11 October 2009

Whistling Past the Graveyard?

The graveyard of chess opening books, that is. While browsing various items about Chess960 @ Chess.com, I found the following morcel by Chess.com member FM_Eric_Schiller (comment to World Championship Computer-Assisted Predictions):-
I have to say that in my view Chess960 is no better than any other chess variant. All variants are way inferior to the true game. Chess has evolved over 1500+ years to achieve such a great balance that we have no idea what the best first move is.

Players who are too lazy to study openings may indeed prefer Chess960, but it hasn't caught on and will never do so. Chess openings are still unclear and exciting, and computers have increased the number of playable openings, not decreased them.

The Chess.com page for FM_Eric_Schiller confirms that the member is FM Eric Schiller of chess publishing fame: 'I have a full website at www.ericschiller.com, which includes samples of many of my more than 100 books, mostly of chess but a few on linguistics.' Following that URL, we find that many of the 'more than 100' books are listed on Eric Schiller's Books on Chess, while others can be located via Bookfinder.com: Searching for books where author is Eric Schiller.

Although opinions vary on the quality of Schiller's work (see Eric Schiller [Wikipedia] for a sample), here we have a bona fide contributor to the massive pile of opening books I discussed in Some Numbers on Chess Book Publishing, together with thoughts on the destiny of chess960. I imagine the thoughts are representative of the community of chess opening authors. Thank you, Dr. Schiller, for sharing.

Getting back to the specific remarks, my first comment is a reminder that chess960 is not a chess variant. It's an evolution of traditional chess as it has been played for the last several hundred years. Traditional chess is itself a subset of chess960, one of the 960 possible starting positions. The traditional start position dates to the mysterious appearance of chess over 1400 years ago, when before the battle began, armies assembled in symmetric formation facing each other across an invisible dividing line, generals in the center.

Ignoring the unsubstantiated opinion ('all variants are way inferior'), the name calling ('lazy'), and the idle speculation ('hasn't caught on and will never do so'), Schiller's objection to chess960 boils down to

  • 'we have no idea what the best first move is', and
  • 'computers have increased the number of playable openings'

This is just as valid for chess960 as it is for chess and overlooks the main reason for considering chess960: that opening theory has reached the unfortunate point where

  • the early moves of the game are based increasingly on memorization, and
  • the real struggle often starts in the late middlegame or endgame.

The message of any author of opening books is 'buy this book and follow the instructions'. The message of chess960 is 'think for yourself'. World Champion Bobby Fischer -or- FM Eric Schiller? I know which horse I'm backing.

1 comment:

Morphy said...

It depends on how you define chess. Most people define chess with the current start position. It is possible to go even further than you and describe chess as a family of games covering a diverse amount of variants. After all chess was not played the same way then and even now in the East, Chinese Chess is quite popular. So are they not chess too?
Consider the game where in initial setup black or white swap the king and queen start squares and castling is two squares towards the rook either direction..is that not even closer to chess than fischer random and therefore IS Chess?
In fact the opening phase may seem far more familiar in this asymmetrical setup.