17 November 2018

Chess960 Phase Zero

In Chess960 at the Open Library (July 2018), I located a digital copy of Gene Milener's groundbreaking book 'Play Stronger Chess by Examining Chess 960', and in The Promise of Chess960 in 2006 (August 2018), I looked at part one of the book. In this post I'll start to look at part two.

The first four chapters of part two deal with the four phases of a chess game. 'Four phases?', I can hear you ask. In Milener's own words (p.108),

There are four phases to any chess game. Phases two through four are well known as the opening, the middle game, and the endgame. We have never before called it by a name, but I call the first phase the setup phase.

He goes on to explain,

In the chess1 realm the setup phase has not been recognized as a phase at all. This is because the chess1 setup never varies the way it does in chess960. In chess1 we instead talk about opening "theory", referring to the accumulation of at-home pre-game calculation and analysis of the chess1 setup position.

As part of the chess1 setup phase we also have the devised opening principles given by Aron Nimzovich in his My System, which was also written at home. The setup phase is different in chess960. Yes, there can be at-home thought and preparations as part of the chess960 setup phase (as this book should demonstrate). But in chess960 the setup phase comes alive and requires original thought in real time, in the several minutes after the pieces are set but before the clocks are started. This chapter is devoted to the topic of handling those pre-game minutes.

Where Milener writes 'chess1', I prefer to use the notation 'SP518' (meaning start position 'RNBQKBNR'). It's not a terribly important distinction, but it does reinforce the idea that traditional chess is a subset of chess960. What is important is the recognition that there is a distinct phase to a chess game called the 'setup phase'. Until now, the setup phase was usually something like this:-

Exercise: Place all 32 chess pieces into a bag or a box. Shake thoroughly. Dump all of the pieces on to the board. How fast can you place them on their traditional SP518 squares?

The title of the first chapter in Milener's part two is 'Strategies for the Modified Setup Phase'. In other words, how do we go from a random chess960 start position to playing the first move for White in that position? Milener starts with a question: 'Do the Chess1 Opening Principles of Nimzovich Remain True for Chess960?' Instead of analyzing Nimzovich, he quickly switches to Reuben Fine, an author I've also referenced at various times in the past. Milener's answer to 'Do the Opening Principles Remain True?' is a solid yes-and-no.

The next section is 'Rationalization of Setups: How?' By 'rationalization', I understand 'classification' or 'categorization' of the 960 setups into a smaller number of positions having common characteristics. I discussed this recently with an email correspondent, where I wrote,

The problem is that given an obvious similarity -- Bishops in the four corners (to use a well known example) -- the tactics++ depend on how the other pieces are initially placed. Then you start to analyze each position individually, which defeats the purpose of the exercise.

Milener apparently agrees and his suggestions boil down to something like my post, A Framework for Chess960 Opening Theory (April 2009). It appears to be the only sensible direction to make further progress.

After the initial discovery of the setup phase, the most important section of the setup chapter is probably 'List of Setup Attributes'. I've copied the section's central table (p.119-120) into the following image.

While I don't necessarily agree with these six choices -- 'Is there Knight opposition?' is far less important than 'King fort' -- they nevertheless provide a basis for further discussion. I particularly like the inclusion of 'Corner piece mobilization'. In SP518, the corners are conveniently occupied by the piece which is best suited for that square, the Rook. The other three pieces face challenges to their development from the corner which are not present in their development from other start squares.

Coming back to the world of traditional chess as we know it, the 2018 World Championship is currently underway. Before any moves were played in the match, the two players, GMs Carlsen and Caruana, spent many months working on the setup phase, although no one called it that. It is called instead 'opening preparation'. In traditional chess, it's a phase where psychology plays the dominant role.

The next chapter in Milener's book, 'From Setup Attributes to Opening Moves', covers what happens after White's first move is played. Gene Milener deserves credit for being the first chess960 adherent to work through the most important difference between traditional chess and chess960 : a previously unknown phase.

27 October 2018

A Googly Gadget

I usually reserve discussions of web anomalies for my main blog Chess for All Ages (see link under 'Resources' in the sidebar), but this time the occurrence was so specific to chess960 that I'd like to discuss it on this blog. The image below is a screen capture that I took the last time I searched on my favorite topic (after 'chess'). That big dot near the left is a small version of my head that appears on this blog's sidebar and the text to the right of it says 'Your Site on Google'. That sits above the URL:-

The rest of the box says,

See how your site has been showing for this query for the past 90 days and compare to the previous 90 days:
- Clicks 0
- Impressions 100
- Average position 25,2

Each of those metrics is currently subtitled 'No prior data'. I suppose that after 90 days, some prior data will be displayed.

Google search on 'chess960'

I saw the box this week for the first time while recording my weekly look at web statistics. It's something I do to make sure that my various web resources are performing normally. If I detect an anomaly, I can act on it before it becomes a bigger problem.

The bottom of the box says, 'See ways to improve', which expands to show two pieces of advice. The first is a link to the same 'Performance' page I displayed in a blog post last month, Google Search Console; the second is to a Google page, Help people find your site on Google (support.google.com).

I don't know how many days the three metrics cover. All I know is that they weren't there a week earlier. The reason I look at chess960 search results is to track the position of this blog and of a couple of reference pages:-

I look at the first five pages of Google results and record the position of the resource. One curiosity I've noticed is that those two reference pages (both on mark-weeks.com) rarely show up in the search results at the same time. Sometimes one appears in the first five pages and the other does not appear at all; sometimes the other appears. There is no pattern to predict which one will show up. I occasionally scroll down more than five pages to see if the other one is buried deeper, but it's never there. Google search results often defy explanation.

Don't think I'm ungrateful. Thanks, Google! I'm sure the data will be useful in a Googly sort of way.

20 October 2018

Kasparov Discusses the Showdown

Last month I posted about the Champions Showdown, St. Louis:-
The event was played 11-14 September, and is documented on the official site, Champions Showdown: Chess 960 (uschesschamps.com).

Here's a video from the Saint Louis Chess Club.

2018 Champions Showdown: Kasparov’s Interview - Day 4 (7:40) • 'Published on Sep 16, 2018'

The description says simply,

Grandmaster Garry Kasparov shares his thoughts after his games on Day 4. He has lost to Topalov. • 2018-09-14: USChessChamps.com

The date pegs the video to the last day of the Showdown. Before the games the players had time to analyze the start position selected for the game. GM Kasparov said,

What happened today, I still can't find the explanation. We spent 29 minutes with Peter [Svidler] analyzing a different position. [...] I don't want to spread blame, but actually Peter looked at the position. It's my fault; you just have to look at it yourself. [...] One shift and everything's different. Absolutely everything. It's not that you can reuse the patterns. Absolutely everything changes - the geometry, the structures, the way of developing the pieces. If I hadn't looked at the position at all, that would have been better.

The former World Champion donated his $20.000 prize to chess in Africa.

29 September 2018

New Book by Gene Milener

This post should have been a continuation of last month's The Promise of Chess960 (in 2006), which looked at Gene Milener's book 'Play Stronger Chess by Examining Chess960', written in 2006. In the meantime I received a copy of Milener's new book 'Kinetic Patterns in Reactive Chess'. Although the book isn't about chess960, it does include a 16 page appendix, shown below.

After a two page summary of the earlier chess960 book, the appendix / epilogue discusses the following topics:-

• Chess960 Piece per Square Probabilities
• Numeric Names for Start Setups
• Changed My Mind: 'Random' Is Bad
• Mark Weeks and GeneM Disagree
• Status as Seen by Mark
• End Notes

Since there is no way I can ignore the mention of my name in a printed book, I'll come back to the subject in another post. In the meantime, the section 'Status as Seen by Mark' is essentially a copy of an article I wrote more than three years ago and which I mentioned in Whispering a Fond Adieu! (June 2015), my last post before taking an 18 month leave of absence from chess960 blogging.

There will be no more leaves of absence anytime soon. I have at least two posts to write: a continuation of 'Promise of Chess960' and a reaction to Milener's epilogue. • P.S. I'll tackle the main subject of 'Kinetic Patterns' on my main blog, Chess for All Ages.

22 September 2018

Champions Showdown, St. Louis

In the previous post, 10th Anniversary! (August 2018), I mentioned 'the Champions Showdown in St. Louis next month':-
Twenty games times five matches means 100 games of chess960 played by some of the best chess players in the world, including a few veterans of the Mainz chess960 tournaments. What will we learn from those games?

The event was played 11-14 September, and is documented on the official site, Champions Showdown: Chess 960 (uschesschamps.com). From the 'Regulations':-

In the Champions Showdown, each round will begin with the same starting position on all boards, and new positions will be drawn after every fourth game according to the Schedule of Events. If the standard starting position is randomly selected, it shall be discarded and a new position shall be drawn.

Positions will be drawn in the playing hall. Once drawn, players will have time to prepare, but must remain in the playing hall. Players may have a second to assist, but may not use electronic devices such as computers or phones.

From the 'Standings' on the same site:-

Topalov - Kasparov, Nakamura - Svidler, Wesley So - Giri,
Vachier-Lagrave - Shankland, Aronian - Dominguez

Although all of the major chess news sites had significant reports, Chess24.com produced the most comprehensive reporting. Their reports on the four rounds were by Colin McGourty:-

The first report in that list explained,

The first three days, the participants will play two rapid games followed by two blitz games -- all four games will be played with the same starting position. On Friday, they will play the remaining eight blitz games -- the starting positions will be drawn twice, once at the beginning and once before the final four games.

I noticed one anomaly that I don't understand. The official site's 'Results' page noted the start positions and their numbers for each round, but the numbers don't correspond to the system that I'm familiar with. For example, it gives the first day using 'Position 598: NQBBRKRN'. I prepared the following table for this post, where the first column is the round number and the second column is the numeric start position:-


That mystery aside, I loaded the PGN file for all 100 games to a ZIP file in a directory on my own site: m-w.com/c960/blog/. In the past, I've loaded the PGN file without compression, but I discovered that my domain host now restricts uploads to a 'List of Supported File Types' that doesn't include PGN.

I'd like to come back to the games in a future post. There are also many comments from fans (and non-fans) scattered across different resources that could be surveyed.

25 August 2018

10th Anniversary!

This week I passed the tenth year blogging about chess960. The first post was on my main blog: Shall We Play Fischerandom Chess? (19 August 2008). Almost as if on cue, I received an unexpected anniversary present in the announcement that Kasparov To Make Chess960 Debut (chess.com; Peter Doggers):-
This year, we'll again see Garry Kasparov at the chessboard. The 13th world champion is among the players in the Champions Showdown in St. Louis next month, where the format will be matches of Chess960 -- which Kasparov never tried before.

The announcement went on to give details, which I'll present as an image, because of the list of match opponents.

Peter Doggers might not be aware, but Kasparov is reported to have played chess960 before. I posted about the occasion in Kasparov *Did* Play Chess960 (September 2012), where I quoted GM Sergey Shipov saying,

In 1998 [...] we played six games of Fischerandom chess, and there was no battle there at all! In completely unfamiliar positions, Kasparov's advantage over me was far greater than in normal chess. In the absence of the usual pathfinders his flights of fancy, his sense of dynamics, and his ability to instantly separate the important from the secondary became particularly salient.
For more posts about GM Kasparov on this blog, see It's Not About Short Draws, Garry (February 2014):-
When the 13th World Champion talks, people listen. When he talks about chess960, I listen very carefully. Here are some of the things he's said, or that have been said about him, that I've noted in past posts on this blog.

Twenty games times five matches means 100 games of chess960 played by some of the best chess players in the world, including a few veterans of the Mainz chess960 tournaments. What will we learn from those games?

18 August 2018

The Promise of Chess960 (in 2006)

In one of last month's posts, Chess960 at the Open Library, I discovered a digital copy of 'Play Stronger Chess by Examining Chess960' by Gene Milener. Since then, I've been slowly making my way through the book. As I wrote in the 'Open Library' post,
The book is not an easy read. It introduces new terminology, new notation, and many new ideas that challenge traditional chess thinking.

Having spent more time with it, I'm now more comfortable with the new terminology and new notation (although I still hesitate when I encounter the word 'plair'). I won't pretend to review the book. I've corresponded with Gene Milener on several occasions and he has left numerous comments on this blog as 'GeneM'. There are a few details concerning chess960 where we don't agree. Since these might easily intrude into any review, I'll just say that further comments are my opinion in 2018 versus GeneM's opinion in 2006.

The book is divided into two main parts:-

PART 1: Beyond the Board
PART 2: New Chess Principles Discovered

The 'Open Library' post separated these parts into chapters and for this current post I concentrated on the chapters in part 1. Five of the six chapters in that part discuss technical aspects of chess960, like the numbering system and PGN/FEN, but chapter two examines the relationship with traditional chess. The chapter opens with an anecdote. It had already made an impression on me when I read it at some time in the past, although I had forgotten its source.

I was reviewing a chess game from the pages of John Nunn's superb book Understanding Chess Move By Move. I feel like a spectator when I review or replay a chess game, in the same way I feel like a spectator when I watch football. It was the Jan Timman - Judit Polgar game (Sigeman & Co., at Malmo 2000) in which Polgar carried an initiative through most of the opening even though Timman's moves all seemed solid and safe, even conservative (*). I felt like Polgar's aggressive moves were more than interesting, they were aesthetically pleasing and even inspiring. Chess is indeed a melding of war and beauty.

Then I peeked inside my one modest and aging CD of chess games, which contains about 800,000 games. This led to a feeling of deflation and almost betrayal. For I saw that the exact moves Polgar played through the opening have been played in numerous other games too. Suddenly I felt like Polgar's play had a diminished value, like that of a Picasso print as compared to a Picasso original. At that moment chess960 popped back into my head. Starting from that day I spent my evenings researching chess960, though at first I had no inkling this would lead me to write a book.

That is exactly what Bobby Fischer was talking about in remarks I quoted in Fischer: 'The *Old* Chess Is Dead' (February 2010). Fischer was speaking in January 2002:-

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.

The rest of Milener's chapter two goes on to discuss aspects of chess960 that are just as relevant today as they were in 2006. Here is a list of the chapter's section titles, where comments in brackets ('[]') are mine:-

2. The Tyranny of Tradition
- Opening Repetition Data
- The Greatest Spectator Sport on Earth?
- Bobby Fischer's Perspective on FRC/Chess960
- Learning from the Checkers Example
- Impedance to Rejoining the USCF
- Befuddled by Time Data
- An Optimistic Perspective on Chess960
- Center of the Universe for FRC/Chess960 [Mainz]
- What are Chess, Chess1, and Chess960
- First In Wins ['First-In']
- Opening Theme Tournaments

The section titled 'Optimistic Perspective' is particularly relevant. Bobby Fischer was alive at the time the book was published. I wonder what he thought about it. Was he also optimistic about the adoption of his invention?

(*) Jan Timman vs Judit Polgar; Sigeman & Co (2000), Malmo SWE (chessgames.com).