26 November 2011

The Impact of Chess960 on Chess Publishing

A couple of years ago I jotted down some thoughts about the potential negative impact of chess960 on the publishing industry -- Some Numbers on Chess Book Publishing and Whistling Past the Graveyard? -- followed by a couple of potential solutions: Kasparov's Chess960 Proposal and Winter's (Chess960?) Proposal. Neither of these solutions is completely satisfactory. Kasparov's violates the spirit of chess960, while Winter's, a reaction to the emphasis on opening books, assumes a greater interest in chess history than the facts suggest.

After two more years experience of playing chess960, I have a little more insight into the subject. First, I've found that I have a far greater interest in endgames than I did previously. While I've always known that endgames were important, the time involved studying -- dare I say memorizing? -- opening theory doesn't leave much time for endgames. Since chess960 eliminates the need for the study of specific openings, that time is available for endgames. I know that many players consider endgames to be dry and somewhat tedious, but that might be because they've never applied themselves to the subject. An analogy would be the attitude that non-players of chess have to the game itself. It takes more than superficial knowledge to appreciate the subtleties of the game (or its endgame).

I've been exploring endgames more and more on my main blog (see Posts with label Endgames and Posts with label Endgame TB, where TB = TableBase) and am convinced this isn't a coincidence. I have more time to spend on endgames and the time I spend on them increases my appreciation substantially.

Another area of chess publishing where chess960 is bound to have an impact involves middlegames. It is certain that, because it introduces so many types of middlegame positions that can't arise from the traditional start position, chess960 lifts middlegame theory to new heights. I don't own any reference resources specific to the middlegame, so I did a quick survey of the web to find out what's available.

I started by looking for encyclopedia-like resources and found two. The older of the two is 'Encyclopedia of Chess Middlegames: Combinations', published by Chess Informant in 1980. The qualifying word 'Combinations' tells us that it's about tactics. A Wikipedia article on Chess tactics gives an idea of the book's content:

The Encyclopedia of Chess Middlegames gives the following tactical categories: Double Attack, Pawns Breakthrough, Blockade, Decoying, Discovered Attack, Passed Pawn, X-ray Attack, Interception, Deflection, Pin, Demolition of Pawns, Overloading, Annihilation of Defense, Pursuit (perpetual attack), Intermediate Move, and Space

without identifying it definitively as the volume published by Informant. Other references to the book confirm that it is indeed organized by tactical motif. That organization is, of course, equally valid for chess960.

The more recent reference is 'Encyclopedia of Middlegame', a software series produced by Convekta starting around the year 2002. As is typical of Convekta, the product is sold both alone and bundled into other products, which complicates any casual attempt to understand exactly what is offered. I found descriptions of the individual components of the series on Wholesalechess.com: Encyclopedia of Middlegame I, II, III, IV, and V. Their description of 'Encyclopedia of Middlegame I' says,

[A] program for studying the middlegame plans behind various openings and the playing techniques. A theoretical section includes over 600 games/lectures, each of them illustrating the popular openings' typical plans and methods. There is also a special training section with more than 1000 exercises for a user to solve as well as 400 training positions to be played against the built-in chess playing program Crafty. The course is composed by GM Kalinin.

The descriptions of the other components are similar and all reference specific openings. This leads me to understand that the series is based on the study of specific openings, an approach which is not feasible for chess960. It's not clear how any systematic study of the chess960 middlegame could be based on positional themes rather than tactical motifs, but that might be because we just don't have enough experience.

Finally, although chess960 diminishes the need for encyclopedias of chess openings, there is still a need to catalog common chess960 opening ideas somehow. I'm not aware of any breakthroughs in this area, which might well be because the subject is so new and hasn't attracted sufficient attention. As with so many other aspects of chess960, time will tell.

19 November 2011

A Few More Chess960 Resources

Although my two most recent posts -- Chess Isn't Boring and Shall We Play Amar's Opening? -- were mostly critical of Chessvibes' suggestion about Non-random Fischer Random, there was one mention of chess960 history that I was pleased to see.
I recently went to watch the Dutch Fischer Random Championship in my hometown, Amsterdam. I was just in time to witness what everybody felt was the ‘dream final’ - the decisive game between Dutch GM Dennis de Vreugt and Yasser Seirawan, who in regular chess beat many a World Champion in his best days, including Karpov and Kasparov.

This reminded me of one of the video clips in the recent St.Louis event (see Chess960 Kings and Queens for links) where someone mentioned that GM Seirawan was a former chess960 champion of the Netherlands. Now I had enough information to conduct a search with some hope of success. Living in bilingual Belgium, I understand some Dutch, which helped in the search.

After a few minutes I found Het Martin Walop toernooi om het open NK Fischer Random Chess 2011 which Google dates to June 2011. Unfortunately, the links near the bottom only lead to results, not to games. The home page of that site, Fischerz.nl, has a section 'Random Chess' in the sidebar with info on previous events stretching back to 2004, where Seirawan was the winner with a perfect +7-0=0, 1.5 points ahead of the runnerup.

The details from those events lead to the discovery of other pages, like Reinderman wint open NK Fischer Random (Google: May 2010), with a report on the 2010 event, including a few annotated moves and a couple of working videos at the bottom of the page. DGT, the Dutch supplier of chess clocks, including a chess960 model that I mentioned once in DGT960 Chess Clock, sponsored the event in recent years.


A recent post on Susan Polgar's blog, Chess 960, Breathing new life into the game!, pointed to a chess960 resource that looks like a recent convert: Chess 960, Breathing new life into the game! (OnlineChessLessons.net). The site, operated by NM Will Stewart (see his Chess Biography) has a heavy emphasis on bughouse, so maybe we'll see more on Fischer Random Bughouse.

Susan Polgar's post reminded me that she once played an early version of Fischer's invention with the 11th World Champion himself, a topic I explored in Pictures of a Fischer Random Precursor. It would be useful to explore her previous posts on chess960 (sometimes called 'Fischer Random' on her blog), but that will have to wait for another day.

12 November 2011

Shall We Play Amar's Opening?

In my previous post, Chess Isn't Boring, I pointed out that the rationale behind chess960 was not 'to avoid any kind of heavily analyzed opening theory', but rather to avoid the increasing role of memorization in playing a chess game. The scenario -- which becomes obvious in a match at the highest level, such as a World Championship match -- is of two players working alone (or in teams, it makes no difference) to study reams of computer analysis, memorizing the highlights of that analysis, and eventually meeting the opponent over the board to test the quality of the memorized variations.

If the crisis facing chess was mainly a question of heavily analyzed opening theory, then chess960 would only be interesting to elite players at the highest level, because it is exactly those players who have mastered the intricacies of modern opening theory. As it is, chess960 is also interesting to average players at the club level, players who just want to play a game of chess without falling into some trappy variation which the opponent happens to have analyzed extensively in home preparation.

Having said that, let's suppose that there are players at all levels who are indeed attracted to chess960 because they want to avoid all opening theory -- 'boring theoretical chess duels' and 'boring computer preparation' as Arne Moll put it in Non-random Fischer Random. His alternative is to force the start of a game down lesser known pathways.

But let's for a moment assume that it's impossible to force the King's Gambit (or the St. George, or any other opening that's not considered to be 'main stream') down professional players' throat: what if we simply adjusted the starting position a little to help the pros make up their minds? Suppose from now on everybody would need to start their game with the following position:

Here he gave a diagram of the traditional start position (RNBQKBNR) with a Black Pawn on a6 instead of a7.

All openings would have to be studied anew, because the slight modification will create all sorts of subtle and not so subtle differences. The game would still resemble chess sufficiently not to lose the interest of the general public, but the nuances would be different enough for the insiders to immediately appreciate the complete make-over of "boring" chess opening theory.

Perhaps some will argue that this new beginning position is actually to Black's advantage, even though it's still White to move. Well, that might turn out to be true, but how "fair" is the current starting position? Isn't that considered to be better for White? Even so, to make it a bit fairer maybe we shouldn't put a black pawn on a6 (which might also makes queenside castling slightly less attractive), but a Black Knight?

Heck, we could even have this position and let White choose whether he wants to play with White or Black. It still would be a much more modest change and thus be much more likely to be accepted by both professionals and laymen. Doesn't this modest change of the initial position makes the "real" Fischer Random chess look absurdly radical?

As someone pointed out in a comment to the essay, Moll's idea is equivalent to forcing White to play 1.a3. His alternative, to start with the Black Knight on a6 instead of b8, is equivalent to forcing White to play 1.Na3. A few years ago I wrote an introductory tutorial on Chess Openings - Unusual First Moves, subtitled 'the good, the bad, and the really ugly'. I concluded that 1.a3 was (at best) 'bad', while 1.Na3 was (indisputably) 'ugly'. In his 1858 match against Paul Morphy, Adolf Anderssen played 1.a3 in three games, scoring +1-1=1. Was the wily German romantic avoiding Morphy's opening preparation or did he really believe that the 'new beginning position is actually to [White's] advantage', as Moll worries?

Whatever Anderssen's reason, it's hard to imagine that excluding all variations other than 1.a3 confers any kind of advantage over multiplying the possibilities by 959, as in Fischer's creation. Furthermore, the idea of limiting a chess game to 1.a3 or 1.Na3 doesn't address the scenario where players simply memorize computer moves. It just starts the memorization much earlier than move 15. The same drawback applies to arguments that chess960 would be more attractive if, for the foreseeable future, we were to limit the number of authorized start positions.

In another comment to Moll's essay, someone else pointed out that IM Mark Dvoretsky had already proposed something similar to the 1.a3 idea. I mentioned this almost a year ago in a post, Dvoretsky on Chess960, and noted,

The sixth section, 'An Alternative Suggestion' is an attempt to decouple chess from the burden of opening preparation while keeping the familiar RNBQKBNR setup. I don't know if anyone has tried the idea in competition, but I'll leave the investigation to others who are more interested than I am.

I concentrated instead on Dvoretsky's objections to chess960 itself, which I summarized in A Highbrow Dismissal of Chess960. I'll also leave the investigation of 1.a3 to others who are more interested than I am. In that 'Unusual First Moves' tutorial, I mentioned that 1.Na3 is known as Amar's Opening. Shall we play chess960 or shall we play Amar's opening? The choice is clear for me.

05 November 2011

Chess Isn't Boring

Am I keeping my promises or what? In my previous post, A Chess960 Almanac, I followed-up a topic introduced in Chess960 Encounters, Past & Future, and now I'm going to follow-up a second topic. The lucky winner this time is Non-random Fischer Random, an essay by Arne Moll that appeared on Chessvibes.com last month. Moll is one of my favorite chess writers and I've enjoyed reading many of his previous essays. He usually knows what he's talking about, but he missed the mark on that Fischer Random piece. I'll start with a few excerpts from the essay.
Watching the 7th game [1.Nf3 b5 2.e4 a6] of the Kasparov - Short blitz match last week made me realize once again how radical Fischer’s proposal to shuffle all the pieces on the first rank was and still is. If you want to avoid boring theoretical chess duels, all you have to do is force the players to play an unexplored variation or opening – problem solved.

The italics are mine. Here's another excerpt.

Short also beat Kasparov with the now-rare King’s Gambit -- and with a rare line within the King’s Gambit at that -- providing another argument for those people (and I think I consider myself to be among them) who claim that all it takes to solve boring computer preparation is some creativity in the opening. Is that too much to ask of professional chess players?

At this point Moll introduced the main idea of his essay, playing the traditional start position with a Black Pawn on a6 instead of a7. Why do this?

All openings would have to be studied anew, because the slight modification will create all sorts of subtle and not so subtle differences. The game would still resemble chess sufficiently not to lose the interest of the general public, but the nuances would be different enough for the insiders to immediately appreciate the complete make-over of "boring" chess opening theory.

And here's an excerpt from one of Moll's comments.

I love our game as it is and I think there's plenty of room to avoid boring theoretical duels without doing anything to the starting position! But some think more radical measures are needed, such as Fischer Random. This article is mainly written for them: my position is that you don't need Fischer Random to avoid existing opening theory: if you want to get rid of current opening theory, then all it takes is making minimal changes to the starting position.

Here's another excerpt from a comment, this time without the keyword 'boring'.

Isn't the main goal of this form of chess to avoid any kind of heavily analyzed opening theory?

No, that's not the 'main goal of this form of chess'. It's a side effect. Fischer addressed the real issue in a quote I used in another post, Fischer: 'The *Old* Chess Is Dead':

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.

And because Fischer's 'pre-arranged' accusation has been so misunderstood, here's another quote from him that I used in Fischer Compares Chess960 to Puffed Wheat:

'Because I know what chess is all about. It's all about memorization, about pre-arrangement.' • 'But creativity?' • 'Creativity is lower down on the list', shaking his head. • 'But you became World Champion on creativity.' • 'First of all, it was a long time ago when I played with Spassky the first match. And even the second match is already some time ago, thirteen years ago. And chess just in the last few years has changed dramatically with all this computer stuff. But really, if you analyze chess objectively, very objectively, it's been a lousy game going back even to the time of Morphy. There was a lot of book.'

Fischer never said that traditional chess was 'boring'. He said it was 'dead'; he said it was 'about memorization, about pre-arrangement'; he said it was a 'lousy game'. He never said it was boring. This entire train of thought reminds me of another of my recent posts -- Capablanca and Chess960 -- where I encountered a different 'straw man' argument.

While we're on the subject, there is indeed a boring aspect to chess. Short draws are boring. Remember the 1984-85 Karpov - Kasparov match, or the 1995 Kasparov - Anand match? Short draws, especially one after another, are *really* boring, but chess960 won't eliminate them. If you want to prevent two players from agreeing to draw after playing only a few moves, other mechanisms are needed and those mechanisms apply to chess960 as much as they do to traditional chess.

Back to Moll's solution to his 'straw man' argument against chess960, the use of a slight alteration to the traditional start position, I'll discuss that in another post (a follow-up to this follow-up). It's the second time the idea has appeared from a knowledgeable source as an alternative to chess960, so it deserves some consideration.