18 August 2018

The Promise of Chess960 (in 2006)

In one of last month's posts, Chess960 at the Open Library, I discovered a digital copy of 'Play Stronger Chess by Examining Chess960' by Gene Milener. Since then, I've been slowly making my way through the book. As I wrote in the 'Open Library' post,
The book is not an easy read. It introduces new terminology, new notation, and many new ideas that challenge traditional chess thinking.

Having spent more time with it, I'm now more comfortable with the new terminology and new notation (although I still hesitate when I encounter the word 'plair'). I won't pretend to review the book. I've corresponded with Gene Milener on several occasions and he has left numerous comments on this blog as 'GeneM'. There are a few details concerning chess960 where we don't agree. Since these might easily intrude into any review, I'll just say that further comments are my opinion in 2018 versus GeneM's opinion in 2006.

The book is divided into two main parts:-

PART 1: Beyond the Board
PART 2: New Chess Principles Discovered

The 'Open Library' post separated these parts into chapters and for this current post I concentrated on the chapters in part 1. Five of the six chapters in that part discuss technical aspects of chess960, like the numbering system and PGN/FEN, but chapter two examines the relationship with traditional chess. The chapter opens with an anecdote. It had already made an impression on me when I read it at some time in the past, although I had forgotten its source.

I was reviewing a chess game from the pages of John Nunn's superb book Understanding Chess Move By Move. I feel like a spectator when I review or replay a chess game, in the same way I feel like a spectator when I watch football. It was the Jan Timman - Judit Polgar game (Sigeman & Co., at Malmo 2000) in which Polgar carried an initiative through most of the opening even though Timman's moves all seemed solid and safe, even conservative (*). I felt like Polgar's aggressive moves were more than interesting, they were aesthetically pleasing and even inspiring. Chess is indeed a melding of war and beauty.

Then I peeked inside my one modest and aging CD of chess games, which contains about 800,000 games. This led to a feeling of deflation and almost betrayal. For I saw that the exact moves Polgar played through the opening have been played in numerous other games too. Suddenly I felt like Polgar's play had a diminished value, like that of a Picasso print as compared to a Picasso original. At that moment chess960 popped back into my head. Starting from that day I spent my evenings researching chess960, though at first I had no inkling this would lead me to write a book.

That is exactly what Bobby Fischer was talking about in remarks I quoted in Fischer: 'The *Old* Chess Is Dead' (February 2010). Fischer was speaking in January 2002:-

Q: Do you follow chess at all? A: I follow the old chess, I follow all the pre-arranged matches, like the last Kramnik - Kasparov match [October 2000]. At the highest level it is all pre-arranged, move by move. You have very interesting, beautiful pre-arranged games being created by very intelligent players, working with computers, working in teams. I have no objections to people creating such games, but they must say these are pre-arranged games, but they must not claim that they are finding the moves over the board. I have learned so much from these pre-arranged matches and all these cooked-up notes, they're wonderful. But they are fake, they are flawed.

The rest of Milener's chapter two goes on to discuss aspects of chess960 that are just as relevant today as they were in 2006. Here is a list of the chapter's section titles, where comments in brackets ('[]') are mine:-

2. The Tyranny of Tradition
- Opening Repetition Data
- The Greatest Spectator Sport on Earth?
- Bobby Fischer's Perspective on FRC/Chess960
- Learning from the Checkers Example
- Impedance to Rejoining the USCF
- Befuddled by Time Data
- An Optimistic Perspective on Chess960
- Center of the Universe for FRC/Chess960 [Mainz]
- What are Chess, Chess1, and Chess960
- First In Wins ['First-In']
- Opening Theme Tournaments

The section titled 'Optimistic Perspective' is particularly relevant. Bobby Fischer was alive at the time the book was published. I wonder what he thought about it. Was he also optimistic about the adoption of his invention?

(*) Jan Timman vs Judit Polgar; Sigeman & Co (2000), Malmo SWE (chessgames.com).

28 July 2018

GM Hort and Chess960

This post is a carryover from my main blog -- A Chess Board Is a Stage -- first, because a heat wave has reduced my capacity for any sort of real effort, and second, because it builds on a small ongoing project:-
Last month, in 'An NN for Chess Images' (June 2018), I started to analyze my archive of chess images. One of the by-products of that analysis was to catalog series of related images.

I found the following image in a series of Russian post cards. It shows GM Vlastimil Hort playing RQKNBNRB (SP699).

The timestamp on the image file is January 2004, which means the game must have been played in 2003 or earlier. The badge on GM Hort's jacket is not clear enough to read, but it might have been issued for one of the Mainz tournaments. My post on the demise of the Mainz tournaments, No Place for Chess960 (February 2011), mentions,

Chess960 Senior Rapid Chess World Championship: 2006 Vlastimil Hort

I found on file 13 games by GM Hort, the first of which was played in the 2003 Chess Classic Mainz (CCM) Chess960 Open. That game, against Igor Glek, is the only game on file for Hort in 2003; the other games are from CCMs 2005, 2006, and 2008. Hort appears to have been a keen chess960 player.

Earlier this year, in Vlastimil Hort: Memories of Bobby Fischer - Part 3 (chessbase.com; April 2018), the one time candidate for the World Championship in traditional chess (1977) recalled meeting Fischer in 1993.

I believe I am one of the first to whom Bobby showed his invention -- the new form of chess he had created! On the first rank, the pieces were placed randomly -- but with identical set-ups for Black and White. The pawns on the second or seventh rank stayed as they are -- just as in traditional chess.

This would have been the same time that Fischer was working out his castling rules. The last time I touched on this topic was Early Chess960 in Hungary (April 2018). It's ironic that more people seem to have played this early form of random chess with Fischer than to have played with the chess960 rules announced in 1996.

21 July 2018

Chess960 at the Open Library

While preparing a recent post on my main blog Chess-books and Chess-players, which described how to embed links to the Open Library, I found a book which I've always wanted to read.

Play Stronger Chess by Examining Chess960
by Gene Milener

I've known about the book for years and the title has popped up in several posts, e.g. Ducking Chess960 (June 2012):-

Next on the list, a review of Gene Milener's 'Play Stronger Chess by Examining Chess 960' wasn't new to me. I had already mentioned it a couple of years ago in 'Chess960 @ Chessville.com'.

That post pointed to a review that has long since disappeared from the web, but which is still available through the magic of the Wayback Machine: Chessville Reviews - Play Stronger Chess by Examining Chess 960 - Reviewed by Michael Jeffreys (archive.org -> chessville.com). That review is itself reviewed by Milener on his own page about the book, 960 CLP.com (castlelong.com), from which I copied the book's table of contents.

The book is not an easy read. It introduces new terminology, new notation, and many new ideas that challenge traditional chess thinking. It's testimony to the depth of chess960 that a book written in 2006 -- only ten years after Fischer introduced his version of random chess -- contains many ideas that remain to be explored. I'll cover some of them in future posts on this blog.

23 June 2018

Another Purported Problem with Castling

I ended the previous post, A Purported Problem with Castling, with the observation:-
Another general rule is that castling considerations are more complicated in chess960 than in traditional chess, even if specific start positions might be less complicated.

It turns out that the observation also applies to the rules for castling. The 'Purported Problem' post was based on hundreds of comments to a Chessbase article, of which the last half might be called the Petrarlsen - Celeje debate. For more than a month the two parties discussed the pros and cons of various castling rules, all of them alternatives to Fischer's chess960 rules. I won't enter into that debate -- this is a chess960 blog -- but there were a number of thought-provoking points that are worth discussing. For example:-

In certain [chess960] positions, the [castling] King moves toward the center.

A little thought is enough to determine that these are positions where the King starts on the b-file and castles O-O-O. This brought me once again to an old post on my main blog, Introduction to Chess960 Geometry (March 2009), where I developed the following table. Pardon me for taking a snapshot of the table and its discussion, which is easier than copying everything separately.

From that table we learn that there are exactly 108 positions where the Kings start on the b-file. When one of those Kings castles O-O-O, it starts on the b-file and ends on the c-file. While that might be a (small) disadvantage, it is counter-balanced by the simultaneous activation of the Rook that started on the a-file. Since all start positions with a King on the b-file imply a Rook on the a-file, there is another important consideration for the opening plan: How to activate that Rook? There are four ways to do this:-

  • Castle O-O-O [moving the King toward the center]
  • Castle O-O [switching the King from the b- to the g-file]
  • Moving the King to the second rank
  • Moving the Rook along the a-file

The strategy that a player chooses -- remember that both White and Black have the same options -- depends on the overall strategy for developing all eight pieces. Each one of those four choices for King/Rook activation has an impact on the choices for the other six pieces and vice versa.

That last observation might seem obvious, but a second observation might be less obvious. Of the six files where a King can start the game, the simultaneous considerations for castling (King safety and Rook activation) present six different scenarios. For example, in those positions where a King starts on the d-/e-files, the choice of moving the King to the second rank is less attractive than when the King starts on the b-file. On the d-/e-files, the King is more exposed to attack than on the b-file, and moving to the second rank doesn't really change this.

The special considerations for castling arise because a single move alters the position of two pieces of the same color. In the Petrarlsen - Celeje debate, Petrarlsen (a chess960 antagonist) argued that the chess960 castling rules must respect the exact same goals of King safety and Rook activation found in the traditional setup (SP518 RNBQKBNR). Celeje (a chess960 protagonist) was more flexible. What would Petrarlsen say about the start positions When Castling Undevelops a Rook (September 2010)?

It's curious that even in SP518, the consequences of castling to the two sides are not completely equivalent. Castling O-O-O moves the King one square off-center and develops the Rook to the center. Castling O-O moves the King closer to the corner, but doesn't bring the Rook to the center. Both scenarios often require a second move to correct the deficiency of the castling move. Castling O-O-O is often followed by Kc1-b1, while castling O-O is usually followed by a further Rook move.

Similar considerations apply to all of the other 959 start positions. If we want all chess960 positions to mimic the traditional position, we might as well just play only that position.

16 June 2018

A Purported Problem with Castling

My previous post, Comments on Purported Problems (May 2018), continued a mini-series on a Chessbase article, 'The problem with Chess960'. After commenting on the article itself (follow the 'Purported Problems' link to find my original post and comments), I selected some thought-provoking discussion points from the more than 200 comments made against the Chessbase article. One in particular is worth a discussion on its own:-
Petrarlsen 3/2/2018 03:31 • In one of the Carlsen - Nakamura game, the two players castled on move one, and I rather think that every game played with this position between top GMs would follow the same course; this feels more like a farce than like the beginning of a serious game.

The game reference is to the recent match, 2018 Carlsen - Nakamura (February 2018). The commenter continued,

What can be the meaning of castling if the players castle on the first move and wouldn't even consider playing any other move?

Ignoring the arrogant assumption about knowing what the players considered or didn't consider, let's look at the position. The PGN is available via my '2018 Carlsen - Nakamura' post. It turns out that the position was used in games 11 and 12 of the match, when both games were drawn.


In game 11, with Nakamura as White, the players continued 1.O-O O-O. With Carlsen as White, the first moves were 1.c4 O-O 2.O-O. Carlsen at least tried 1.c4, but then castled on his next move.

Looking at the position more carefully, what are the logistics behind castling O-O-O? Taking White as the example, we have to move the dark-squared Bishop and the Queen to enable O-O-O. Both moves can be prepared by d2-d4 (or d2-d3), after which there is a further question of where to place the Bishop or Queen when it moves. Neither piece has an obvious developing square, and the Bc1 is perhaps better on the long diagonal. So it takes at least four moves to play O-O-O, after which there is no particular advantage in the resulting position. The move O-O, on the other hand, looks natural -- the King is a little safer and the Rooks are connected. Isn't that what castling is supposed to achieve?

Rather than being 'more like a farce than like the beginning of a serious game', the move O-O is the first idea in what promises to be a long, tight struggle. It also adheres to the principle of playing the obvious moves first. As for the other start positions where O-O is possible on the first move, I once counted these positions in Introduction to Chess960 Geometry (March 2009, on my main blog):-

There are 90 start positions where the players can castle O-O on the first move. [...] There are 72 positions where the players can castle O-O-O on the first move.

I am sure that not all of these 90 positions are as straightforward as SP324. As a final thought, in a post titled On a Losing Streak (May 2015), I wrote,

After the game, my opponent said, 'I have found from past personal experience, castling on the first move makes for a very difficult game!' I could hardly disagree with him, especially when it is followed by a dubious gambit.

While that opponent might have exaggerated his personal experience, it is a more useful general rule than to claim that a player should always castle on the first move whenever possible. Another general rule is that castling considerations are more complicated in chess960 than in traditional chess, even if specific start positions might be less complicated.

19 May 2018

Comments on Purported Problems

I ended my previous post, Purported Problems with Chess960, with:-
The [Chessbase] article also attracted more than 200 comments, many of them with ideas worth further exploration. Perhaps I'll tackle these in a future post.

Here are the first 20 or so comments that, in my opinion, made a particularly good point worth exploring.

Ken Neat 2/28/2018 09:35 • I am surprised that David Bronstein's version of random chess is never mentioned. Here the back rank is empty at the start, and the first eight moves for each player are to place their eight pieces on the board, with certain restrictions (e.g.the bishops). To me this seems far more interesting than the Fischer version.

John Upper 2/28/2018 10:00 • Rather than say FRC does away with "preparation" you should say it does away with "opening preparation". Preparing by working on tactics and learning endgames is still very beneficial to playing FRC.

Petrarlsen 3/1/2018 04:24 • I find the idea of games entirely decided over the board interesting, but I find also extremely interesting the "fight of opening ideas" that can be seen in top-GMs games.

peterfrost 3/1/2018 06:46 • An obvious attempt to address this which is rarely tried is to randomise the pairings (rather than the pieces!) so that players don't know who they will be playing on a given day. This will at least make preparation considerably harder, as I think a big part of the problem is "cramming" the night before a game to get ready for a known opponent.

BeFreeBusy 3/1/2018 07:59 • Why abandon the game of chess and, for too large part, the beauty and history of it?

celeje 3/1/2018 08:14 • One of the main points of chess960 is that it can exist alongside the game with the traditional starting position, played by the same people, with the same skills rewarded. There's no replacement going on.

lajosarpad 3/1/2018 09:16 • A year playing a single position seems to be quite long. An improvement on that might be to randomize a single position for each tournament of FRC and let the players and commentators know the randomized position in advance. This way the random variant will stay random, but we will see some basic openings and the commentators will have ample time to prepare for their job.

fons3 3/1/2018 12:46 • [Bronstein's version] Not mentioned in this article but I think that putting a piece on the board should count as a move so the clock would be running.

Petrarlsen 3/1/2018 02:19 • In chess960 (obviously, in my opinion, it can be mastered in less than 5 minutes. by any experienced chess player, even a complete amateur), only that, in several chess960 starting positions, castling is very weird and quite inharmonious.

svr 3/1/2018 03:33 • Before the start of the game, both players will look at the starting position for a few minutes. Then one of them will set the clocks (with their total adding to 30 minutes, if it is a rapid game, for example). Then the other player will choose on which side to play.

boorchess 3/1/2018 06:11 •

KWRegan 3/1/2018 09:15 • Link to what is really just combining Bronstein's and Fischer's ideas:

Mawin 3/2/2018 06:55 • I have suggested that players randomize the pieces themselves. The players may, before play begins, swap places of the king + queen and another piece except the rooks. The castling rules are the same as in chess960. [...] "Relocation variants - rearranging the initial array"

elmerdssngalang 3/2/2018 09:04 • Place the big money on chess960 and soon it will gain popularity among the best traditional chess players. One great advantage to be gained is that more players from lower ranks can be allowed to compete with the best ones on a more level playing field.

geraldsky 3/2/2018 02:08 • If Paul Morphy and Harry Philsbury [were] still alive they would play equally against modern players in chess960

koko48 3/2/2018 03:15 • In traditional chess, no matter how many theoretical or previously analyzed moves you play, you (almost always) eventually reach a unique position. The only difference is that with chess960, you get the 'unique' position earlier. But as the game progresses well into the middlegame, the chess960 positions start to look like positions from a traditional game. [...] So in essence chess theory will go back to the way it was in the late 1800s or early 1900s in traditional chess, when modern opening theory was in its infancy, and there as much more creativity in the early stages of the game

Petrarlsen 3/2/2018 03:31 • In one of the Carlsen - Nakamura game, the two players castled on move one, and I rather think that every game played with this position between top GMs would follow the same course; this feels more like a farce than like the beginning of a serious game.

Jacob woge 3/4/2018 02:27 • As for the Carlsen - Nakamura match, the main interest lies in the result. The sporting element is emphasized. The games are, with the exception of a few endings, to forget.

Petrarlsen 3/4/2018 03:50 • In traditional chess, in a very large majority of positions, it is possible to explain castling by the two ideas of the safety of the King and the development of one of the Rooks. I don't think that in chess960 it is possible to find such clear and general ideas who could be applied more or less everywhere, for castling.

That last comment -- 'clear and general ideas for castling' -- is worthy of a separate post, perhaps an article, perhaps even a book. The discussion circled around the topic for a long time. The remark by the same commenter (see above at 3/2/2018 03:31) on first move castling belongs to the same discussion.

Also worth a separate investigation is the thread on Bronstein's version of shuffle chess. I've never played it, so I can't comment directly. A big advantage of Fischer's version is that the castling rules ensure that a game eventually looks and feels like a traditional chess game. Is the same true of Bronstein's version?

28 April 2018

Purported Problems with Chess960

That title is taken from a recent article by Frederic Friedel of Chessbase: The problem with Chess960 (chessbase.com; February 2018). Let's cut to the chase. The problem with chess960 is that there is no problem with chess960. Chessbase has a problem with chess960 in that it eliminates the need for their flagship product. I read Friedel's remarks with the same understanding that I would read the remarks of any corporate CEO faced with an existential threat. Let's look at his main points.

'The game has some fairly complex castling rules.' • This is a bullet straight out of Top 10 Myths About Chess960 (May 2012). Friedel points to a Wikipedia article that states the rule in 17 words: 'After castling, the final positions of King and Rook are exactly the same as in standard chess'. Wikipedia then goes on to repeat the same restrictions that are found in the rules of traditional chess: King and Rook must not have moved etc. etc. What's so complicated about that?

'Slowly the game gained popularity, though it did not take off the way its devotees hoped.' • The game is doing fine, thanks very much. There are plenty of places to play (How about Chessbase's Playchess.com?) and plenty of people to play it with. There is no money in it, but I'm not convinced that's a problem.

'A chess960 rapid game has a weird position the players [are] still pondering on move four.' • This 'grave disadvantage' (Friedel's phrase) is in fact one of the attractions of chess960. The thinking starts on the first move (not after 15 moves of theory).

'Commenting on a [chess960] game [is like] conducting a guided tour of an art gallery that you are visiting for the first time.' • One of these days I must watch the commentating by GM Yasser Seirawan and IM Anna Rudolf on the recent 2018 Carlsen - Nakamura Match (February 2018). How did they manage to cope?

'The chess960 positions, regarding their winning probabilities, are often asymmetric.' • I don't understand what this means. What are 'asymmetric winning probabilities'? That White often has a small advantage over Black? That the 960 positions offer different winning percentages to the two players? Something else?

'Traditional chess offers continuity [...] That is impossible in chess960. • This is referring to the opening. Traditional chess has three phases: opening, middlegame, and endgame; chess960 has the same three phases. In the chess960 opening, there are undiscovered principles that are awaiting the intrepid explorer. Ditto the chess960 middlegame, which is richer than in traditional chess. The chess960 endgame is the same as traditional chess.

'Some [chess960 start positions] give White substantial advantage, some are simply bizarre, causing players to cringe, and some invite blunders and result in very short games. But many are interesting and exciting.' • All are 'interesting and exciting'. None are cringeworthy. I speak from experience.

'Chess960 tournaments should have two games with swapped colors per encounter.' • Is this necessary? The Mainz events did not use this system. Perhaps it is a psychological crutch for players who lack confidence in the fairness of chess960 or in their ability to tackle its challenges. The Carlsen - Nakamura match used 'swapped colors' and provoked a conversation about unintended consequences. Other solutions are possible, like a change in the scoring system (e.g. as in duplicate bridge).

'The main problem of chess960 is that you start with absolutely no prior information or practice.' • Absolutely none at all? Starting with this sentence, the rest of Friedel's article breaks down into some silly assertions (sorry, Frederic!) and a call to consider Kasparov's Chess960 Proposal (October 2009). I've discussed the idea several times on this blog, for example, It's Not About Short Draws, Garry (February 2014). Short answer: There is nothing to stop any group of players from limiting the number of chess960 positions; likewise, there is nothing to stop the rest of the world from playing all 960 positions. Long answer: Same as the short answer.

Don't misunderstand me. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Friedel's thoughts. Remember the 'corporate CEO faced with an existential threat'? There were other points worth examining. Friedel's relationship with Bobby Fischer was news to me. The article also attracted more than 200 comments, many of them with ideas worth further exploration. Perhaps I'll tackle these in a future post.