26 September 2010

Shall We Play Chess960?

My post on The Rampant Expansion of Theory quoted GM Gligoric on the inspiration for his chess960 book. It reminded me that ever since using Gligoric's title on my first post on the subject -- Shall We Play Fischerandom Chess? (*) -- I've wanted to devote one full post to the book. Having read it cover to cover twice and flipped through its pages many times, it has been my primary source of written inspiration on chess960.

A list of the book's contents on the Schachversand Niggemann page, Shall we play Fischerandom Chess?, tells us that the book is divided into three sections: a brief history of chess, the development of Fischer's idea, and sample GM games. Despite having been written and published in 2002, when there was little practical experience with the game that would later be called chess960 (when was it so named?), Gligoric's work still offers the best material on the subject.

Why did Gligoric write the book? He explains in the 'Author's Note'.

It was my pleasure to witness part of the process of creation of the randomized chess game, invented and formulated by the world chess champion [Bobby Fischer], who, having probably liked my interpretation of his match versus Spassky in my earlier book on Reykjavik 1972, at the time suggested the idea that I try to write a book myself about the unknown subject of this new version of the game of chess.

Like chess960 itself, the book has been largely ignored by the mass of the chess playing public. There are, however, a few reviews available on the web. Amazon.com currently has three Customer Reviews. One of these, by Gene Milener, author of one of the few other books on chess960, is another list of the contents. A second is more of an opinion on chess960 ('Fischerandom chess is unlikely to replace "classical" chess for much the same reason that the aluminum bats have not entered professional baseball: it would take a beautifully crafted game with a long tradition ... and throw it all out the window.') than on Gligoric's book. The third is unintelligible ('very useful for those who think clasical chess in diing into uncatchible theory+computer combo').

Of the reviews found on chess sites, the first chronologically is on Chessville.com (2002): Reviewed By David Surratt; 'If you are interested in FRC, or even just in chess history - buy this book.' The next is on Jeremysilman.com (2004; 'Shall We Play Fisher Random Chess?'): Reviewed by John Donaldson; 'If you have any interest in random chess you will want to get Gligoric's book.' The most recent is a discussion on a Chess.com forum (2010): Interesting Chess960 FRC books; Milener surfaces again and presents his real opinion, 'I ask you honestly whether anything in Gligoric's Fischerandom book says anything at all about Fischerandom?', followed by a few concepts from his own book.

My favorite section of the book is a postscript to the eight games played between GMs Leko and Adams at Mainz 2001. There are comments on Fischer's version by Leko, Adams, Yusupov, Bronstein, Kasparov, and Kramnik. Here's Kramnik:

I tried many different starting positions and all these were somehow very unharmonious. And this is not surprising as in many of these positions there is immediate forced play: the pieces are placed so badly at the start that there is a need to improve their positions in one way only, which decreases the number of choices.

It's a good point and would provide an interesting kickoff for another post.


Ichabod said...

I find Kramnik's comment interesting, as it contrasts something said by Milener: "even for masters a completely unfamiliar setup is too complex for them to play strong chess during the opening phase." Milener is now pushing for the use of one position for a long period. Kramnik has apparently proposed something similar: choosing the position for a tournament by ballot from a limited list. It seems like more resistance from those who are attached to their opening theory, and trying to find a way to add opening theory to FRC.

HarryO said...

I'm only speculating, but I think Kramnik and many others are being tricked by their way of thinking about 960. They look at it from the perspective of standard chess. This is wrong, an immediate trap that they have fallen into.

960 is about playing all 960 positions but never knowing from game to game which it will be. In this way, each starting position becomes related to other starting positions in our mind and we develop new concepts and perceptions from that way of playing. If one starting position "appears to be limited" that limitation disappears next game, and it is highly possible that the limitation was actually not a function of the position, but about how we think of the position.

I suspect that once children play 960 from a very early age onwards, they will surprise Kramnik with some of the ideas they come up with and that the limitation Kramnik perceives actually does not exist, because the limitation is just a condition we place on something. It is the condition that is the limiting factor, not the game itself.


HarryO said...

To illustrate the point about how we are conditioned to think of chess960 as unbalanced because we compare it to SP518 (standard chess) and assume that the rest of the positions are worse than it, imagine a thought experiment and a philosophical idea.

Thought experiment:
If in an alternative reality, chess had begun it's long history as chess960 and late in the 21st century some were saying that we should change it so that we only play SP518, what would be the reaction amongst players and fans? They would shout, why would you want to dumb Chess960 down?

Philosophical point:
Vladimir Kramnik uses the word "bad" to describe some Chess960 positions. "Bad" has no absolute meaning. It is just a relative term in Vladimir's mind. Of course it would be bad if we only played one position in 960, but we must play 960 of them and we do not know from game to game which it will be. Tell me if that is truly bad from an absolute perspective? If you think it is bad, question your perception. Ultimately it doesn't matter what we do, whether we play chess or chess960, neither is bad nor good, they just are. What chess960 is about is about testing our perception of chess in the first place. In chess we become slightly proud and arrogant that we think we understand it pretty well. Then we play a 960 game and blunder quickly because we simply have not exercised that part of our mind that tests our perception of a chess position. This is what chess960 does.