13 June 2009

First Move Advantage in Chess960

A recent article on Chessbase.com, Refined Chess - a new proposal to combat draws (26 April 2009), another viewpoint in an ongoing dialog about the draw problem in chess, mentioned chess960 in passing.
Random Start Position: This was Fischer's proposal, which enjoyed a modest success. The problem is, not all starting positions offer the same chances to both players. Some gives white a huge advantage, some are too drawish.

This is a common criticism of chess960, where, as here, the critics always present the argument as a fact known to everyone, so examples are not required. I raised the issue on the SchemingMind.com chess960 forum (see Problems with certain start positions), and asked

I'm a newcomer to chess960, have played only a handful of games, and haven't seen this problem of start positions where 'some give White a huge advantage, some are too drawish'. Are there any positions that are known to be problematic?

Here are some of the comments I received.

QuantumLoop: 'In my experience so far I have not found any case that I felt offered one side or the other an advantage let alone a HUGE advantage.'

ichabod801: 'I recently read Gene Milener's book on FRC. He presents some data in there that seems to show a white advantage in some positions. However, it's from one tournament (Mainz), so it's not like it's a big enough sample to really draw any conclusions.'

Austin: 'I think the best way to find an answer would be to organise a correspondence tournament and invite the top CC players of the day to participate under full ICCF conditions. Such a tournament should really expose the 'truth' in each of the positions played.'

heuschrecke: 'I annotated the first 100 starting positions of Chess960 here on SM and I am actually playing in the German Chess960 Championship. [...] There are some starting positions where the right to move first leads to a few forced moves: White threatens to win a pawn with his first move. Black has only one answer and White with his 2nd move threatens to win another pawn. That's it and there's no advantage due to the right to make the first move. A big advantage for White and drawish starting positions - I don't know any of them. • And you may run Rybka for the next 50 years to find out if White has in any of the starting positions a big advantage of if any of the starting positions is drawish from the first move on. The development of opening theory in one and only starting position (the standard one) took 100 years. Even taking into account the tremendous acceleration in hard- and software development - how long would it take to come to a satisfying assessment of any of the 959 starting positions of Chess960?

QuantumLoop: 'World Champion Bobby Fischer,chess genius and originator, spent the years after his brilliant conception playing only Chess960. Bobby was a deeply honest man. If there were something unfair with his conception I am certain he would not of promoted it. If this World Champion, one of the greatest chess players in history, thought Chess960 superior to position 518 [the traditional start position] alone, enough so as to abandon playing "the old chess" surely this must be the strongest testimonial you will ever hear!

Along with those perceptive comments was a link to an older forum thread on the same subject -- Advantageous positions -- where Chess Tiger wrote,

The Chess Tigers offer a reward of Euro 5.000,- to anybody finding a forced lost starting position. You naturally have to bring the evidence!

I asked Chess Tiger if the offer was still valid. He replied,

Yes, it is! But I guess you will agree that we are not really in danger to pay this out.

By introducing chess960, the author of the Chessbase article on 'Refined Chess' was relying on a straw man defense to make his case about drawn games. The purpose of chess960 is to eliminate the impact of opening theory in chess, not to reduce the number of draws. If it does both, that's fine, but draw reduction is not its primary selling point.


Wikipedia has an excellent article on First-move advantage in chess. Many of its points -- winning percentages for both sides, drawn with best play, symmetrical openings -- are also relevant to chess960, even if the variant is not (yet) cited.

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