25 April 2010

More Arguments Against Chess960

I ended my previous post on Tim Krabbé's objections to chess960, Some Arguments Against Chess960, with his comment that
Any form of shuffle chess puts chess back 200 years.

That's a remarkable statement from a player and writer who is a recognized authority on the game, its culture, and its history. To find out more about his reasons we go to his diary entry no.123 (17 June 2001: 'Count Van Zuylen van Nijeveltrandom chess, anyone?'), found in Diary 121-140. After rephrasing the thoughts covered in my previous post (the diary entry came first chronologically), he ends with a summary condemnation of Fischer's invention.

I'm not sure shuffling is a good idea at all. Its main purpose is to avoid openings theory, which is supposed to be an alien element in chess skill. I don't see why; willingness and ability to learn a vocabulary are essential in mastering a language. Without the openings, chess wouldn't be chess. The openings are not just a few memorizable tricks; through them, knowledge about the middlegame has accumulated during 500 years. Without that knowledge, the fantastic, wild games of today could not be played - chess would be put back 100 years. Shuffle games are not very interesting; playing them over is like following a guide who has never been to the museum himself.

One way in which grandmasters distinguish themselves from ordinary players, is their greater knowledge and better handling of the characteristics that arise through the openings. Could they beat amateurs just as easily in shuffle chess? It would be more interesting to have not just a Leko-Adams match but, for instance, a 4-way tournament between Leko, Adams, and two sub 2200-players who had won a qualifying shuffle tournament.

There are several thought provoking, arguable points in those two paragraphs. I'll address them in order.

Krabbé: 'Opening theory is supposed to be an alien element in chess skill'.

From Merriam-Webster.com: Theory: '1 : the analysis of a set of facts in their relation to one another • 2 : abstract thought : speculation • 3 : the general or abstract principles of a body of fact, a science, or an art • ...'

An often noted disconnect in chess terminology is that when chess players talk about 'opening theory', they mean opening variations which are thought to be best play for both sides, i.e. what is known. This is only compatible with a standard definition of 'theory' in the sense that we think these moves are best, because no one has found better.

Another aspect of opening play is where move selection is guided by general principles like 'develop your pieces', 'control the center', etc. This is the real nucleus of opening theory, more than learning sequences of chess moves by heart. A consequence of this disconnect is that non-master chess players often know intricate opening variations by heart, but can't explain the general principles behind those moves.

Krabbé: 'Willingness and ability to learn a vocabulary are essential in mastering a language.'

A comparison of chess to language is unconvincing. I could also compare opening theory to the memorization of long passages from a novel, a poem, or a play. Memorizing these passages doesn't make one a novelist, a poet, or a playwright, any more than memorizing opening variations makes one a chess master. I can even imagine memorizing these passages without having any idea what they really mean, like a high school English student memorizing Shakespeare.

Krabbé: 'Knowledge about the middlegame has accumulated during 500 years'

The opening and subsequent middlegame positions that arise from the traditional start position are just a subset, perhaps a small subset, of the multitude of fascinating positions that can arise from the complete set of chess960 start positions. Which is more challenging - to work with the known or to explore the unknown?

Krabbé: 'Without that knowledge, the fantastic, wild games of today could not be played'.

How often does it happen that you play through a 'fantastic, wild game' only to discover that the players are repeating 'theory' and that the first original move occurs well into the complications? How often does it happen that GM level players make a mistake just after their preparation ends, or worse, offer a draw so that they can study the continuation at home on their computer?

The first game of the Anand - Topalov World Championship match was played yesterday. Where did the game really start? According to the pundits, the players followed 'theory' for 16 moves, then followed preparation for a few moves (the exact number is unknown), then Anand blundered on the 23rd move. How many original moves were played over the board in this game? Some commentators are saying that the blunder was the first original move by either player.

Krabbé: 'Shuffle games are not very interesting; playing them over is like following a guide who has never been to the museum himself.'

It's true that Krabbé's example game from 1851 isn't interesting. It isn't even chess960, because the Bishops for each side start on the same color. Since the players never castle the game never approaches positions similar to traditional chess.

Playing over a chess960 game isn't like playing through a traditional game, where we whip through the first moves -- Ruy Lopez, Closed Variation, Breyer Defense (or whatever) -- and eventually arrive at a position we've never seen before. Then we play the moves more slowly to see how the game evolves and to compare the player's ideas with what we already know about that particular opening system.

Playing over chess960 requires playing slowly from the very first move, just like playing a chess960 game requires real thinking from the very first move. Why did the minor pieces go to those particular squares, or why did the players castle to those sides? Moves that aren't played also require attention. In chess, when Black plays a Sicilian, we know that the alternatives are an Open game, the French, the Pirc, etc. In chess960, the alternatives are unknown and mysterious.

Krabbé: 'Could [GMs] beat amateurs just as easily in shuffle chess?'

When Krabbé wrote this in 2001, interest in chess960 was getting started. We now have experience from the open events at Mainz, where GMs face 'sub 2200-players' in the early rounds. Guess what? The GMs win. There is more to chess skill than detailed knowledge of specific opening variations and middlegame patterns that arise from the traditional start position. That really isn't too surprising, is it?

The choice between traditional chess and chess960 isn't mutually exclusive. Players who value preparation will continue to play traditional chess. Players who value creativity and inspiration can play chess960. I enjoy playing both and will continue to enjoy traditional chess for a long time.

1 comment:

marljivi said...

Bravo.I completely agree with you.What mr.Krabbe wrote about chess 960,was all total rubbish.Those people,who have good situation in traditional chess (coach,novelist,columnist,organizer,player,or whatever),often write against shuffle chess just because they are afraid of losing their good situation in traditional chess.And-at least in my opinion-their fear is without suffisticated grounds: in chess960 we could still be writing books,we could still have chess960 coaches,we could still have tournaments (I enjoy playing blitz chess,but frankly-blitz chess hardly plays any role in development of opening theory.And yet there are many blitz tournaments organised around the globe-in contrast to ANY shape of chess960.).And so on,and so on-I see ONLY PLUSES about promoting and playing shuffle chess.

Sincerely,Jan Gombac