26 October 2013

Chess960 Interest on Chess.com

Here's a neat graphic from Chess.com, Players - Online Chess, showing the chess960 rating distribution.

The data on the side says,

Players: 69.831
Average Rating: 1304
Average Glicko RD: 123
White Wins: 49.4%
Black Wins: 46.9%
Draws: 3.7%

That compares to 343.252 players of 'standard' chess (traditional chess, SP518 RNBQKBNR). These numbers are all for 'turn-based' chess, i.e. correspondence chess.

The numbers of players for 'live' chess, i.e. crossboard chess, are

Bullet: 520.896
Blitz: 1.422.635
Standard: 723.394

It's not surprising that the player count for chess960 is the smallest of the five playing categories. Even so, it's roughly equivalent to total USCF membership.

19 October 2013

Updated Database of SPs (2013-10)

Since the last time I updated my database of start positions, linking specific SPs to the blog posts I've written about them, I've accumulated another dozen posts to add. While doing the new update, I had one SP with a previous entry -- SP491 QRNKBNRB -- which I wrote about twice in the last month. Some SPs get all the attention...

12 October 2013

Choosing a First Move - Part 2

In my previous post, Choosing a First Move, I stepped through an exercise to choose two first moves in identical start positions (SPs), one game playing White and one game playing Black (SP491 QRNKBNRB). The twist for playing Black was that I selected my opponent's first move from a list of 'viable' first moves that he thought were acceptable for that particular SP.

In that first exercise I chose my own first move based on what I considered to be the logical requirements of the SP, and I chose my opponent's first move by determining the least favorable move on his list. My hypothetical opponent was HarryO of the Chess960 Jungle blog, who has set up a second experiment similar to the first. He started by identifying an SP with a long list of first moves, SP395 beats SP491 in the competition for the most number of viable starts, then whittled the list down by applying another level of logic, What is a logical first move?.

If the position shown in the following diagram looks familiar, it's not your imagination playing tricks. It is similar to the SP used in the first 'Choosing' exercise; the only difference is that the King and Knight are switched. Just as in traditional chess, where a small difference in two positions can make a large difference in the evaluation of those positions, similar chess960 SPs can have large differences in their logical underpinnings.

For example, in SP491 I saw 'no reason to favor one of the castling options over the other'. In the current position, the players can castle O-O without any preparation, while castling O-O-O will take four moves: one Pawn move and three minor piece moves. This means that castling O-O is more likely to occur. When you consider that the players will also need to weaken the Queenside (a-side) slightly to let the corner Queen out, castling O-O looks even more likely.

Based on the principle of making the obvious moves first, 1.O-O is a good candidate move. Unlike many chess960 players, I prefer to hold off early castling even when possible. Castling, being a mainly defensive move, is somewhat passive and thereby risks losing White's natural initiative. On top of that, there is always a possibility that castling to the other side will prove to be appropriate. Are there any other good moves?

The move I chose in the SP491 exercise, 1.d4, suggests itself again. It plants a Pawn in the center, opens a diagonal for the Bishop on e1, and prepares a shelter for the Knight on d3. It also shields the Queen from the Bishop on the long a1-h8 diagonal. Also worth considering is 1.f4, which opens the other diagonal for the Be1, prepares an open file for the castled Rook on f1, and plans to build a Pawn center with e2-e4. The move 1.c4 also looks playable, hoping to play d4 on the next move and preparing to bring the Knight to c3.

All things considered, I would play the solid 1.O-O against a higher rated player, giving me one move to see how he assesses the position. I would play the looser 1.d4 against an equal or lower rated player. Nothing dictates that the same first move is best in all circumstances.


To choose White's first move in the game where I am playing Black, let's look at the list in HarryO's 'Logical First Move' post. He leaves a choice of eight moves, including two that I also like for White, 1.c4 and 1.d4. Of the remaining moves, the two Knight moves, 1.Nc3 and 1.Ne3, aren't something I would play, but they both prepare Nd5 with an attack on the weak c-Pawn. If this happens, Black can defend adequately with ...Ne6, leaving a large number of other moves to play first. Both Knight moves leave White with the natural initiative of the first move, so they are good moves for White.

Are there any first moves for White that don't keep the initiative? Both 1.d3 and 1.e3 look suspicious, because they are passive and put no pressure on Black. The move 1.d3 at least opens a diagonal for a Bishop, but 1.e3 does nothing to further the development of any pieces. The move 1.e3 even allows Black the same range of options as White had on the first move. I could continue and choose a first move for Black, but that goes beyond the objective of this exercise.

To summarize, either 1.d4 or 1.O-O, according to circumstances, would be my first move, and 1.e3 would be the first move for my hypothetical opponent. I get good play in both games.

05 October 2013

Choosing a First Move

I closed last week's post, Counting Viable First Moves, with the comment, 'What move would I play in SP491? That's an exercise that I'll save for another post.' In the meantime, HarryO has discovered another start position (SP) that appears to have a large number of possible first moves: SP395 beats SP491 in the competition for the most number of viable starts.

As interesting as HarryO's idea is, I believe it has a fatal flaw, which I stated in a comment to that SP395 post:-

I propose we play a two-game match with one of these SPs that you've flagged, where we each take White in one game. In the game where you are White, I will select your first move from your list of viable moves. In the game where I am White, I will choose my first move myself.

Let's return to SP491 and choose a pair of moves for the hypothetical match. I'll begin with the game where I'm playing White.

When I look at a new SP for the first time, I start with the castling choices. In SP491, I see no reason to favor one of the castling options over the other. Castling O-O-O will be possible after the Nc1 moves, while castling O-O requires the Be1 and the Nf1 to move off the back rank.

I adhere to classical opening principles, especially the one about paying attention to the center. For this reason, the moves 1.b4 and 1.g4 don't appeal to me, even though it is often attractive to advance by two ranks the Pawn directly in front of a Rook. On top of ignoring the center, both moves preclude future castling to that wing.

I also don't like developing Knights until I get some idea where they will be most active. In the given position it is too early to decide about the Knights. On top of that, the moves 1.Nd3 and 1.Ne3 leave the Knight exposed to harrassment by the Black center Pawns.

After a few minutes thought, I decided that 1.d4 is my preferred move in this position. It prepares Nc1-Nd3, where the Knight is both centralized and protected, and where castling O-O-O is already possible. As a bonus, the castled Rook would be placed on a partially open file. The move 1.d4 also opens a diagonal for the Bishop on e1, bringing White one step closer to castling O-O.

The downside of 1.d4 is that the Pawn is exposed to attack by the Bishop on h8 and by ...Ne6. After playing with the position a few more minutes, I decided that both of these attacks can be defended in various ways.


As for choosing a first move for my opponent, my eye immediately jumped to the 12th possibility on the list of viable SP491 moves: 1.h4. HarryO justified this move with the comment, 'it takes control of g5, threatens h5, and allows Nh2/f3', but none of those reasons is particularly compelling. The downside of 1.h4 is that it ignores the center, does nothing to develop a piece, and signals that White will not be castling O-O. Each of those disadvantages is enough to reject the move and taken together they brand 1.h4 as positionally weak.

A skilled chess960 player like GM Nakamura might whip up some serious threats with 1.h4, but he knows more about chess than the average player does. So 1.d4 for me and 1.h4 for my hypothetical opponent, and I'm off to a good start.