from the PR Newswire link he gave,
Ultimate Showdown will be an exhibition match between GM Hikaru Nakamura and GM Levon Aronian, playing the popular variant Chess960. Both players are former World Champions of Chess960, also known as Fischer Random Chess.

That announcement ties in well with this current post, which is a look at the chess960 games that GM Nakamura played on the ICC. I've written about the American champion several times in the past, where the most recent post was last year in 'I wish there were more opportunities to play'. Later in the year, at the same time I was looking at Elite ICC Chess960 Players, I downloaded his ICC games into a database for further investigation. It's only recently that I found the time to look at those games.

Of the 170 Nakamura games I found -- he goes by the handle Smallville on ICC -- all were played between 2002 and 2010. All but 10 of those were played between 2008 and 2010. All of the games were played at blitz time controls, usually three minutes per player with a one second increment per move.

In 2009, the last year that Chess Classic Mainz featured a full range of chess960 events, I quoted GM Grischuk in Attention to the Chess960 Center. After winning the 2009 FiNet Chess960 Open, he talked about his earlier participations.

The first year I was playing like g4/b4, but in order to play like this successfully you have to be either Aronian or Nakamura.

This comment was an eye-opener for me, because it pointed to the existence of Extravagant Openings in Chess960. Before then I had assumed that all chess960 openings were extravagant, just by the nature of chess960 with its random starting placement of the different pieces. Getting back to GM Nakamura, would his games show that he was inclined to use g4/b4 opening moves, perhaps even h4/a4 moves?

Of the 170 games on my Nakamura ICC database, I found 83 games where he played White. The count of the first moves he chose is shown on the left.

Of the 83 games, in 62 he played the moves 1.e4, 1.d4, or 1.c4, none of which are particularly extravagant. I could also add 1.f4 to the list. Although it's considered unusual in traditional chess (SP518 RNBQKBNR) because it weakens the King position, in chess960 it is often played for the same reasons that 1.c4 is played. It's interesting to note that in no games did he castle on the first move.

As for the g4/b4 moves, he tried them in only four games. He also tried h4/a4 in three games, including 1.h4 in his first recorded chess960 game on ICC in 2002. Was there any particular characteristic of the start positions that led him to choose these moves? I'll look at that question in another post.

As for the forthcoming Nakamura - Aronian match, note that GM Grischuk mentioned *both* players in the sentence I quoted. For a look at another game between the two, see Nakamura vs. Aronian at Mainz 2009. For chess960, 2009 was a very good year.

16 August 2014

Rare Birds 2014

That's rare birds as in 'Chess960 tournaments are rare birds', last seen in Rare Birds 2012. Why no corresponding post for 2013? It just slipped my mind, I suppose.

I asked Google to restrict search results on 'chess960' to entries from the past month. The first two results were this blog and the most recent post on this blog. That's good for this blog, but not so good for chess960. No tournaments means no games, and no games means nothing to talk about. That's not so good for this blog either.

The third Google result was a collection of forum posts from Chess.com, after which I started to see some tournaments. Let's list them in alphabetical order by country.

CH: Swiss Chess960 Championship • A one day (?) event held in conjunction with the 47th Biel International Chess Festival; Victor Mikhalevski (1st), Andreas Heimann (2nd), Viktor Erdos (3rd), Marco Lehmann (Swiss Champion). No games available.

DE: Schach ohne „Herrschaftswissen“ (chess-tigers.de, in German) • 10th Chess960 Open and 3rd German championship; GM Klaus Bischoff (1st), Chess Tigers (top team). One annotated game available. From the Google translation: 'Chess without "superior knowledge" by FM Hartmut Metz: The rapid development has lost momentum and stalled, since there is no longer the world's biggest chess festival in Mainz. In this Hans-Walter Schmitt had seduced the world class with high prize money to play Chess960. [...]'

UK: Mind Sports Olympiad, chess events • 17 August (tomorrow!); 'Chess 960, constituting the official British Open Chess 960 Championship'. TBD.

The Google search radar also picked up a number of correspondence events.

Iccf.com: Russia vs Rest of the World (Chess960) • Thirty boards; top Russian correspondence players against ROW, four games per board. The Russians are currently leading 28.5 - 9.5. Games available when complete.

Chessleagues.com: Chess Leagues 2014; see also 2013. • 'I created this website to provide the best league experience for Chess.com users.' Three chess960 leagues out of 11 total. Although I've been a member of Chess.com since 2007 and am on a couple of teams, I've never understood their league play. TBD.

Yes, there were more Google results from the past month, but these were the entries that stood out. I'll try to remember to do the same search from time to time.

09 August 2014

An Engine-to-Engine Opening

In my previous post, TCEC Season 6 - Chess960, I said I would look at a game between the first and second placed engines, Stockfish and Houdini. I should have said I would look at a position, because it would take many hours to understand the entire game. Engine-to-engine chess games aren't the most transparent battles.

The two engines first met in the sixth round of the 28-round event, Stockfish getting the White pieces. The start position was SP016 BBNQNRKR, shown in the top diagram. The most striking characteristic of this SP is the Bishop pair on the a-/b-files, aimed at the enemy King, which is lodged between the two Rooks. There are three such positions out of the 960 total, with the Queen on one of the c-, d, or e-files, and the Knights taking the last two squares.

The Bishops will be developed by moving the b- & c-Pawns, while the natural square for the e-Knight is f6, leaving d6 for the c-Knight. Because the Queenside (a-side) will be loosened by Pawn moves, castling O-O looks more likely than O-O-O, but the f-Rook must first get out of the way.

The first moves were 1.c4 c5, both sides opening diagonals for the Queen and Bishop, while looking at a subsequent push of the d-Pawn by two squares. This was followed by 2.Nf3 b6, both players conforming to the plan I outlined earlier.

Fast forward to move 15, where White has just castled and Black has played ...Nf8-e6. The four Bishops are active without having moved, the White Knights are looking at the squares b5, d5, and f5, and the Black Knights are positioned both defensively (on d6) and offensively (e6).

Only one of the four Knights is on what I thought would be its natural square, meaning the players have done some maneuvering to bring those pieces to other squares. White's Knights make a better impression than Black's, because the defensively placed Knight on d6 is awkwardly blocking the open d-file.

Black is prepared to castle O-O. In fact, this never happened. The engine eventually played ...h5 instead, moving the Rook down the h-file and leaving the King on g8, where it would have been after O-O.

The Pawn structures are hard to judge. Both players have an isolated Pawn and a semi-open file, where the f-file looks more useful to White than the b-file to Black. Black, however, has the Pawn push ...a7-a5-a4, threatening to weaken White's Pawns on that side of the board.

All in all, I prefer White, but there is still plenty of play in the game. The full game score is copied below.

[Event "TCEC Season 6 - FRC"]
[Site "http://tcec.chessdom.com"]
[Date "2014.07.02"]
[Round "6"]
[White "Stockfish 260614"]
[Black "Houdini 4"]
[Result "1-0"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "bbnqnrkr/pppppppp/8/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/BBNQNRKR w KQkq - 0 1"]
[PlyCount "102"]

1.c4 c5 2.Nf3 b6 3.d4 Ncd6 4.dxc5 bxc5 5.b3 Ne4 6.Nd2 N4f6 7.Re1 d6 8.f4 e5 9.e4 Nd7 10.fxe5 dxe5 11.Ne2 f6 12.Nf1 Nd6 13.Nc3 Rf7 14.Ne3 Nf8 15.O-O Ne6 16.Qg4 Nd4 17.Ncd5 h5 18.Qh4 a5 19.Bc3 Bc6 20.Kh1 Rh7 21.Bd3 Be8 22.Rd1 Kh8 23.Rc1 Nc6 24.h3 Rb7 25.Rcd1 Nd4 26.Bd2 Ra7 27. Nc2 Ne6 28.Qe1 Bc6 29.a3 Ra8 30.Nce3 Bb7 31.b4 Ra7 32.bxa5 Nd4 33.Rb1 Ba8 34.a4 Qe8 35.Rb2 Rd7 36.Qb1 Ba7 37.Nc3 Rd8 38.Nb5 Qd7 39.a6 Nc8 40.Nd5 Ne6 41.a5 Qf7 42.Be3 Kg8 43.Nbc3 Qf8 44.Rb6 Rd6 45.Rxd6 Qxd6 46.Qe1 Kh8 47.Qf2 Bc6 48.Qf5 Bd7 49.Nb5 Qf8 50.Rb1 Nd4 51.Qxd7 g5 1-0

Black's h-Rook never played a role in the game, which was perhaps the main reason for White's win.

02 August 2014

TCEC Season 6 - Chess960

After posting Stockfish, the Strong, winner of this year's TCEC Season 6 Special Event (chess960), I started looking at the games from the event. I couldn't find a crosstable, so I made one myself, shown below. The crosstable is simple, but doesn't conform completely to standard crosstable presentation -- the engines are listed on the horizontal axis in alphabetical order rather by descending score.

The difference in final score between the two top engines is due to their own mini-match (+2-1=1 for Stockfish) and to Houdini's relative failure against third placed Critter (+0-0=4). I was mildly surprised to see that different start positions (SPs) were chosen for each game. Since each engine played four games with the other engines, it might have been better to use the same SP in one pair of games between the same engines, giving both engines the chance to play White and Black.

The PGN for the event is worth a look. Shown below are the header and first two moves for the first game on the file.

[Event "TCEC Season 6 - FRC"]
[Site "http://tcec.chessdom.com"]
[Date "2014.06.28"]
[Round "1"]
[White "Fire 3.1"]
[Black "Tornado 5"]
[Result "1-0"]
[BlackElo "2778"]
[EventDate "2014.06.28"]
[FEN "rknqbbrn/pppppppp/8/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/RKNQBBRN w KQkq - 0 1"]
[GameDuration "03:59:58"]
[PlyCount "90"]
[SetUp "1"]
[Termination "adjudication"]
[TerminationDetails "TCEC win rule"]
[TimeControl "7200+30"]
[Variant "fischerandom"]
[WhiteElo "3067"]


{ WhiteEngineOptions: Protocol=UCI; Hash=16384; Threads=16; UCI_Chess960=true; OwnBook=false; Ponder=false;, BlackEngineOptions: Protocol=UCI; Hash=16384; Threads=16; NalimovPath=C:/EGTB/Nalimov/; NalimovCache=32; UCI_Chess960=true; OwnBook=false; Ponder=false; }
1. Ng3 { d=27, pd=Ng6, mt=00:06:16, tl=01:54:13, s=22597 kN/s, n=8512418665, pv=Ng3 Ng6 d4 d5 e3 a5 a4 e6 Nd3 b6 b3 Nd6 Be2 Be7 Bc3 Bc6 f3 f6 Qd2 Qd7 Ka2 Kb7 Bb2 Nf7 f4, tb=0, R50=50, wv=0.02, }
e6 { d=30, pd=a4, mt=00:12:44, tl=01:47:45, s=6728 kN/s, n=3229899629, pv=e6 a4 a5 Ra2 d5 d4 Ng6 e3 Nb6 Nb3 Bxa4 Nxa5 Ra7 b3 Be8 c4, tb=0, R50=50, wv=0.11, }

I can't claim to understand all of the values in the notes ('{...}'), but most of them are self-explanatory if you are familiar with chess engines. In my next post I'll look at a game between the first and second placed engines.

26 July 2014

Stockfish, the Strong

Which engine is the strongest at chess960? According to Chessdom.com, it's Stockfish, as in Stockfish is TCEC double champion.
The TCEC Grand champion Stockfish, modification 260614, won another prestigious computer chess competition – the Fischer Random Chess (FRC) tournament, organized as a TCEC Season 6 Special Event. [...] The reigning champion Stockfish was convincing with 25/28 points, leaving the runner-up Houdini 4 full 3 points behind. Critter 1.6a took the bronze, collecting 17,5 points.

TCEC is, of course, the Thoresen Chess Engines Competition. In May, Chessdom posted an Interview with Martin Thoresen – organizer and director of TCEC, where we learn that

Some people refer to TCEC as the "unofficial Computer World Championship". The organization ICGA is hosting the official World Championship, but they have lost a lot of interest over the years – in particular because none of the strongest engines are participating there and they play very few games.

and that

I [Thoresen] was a part of the CCRL rating list prior to starting TCEC. I ran a lot of test games for them, but it really didn’t interest me as much after a while – I was more interested in organizing tournaments and broadcasting it for others to watch

I downloaded the PGN file containing the games from the event and will look at it in another post. These games will make a valuable addition to my own copy of the Chess Jungle's database; see Chess960 Database, Part II for more info.

19 July 2014

Clinging to the Past

In my previous post, It's Not Unusual, I brought up GM Soltis's 'Chess to Enjoy'column in the current issue of Chess Life. The focus in that post was on combinations, but Soltis has more to say that is relevant to chess960. After discussing combinations, he moves to the value of studying the games of top players.
But the problem is that games played by today's top grandmasters have less to teach the aspiring student than do older games. Why? Because a typical game by elite grandmasters these days begins with 15-plus moves of computer-checked home analysis. What happens in those moves is often impenetrable if you're not already an expert in that opening.

He repeats the idea a few paragraphs later.

Something similar happens in grandmaster games in which the opening is highly analyzed, such as the Sveshnikov Variation of the Sicilian Defense, the Marshall Gambit in the Ruy Lopez, the main line of the Classical Variation of the King's Indian Defense, or one of several others. In each case, the game doesn't really start until move 20 or so. How much can you possibly learn from them?

And finally concludes that there is not much to learn from these games.

And you learn more when you see how a great player punishes mistakes. But today, when a Nakamura or a Carlsen wins, it is usually because their opponent made errors that are subtle. The mistakes are so below-the-surface that it's hard -- if not impossible -- to learn from them. In short, we have more and more games to study and yet fewer and fewer teachable moments. A well-known American grandmaster, who has given thousands of lessons, put it well. "Today's games," he told me, "are bad for your chess."

The same criticism, 'bad for your chess' is sometimes aimed at chess960. If studying modern games that use the traditional start position is considered bad for your chess, does the argument have any real weight against chess960?

Why doesn't GM Soltis just accept the obvious fact that computers have changed chess forever and adopt chess960? A look at Bookfinder.com reveals that he has published many dozens of chess books, the majority of them on the opening. The popularity of chess960 would severely diminish interest in those books. Is it any wonder that Soltis, and the rest of the chess publishing sector, will cling to traditional chess for as long as they can?

12 July 2014

It's Not Unusual

It's hardly news when a GM starts complaining about the advanced state of opening theory, but how often do you hear the same lament about the middlegame? In the July 2014 issue of Chess Life, GM Andy Soltis does exactly that in his 'Chess to Enjoy'column, titled 'Too Much of a Good Thing'. The reason for his grievance is a set of five combinations, all featuring combinations that start with a Queen for Rook pseudosacrifice on d7. He says,
It's not unusual that all five games have remarkably similar features. Chess combinations have a way of being repeated. It is very rare to come upon a truly original combination. This is why studying great tactical battles of the past is so useful.

It's not unusual? Why should it be otherwise? Since every game in every tournament -- chess960 tournaments excepted, of course -- has the same pieces starting on the same squares, and since every first move of those pieces goes to the same small set of target squares, what do you expect? Combinations showing the Bishop sitting on b1 or the Knight on d6 don't occur very often.

The following diagram shows the six positions that GM Soltis chose for his monthly puzzle set, a regular feature of his column. The positions are all from John Grefe games of the 1970s.

Take a good look at the positions. Three games have a Bishop sitting on the c/f start square, and four have the piece on the long diagonal. Five games have a Knight sitting on a square that can be reached on a single move move from its traditional start square.

In chess960, where the pieces often occupy squares that are unusual in traditional chess, original combinations occur in the majority of games. When you limit the number of start squares for the pieces, you limit the number of positions that arise from sequences of logical moves.