25 January 2020

From van Zuylen to Benko

In the previous post, An Alternative to a 'Boring, Mind-Draining Process', I discussed an article from the January 2020 Chess Life. The same article had a short sidebar titled 'What is Fischer Random Chess?', which started,
Fischer Random Chess was publicized by the 11th World Champion, Bobby Fischer, in Buenos Aires in 1996. The foundation of Fischer Random chess had been laid two centuries earlier by Philip Julius van Zuylen van Nijevelt as a means of combating expanding opening theory, requiring players to rely on creativity rather than rote memorization and repetition.

We've seen van Zuylen once before in this blog -- More Arguments Against Chess960 (April 2010) -- where Dutch writer Tim Krabbé placed van Zuylen's idea on an equal footing with Fischer's idea. In fact, the two ideas have as much in common as an acorn has to an oak tree. Van Zuylen shuffled the pieces on the rank behind the Pawns, not even taking care to place the Bishops on different colored squares. It's an interesting idea, but it's not particularly difficult to imagine. Fischer invented a castling scheme that was comprehensive enough to make the rules governing the traditional start position (SP518 RNBQKBNR) a subset of his own invention. The intellectual leap between the simple shuffling and the complex castling was a real feat of imagination.

For more about van Zuylen, see Philip Julius van Zuylen van Nijevelt (wikipedia.org). That page includes a link to van Zuylen's book, written in French, where the shuffling idea was introduced. I haven't had time to study the book, but another page, La Superiorite Aux Echecs: The first chess book of endgame theory by van Zuylen van Nyevelt (chess.com/blog/introuble2), makes it clear that shuffle chess represents only a miniscule portion of its total content.

Jumping from the 18th century to the 20th century, the November 1978 Chess Life (CL; p.609) had a pair of articles on shuffle chess. The introduction to the first article, showing the opposing pieces in a strategic huddle, is pictured below.

'Pre-chess : Time for a Change' by GM Pal Benko
(Drawing: Nelly Kastelucci)

GM Benko wrote,

About ten years ago someone told me of another idea, which he said had come originally from Soviet grandmaster David Bronstein, certainly one of the most original thinkers in chess The idea is to begin with the sixteen pawns set up as usual, but with no pieces on the board. White's first move is to set any one of his pieces on any square along his first rank. Black then places any of his pieces anywhere on his own first rank.

Play alternates, each player placing another piece on his first rank. No piece or pawn may be moved until all the pieces of both sides are in place. To keep the game as close as possible to orthodox chess, Bishops must be placed on opposite-color squares and castling is permitted only if the King is on "K1" and at least one Rook is on a corner square.

That's certainly more sophisticated than van Zuylen's acorn, although still far from Fischer's oak tree. The rest of Benko's article was about a four game 'pre-chess' match with GM Arthur Bisguier. It was followed immediately by the second CL article, titled 'Pre-chess : For the Thinking Player' by GM Bisguier, who won the match. The two GMs' thoughts on their version of shuffle chess foreshadowed the thinking about chess960 more than two decades later.

18 January 2020

An Alternative to a 'Boring, Mind-Draining Process'

If, like me, you thought that last month's post, FWFRCC Wrapup, was the last on that subject, then you would be wrong. The January 2020 edition of Chess Life (CL) had a four page article by GM Robert Hess titled, 'So Showcase', subtitled, 'GM Wesley So goes on a winning spree at the first FIDE World Fischer Random Championship'. It started,
Between the U.S. Championship, five Grand Chess Tour events, the FIDE Grand Prix cycle, the World Cup, and the FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss, GM Wesley So hardly had any downtime in 2019. Breaks from tournaments are necessary: time is spent mending holes in the repertoire and diving deep into the weeds of openings to unearth a new variation.

Preparation often requires rote memorization of long series of moves, countless Berlin lines stored for future use. Many do not find this an enjoyable endeavor. The FIDE World Fischer Random Championship, then, was a nice reprieve from the typical drudgery required to be competitive at the game’s highest level.

Near the end of the article, GM So confirmed that sentiment.

[Wesley] So certainly wants to see the variant grow. To him it was "wonderful not having to memorize lines and go over and over the same material searching for a novelty somewhere. I have a good memory, but it is such a boring, mind-draining process." In Norway, not having anything to memorize, his daily routine consisted of solving chess puzzles, studying chess books, working on tactics over the board, eating well, and sleeping regular hours.

Between those paragraphs was a high-level summary of GM So's path to the title, including his crushing win over GM Magnus Carlsen in the final match. The following photo (photographer unknown) shows the playing arena in Norway's 'Henie Onstad Art Center'.

Caption: 'So emerged as the surprise leader after his day one matchup with GM Magnus Carlsen.'

Along with that article, GM Hess analyzed two games from the FWFRCC competition. The first was a Nakamura - Caruana game in the December 2019 issue of CL. The second was So - Carlsen in the January 2020 CL, game two of the final match.

For a chess magazine which has long emphasized American juniors and has lately been emphasizing American women, the chess960 articles were a welcome change. I wonder if there's any demand for more of the same.

28 December 2019

Non-random, Non-castling

Former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik has an idea: Kramnik and AlphaZero: How to Rethink Chess? (chess.com; comments). It started with a commonplace observation:-
The increasing strength of chess engines, the millions of computer games and the volumes of opening theory available to every player are making top-level chess less imaginative.

GM Kramnik approached Demis Hassabis, the CEO of DeepMind, with an idea:-

We tasked AlphaZero with exploring a variant that prevented either side from castling, trying different opening moves from both sides. The outcome was beyond our expectations!

A few days later Chessbase jumped at the concept in Vladimir Kramnik proposes an exciting chess variant! (chessbase.com; comments), supplemented with a video from ChessBase India, No-Castling Chess - Vladimir Kramnik suggests an exciting variant! (youtube.com). We know from a post last year, Purported Problems with Chess960 (April 2018), that Chessbase is faced with an existential threat from chess960. We've also seen on this blog that Kramnik is no fan of chess960:-

Retaining the traditional start position (SP518 RNBQKBNR) and changing only the castling rules, resets theory so that chess fans can continue to run their engines and memorize calculated variations, thereby gaining an edge on an opponent in the next big game.

Ten years ago I explored the history of the castling rules in a series of posts:-

Perhaps AlphaZero or one of its many descendants could explore the castling ideas that were abandoned centuries ago. Or perhaps Kramnik's no-castling idea could be applied to chess960. In that case, there is no need to retain Fischer's restriction that the King starts between the two Rooks. Then we're back to basic shuffle chess with its roots in Bronstein, Benko, and a host of other inventors. That makes far more than 960 start positions, a number I might calculate another time.

If Kramnik's idea is meant to retain engine analysis and memorization of opening variations, the same objective could be accomplished by switching to SP534 RNBKQBNR. This has the additional advantage of retaining most of the patterns and plans that arise from SP518.

Thinking up new ideas is the easy part; convincing other people of their worth is the hard part. When moving on from over-analyzed SP518, a statement of primary objectives would avoid hidden agendas.

21 December 2019


I'll come back to that acronym 'FWFRCC' in a later paragraph. For now let's just note that the first 'F' stands for FIDE and the second 'F' stands for Fischer. In 1975, FIDE forced Fischer to abandon his title of World Chess Champion, and 44 years later used his name against his will.

Although WFRCC would be more in line with Fischer's thinking when he was alive, let's not use that as an excuse to avoid admiring a tournament that lasted six months. First I had a couple of posts that surveyed the origin and the structure of the tournament.

FWFRCC means 'FIDE World Fischer Random Chess Championship'. I would rather have seen 'World Chess960 Championship', but the people that pay the piper can call it whatever they want. I covered the many phases of the complicated tournament in ten posts.

Dare we call the tournament the first FWFRCC? Will there be a second? Let's have a big round of applause for the many people who played a role in making the event possible.

23 November 2019

2019 FWFRCC Final Live

In the previous post, So Beats Carlsen in FWFRCC Final, I promised,
I couldn't find a summary of the final scores in the two semifinal matches, but there are plenty of reports from other sites to sift through. I'll cover those in a follow-up post.

We're lucky to have a visual record of the matches. From Youtube's Chess.com channel:-

Wesley So vs. Magnus Carlsen: Fischer Random Chess Championship 2019: Game 2 (1:52:49) • '[Published on] Nov 1, 2019'

The description said,

Wesley So faces off against the 2018 Fischer Random Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen. At this point in the match the score was 1.5-1.5 after a draw in the first game.

Five of of the six broadcasts of the games between So and Carlsen were published on the Chess.com channel. Here are links to the videos including the game above:-

As for other chess news sites, here are a couple of references that lead to daily reports on the games:-

That's already a wealth of material on the 2019 FWFRCC ('FIDE World Fischer Random Chess Championship', in case you've just joined), but there's much more. First question: where are the game scores?

16 November 2019

So Beats Carlsen in FWFRCC Final

In last month's report on the 'FIDE World Fischer Random Chess Championship' (FWFRCC), Quarterfinals of FWFRCC Completed (October 2019), I ended with a Chess.com headline:-
2019-10-06: Caruana, So, Nepomniachtchi Headed To World Fischer Random Semifinals (chess.com; GM Jonathan Tisdall)

Those three players were joined by Magnus Carlsen. I pieced together the following infographic from subsequent Chess.com reports, which are listed below the chart.

The results in the bottom half of the chart are from the two final matches. In the following reports I couldn't find a summary of the final scores in the two semifinal matches, but there are plenty of reports from other sites to sift through. I'll cover those in a follow-up post. Following are GM Jonathan Tisdall's reports on the semifinals:-

And here are GM Tisdall's reports on the final matches:-

Congratulations to GM Wesley So on gaining first place in this long, difficult event.


Later: Re 'I couldn't find a summary of the final scores in the two semifinal matches', the official site has a summary: frchess.com/results. After the scores of the semifinal matches, I added an overview of the time controls to create a second infographic.

The seven images in the two infographics could be rearranged to present a more coherent picture, but I'll leave it like that for now.

26 October 2019

2019 Champions Showdown Live

Live! From St. Louis! It's Chess960! For more about the event, see last month's post 2019 Champions Showdown, St. Louis.

2019 Champions Showdown | Chess 9LX: Day 1 (4:31:52) • 'Streamed live on Sep 2, 2019; starts at 9:10'

On Youtube's Saint Louis Chess Club channel, the description explained,

This Champions Showdown consists of four rapid and blitz chess960 matches. See what happens when back-rank pieces are scrambled and opening theory is obliterated! Join GMs Yasser Seirawan, Maurice Ashley, and WGM Jennifer Shahade for the move-by-move.

If you want links to watch all four days -- I know I do -- here they are, including the first day again:-

And if that's not enough, the same channel offered more commentary on chess960:-

How am I ever going to find the time to watch all of this?