28 May 2011

Watch out for ****KRBN

As I pointed out in A Chess960 Catastrophe, 2700+ GMs can get caught by chess960 tactical surprises, so it's no wonder that lesser players get caught as well. The diagram is one move into a game that started with SP301 QNRBKRBN. The players might not have been super GMs, but they were both top-15 chess960 players at Schemingmind.com. I imagine that after White's 1.Ng3, Black reacted somewhat automatically with 1...Ng6. Symmetric opening play is, after all, a standard strategy for Black in many chess960 start positions.

Black must have been very surprised when his opponent replied 2.Nh5, attacking the Pawn on g7, a Pawn which cannot be defended. Even worse, the Knight move threatens smothered mate. Black answered 2...f6, along with the comment, 'Ugly starting position and I bungled it.' It's like giving odds of Pawn and move.


What should Black have played in response to 1.Ng3? One idea is 1...f6, opening the diagonal for the Bg8. If then 2.Nh5, Black has 2...g6, and if White continues 3.Ng7+, the Knight is trapped after 3...Kf7. Another idea is 1...b6, with a counterattack on White's g2. The obvious move is 1...g6, preventing the White Knight from going to either f5 or h5, but I don't like this move because it does nothing for Black's development and takes the natural square from the Knight on h8.

A little thought convinced me that any position starting ****KRBN is susceptible to the same tactic. How many such positions are there? Since the remaining White Bishop must be placed on one of the two light squares, when the other three pieces can then be placed on any empty square, there are 2 x 3 x 2 = 12 positions. The same tactic is possible for any twin of those 12 positions, i.e. the positions starting NBRK****, although these have the additional possibility of castling 1...O-O-O.

How do the CCRL engines (see the right sidebar for a link) handle SP301? Of the 82 games currently archived there, White opened 1.Ng3 in 63 of them. The following table shows how many times Black responded with various moves:-

1...f6 x 34
1...f5 x 16

1...g6 x 5
1...b6 x 3
1...e6 x 3
1...e5 x 2

The move 1...f6 is the overwhelming favorite, followed by the surprising 1...f5. It's no surprise, however, that the unfortunate 1...Ng6 was not selected by any of the engines.

21 May 2011

The Clock Is/Isn't Ticking

In last week's post on Naming Things, I issued a rain check because I was too busy researching the Sicilian Defense for a gaggle of correspondence games. This weekend I have to issue another rain check for the same reason. The games have all advanced to the range of 8-10 moves played and are all still in theory. That means the variations have been played many times before, even if it happens to be the first time I'm playing one in a correspondence game.

I use Chesslab.com as a database for opening research. It's well maintained and reliable, and serves my purposes very well. I know many players like to maintain their own databases of master level games, but I've never had much interest in doing so. It's not that I can't -- my professional background is in database management -- it's that I know how much effort database maintenance requires and I have other ways I like to spend my time.

As for my ongoing Sicilians, the game with the least theory on the current position has about 40 examples on Chesslab. The games with the most theory still have many thousands of examples, including hundreds of games played at the super grandmaster level (>2700). I'll probably reach move 15-20 in those games before I have to start relying on my own chess sense.

In contrast to those Sicilian games, I started two new chess960 correspondence games this past week. Neither game has reached the third move and both are already demanding deep analysis of candidate moves and their consequences. The event is the fifth round of a knockout tournament, so my opponents are both experienced chess960 players. One slip at an early stage will likely mean a lost game.

A few years ago I wrote a post about Differences Between Chess and Chess960, where everything I said still rings true. I might add that traditional chess covers only a tiny portion of the universe of interesting chess positions. The difference between chess and chess960 is like the difference between a small hobbyist telescope in your back yard and the Hubble space telescope.

I'll close this post with another plug for Chess960 Jungle. HarryO wrote this week about The chess clock - when it should start ticking. It's an important subject that's given short shrift in the implementation of online chess960. I imagine that most chess960 software developers are building on an existing implementation of traditional chess and reuse the same clock specifications that have been developed for the traditional game. The considerations for chess and chess960 are, however, a world apart in the opening phase.

In traditional chess you're basically on autopilot for the first few moves because you've seen the start position thousands of times. In chess960, you're on your own from the very first move. It is fundamentally unfair to let White consider the first move without using clock time, then start the clock for Black as soon as White has moved. You could say that the unfairness applies to all players 50% of the time, but if you're playing a chess960 game for an important prize and you happen to have Black, that 50% argument doesn't help you. I could say a lot more about this last topic, but the Sicilians beckon. Maybe next week...

14 May 2011

Naming Things

No time for a real post this weekend. I started a dozen new correspondence games during the past week, most of them in traditional chess (SP518 RNBQKBNR), and am wading in opening database research. All of the SP518 games are for the third (semifinal) stage of a multi-stage event, so my opponents are good players.

All but one of my SP518 games as Black started 1.e4, which is also the move I chose in my games as White. In my 'White' games, all but one of my opponents responded 1...c5, which is also my preferred move. That means all but two of my games started as Sicilians (1.e4 c5), and another game transposed to a Sicilian after a half dozen moves. There's no doubt about it. Chess960 opening play is a *lot* more interesting than traditional chess. The difference is between making your own path or following in the footsteps of others.

In the absence of a more substantive post on my part, I'll recommend taking a look at Chess960 Jungle, where HarryO has been naming things: Naming the Bishop Pairs and Naming the Knight Pairs. It's a good idea that merits careful consideration.

Before reading HarryO's suggestions, I had already decided that the best way to classify chess960 openings is the start positions of the Bishops. There are 16 Bishop combinations, with 60 positions per combination. The positions with two corner Bishops (B******B) have much in common with each other, as do the positions with the Bishops in traditional positions (**B**B**). For those who insist on cataloging first moves in all 960 start positions, ECO becomes 'Encyclopedia of Chess960 Openings', with volumes A through P (the 16th letter of the alphabet).

Now I have to get back to researching Sicilians. I hope I'll have time for a more original post next week. In the meantime, don't miss the Military Knights.

07 May 2011

CCM 2003

After writing the post on Svidler - Leko, Mainz 2003, I took another look at the links for the year 2003 on Chess960 @ Chess Classic Mainz (CCM). That was the year when the CCM organizers introduced the basic format that was kept until the end of the annual series in 2011 (as reported in No Place for Chess960) -- the winner of a 'World Championship' match played the winner of an open tournament in another match held the following year.

Before the 2003 match, GM Svidler gave an interview where he discussed winning the CCM Chess960 Open in 2002, Thanks to Twins I am back in the Top-10.

Q: Can you benefit from chess960 in a normal chess game? A: So far I haven’t played enough chess960 to draw any definite conclusions, but it can certainly help develop intuition and tactical alertness, since you can’t rely on knowledge any more and have to improvise in every game.

After the first two games of the match, both draws, he said,

We could not entertain the people that much today, but there were some funny moments in the first game, because we were not sure how to castle in a certain position. We asked the arbiter after the game and he showed us how to do it. But I will promise you: we will learn!

I can't imagine that happening in a high level chess960 match today. After winning the match +2-1=5, Svidler said somewhat modestly,

I was outplayed in the opening in all games, but as soon as I started getting the pieces off the back rank, I played good chess.

The games were played at a time control of 25 minutes per game plus 10 seconds per move (G/25+10), while 'Starting positions will be known only about five minutes prior to the start of the games.' Here are some quotes from the report on the open (G/20+5), won by Aronian (2. Chess960 Open):

Zvjaginsev: "I have never played Chess960 before. It is quite unusual to think from move one on, because you have to play basic chess. Some positions were quite difficult today, e.g. in the third round in which I played a very sharp game. My opponent could have drawn but I was lucky. But don't ask me to recall the initial positions because I have no idea!"

I.Sokolov: "If I would have to play 100 rated games a year in this chess variant, I would go completely mad! It is so different, but I have to admit that I like playing chess960 occasionally. It will not replace classical chess, but it is good alternative. I am very tired now, because you have to start thinking on move one! More time would be better for the quality of the games. I would probably think about the initial position for at least 20 minutes. I don't know yet what is more important: developing the pieces or trying to occupy the centre quickly."

Aronian (after the last game): "I don't really like playing chess960, because I have to think too much in the initial position. I am not used to use my head in the opening. I have to admit that I was very lucky in the last round, the position was probably losing. There were some odd positions in this tournament, some of them were very hard to play with black. But in normal chess it is not always fun to play with the black pieces as well. I think it is important to open lines for the Bishops, but you know, every position is different and difficult."

Along with the two main events, both Svidler and Leko gave 20 game simuls, with 20 different start positions each. A real novelty was a game Chess Tigers against the Rest of the World, featuring SP017 BNQBNRKR and one pair of moves per day. I haven't tried to replay the game from the many comments in that last link, but it might be possible.

The most remarkable document to emerge from CCM 2003 was written by Mr.CCM himself, Hans-Walter Schmitt: A pleading for Fischer’s ideas - say "Yes" to Chess960. It starts,

"Experts are playing for experts": With breakneck speed, the two world champions Ponomariov and Anand are playing the 21 opening moves of the Najdorf variation in the Sicilian Defense. The time used so far is 16 seconds on one side, 21 seconds on the other side – one observer in the tournament hall sighs protestingly "The organiser should make them play slower in the opening – there's no chance of enjoying the game". Despite grandmasters Yussupov's and Lobron's commentary via headphone, despite a video screen 4 times 5 meters in size as in a cinema, despite the directly visible players on stage, the ordinary chessplayer sitting comfortably in his chair understands nothing at all.

And later,

What happens to chessplayers who have to subdivide their time differently after having set up a family or having started a time-consuming job? They stop playing chess because with abandoning only one thing, they gain an enormous amount of time which they can spend on other, more important aspects of life. Furthermore, it is not beneficial for their image or even psychologically unacceptable not to present themselves successful in their favorite hobby. Most often, they are defeated easily by people with enough spare time, just because they have the time to continue studying more and more theory. Thus, they are not found in the club-structure of today anymore. The organised chess, especially chess played in clubs, generally has nothing to offer for socially successful people with not enough leisure time.

There are many other chess960 discussion topics in this visionary document and I would like to return to it in a future post.