25 November 2017

The Seeds of Disaster

In a recent post, The Seeds of Defeat (October 2017), I presented 'two games with Black that I lost without a fight'. In this post, I'll compare the corresponding games with the same start positions where I played White. In both games I'll start with the position where I castled; in both games this occurred before my opponent castled.

The point where one of the players castles (or otherwise forfeits the castling option) is often a good place to study the game. The previous moves have been pure chess960 (whatever that means), the following moves (up to the point where the other player castles) are a mixture of ideas from chess960 and from traditional chess, and the rest of the game will be equivalent to traditional chess. A chess960 opening can thus be logically divided into three phases.

The top diagram contrasts dramatically with the corresponding position in 'Seeds of Defeat'. Neither player has an advantage (which can be considered a moral victory for Black), although there is plenty of play in the position. The game continued 7...f6 8.Nc4 Nxc4 9.Bxc4 b5 10.Be2 O-O, where both players have castled; the position is still balanced, and there is still plenty of play. At this point I looked at three moves with different objectives -- a4, Nc5, c4 -- eventually choosing 11.Nc5. The game continued 11...f5 12.a4 b4 13.Bc4+ Kh8 14.Qh5 Ng6 15.b3 a5, and I was gradually outplayed.

Note that the start position SP230 is almost the same as SP518. The Rook on the a-file and the Knight on the b-file have been switched. This might have played a role in my thinking.

The bottom diagram also contrasts dramatically with the position in 'Seeds of Defeat'. Black's Queen and Bishops are more active than White's corresponding pieces, already giving Black the upper hand. Black played the natural move 10...O-O, and the game continued 11.Rc1 Nd5 12.Bb2 a5 13.a3 Bf6 14.Nd2 Bg6 15.Bf3 a4 16.b4 c5. Here Black has a space advantage and Black's pieces are better coordinated than White's. White must have played poorly and continued to be outplayed for the rest of the game, which lasted another 20 moves.

During all four games using the two SPs, I had trouble formulating a plan and was convinced that my opponents understood the evolving positions better than I did. The results -- four losses for me -- confirm this.

18 November 2017

Chess960 Showdown

If I had been maintaining this blog for the 18 months between July 2015 and December 2016, one of the events I certainly would have covered was the 2015 Showdown in St.Louis: Day 1: Nakamura - Caruana, Hou Yifan - Negi (chess-news.ru). It took place exactly two years ago:-
Two friendly matches started in St. Louis today. Hikaru Nakamura is competing against Fabiano Caruana, while Hou Yifan's rival is Parimarjan Negi. The GMs will play four different types of chess:

November 12 - Basque system (two games simultaneously, time control 90'+30");
November 13 - Fischer chess (four games, 20'+10");
November 14 - Rapid (four games, 15'+10");
November 15 - Blitz (eight games, 3'+2").

I once discussed a possible aspect of the Basque system (Day 1) on this blog in The More the Better (March 2012), 'seems like a natural way to conduct a chess960 tournament'. Regarding 'Fischer Chess' (Day 2), it's fitting that the word 'Random' was dropped from the Chess-news.ru report.

Kasparov Chooses Chess Positions for Showdown in Saint Louis (5:13) • 'Published on Nov 12, 2015'

The description for the clip said,

The Chess Club is running a poll on Twitter where followers may vote for the starting positions, selected by Garry Kasparov, of all four games of Fischer Random Chess during Showdown in St. Louis. These games will be played on Friday, November 13 at 1pm.

As for the chess960 games themselves, the Saint Louis Chess Club has an album on Flickr.com. Here is a composite image showing six of the photos:-

2015 Showdown in Saint Louis: Day 2

Chess.com's Mike Klein wrote a report about day 2 of the event in Big Swings As Nakamura, Hou Yifan Channel Inner Fischer (chess.com).

After day one's Basque Chess, the players shifted to four games of Fischer Random, also known as Chess960, played at the rapid time control of G/20+10. Nakamura dropped game one but took 2.5 of the next three against GM Fabiano Caruana, while the former women's world champion won three straight against GM Parimarjan Negi and missed a chance to possibly make it clean sweep, drawing game four.

Unfortunately, a technical glitch prevented automatic recording of the game scores: 'There are no PGNs for Fischer Random, due to the fact that the notation system cannot understand the castling rules.' That explanation doesn't make sense, but a comment to the post does: 'From what I understand about DGT, they can easily detect that a piece is on a square, but it would be much more difficult to detect which piece it is. So you'd have to enter the initial 960 formation somehow else.' Can DGT chessboards not track random start positions for chess960 games or were the boards not prepared properly? The blog Chess960 Jungle managed to record at least two of the games:-

The Basque and chess960 experiments were only used in the 2015 Showdown. The 2016 and 2017 editions of the event reverted to traditional rapid and blitz formats using SP518 (RNBQKBNR).

28 October 2017

The Seeds of Defeat

In a recent post, Engine Trouble ('Talk about a disastrous tournament!'), I listed five factors in a particularly poor result:-
  • Strong opponents
  • Insufficient engine power
  • Too many games
  • Fast time control
  • Too many vacations

Although none of these factors is exclusive to chess960 -- they can apply equally to the traditional start position -- at the end of that post I mentioned another factor that is exclusively chess960:-

I had several pairs of games -- the same start position against the same opponent playing White in one game and Black in the other -- where I reached uncomfortable positions in both games after 10-15 moves. That means there is something wrong with my approach to chess960 openings.

A few years ago, in May/June 2015, I wrote a series of five posts where I looked at five painful losses:-

The second post in that list ('Passive vs. Active') counted '[four] extenuating factors in the string of losses'. These match the first four above. Back in 2015, vacation didn't play a role, so at least I'm consistent with my excuses. Another characteristic of 'Losing Streak' was that 'in all five games I had Black'.

Looking at the more recent series of losses (+0-9=1, horrors!), I noticed two games with Black that I lost without a fight. The diagrams below show both games after the castling choices have been made. That is the point where the same techniques used to analyze traditional chess also apply to chess960.

In the top position, the players have castled to opposite sides. You can almost count the nine individual moves that have been made by both players to arrive at their respective positions. The game continued with a typical strategy for castling on opposite sides: both players launched a Pawn attack against the castled King. White eventually achieved an overwhelming attack while Black achieved nothing. After another 20 moves, Black resigned.

In the bottom position, White hasn't castled, but the King is in no particular danger. Black's King, however, is threatened by the Bishop on the long diagonal and the two Rooks on the open g- and h-files. These combined forces eventually won a Pawn, during which the Black Pawns on b5, c5, & d5 became increasingly vulnerable. The game lasted another 25 moves.

Since both games are essentially lost at the diagrammed position, an error must have been made before the diagram was reached. But where? In the third game of 'Losing Streak' above, analyzed in the post titled 'Imperfect Understanding', HarryO weighed in with a series of comments. The first comment was 'every move you played in the opening lacked initiative'. While that was undoubtedly an oversimplification, it still contained a big grain of truth. My approach to playing a chess960 opening with the Black pieces is:-

  • Pay attention to the intermediate goals of piece development, of the fight for the center, of King safety, and of keeping a healthy Pawn structure;
  • Avoid the quick, tactical knockout; and
  • Give the move back to the opponent to see what comes next.

In the two games shown above, I failed with the goal of King safety. It took more than 20 moves to realize this for certain, but the seeds of defeat were already planted in the diagrammed positions. At what point should an early fight for the initiative play a role?

21 October 2017

Three Chess960 Developments to Watch

The first development is potentially the most likely to fuel an increase in chess960 interest. Last week, in Chess960 battle: Nakamura vs. Carlsen?, Chessbase.com informed,
In February 2018, there may be an unusual exhibition match held between Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura, playing chess960 (also known as Fischer Random). The competition is planned for the Hening Onstad Art Center in Baerum, Norway. It's funding is not yet fully secured, but Carlsen's manager is confident.

This relates to a blog post from this past summer, First the Non-routine News, (July 2017), that quoted Twitter: 'There are serious plans to organize a FischerRandom / Chess960 World Championship in Norway next year!'. As I reported a few months earlier in GM Blitz Battle PGN (March 2017), the same players met earlier this year in an event that included chess960: 'Chess.com report on the final match, Carlsen - Nakamura [...] Nakamura would go on to take 2.5/3 in the three iterations of chess960'.

The second development is an evolution of that GM Blitz Battle, another event organized by Chess.com: 2017 Speed Chess Championship Schedule, Results, Information (May 2017, but kept up to date as the matches are played). The final match will take place end-December:-

The 2017 Chess.com Speed Chess Championship features 16 of the world's best chess players in an innovative eSports bracket tournament. [...] Each 2017 Speed Chess Championship match will feature 90 minutes of 5/2 blitz, 60 minutes of 3/2 blitz, and 30 minutes of 1/1 bullet chess. One chess960 game will be played in each time control at the end of each time period.

The third development stems from a post last week on my main blog, Understanding Lombardy, where I wrote,

It turns out that the fastest way to understand Lombardy is to study his book, 'Understanding Chess: My System, My Games, My Life'.

Early in the book (p.21), Lombardy observed,

Sadly, Nimzovich died at 48, far too young for a chance to expand on his thinking and summarize that thinking into a true system, for his first work (My System, 1925) can hardly be considered a "system", but rather a collection of interesting games in which Dr. Nimzo offers advice on strategy and how to recognize and avoid mistakes. Yet his thoughts provided a foundation towards advancing chess strategy, even to my recommendation of the super-version of Fischer Random Chess!

This passage is significant for two reasons. First, I've often thought that Nimzovich would have been a brilliant chess960 player, given his penchant for unusual openings and deep strategical concepts. Second, given Lombardy's claim that 'I was Bobby's only chess teacher from [end-1954], and right through Reykjavik', any further thoughts on Fischer and chess960 are bound to be relevant. I'm slowly making my way through the book and will report any further discoveries on this blog.

30 September 2017

Engine Trouble

Talk about a disastrous tournament! If this crosstable is too small to read, all you have to know is that my result is shown on the last line, the one with all the zeroes.

LSS: FC-2015-F-00001

A few months ago I used the red rectangle gimmick in another post, Correspondence Chess and Chess960 (May 2017), where I explained,

This observation indicates that the top players used more advanced hardware (and perhaps software) than the others. Their engine setups are all calculating roughly the same variations, so it's difficult to get an advantage over each other. The [others] used less advanced setups that couldn't keep up with the top players. In other words, correspondence chess has evolved to the point where the players have little to add to the chess content of the games. Their role is to pursue a more powerful environment for their engines. What can be learned about chess960 from this?

That's all very nice, but how did I manage to finish with such a poor result (and lose 100 rating points in a single event)? It was through an unfortunate combination of several factors.

Strong opponents. The tournament was the final section of the LSS 2015 Chess960 Championship, a three-stage elimination tournament. All of the players, including me, finished first or second in both a preliminary tournament and a semifinal tournament. The eventual winner also won the site's 2014 Chess960 Championship. I had played him in four previous chess960 games, achieving a total score of +0-3=1.

Insufficient engine power. Although I follow the evolution of chess engines, I make no effort to maintain a state-of-the-art setup. The PC I use to run the engines (I use several PCs and several engines for different tasks) is now seven years old and the engines are between three and five years old. Once in a while I'll upgrade something, but it's never a priority. The outcome is easy to foresee: if my engine is calculating to a depth of N ply, while my opponent's engine is calculating to N+5 ply, I will eventually be out-calculated.

Too many games. At the same time I started the ten games shown in the crosstable, I started six games in the 2016 semifinal tournament. These were on top of another six games that were already in progress. Normally, I make up for my weakness in engine power by working hard on the games, but this only works for a small number of games, around 10-12 maximum. I play correspondence chess to improve my overall chess ability, which requires that I choose the moves myself rather than let an engine do it for me.

Fast time control. The LSS chess960 games use a countdown time control, which I last discussed in Passive vs. Active Play (May 2015). I try to play these games at the rhythm of a move per day, but with so many games, I end up spending 2-3 days per move (and still getting bad positions).

Too many vacations! The LSS chess960 rules only allow two weeks vacation per tournament, but my wife had scheduled five weeks vacation during the time the tournament was to be held. I used a couple of LSS vacation days at the beginning and end of each real vacation, but sometimes 3-4 vacation days would slide by without any work on my games. There are too many other things to do on vacation besides playing chess.

I should have declined the opportunity to play so many games in these circumstances against good players, but I wanted to see if I could handle the pressure. I set myself the goals of finishing with an even score in the 2015 final and of qualifying from the 2016 semifinal. I failed miserably on the first goal, but succeeded on the second. The 2016 final tournament starts soon, but I probably won't participate. I've taken enough psychological punishment for one year. No one likes to lose!

Why mention these tournaments on this blog? First, because I had several pairs of games -- the same start position against the same opponent playing White in one game and Black in the other -- where I reached uncomfortable positions in both games after 10-15 moves. That means there is something wrong with my approach to chess960 openings. Second, because I would like to investigate what sort of engine setup I would need to improve my result. I'll do that on my main blog.

23 September 2017

Start by Placing the Bishops!

Looking for code to generate a chess960 start position randomly? Don't overlook Generate Chess960 Starting Position (rosettacode.org): 'You are encouraged to solve this task according to the task description, using any language you may know.'

The page currently offers 35 solutions in programming languages from A to Z (literally, AutoHotkey to zkl), but I have no idea how many different algorithms are used. Some algorithms appear to be suspect, especially those that start by placing the RKR, then fill in the other pieces.

The reason is that although there are 56 different RKR patterns, some of them have 18 associated start positions, others have only 12. The difference occurs when the RKR all start on the same square color. For more about this, see Castling Patterns Visualized (September 2010).


Later: After I wrote this post, I noticed that the 'Task' on the Rosetta Code page is wrong. Instead of

The purpose of this task is to write a program that can randomly generate any one of the 960 Chess960 initial positions.

it should say something like 'randomly generate with equal probability'. Specification errors are worse than coding errors!

26 August 2017

Chess960 Arena on Lichess

Last month, in (Not so?) Rare Birds, Summer 2017, I took my periodic look at recent / forthcoming chess960 tournaments. One small event that received a mention was:-
GM Yermolinsky VS. IM Bartholomew Chess960 Consultation Match: Former U.S. Champion GM Alex Yermolinsky and IM / YouTube sensation John Bartholomew will lead two competing teams in an interactive consultation Chess960 (Fischer Random) match.

I'm always interested in any YouTube sensation that has to do with chess960 and I found a relevant clip on the 'John Bartholomew' channel.

Chess 960 Arena! (1:41:10) • 'Streamed live on Apr 10, 2017 • Join the tourney on lichess.org: [...]'

That last link leads to IM Fins Arena #0HECUP4x (lichess.org), which now has the tournament results. Between the start and the end of the live stream, there is plenty of discussion about chess960. The embedded chat is an integral part of the show.