30 July 2011

Pawn Power in Chess960

If the title of this post reminds you of the book 'Pawn Power in Chess' by Hans Kmoch, that's exactly what it's meant to do. I read it years ago, and while I can't say that it had any direct impact on my knowledge of chess, it certainly made me think more about Pawn structures. Already having some familiarity with the book's ideas, I wondered, 'How much of its content is relevant to chess960?'

'Pawn Power' is divided into three parts: 'The Elements of Pawn Play', 'Pawns and Pieces', and 'Pawn Power in the Game'. The first part, the 'Elements', presents the basic formations of Pawns that can arise during the course of a game: passed, isolated, backward, doubled, chained, etc. Unfortunately, Kmoch introduced an entirely new terminology that obscures his explanation and that renders his exposition meaningless without a guide to translation. For example,

'Helpers and sentries neutralize each other if there is a helper for every sentry. A half-free Pawn with inadequate help is no true candidate, but a faker.' (p.6) • 'An unfree Pawn or a faker may suddenly become a passer of decisive power by means of a sacrificial combination. We call such a Pawn a sneaker.' (p.8) • And much more of the same.

Chessville.com has just such a guide: Glossary of Terms 'Pawn Power in Chess'. If you manage to cut through the jargon, which was never adopted by other chess writers, you will see that his catalog of Pawn structures is comprehensive and applies equally to chess960.

The second part, 'Pawns and Pieces', presents specific characteristics of Pawn structures that enhance or reduce the powers of the Bishop, the Knight, and the Rook, with one chapter on each of the three pieces. For example, Bishops are affected by masses of Pawns on the same color or the opposite color that the Bishop moves; Knights prefer outposts where they can't be harrassed by enemy Pawns; Rooks work best on open files. This again applies equally to chess960, although Kmoch's examples are naturally drawn from positions in traditional chess (SP518 RNBQKBNR) where the specific opening is usually discernible in the position.

A further chapter, 'The Sealer and the Sweeper', deals with Pawn moves that close and open the position. I can't remember seeing any of this sort of action in any chess960 games, but there is nothing inherent to chess960 that excludes it from taking place. The last chapter in part two, 'The Center and the Fork Trick', is about a specific tactic that occurs in traditional chess, usually from 1.e4 openings.

The third part, 'Pawn Power in the Game', is about common formations that arise in the opening of traditional chess. About 60 pages, representing 20% of the book, deal with Benoni formations. I doubt there is much here that applies to chess960.

A web search on 'Pawn Power in Chess' returns reviews of more recent books in the same genre, for example Understanding Pawn Play in Chess on JeremySilman.com. While I haven't read any of these other books, I wouldn't be surprised to find that their content is just as relevant to chess960 as Kmoch's opus: 50% exclusive to traditional chess, 50% generic to chess960. This is still a higher percentage than most chess books, especially books on the opening, which are 100% exclusive to traditional chess.

23 July 2011

Castling Too Soon

My most recent pyramid game on Schemingmind.com (see Pyramids and Dropouts for an explanation) was an instructive example of when not to castle. I outrated my opponent, who challenged me, by almost 700 points, so the result was a foregone conclusion, barring some kind of a horrible blunder on my part.

The diagram shows the game after my opponent's first move 1.g3. At first I was puzzled by the move, but then realized that he intended to play the Queen to g2 and castle O-O as quickly as possible.


After 1.g2-g3

While King safety is certainly important, the Kings are not in any particular danger here. I played 1...c5 with an eye on (1) development -- the move opens a diagonal for the Bb8, opens a file for the Rc8, and prepares ...Nc6 -- and on (2) the center, by staking a claim to d4. After the expected 2.Qg2, I continued 2...d5, opening a diagonal for the Be8 and staking a bigger claim to the center. Black's second move invites 3.Qxd5, but after 3...Bc6, I calculated that the complications were in Black's favor.

The game continued 3.O-O Nb6 4.c3. Since White's fourth move continued to ignore the center, I decided that it was already time to attack the castled King with 4...h5. After the further moves 5.h4 g5 6.hxg5 Qxg5, Black's attack is probably winning. By the time I castled O-O-O on the 11th move, all of my pieces were aimed at the White King. White resigned on the 18th move.

While castling is generally good, it's not always best, especially early in the game. It's primarily a defensive move, which renders it somewhat passive, and it fixes the position of the King as a target for the opponent's pieces. Its shortcomings were exemplified in this miniature.

16 July 2011

Fischer Random Bughouse

Although it's been ages since I last played a game, my favorite four-person chess variant is bughouse. It's fast, it's social, and it lets you blame losing on your partner's bad play. If you're not sure what bughouse is, see the Wikipedia entry on Bughouse Chess. The USCF's Chess Life Online recently ran a piece titled The Secrets of Brooklyn’s Bughouse Champs, Part I: Openings, where you can see that bughouse players, for the first few moves at least, follow the same opening strategies used in traditional chess.

When I was active playing bughouse, I came to the conclusion that there were a lot of chess openings that didn't work very well. Wikipedia confirms this:-

There are significantly fewer bughouse openings than there are chess openings. Many chess openings create weaknesses which can be easily exploited in bughouse.

An obvious solution to this drawback is to introduce chess960 start positions (SPs) into bughouse. When I mentioned this idea to a friend who is both a teacher of traditional chess and a keen bughouse player, he answered,

Fischer Random Bughouse seems logical, because the choice of bughouse openings is not a large one. On a practical level, however, it is unlikely to take root just because it takes to long to set the board up. Among young players now, there is practically no down time between the end of one game and the start of another. It's all I can do to get them to wait a second so that the clocks can be started simultaneously. It could be an interesting idea for bughouse tournaments.

This is useful feedback, and I see no reason why the same SP couldn't be kept for the duration of a session. It would allow the players to explore some of the subtleties of the chosen SP. At the same time it occurred to me that keeping the same SP would also be an advantage in a chess960 blitz match.

The upshot of all this would be some sort of a gadget that allows the players to record an SP and then refer to it at the start of each new game. Nothing fancy is required. Eight tiles showing the pieces and a rack to hold them in place would be sufficient.

09 July 2011

Chess960 Chaos

Over on Chess960 Jungle, in a post titled Tricky Tricky Chess960, HarryO investigated a start position that I encountered in A Chess960 Catastrophe. The position, SP941 RKRBNQBN, was the start of a game at Mainz 2005, where GM Bacrot was completely lost against GM Aronian after four moves. HarryO concluded, '[Bacrot] stumbled on what I think could be amongst a few very very tricky SP's for Black to play and even worse it was against Aronian!' and 'There will be a very small number of SP's where Black's first move may have to be memorized or at least the tactical motifs will have to be memorized.'

Critics of chess960 like to say that there are some positions where the odds are stacked against Black at the beginning of the game and present this as a reason for not considering Fischer's greatest invention. Since these critics never give examples with analysis, unwitting readers might assume that they are right. Is SP941 such a position? I decided to take a closer look, subjecting it to engine analysis.

I'm not a big fan of using engines to analyze the early opening, where the best moves are often based on positional ideas like development and the center, rather than tactics. Engines also know nothing about piece harmony and coordination, a central concern in chess960 where the pieces are usually not as well coordinated as in the traditional start position, SP518 RNBQKBNR. In the case of SP941, where strong tactical motifs are present at the beginning of the game, an engine can help to cut through the tangle.

The first diagram shows the Aronian - Bacrot game after Aronian's first move. The most striking feature of the position is the RKR sitting in the corner. Castling is not going to be easy in this game and castling O-O is highly unlikely. The second feature is the weakness of the b- & d-Pawns. This was the problem that Bacrot underestimated.

To analyze the position, I used a normal engine that has no specific knowledge of chess960, i.e. without knowledge of the castling rules. Since castling does not play a role in the early moves, this is not a big disadvantage. The engine is the strongest I have, analyzing the early opening to >20-ply in only a few minutes, a feat that my chess960 engines can't do. After running the engine against the position with 1.e4, I looked at the top four moves it suggested: 1...f5, 1...f6, 1...e5, and 1...c5.

The first candidate move, 1...f5 leads to the early development of the Black Queen after 2.exf5 Qxf5. Now White can attack the Queen immediately with 3.Ng3, when 3...Qa5 calls to mind the Scandinavian Defense in SP518. Not all players are comfortable with an early deployment of the Queen and, while it looks safe on a5, its exposed position will certainly become a factor sooner or later.

Like 1...f5, the second candidate, 1...f6, opens the diagonal for the Bg8, but does little for the center. White can play an immediate 2.Bg4, hitting the weak d-Pawn, when Black responds 2...e6. This line of play looks passive and might not appeal to players who are looking for more than solidity in the opening.

The third candidate, 1...e5, was Bacrot's choice. It certainly looks natural. It uses a strategy of symmetry, which is often a good strategy for Black in the early moves of a chess960 game, and it opens diagonals for a Bishop and the Queen. The engine favors Aronian's move 2.Nd3 over all others, then suggests 2...f6 and 2...Ng6 for Black. Bacrot chose 2...Ng6, when Aronian answered 3.f4, also the heavy favorite for the engine. The two-fisted threat is 4.Nc5 & 5.Qb5, winning immediately. Instead of Bacrot's 3...Bf6, which overlooked the threat, the engine suggests 3...c5.

After the similar 2...f6 3.f4 c5, shown in the second diagram above, Black's position looks chaotic. The three Black Pawn moves aren't harmonized into any obvious plan and the e-Pawn is hanging. Although Black can recover it, the variations I looked at were all equally chaotic. It would take more analysis to determine if there is anything more to Black's game than parrying White's threats, but I stopped there.

The fourth candidate move, 1...c5 (the SP941 Sicilian?), also leads to chaotic looking positions. Its first merit is to interfere with White's Nc5, and by opening the file for a lift of the c-Rook and a diagonal for the dark squared Bishop, it heads for a fast ...O-O-O. HarryO advises to forget about it, but I think it's worth a try.

If I were faced with the position after 1.e4, I would probably play 1...e5, because I like advancing in the center. Would I see the idea with 4.Nc5 & 5.Qb5? If one of the world's top grandmasters missed it, what are the chances for us grandpatzers?

02 July 2011

Chess960 Waits for No One

Two weeks of vacation means three weekends without chess960 blogging which means four weeks since my last post, Alas for GM Grischuk and for Chess960. It took me a few days to catch up with chess news (what in the world was Ilyumzhinov thinking when he travelled to Libya?) and I was happy to see some good, new ideas on chess960.

Continuing with the 'Alas!' post, I noted two more chess960 references on ChessInTranslation.com. The first was another interview with GM Grischuk, It’s the end of classical chess as we know it (and I feel fine):-

A: For now we can discuss and debate about whether we’ve come to [the death of traditional chess] yet or not. But it’s clear that the situation will get worse and worse, by the year, by the month. How is it all going to end? For me that’s obvious. For now it’s still possible to argue about whether we’ve come to that stage. • Q: And how can we escape? • A: The escape is either reducing the time control, or chess960, which I consider the ideal solution – simply ideal in all regards. That also allows you to play with a long time control.

Moreover, at the moment we’ve got a situation where the control is quite artificially extended, because it was always two hours for forty moves (well, or two and a half), but that was for forty moves! Or for thirty. While now you often end up with two hours for fifteen moves. What on earth is two hours for fifteen moves? It’s idiotic. In chess960, however, it really will be two hours for forty moves, without any forced draws… I simply don’t entirely understand why chess will lose anything from that. Well, it’ll be impossible to tell children that the king is the king, the queen is his wife, and they should stand together, holding hands. And then that to the side of them are the pontiffs, the horses and in the corners there are castles. I really don’t think that’s such an enormous part of chess.

The second was an interview with the President of the Russian Chess Federation, who is also a FIDE Vice President, Ilya Levitov: "For me, classical chess is opera":-

Fischer Random Chess tournaments should be run – only not using all 960 possible positions that the computer can randomly choose, but excluding those which lead to overly absurd and disharmonious starting positions. Vladimir Kramnik says, "That’s a different game". I agree with him. But just look who becomes World Champion in that "different game": Svidler, Aronian, Nakamura. Well-known faces! Those who play well in normal chess don’t feel so uncomfortable in Fischer Random Chess either!

On the same theme is an opinion piece from Technorati.com,
Chess Is Dying?:-

Chess is fast approaching a dead end one can say. That does not mean that every chess game has been played or chess is "solved". But top grandmasters with the help of chess engines have figured out most of the positions in today's chess openings and have concluded them as either winning for one side or a draw. [...] A radical solution would be to play Fischer Random Chess - a variant of chess in which both the sides have their first rank pieces in a random order. There are 960 starting positions in Fischer Random Chess and none of them have been studied even with a fraction of the resources as the traditional chess starting position. All the opening analysis and home-cooked novelties are meaningless in this chess variant (and there are enough of them to last a few centuries!) and you play the man over the board.

On Chess.com I encountered an idea to generate start positions that I hadn't seen before, Chess 960 Pieces:-

A good method for setting it up, is to write the numbers 1-8 on the bottom of the white Pawns, let the black player put the white Pawns on the board to make sure the white player does not know what is on their bottom, and let the white player put the Pawns on the second rank. Then, look on the bottom of each Pawn, and put behind them on the same file in the following order: Behind 1, put a Bishop. [...]

Chess960 Jungle hasn't been sitting still either. HarryO has started collecting puzzles that arise from the opening moves of a chess960 start position. The first one is at Chess960: Opening puzzles no.1. This is a great idea if you're tired of seeing puzzles that start with, e.g., a Bishop sac on h7. I'm sure that one day we'll see entire chess960 books, ebooks most likely, on this topic.