14 November 2009

Setting up a Chess960 Position

In my previous post, The First Recorded Fischerandom Game?, I wrote, 'For reasons that I'll give some other time, the order by value is my preferred method of setting up a chess960 start position.' By that somewhat cryptic statement, I meant that I use a little procedure -- an algorithm -- to set up the pieces at the start of a chess960 game. That procedure involves placing the pieces in descending order of value.

Setting up the pieces to start a traditional chess game (RNBQKBNR) doesn't take any special effort. Experienced players do this so often that the pieces seem to find their correct start positions without any conscious effort by the players. The fingers grab a few pieces and scatter them on the correct squares the way a coin sorter sorts a bag of random coins; they just drop into the right slots. Sometimes a Bishop and Knight, or a King and Queen, might be switched accidentally, but this is usually spotted before the first move is made.

Setting up a new chess960 position is not so automatic. The pieces are almost always placed according to instructions that differ at the start of each game. It takes a conscious effort to place each piece on the correct square, and even then, there is always a chance that the pieces might not have been placed correctly.

A long time ago I discovered a method of placing pieces on a chess board when setting up a position other than the traditional start position. This is required, for example, when working from a diagram in a book or magazine. It turns out that the same basic method works for chess 960. I described the general procedure for traditional chess in an article I wrote for About.com: Improve Your Middle Game (Part 1 - Patterns).

Here's another trick I use frequently. It's a procedure for setting up a position on a board. First, clear the board. Don't try to set up a position by adjusting the pieces already in place unless the old position is almost identical to the new. Second, place the two Kings on the board. Third, set up the Pawns. Then add the Queens (both White and Black) if they are present, then all the Rooks (White and Black), and finally all of the minor pieces (ditto).

'What's the big deal?', I hear you asking. 'What difference does that make?' Perhaps no difference whatsoever, except that it works for me.

Setting up the Kings first tells me immediately where the most important pieces on the board are located. Are they on their original squares, on the same side, on opposite sides, or in an unusual place?

Setting up the Pawns without the other pieces gives me a quick picture of the Pawn structure. Does one side have a numerical advantage? Are there any classic weaknesses like doubled or isolated Pawns? How many islands are there? Since the Pawn structure changes very slowly, it's often the key to devising a long term plan. This is one of the things Philidor meant when he said, 'The Pawn is the soul of chess.'

Setting up the Queens, then the Rooks, then the minor pieces gives me another quick count on the material. Is there an advantage? An imbalance? How do the minor pieces match? Does one side have two Bishops and a Knight where the other side has two Knights and a Bishop?

By the time I've set up the position, I've already registered a lot of information about what's happening on the board. This makes up for the lack of information from not having played the game from the starting moves.

That same procedure, with a couple of tweaks, also works well for a chess960 start position. The first tweak is that the board doesn't have to be cleared completely. Moving the pieces to the center of the board (or off the board) is even more efficient. The second tweak is that the Pawns don't have to be cleared; they can be placed immediately on the second and seventh ranks, just like when starting a traditional chess game.

After that, however, the pieces are placed in order of their value: first Kings, then Queens, then Rooks, then minor pieces. The advantages to this procedure are:

  • Placing the Kings first helps to see that the most important piece is not placed in the corner, where it is never allowed to start the game.
  • Placing the Queens early allows to see where the most powerful piece on the board is located.
  • Placing the Rooks early provides a quick visual check that the King has been placed between the two Rooks. As a bonus, the castling choices are more obvious when there are no minor pieces on the board.
  • Placing the Bishops at the same time provides another visual check that they are starting on opposite colored squares.

And that's it. On top of these visual checks for the individual pieces, placing the pieces of the same value at the same time for both colors helps to ensure that the right pieces start opposite each other.

I've also discovered that this procedure makes it easier to set up the pieces when I'm sitting on the Black side of the board. I just take my instructions, QRKNBBNR for example, turn them upside down (RNBBNKRQ), and place the pieces using the same method I just described. It's not flawless, but it works much better than placing the pieces randomly.

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