09 June 2012

The Myth of the Corner Bishop

There have been some noteworthy comments made against my recent post Top 10 Myths About Chess960. The myth that received the most attention was
  • Some start positions are too bizarre or illogical for serious play

GeneM introduced his example of a family of bizarre positions in two separate comments:

Almost half of the chess960 positions have a Bishop start on a corner square. Such setups are bad because the Bishop has only one way to develop. Those setups should be discarded. • As Kramnik noted, a Bishop that starts on a corner square has only one degree of freedom in how it can be developed. It needlessly reduces the range for human imagination in using the pieces from the start of the game.

This reminded me of a concept I documented some time ago, where my first problem was to locate the post. I found it on my main blog, where I used to write about chess960 before setting up this current blog which is dedicated to the subject. While searching for the post, I realized that I had never incorporated my earliest posts about chess960 opening theory into this chess960 blog. Here they are, in reverse chronological order, because later posts tend to build on their predecessors.

The post I was looking for is the second in the list: A Framework for Chess960 Opening Theory. The 'framework' is a two dimensional array of Pieces & Possible Start Files together with a notation to identify cells in the array. For example, GeneM's example of a 'Bishop that starts on a corner square' could be identified B:a/h, i.e. a Bishop starting on the a- or h-file.

Unlike GeneM & GM Kramnik, I enjoy playing B:a/h positions. Rather than taking two moves to develop the Bishop as with the B:c/f of traditional chess -- a Pawn move followed by a Bishop move -- the corner Bishop is developed by a single move: advancing the adjacent b-/g-Pawn on the diagonal. On top of that, the corner Bishop never interferes with castling, meaning that the two operations -- (1) Bishop development & (2) castling -- can be executed independently. In traditional chess, the one always precedes the other. Furthermore, the development of the Bishop sometimes uncovers an attack on a weak Pawn on the Bishop's diagonal. When this happens, tactical complications arise immediately.

I see no reason to single out the corner Bishop as 'bizarre or illogical'. A corner Knight (N:a/h) has limited options because its first developing move is usually to the b/g file rather than the c/f file. A corner Queen (Q:a/h) often means that the Queen is slow getting into the game, giving these positions a slow, positional buildup (see 'Fianchetto the Light Squared Bishop' for an example). Since a King can't start in the corner, the only piece really suited to the corner is the Rook (R:a/h), like in traditional chess. As with the Queen, a corner Rook has the disadvantage that the piece is slow to get into the game. Early Rook actions, which can be compared to a lightning tank attack in modern, mechanized warfare, almost never happen.

What about the Bishop starting on other squares? The Bishop starting next to the corner (B:b/g) also has limited options. Its natural diagonal, the one chosen for its development in most games, is the long diagonal, opened by moving the c/f Pawn, rather than the short diagonal, opened by moving the a/h Pawn. Starting two squares from the corner (B:c/f), is the setup we all know and love from traditional chess, while the central Bishop (B:d/e) offers a different set of challenges. I quoted GM Seirawan on this last possibility in 'A Tempo and a Half in a Symmetrical Position'.

The only real disadvantage of the B:a/h setup is when both Bishops start in the corner. When this happens, all four Bishops are facing each other on their long diagonals. The order in which the Bishops are developed becomes a subtle tactical dance where a player's fast grab of one diagonal cedes the other diagonal to the opponent. Furthermore, a premature development of the Bishops can lead to them all being swapped off in the opening for a Bishopless middlegame. A player who wants to avoid this must block the diagonal before developing the Bishop, but this gives the opponent the opportunity to develop first on the same diagonal. And so the dance continues.

One point which should never be forgotten: whatever the advantages and disadvantages of a specific start position, both players are struggling with the same issues. The only difference is that one of them starts first. This is a feature of traditional chess with which we have all learned to live and is no less true for chess960.

[Note to myself: Determine how many positions have B:a/h,b/g facing a weak Pawn on the diagonal. Ditto for Queens.]


Vasile Andreica said...

Hello Mark,

The first Chess960 tournament ever organized in Romania will take place on July 7th in the Northern city of Satu Mare.

Your writing was instrumental in catching our interest in this form of the game.

It will be an open tourney with 7 rounds, Swiss style, each round featuring a separate SP.

Thank you for your efforts in spreading the game. For any further details contact me at vasile_andreica@yahoo.com or the tournament director at ciprimuntean@yahoo.com.

The "buyin" will be low and the guaranteed prizepool pretty generous for local standards, in order to generate interest.

Vasile Andreica

quickturtle said...

Great to see the interest grow with the game :) Is there a book on the game of Chess960 with rules and annotated games ?



HarryO said...

Vasile hope the tournament goes well in Romania! If you record any games, could you post them somewhere for us to enjoy? Doesn't matter if they contain blunders.

Quickturtle, there are a couple of books on Chess960 browse Mark's site for details. The best way to learn are these steps:

1) Learn the concepts for how to play the traditional opening, but ignore the specific moves. Tempo, initiative, space, development, control of center concepts are all important but have to be appreciated to a fine art with Chess960 and there are important exceptions as well that you learn with experience.

2) Learn all the standard tactical theory of the traditional game, but be prepared for even more diversity with Chess960.

3) Learn all the positional theory of traditional chess, but be prepared for surprises with Chess960! Treat each position with fresh eyes and enjoy the experience.

3) Learn your endgame theory as per traditional chess. Rook endgames are still the most common from my experience.


Vasile Andreica said...

I sure intend to post games. This variation made me get the chessboard going again, it was gathering dust already. And I noticed Chess960 is refreshing the way of thinking about classic chess too.

Vasile Andreica said...

This is the link from the official site of the Romanian Chess Federation:


And here is my article on the event, featured on the biggest chess blog in the country:


Google Translate should work.

The tournament will eventually take place earlier, Sunday, July 1st.

HarryO said...

I just played a bishops-in-the-corner game. Another thing I like about them is that when and if all the bishops do get exchanged off (which elite players like Nakamura have shown is not always good - better to keep the tension), all of a sudden you have a situation where all three castling options (including not castling) have significant merit. It's very enjoyable to experience this.