21 March 2015

Know Your Competition

Recently seen on KingpinChess.net [Kingpin]: Arimaa, Computers and the Future of Chess by Andy Lewis.
Anyone for a variation on chess? • Is chess played out? This concern has been voiced periodically over the history of the game, and the challenges has never been more profound: over-refinement of opening-theory; perfection of endgame technique; super-abundance of draws at top-flight level; and (most recently) dominance of chess computers. To best ensure the future survival of the game, the great and the good have, over the years, proposed a number of variants to the rules of chess.

For example:
- Randomizing the starting position (Fischer)
- Adding extra pieces (Capablanca and Seirawan)
- Pawn-division (Regan)
- Redefining stalemate as victory (Short).

That is a good start, but the monologue then turns shrill.

Although not without academic interest, there is one problem which each of these chess simulants suffers from: it's just not as good as the real thing! We know it. And their inventors know it too. This is amply demonstrated by the lack of enthusiasm shown even by their originators. If you feel that your chess-variant is worthy of interest, then, by all means, start a web-site, develop a smart phone app, get sponsorship, organize a tournament, re-write endgame theory, publish a book of studies. But, if these are too much trouble for you, then, for heaven's sake, you might at least play the game yourself!

>>> Tinkering with the rules of chess is like adding a harmonica or a ukulele section to a classical orchestra: it's pointless. And sounds awful. <<<

This is all an introduction to an essay on Arimaa, which is not a topic for this blog. That last sentence about 'tinkering' leaves me baffled. It's structured like a quote, but I couldn't find the passage anywhere else. More interesting for this blog is the list of four variants. I needed help on the third and found it on Chessbase.com: Ken Regan's Tandem Pawn Chess by Kenneth Regan.

Properly speaking, chess960 isn't a variant, it's an evolution, since chess is a subset of chess960. Back to the orchestra analogy, let's try filling in the blanks: 'Chess is to chess960 as ... is to ...'

14 March 2015

The Double Kramnik Formation

In the previous post I introduced The Kramnik Formation, which is the traditional setup ('RNB*****' or '*****BNR') with the Rook and Bishop switched on one wing. This leads to the 'double Kramnik formation' (aka the Kramnik position?), SP323 BNRQKRNB and SP339 BNRKQRNB, with the pieces switched on both wings. The following diagram shows the double Kramnik formation arising from the traditional start position, SP518 RNBQKBNR.


SP323 BNRQKRNB

How do the engines treat this position? I downloaded the corresponding file from the CCRL (see the link on the right sidebar) and found 178 CCRL games. I then loaded the file into SCID and used it to count the intiial moves. SCID doesn't know anything about chess960 -- it chokes when it encounters the first castling move -- but it works properly to that point. The following table shows the output from the SCID 'Tree Window'.

Move Frequency Score AvElo Perf AvYear %Draws
1: Nf3 52: 29.2% 60.5% 2622 2723 2010 13%
2: b4 34: 19.1% 61.7% 2853 2907 2011 24%
3: b3 31: 17.4% 50.0% 2659 2640 2010 29%
4: Nc3 22: 12.3% 77.2% 2674 2891 2011 9%
5: c4 17: 9.5% 61.7% 2712 2787 2010 6%
6: g3 12: 6.7% 41.6% 2582 2529 2009 17%
7: d4 5: 2.8% 40.0%     2010 0%
8: e4 4: 2.2% 37.5%     2010 25%
9: g4 1: 0.5% 1 00.0%     2007 0%







TOTAL: 178:100.0% 58.9% 2680 2745 2010 17%

Here is the same for Black after White's most popular move, 1.Nf3.

Move Frequency Score AvElo Perf AvYear %Draws
1: Nf6 19: 36.5% 60.5% 2540 2472 2010 26%
2: g6 17: 32.6% 58.8% 2680 2561 2010 0%
3: c5 10: 19.2% 60.0% 2709 2604 2011 20%
4: Nc6 3: 5.7% 66.6%     2012 0%
5: b6 2: 3.8% 50.0%     2011 0%
6: d5 1: 1.9% 1 00.0%     2012 0%







TOTAL: 52:100.0% 60.5% 2643 2542 2010 13%

The most popular sequence for both sides, 1.Nf3 Nf6, follows basic opening principles. The Knight move (1) develops a piece, (2) prepares castling O-O, and (3) blocks the long diagonal in order to develop the corner Bishop without having it exchanged immediately. A look at the other popular first moves reveals other basic opening principles in action.

As long as I'm assigning random names to positions arising from the traditional setup, let's give GM Kasparov credit for the formation with the Knight and Bishop switched: 'RBN*****' or '*****NBR'. Why Kasparov? I introduced the 'double Kasparov formation' (aka the Kasparov position?) in two previous posts, Dog-Tired from Memorizing Openings and Switching Bishops and Knights.

07 March 2015

The Kramnik Formation

In my previous post, Lechenicher, RemoteSchach, SchemingMind, I quoted GM Kramnik speaking about chess960 in 2004...
It is hard to explain but when in the initial position the Bishop stands on h8, the Knight is on g8, and the Rook on f8, the artistic beauty of chess disappears. By the way, I asked my colleagues about it and many of them share my feelings -- something is dubious and unaesthetic.

...and decided to call his example the 'Kramnik formation'. How many of the 960 start positions (SPs) use this formation? Taking the Queenside (a-side) formation 'BNR*****', there are three squares where the other Bishop can be placed, then four where the Queen can be placed, then three for the other Knight. The King and Rook drop into the last two squares with the King between the Rooks. Multiplying 3*4*3 gives 36, which must be the number of Kramnik formations on that side of the board.

Using the same logic on the Kingside (h-side) formation '*****RNB', there must also be 36 positions. This gives us 72 Kramnik positions, right? No, wrong, because two of the positions have the formation on both the Queenside and Kingside: SP323 BNRQKRNB and SP339 BNRKQRNB. I'll call these double Kramnik formations.

SP323 is the traditional start position (SP518 RNBQKBNR) with the Rooks and Bishops switched. SP339 is the twin of SP323, with the King and Queen switched. It's worth noting that in SP339, castling O-O-O is possible on the first move. It's also worth noting that both SPs fall into the category of positions with four corner Bishops.

SP323 is shown on the left. As for Kramnik's assertion that 'the artistic beauty of chess disappears', what can I say? That 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder'? That beauty is also found in the unfamiliar?

The beauty of chess is so much more than the all-too-familiar positions that arise from the traditional SP. Chess960 opens an entirely new, unexplored world of chess beauty.

28 February 2015

Lechenicher, RemoteSchach, SchemingMind

Continuing with this blog's list of Correspondence (Turnbased) resources, after Chessmaniac, Comments on Chess960 is the Lechenicher Schach Server (LSS), 'Schach' being the German word for 'chess'. Nearly the entire site sits behind a paywall, making it problematic to link to relevant resources. The content of the site's forum is focused 95% on traditional chess, but there is no search function to locate the 5% relevant to this blog. I'll just mention that LSS has a tag on this blog (see below) and move on to the next site.

From its name, RemoteSchach.de, we again know that it's primarily a German resource. I spent some time browsing the site, found less than two dozen active chess960 games and no promotional chess960 content. A search on the site's forum returns 'Keine √úbereinstimmungen gefunden' ('No matches found'; ditto for a search on 'schach960'), so there's not much more to say here.

Last on the correspondence list is SchemingMind.com, which also sits behind a paywall and also has a tag on this blog. I've written previously about the site's public content, but just before I was ready to take a third strike for the subject of this post, I rediscovered the article Symmetrical Fischer Random Chess. Although I mentioned this content in another context, Chess960 @ Chessville.com, there's an angle to be explored further. The essay starts,

Kramnik (Chess Life, June 2004), has made an interesting point about Fischer Random Chess, regarding the lack of aesthetic balance of random starting arrays when compared with the familiar RNBQKBNR.

I located the referenced issue of CL and turned to 'Kramnik Reflects on Draws, Kasparov, and the State of Chess Today' by Vladimir Barsky.

Q: [Chess960] serves the same purpose [as drawing lots] -- to level the home preparation. Don't you like it? • A: I have played [chess960] a little bit. It diminishes the home preparation completely. But the problem is that some harmony of the game is missing. It is hard to explain but when in the initial position the Bishop stands on h8, the Knight is on g8, and the Rook on f8, the artistic beauty of chess disappears. By the way, I asked my colleagues about it and many of them share my feelings -- something is dubious and unaesthetic. And the fans got used to the beautiful interaction of the pieces in a normal initial position. So if we want to devalue the opening preparation, drawing lots is preferable. In this case the theory would be studied on a general basis.

I'm going to dub the 'BNR*****' and '*****RNB' positions the 'Kramnik formation', and will return to it in a future post.

21 February 2015

Chessmaniac, Comments on Chess960

After ChessRex, More Comments on Chess960, next on this blog's list of Correspondence (Turnbased) resources is Chessmaniac.com. I discussed this site a few years ago in Second Looks (February 2012), and there's not much to say beyond that. The chess960 comments in the site's forum are mainly about the initial rollout of the function and I couldn't find an archive of games.

The site has a large number of articles about chess, some of which mention chess960. Many of the articles are copies of material available elsewhere on the web. One article I had seen long ago, then forgotten, is Bobby Fischer's Pathetic Endgame, where the original by Rene Chun is subtitled Paranoia, hubris, and hatred -- the unraveling of the greatest chess player ever (theatlantic.com, December 2002). The portion covering the birth of chess960 takes seven paragraphs, which I'll quote in entirety. It ties together a number of events which I've discussed in separate posts on this blog and introduces a few new angles.

Fischer stayed in Yugoslavia after the rematch [Spassky 1992] , and began promoting what he called Fischer Random Chess -- a tweaked version of shuffle chess, in which both players' back-row pieces are arranged according to the same random shuffle before play begins. Although not revolutionary, the premise of FRC is compelling: with 960 different starting positions, opening theory becomes obsolete, and the strongest player -- not necessarily the player who has memorized more strategies or has the most expensive chess-analysis software -- is assured victory.

Fischer envisioned FRC as a means of democratizing chess and as a lucrative business venture -- and as an easy way to reinsert himself into the world of competitive chess without having to immerse himself in opening theory. He had designed and patented two electronic devices that he hoped to sell to FRC enthusiasts: a clock for timing games, and a pyramid-shaped "shuffler" to determine the starting positions. A 1996 press release described the two instruments as "essential to playing according to the new rules for the game of chess." Fischer desperately wanted the Tokyo-based watch company Seiko to manufacture his FRC products but couldn't generate interest.

Worse than Seiko's snub was the loss of Zita [Rajcsanyi]. After less than a year she left Fischer and, against his protestations, eventually wrote a book that chronicled their relationship. After the book's release he accused Zita of being a spy hired by the Jews to lure him out of retirement.

Following the breakup Fischer roamed around Central Europe for several years. He ended up being befriended by Susan and Judit Polgar, two young Hungarian Jews who were at the time the Venus and Serena Williams of the chess world. "I first met Bobby with my family," Susan recalls. "I told him rather than spending the rest of his life hiding ... he should move to Budapest, where there are a lot of chess players."

Fischer did, and was welcomed as a guest in the Polgar household. He appears to have behaved himself. "I remember happy times in the kitchen cutting mushrooms," Susan says. "He's very normal in that sense, very pleasant." Although Fischer refused to play classic chess, he graciously helped the Polgar sisters with their games. When he wasn't sharing his expert analysis with them, he was playing FRC games against them. He was astounded at how accomplished the sisters were. Seeing that he was impressed by the Polgars' play, a friend of Fischer's suggested a publicized match to promote FRC. Fischer agreed.

Fischer was well aware that a high-stakes match pitting the game's strongest male player (in his own mind, anyway) against Judit Polgar, the game's strongest female player (now ranked in the top ten in the world), would interest the media. But the battle-of-the-sexes extravaganza was not to be. "The Jewish-nonsense stuff caused a problem between Bobby and the girls' father," says a Fischer confidant. "One day Bobby just changed his mind. He said, 'No, they're Jewish!' He just couldn't handle it and walked away."

Would Fischer be able to beat a top grand master in an FRC match today? Doubtful. He played numerous FRC games with Susan, who concedes that the results were "mixed." She isn't optimistic about the prospect of a Fischer comeback either. "He's not that young anymore," she says.

What's new here? First there is the statement that 'Zita [...] eventually wrote a book that chronicled their relationship'. This might shed additional insight into Fischer's ideas for random chess, but it turns out it isn't true. In Responses to and by Rene Chun for her article Bobby Fischer's Pathetic Endgame (bobbyfischer.net), Rene Chun informs,

Petra Dautov was indeed the woman who published a memoir chronicling her relationship with Bobby Fischer. I stand corrected.

Then there is the statement that

[Fischer] had designed and patented two electronic devices that he hoped to sell to FRC enthusiasts: a clock for timing games, and a pyramid-shaped "shuffler" to determine the starting positions. A 1996 press release described the two instruments as "essential to playing according to the new rules for the game of chess." Fischer desperately wanted the Tokyo-based watch company Seiko to manufacture his FRC products but couldn't generate interest.

This sounds like confusion about two ideas: the clock and the shuffler. The clock, patent no.4884255 on my page Chess Patents, has been widely adopted for traditional chess and I discussed it on 1992 Fischer - Spassky Rematch : Highlights.

The Fischer chess clock: The match was the first chess event to use the "Bobby Fischer chess clock". The clock had been patented by Fischer in the U.S. in 1989, but a working model had never been constructed. A clock was made for the event in a working time of five days.

As for the shuffler, I incorporated a (the?) 1996 press release in a post titled Fischer Announces Fischerandom, where a 'Fischerandom Chess Computerized Shuffler' is mentioned. A search on '"essential to playing according to the new rules for the game of chess"' returns only the quote by Rene Chun. It is not in the 1996 press release. In fact, there are many methods to determine a random chess960 start position and most of them require no technology, pyramid-shaped or otherwise.

Re the Polgar connection, this is well established. I posted about it in Pictures of a Fischer Random Precursor.

14 February 2015

ChessRex, More Comments on Chess960

Continuing with ChessRex, Comments on Chess960, the site conducted a number of interviews with top women players. I've extracted the portions dealing with chess960 from two of those interviews. Note that the question were sometimes from different people.

Anna Muzychuk Interview (February 2013):-

Q: If you had the opportunity would you Enter a World Championship "Fischer Random Chess960" tournament? • A: I know about this kind of chess, though I have never played any tournaments of chess960. The World Chess960 Championships were organized but now we don't have them. If once they will be organized again, I think I would consider about taking part in it. Why not?

Q: I'm trying to play all the chess960 starting positions from 000-959 OTB -- it's taken a few chess years already to complete 215 SP's and against the same player in five minute sudden death games as we are playing both the light and dark pieces, so that's 1920 games in total to play. Do you know anyone that has played all the starting positions over the board? [See Chess960 Enthusiasm for a video about this exercise.] • A: I have never thought about that and never asked anyone but I don't think that someone has tried to play all the positions. It looks like it really takes a lot of time and I am not sure that it will be so useful. I think it will be more reasonable to train chess skills and try to better as a chess player as after some moves of chess960 you already get some position which by structure is similar to some opening in normal chess. So, the more you know in chess, the better chess player you are the better you will play chess960. This is just my opinion, maybe I am not completely right. We will be able to check it if Fischer chess becomes more popular. But as we can see from the very popular festival in Mainz which was including World Chess960 Championships among men and women, a great general open and also a computer tournament, the winners were the players who are very good in normal chess.

Q: As Chess has evolved over the years and within the Fischer Random starting positions the traditional start position is just One of many that make chess960 so exciting to play. Where do you see chess evolving for the coming chess years? • A: For me it is still very interesting to play normal chess. Of course, it has evolved and this will continue but the game is still very interesting with many "undiscovered" ideas.

Natalia Pogonina Interview (October 2012):-

Q: I like chess960 because I think have a better chance at winning since I haven't studied the opening book. What do you think of chess960? Should it become more important in the chess world? • A: I am not a fan of chess960 and believe that all these moans about having to cram up too much theory that we've been hearing lately are a) exaggerated b) apply only to the very top GMs. Yes, at 2700+ level people do spend a few hours before the game memorizing and going over variations. However, the prevailing majority of the players in the world don't need to dedicate so much effort to studying theory. I like Magnus Carlsen's practical approach: don't stuff too many lines into your head; just outplay the opponent later on.

Q: I am a huge lover of Fischer Random chess. Is it good and advisable to play it or not? • A: In terms of being "good and advisable to play it" – it depends on your goals. If you like the game and enjoy playing chess960, then why not do it. Or, if you meant using chess960 as a way of increasing your mastery in regular chess, then I wouldn't recommend it. There are lots of more efficient training techniques available.

Alexandra Kosteniuk Interview (October 2012). Here I extracted a single question, since GM Kosteniuk has been featured on this blog many times in the past:-

Q: The great Bobby Fischer never publicly stated his feeling about the name 'chess960'. Alexandra, when you talk about this great game what do you call it and why? • A: I know it's Fischer who invented Fischer Random Chess so he deserves most credit for it. But Hans-Walter Schmitt in Germany worked to popularize the game a lot, and under his leadership and support the name "chess960" came out, which is fine. Since he had the "chess960" festivals, I tend to call it that way now.

NB: Schmitt once asked Fischer 'Can I use this name "Fischer Chess"?'

07 February 2015

ChessRex, Comments on Chess960

After Chess.com Comments and More Comments, next on the online play sites listed on the right navigation bar is ChessRex.com. Like many online play sites, the game area is available only to signed-on members, but links to the content should work even if you are not a member. This is good marketing for any play site.

The most recent post that I found particularly interesting is titled Chess960 Equalizer (September 2013). It's based on a video whose content no longer works outside of Youtube, but you can watch it onsite: Guinness Basketball Commercial. It features a group of athletes playing basketball in wheelchairs. ChessRex founder Ernesto comments,

Chess960 is often called a variant. Chess960 is not a variant of chess because it is played by the same rules with the same pieces and executes to the same outcome as traditional chess.

Since chess is widely played by memory and recognizing openings and tactical positioning is key in becoming a successful chess player, knowledge will give you a great advantage over less experienced players. Chess960 evens out the playing field because there are 959 other starting positions including the traditional position used as the norm. Most players of high caliber do not want to give up their advantage over any player no matter what so they result in calling chess960 a variant or "not chess" at all.

To force or request a player to give up his memorized opening and positional recognition is like asking a basketball player to use a wheelchair to compete. All in all chess960 is not a variant or a handicapper but an equalizer.

While I agree with the comment about chess960 not being a variant -- and like the reason given -- I don't agree with the comment about it being an equalizer. In chess960 a good player has to think about the opening starting from the first move, just like his opponent. His understanding of positional play in the opening -- rapid development, piece activity, center control, Pawn structure, etc. -- gives him a big edge in reaching a position that he understands very well. That edge will remain after the transition into the middlegame.

Although many chess960 middlegame positions are unlikely to arise from the traditional start position, there are many other positions that could easily arise, especially after both players have castled. In the endgame, which is indistingushable from traditional chess, the good player's experience will guarantee a big edge.

Fun, yes; challenging, yes; equalizing, no. Chess960 has enough advantages that we don't need to invent new ones.