28 February 2010

Nakamura vs. Aronian at Mainz 2009

In No Preparation Required, we saw a photo of the first game from the 2009 chess960 match between GMs Nakamura and Aronian at Mainz. Relating the position on the board to the accompanying PGN reveals that the photo was taken while Aronian was thinking about his third move.

The top half of the following diagram shows the game's start position (SP190 NRNKRBBQ), while the bottom half shows the position after both players have castled (Black's ...O-O-O was the last move). What can we say about the development of the two armies?

White has moved four Pawns, Black has moved six. The White Pawns have captured space on the Kingside, while the Black Pawns are in a somewhat defensive structure with a curious symmetry where the Kingside mirrors the Queenside.

White has used five moves to develop the dark-squared Bishop and the two Knights, while Black has used three moves to develop a Bishop and the Knights. Except for the castling move, none of the Rooks have moved and each side has one undeveloped Bishop on the f-file. The last move to be accounted for each side is the Queen moving on its rank from the corner to the adjacent square.

In my opinion, White's position makes a better impression. The two White Knights are ready to spring into action at many different points on White's side, the developed White Bishop is more actively placed than the developed Black Bishop, and the White Pawn structure is tighter.

With 12.Bh3, Nakamura developed his last minor piece to an aggressive post, and Aronian countered by easing the tension with 12...fxe4 13.Nxe4. Then followed a sequence of attacks and counterattacks with 13...Ned5 14.Bf6 Rd7 15.c4 Nb4. Black never managed to achieve equality, was forced to make a series of concessions, and finally sacrificed a piece for an attack that didn't quite work.

27 February 2010

No Preparation Required

A recent article in TechRepublic.com, The role of computers in planning chess strategy by Debra Littlejohn Shinder, received a fair share of attention from the chess blogosphere. That wasn't at all surprising, since it was about top-level tournament preparation.
Electronic assistance isn’t allowed during a conventional match, but that doesn’t mean chess champs can’t use digital devices when assessing the opponents they may encounter in a tournament and when plotting their strategies. Many chess players at the international tournament level now utilize the processing power of today’s powerful -- but much less costly -- computers to help them prepare for matches.

And specifically the preparation practiced by GM Hikaru Nakamura, one of the USA's top players. While informative and accurate overall, the piece contained at least one subtle blunder, shown in the following photo.

The caption says, 'Plenty of behind-the-scenes preparation goes into U.S. Chess Champion Hikaru Nakamura’s winning moves', but the board shows a chess960 position (SP190: NRNKRBBQ). You can bet your last dollar that Nakamura's only preparation was adjusting his pieces before the start of the game.

That game was the first in the Chess960 Rapid World Championship match between Nakamura and GM Levon Aronian (the other player in the photo) at last year's Chess Classic Mainz, a match won decisively by Nakamura. For more about the event, see my previous posts CCM9: Nakamura, Grischuk, and Rybka and More from Mainz 2009. Here is the PGN of the same game, courtesy Chess Tigers.

[Event "CCM9 - Chess960 Rapid WCh"]
[Site "Mainz"]
[Date "2009.07.30"]
[Round "7.1"]
[White "Nakamura, Hikaru"]
[Black "Aronian, Levon"]
[Result "1-0"]
[Variant "chess 960"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "nrnkrbbq/pppppppp/8/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/NRNKRBBQ w EBeb - 0 1"]

1.f4 f5 2.Bd4 d6 3.Qg1 c5 4.Bc3 Nc7 5.g4 e6 6.d3 Bf7 7.e4 Ne7 8.Ne2 Qg8 9.Nb3 b6 10.O-O-O g6 11.Nd2 O-O-O 12.Bh3 fxe4 13.Nxe4 Ned5 14.Bf6 Rd7 15. c4 Nb4 16.a3 Nc6 17.Bc3 Be7 18.g5 d5 19.Nf6 Bxf6 20.Bxf6 Qf8 21.Nc3 Qd6 22.Qf2 Kb7 23.Kb1 Rf8 24.cxd5 Nxd5 25.Nxd5 Qxd5 26.d4 e5 27.Bxd7 Nxd4 28. Rxd4 cxd4 29.Rxe5 Qa2+ 30.Kc1 Qa1+ 31.Kc2 d3+ 32.Kxd3 Qd1+ 33.Qd2 Bc4+ 34. Ke3 Qg1+ 35.Kf3 h5 36.Re1 Qc5 37.Be7 Bd5+ 38.Kg3 h4+ 39.Kh3 1-0

HT: Comment to The Role of Computers in Planning Chess Strategy (TheChessMind.net).

21 February 2010

A Few Novel Ideas

While researching yesterday's post on Kasparov and chess960 -- Why Not Announce Positions Beforehand? -- I encountered a few novel ideas related to chess960.
  • Kasparov on chess 960 and preparation (chess.com): Re Kasparov's emphasis on retaining the possibility of opening preparation, 'Where's the fun in playing an opponent who spent the last month analyzing some opening sidelines with Fritz/Rybka? Is chess just about rewarding hard work?'

Once again, the dichotomy between chess at the professional level and chess at the amateur level enters the discussion. I never get tired of saying, 'the first rule of chess is to have fun', but perhaps this doesn't apply to professionals.

  • Kasparov on Chess960, et al. (iccf.com/forum): 'For serious correspondence chess, as opposed to casual correspondence chess, playing chess960 games is a step in the WRONG direction. The reason is simple : the human knowledge effect in the games will be further reduced since the engines that are already affecting classic correspondence chess have zero problems adapting to chess960.' • Followup: Chess960 the answer for serious CC?.

Since Kasparov said nothing about correspondence chess, this is a non-sequitur, but nevertheless an interesting opinion. I'm not aware that anyone has suggested that chess960 changes the impact of engines in correspondence chess and I suspect that engines have the same advantages (and disadvantages) in both traditional chess and in chess960. This is certainly true after the opening, when the games become indistinguishable. As for the opening, what difference does it make if the correspondence player uses an engine on the first move in chess960 or on the Nth move in traditional chess when theory is coming to an end?

20 February 2010

Why Not Announce Positions Beforehand?

Even though Garry Kasparov has been retired from professional chess for five years, he continues to wield enormous influence on the game and on its players. A few months ago I excerpted his thoughts on chess960 in a post titled Kasparov's Chess960 Proposal. He again expounded on the subject in the last segment of a recent interview published by Chessbase.com, Bisik-Bisik with Garry Kasparov (Part 3).
Q: What do you think about the future of Fischer Random, Seirawan Chess or any other types of chess variant?

A: I have always liked the idea of choosing a few decent positions. And, I don't think you need more than 15 to 20, out of the 960 possible random chess positions, many of which violate our sense for normal chess geometry. Any change of the position is a challenge, but 10 to 15 to 20 positions can be chosen, and I believe that in the future, every year, we should start with a new position. Again, it should just be one position.

I feel an insult if players should start with something that is totally ridiculous, and you have three minutes to prepare... No, I mean, come on, chess is also about some research. You don't want to have the same extensive thing, fine. But, you have one year of playing one position, which means that players can actually get adjusted and they could do a little bit of research. So at least you have five, six opening moves that are theory now and then you go on to another position.

But, if you just want to eliminate everything and call it purity -- no, it is not purity, it's nonsense. So, again, there is some sense in it, but you have to be reasonable.

Chessbase: We will inform you more thoroughly on Kasparov's ideas on Fischer Random in a later article.

The short discourse largely echos his thoughts from my previous post, with one important addition: that certain chess960 start positions are 'ridiculous'. This indicates to me that he hasn't tried chess960 very often. Some start positions are more difficult and some are less difficult. I haven't yet seen any that I would classify as 'ridiculous', to be avoided at all cost. The positions that are more difficult require more effort to harmonize the development of the pieces, but both players are grappling with the same obstacles. The player with the better chess sense will likely prevail.

As for the opinion that 'three minutes to prepare' for a new start position is insufficient, I wholeheartedly agree. One way to overcome this limitation would be to announce beforehand which positions will be used in a particular event. For example, the organizers of a seven round tournament would announce well before the first round which seven start positions will be used. The players wouldn't know which position would be used in which round, and they wouldn't know whether they would play White or Black, but they would have some opportunity to prepare for those specific positions.

Announcing start positions beforehand would also establish a reason for creating theoretical overviews of the 960 positions. This would open the door for the chess publishing industry to support the evolution to chess960.

14 February 2010

Chess960 @ Google

A year and a half ago, in one of the first posts in the chess960 series that eventually became this blog (see 'Fischerandom Chess' or 'Chess960'?) I checked the relative popularity of the different search terms. Since 18 months is an eternity in web time, I thought it would be a good idea to recheck those numbers with Google. Here they are using the terms currently shown at the top of the page for this blog.
180,000"chess 960"
30,800chess frc
23,500"Fischer Random" Chess
24,600Fischerrandom Chess
18,400Fischerandom Chess
9,900"Shuffle Chess"

Somewhat curiously, the number of 'chess960' pages and the number of 'Fischer Random Chess' page have decreased by half, while the other terms show increases. I'll chalk that up to Google anomalies.

The term 'chess960' still wins by a landslide. Chess960 @ Wikipedia is the first result returned, while this blog is around no.20.

13 February 2010

Searching for BNRKNBRQ

One way to find chess960 web sites and games is to search on the string used in the PGN that describes the start position. For example, I once again used the dice-rolling method described in A Database of Chess960 Start Positions to construct a random position and came up with BNRKNBRQ. I plugged that string into a search query and received 'about 57' results for BNRKNBRQ, which the search engine reduced to 14 after eliminating duplicate pages.

It turned out that many of the duplicate pages contained data like 'ID 274: BNRKNBRQ ID 275: BNRKNRQB ID 276: [...]', i.e. a straightforward list of all 960 start positions (SPs). Other pages were more lists of SPs, including my own Chess960 Start Positions and the CCRL's Opening Statistics, both linked on this blog under 'Resources'.

The CCRL page (www.computerchess.org.uk), date stamped 11 February 2010, currently returns a 'File does not exist!' error message, hopefully temporary. The search also returned an older version of the same page date stamped 30 March 2008: Opening Statistics (ccrl.org.uk).

A couple of new sites also popped up -- Chess Fest (64squar.es) and Games in database: Fischer Random 9028 (wildchess.org) -- the first an online play site and the second a database site. I'll look at those sites in another post.

07 February 2010

Fischer: 'The *Old* Chess Is Dead'

A recent chess column in the New York Times, Modern Players Prove Bobby Fischer Was Wrong by Dylan Loeb McClain [NYTimes.com], started with an oblique reference to Fischer Random Chess (aka chess960).
Bobby Fischer once famously remarked that "chess is dead". What he meant was that so much had been discovered about the game that creativity and innovation were waning.

Typical for me, a phrase that has been 'famously remarked', like something that 'everybody knows', means that I've either never heard of it, wasn't paying attention at the time, or completely overlooked its importance. That's when I thank my lucky stars for Google. It turns out that Fischer's utterance, according to Chessbase.com in I'm finished with the old chess, it's rotten to the core! (alternately titled 'Bobby Fischer talks to Reykjavik radio station'; Chessbase.com articles often have two titles - take your pick) passed from his mouth to our ears on 27 January 2002. The Chessbase piece, in interview format, started,

Q: Is there a chance that you will play chess again? A: Only Fischer Random -- I don't play the old chess any more. The old chess is dead, it's been played out.

and later continued

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.

After embarrassing himself with remarks about Kasparov's 'rotten teeth', Fischer unwittingly summarized the last 15 years of his career.

Q: What if you were offered ten million dollars to play a match against some chess champion? A: I only play Fischer Random, period. I'm finished with the old chess, it's rotten to the core.

It was never about money, was it, Bobby? Getting back to McClain's column, it turns out that 'chess is dead' is taken out of context. Fischer said, 'The old chess is dead'. The word 'old' is important, because Fischer was talking about chess starting from the traditional start position (SP518: RNBQKBNR). Furthermore, when McClain wrote, 'What [Fischer] meant was that so much had been discovered about the game that creativity and innovation were waning', it would have been more precise to say, 'so much had been discovered about the opening'. Fischer never implied that 'creativity and innovation were waning' in the middlegame or the endgame. This is apparent from his statement that he would 'only play Fischer Random, period'. Perhaps McClain, like many traditional chess players, doesn't realize that a chess960 game eventually becomes indistinguishable from a game of traditional chess, largely due to the genius of Fischer's castling rules.

I'm not knocking McClain here. He has done an excellent job filling GM Robert Byrne's shoes at the Times and I read his column and his blog regularly. He knows chess, he knows its players, and he knows its history. In the same 'chess is dead' column he continued,

Players are certainly better prepared than ever because databases and computers are widely used to analyze and dissect openings. Players can sometimes reel off 20 or more moves before they leave their preparation.

then gave an analysis of Giri - Howell, a Gruenfeld Defense from the recent Corus (Group B) event, where Giri won both the game and the tournament. Here is more from McClain:

The [opening variation] chosen by Howell violated that principle [of pressure on White’s center], but it had been played before. And after 16 ... Qe4, White continued with 17 Qe4 fe4 18 de6 Be6, when White had an advantage, but Black was not lost. But when Giri uncorked 17 de6, Black was in trouble.

The idea had clearly been prepared by Giri, who, after [his 20th move], had more time on his clock than when he began the game, a consequence of moving quickly and having time added after each move. Though Howell struggled on, he was already lost.

This passage perfectly confirms Fischer's observation that traditional chess has become 'very interesting, beautiful pre-arranged games being created by very intelligent players, working with computers'. Perhaps more accurate would have been to say 'old chess is dying', rather than 'old chess is dead', but Fischer definitely knew what he was talking about.


A few days after the Times column, another beacon of online chess news reported that Stellwagen wins 2009 Yearbook Novelty of the Year Award [Chessvibes.com].

Daniel Stellwagen has been voted the winner of the 2009 Yearbook Novelty of the Year by readers of the New In Chess website. The Dutch grandmaster earned 350 Euros for his novelty 24...Qf3 in the King’s Indian against Loek van Wely at the NH Chess Tournament in Amsterdam in August 2009.

An opening novelty on move 24 was the 2009 'Novelty of the Year'! What would Bobby have said about that?

06 February 2010

'Fischer Random Chess', the Music

Cover for 'Fischer Random Chess' by VodaIf you follow chess just a little bit you've undoubtedly heard of Chess (the musical) [from Wikipedia.org], but even if you're very keen on Fischer's last great creation, chess960, you've maybe never heard of Fischer Random Chess by Voda ('our new EP, self-produced'). The band's bio says, 'Voda’s only been on the Boston scene since 2007, but you wouldn’t know it to see them live. In the summer of 2008, Voda released Fischer Random Chess. It features the hard-charging live favorites "Come On" and "Bobby Fischer" as well as slow-burner "Rule 21", and "Cartoon Hero", a well-crafted piece of radio-ready pop.'

The track named after the 11th World Champion starts,

I can put a name on things that never change
And play the game like Bobby Fischer, Bobby Fischer, Bobby Fischer
If I had the time, I'd call you up tonight
And say that I've moved, it's your move, it's your move

There's no sign that Voda really knows anything about chess960, but who cares? It's the music that counts.