24 April 2010

Some Arguments Against Chess960

Last month, in a post titled Chess960 @ Chessville.com, I quoted some extremely critical comments by Tim Krabbé concerning chess960 that I found 'wildly misinformed'. I won't repeat the comments in entirety here, but will hone in on specific points that are worth addressing. The first of Krabbé's points concerns Fischer's right to chess960 paternity.
Krabbé: For one thing, "Fischer Random Chess" is not an innovation - the idea of shuffling the pieces on the first rank dates back to the 18th century. It is amazing that Fischer managed to get his name attached to it.

This argument is made frequently, so I'll just copy a paragraph that I wrote this week in a Chess.com forum (see Chess 960 tournaments: variety)

Fischer didn't invent shuffle chess, but he did invent the castling rules, including the restrictions on the initial placement of the King and Rooks. This is what sets chess960 apart from other types of shuffle chess and brings a random start position quickly into patterns similar to traditional chess (SP518: RNBQKBNR). So, yes, he did invent chess960.

I'm not sure why so many people want to deny Fischer's authorship. Perhaps it's a reaction to the rabid anti-Semitism he displayed later in life, like saying 'Anyone who believes such crazy notions can't possibly have invented anything worthwhile'. The early name change from 'Fischer Random Chess' to 'chess960' was another reaction to make the new game palatable to players offended by Fischer's rants.

If that's not the reason, perhaps it's that they haven't tried chess960 and aren't familiar with the subtlety and the genius of the castling rules. In his 2002 book on Fischer's creation, Gligoric accepted the American's authorship and I have seen nothing to suggest that someone else had the idea before Fischer.

The second of Krabbé's points is simply wrong.

Krabbé: All Fischer did was spoil [shuffle chess] by introducing an idiotic electronic shuffler to determine the starting position. Imagine two Fischer Random players on a desert island - even if they had board and pieces, they still couldn't play, until such a shuffler washed ashore.

I first read this long before I became interested in chess960 and agreed that it was a serious weakness in Fischer's idea. In fact, once you know the algorithm it's easy to construct a random start position. I presented the method in an early post -- A Database of Chess960 Start Positions -- and recently saw a YouTube video demonstrating it. After you place the Bishops, Queen, and Knights randomly, the positions of the King and Rooks are automatically determined.

The method requires choosing five random numbers : from 1 to 4, 1 to 4, 1 to 6, 1 to 5, and 1 to 4, in that order. Chess960 players on a desert island could generate these random numbers by picking up a handful of pebbles or a pinch of sand and determining the modulus in each step by eliminating the excess, e.g. modulus 4 to place the Bishops. I'm sure there are better ways to do this, but I won't give it any more thought until I'm stranded on a desert island myself.

The next of Krabbé's points is more interesting.

Krabbé: [Fischer] invented it because in classic chess, as you know, all grandmaster games have been fixed since 1972.

I certainly can't claim that I know exactly what Fischer was thinking, but he had a problem with what he called 'prearranged' games (see Fischer Announces Fischerandom). I've come to the conclusion that he was referring to games where both players come to the board and essentially reel off a certain number of moves that they have studied in their preparation. In other words, the opening of the game is not a battle over-the-board, it's the result of memorization that happened off-the-board.

In his heyday, Fischer was one of the best prepared players in the world and it seems inconsistent that he would object to other players using the same methods that were so successful for him. The difference between circa-1970 and today is that there are more top-notch players using these techniques, powerful computers that play better than any human are involved in the preparation, and many variations have been studied well into the middlegame (sometimes even into the endgame). Chess960 offers an alternative to this style of play.

The last of Krabbé's points is more of an opinion than a fact.

Krabbé: Finally, any form of shuffle chess puts chess back 200 years - see my Diary, item 123.

I'll come back to it in a future post.

1 comment:

Ichabod said...

Another restriction to note about FRC starting positions is that the bishops must be on different colors. This is not necessarily a condition of shuffle chess.