31 October 2010

Two Analogies

Buried inside my most recent post -- Chess960 Point and Counterpoint -- is an analogy I call the 'house analogy'.
Chess960 is an evolution of traditional chess. To use an analogy, imagine I build a house on a lot that was previously empty. I call the road it is on 'Chess Street'. The house might be in use for centuries before someone (a certain Mr. Fischer) gets the idea to build more houses on the same lot. He builds 959 similar houses and, to make it easier to identify the houses, assigns them numbers. My original house turns out to be no.518 on Chess Street. Note that I haven't altered the function of the original house nor have I destroyed it. It is still available to everyone who used it before. But for those who are tired of the same house and want something a little different, they have many choices.

I could carry the analogy further, but I'm not sure it would help clarify the difference between traditional chess and chess960. People who want to continue living at no.518 on Chess St. can do so. They do, however, have choices that were not available 20 years ago.

In another forum on Chess.com, I used an anology -- Chess Island -- that I call the 'beach analogy'.

Chess960 is like a tropic island having 960 gorgeous beaches all with white sand and blue water. For some obscure reason, probably to do with herd mentality, everyone who vacations on the island chooses the same beach, no.518 in the numbering scheme assigned by the pioneer who first charted the island. There are so many people on that particular beach that there is no place to throw your towel down or pitch your beach umbrella, unless you cling to the rocky, dangerous cliffs that line both sides of the beach. If you want to go swimming or snorkeling you have to go out hundreds of meters to get away from the crowds. Of course, you can always rent one of those robot boats that ferry the thrill seekers as far out as possible, but the real insiders say that the increasing use of those boats is rapidly destroying the beauty of the beach.

Meanwhile the other 959 beaches remain just as they were when first discovered. A few intrepid vacationers prefer those beaches to no.518, although they have a hard time explaining why. Maybe they don't like crowds and just want to get away from it all. Whatever the reason, on every vacation they choose a different beach at random and enjoy themselves so much that they are reminded why they came to the island the first time. Once in a while they go back to the crowds at no.518 to renew old friendships and revisit old haunts, but it is never the same as it was before.

I'm sure there are other analogies.

30 October 2010

Chess960 Point and Counterpoint

Advocates of traditional chess love to invent arguments against chess960. I mentioned several in Some Arguments Against Chess960 and More Arguments Against Chess960. While following the pros and cons about Advanced Chess960 @ Chess.com, I had the opportunity to encounter a few more arguments. For the benefit of others who are active in promoting chess960, here is a record of the discussions.

From: Could we please stop calling Chess960 a variant?.

  • heinzie: '[Re SP518] the "one position within it" happens to be the only perfectly logical one, symmetrical and blessed with an even distribution of force'

    SP534 (RNBKQBNR) has the same characteristics as SP518 (RNBQKBNR). Only the castling considerations are different, but that's enough to make it theoretically separate. - Mark [2nd October 2010, 12:07am]

  • EnterTheDragon: 'Subsequently for the following FIVE HUNDRED YEARS the game's name [chess], piece placement, piece movements stood the test of time.'

    Until computers came along, when good old chess, weakened at the knees, started to stumble under the burden. I agree with the person who called chess960 a mutation. It's fortified chess, made to withstand the onslaught of the chess playing engines. It's an evolution of modern chess which was itself an evolution of medieval chess 500 years ago. Times change and things change with the times. - Mark [2nd October 2010, 11:10pm]

  • [Fischer didn't invent chess960] • rigamagician: 'Bronstein ... Bisguier ... Benko ... This was probably one of the first publicized matches of a Chess960-like variant.' • Atos: '"Pre-Chess: Time for a Change"'

    The history of shuffle chess goes back hundreds of years. Gligoric, in his book on chess960/FRC, dates the idea to 1792 and gives games from 1842 and 1851. The 1851 game has the Bishops for each side starting on the same color squares, which is not done in the better evolutions of shuffle chess.

    Fischer added two important concepts to the earlier forms of shuffle chess. First, he specified that the King must start between the Rooks. Second, he defined castling to have the King & Rook end up on the same squares as in traditional chess (RNBQKBNR), for both O-O-O and O-O. That's what makes traditional chess a subset of chess960 and what gives the other 959 chess960 start positions the same feel (and appeal) of traditional chess.

    Comparing chess960 to earlier forms of shuffle chess is like comparing the Wright brothers' invention to hot air balloons. They are not the same thing. - Mark [5th October 2010, 01:06am]

  • Atos: 'that seems rather like saying that traditional chess was invented by the people who introduced the rules for castling and en passant'

    Without the two rules that you mention, traditional chess (aka modern chess) would not be the game that we play today. It would be some other game. So, yes, traditional chess *was* invented by the people who introduced the rules for castling and en passant. That's not to say that they invented the precursors of traditional chess, like medieval chess or like the versions without castling and en passant. The evolutionary sequence is clear and undisputable.

    My point is that chess960 incorporates traditional chess 100%. When you play traditional chess, you are in fact playing chess960, restricted to one of the 960 different start positions (RNBQKBNR). I could say that the just-finished Olympiad was really a chess960 tournament restricted to RNBQKBNR, and I would not be wrong. (I would raise a storm of controversy, but I would not be wrong).

    Chess960 is an evolution of traditional chess. To use an analogy, imagine I build a house on a lot that was previously empty. I call the road it is on 'Chess Street'. The house might be in use for centuries before someone (a certain Mr. Fischer) gets the idea to build more houses on the same lot. He builds 959 similar houses and, to make it easier to identify the houses, assigns them numbers. My original house turns out to be no.518 on Chess Street. Note that I haven't altered the function of the original house nor have I destroyed it. It is still available to everyone who used it before. But for those who are tired of the same house and want something a little different, they have many choices.

    I could carry the analogy further, but I'm not sure it would help clarify the difference between traditional chess and chess960. People who want to continue living at no.518 on Chess St. can do so. They do, however, have choices that were not available 20 years ago. - Mark [5th October 2010, 11:43pm]

  • chessroboto: 'What good does it do to disassociate Chess960 from Chess?'

    For one thing, chess is de facto a simpler game than chess960. The fixed start position in chess means that players can prepare by compiling databases, studying books, running engines on positions they will encounter in real play, and memorizing opening variations. In chess960, those crutches are no longer available.

    Traditional chess also limits the number of recurring patterns that can arise early in the game. This makes it easier to master certain Pawn structures, like IQPs or Pawn chains anchored on e5. In chess960 you have to work out unfamiliar patterns while the clock is ticking. Of course, once you reach the endgame, you are back on familiar territory. This gives an advantage to good endgame players, who are a rare breed.

    Some players report a light feeling of nausea when they start to play chess960 and are confronted with a new start position. I'm convinced this is because they actually have to think starting from the first move, and this unfamiliar feeling literally sets their thoughts spinning. It's like the panic you feel in traditional chess when your opponent makes a move you didn't expect.

    One day, traditional chess might even be considered the equivalent of training wheels for chess960. After you have mastered the basics of RNBQKBNR and are ready for a fight starting from the first move, you move to random start positions. - Mark [7th October 2010, 02:26am]

  • CapAnson: 'it also has different rules for castling.'

    The chess960 castling rules are based on traditional chess rules. It is exactly those rules (1) that make traditional chess a subset of chess960 and, (2) that drive the other 959 chess960 start positions toward middlegame positions that look like they arose from traditional chess. It is another example of Fischer's genius for all things concerning chess. - Mark [9th October 2010, 11:52pm]

  • onetwentysix: 'There are actually 480 positions in Chess960, because half of the positions are reflections of the other half.'

    You're right that 'half of the positions are reflections of the other half', but, as glider pointed out, they don't play the same because of the castling rules. Let's look at an example.

    In traditional chess (SP518 RNBQKBNR) there are variations that allow castling O-O in four moves, which is the minimum. One example is the Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defense: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.O-O. After castling, the castled pieces are on f1 and g1. This can lead to the Berlin Wall variation that helped Kramnik win the World Championship from Kasparov in 2000.

    Now let's take the reflection, which has the King and Queen switched (SP534 RNBKQBNR). The equivalent variation is 1.d4 d5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Bg5 Nc6 4.O-O-O. This time the castled pieces are on d1 and c1. It's not at all the same thing. Now the Berlin Wall doesn't work, because the d-Pawn is protected. The theory is completely new.

    Two positions that are reflections of each other I call 'twins'. I've also seen them called 'mirrors'. Whatever you call them, they are different positions that lead to different variations. - Mark [11th October 2010, 01:07am]

From: Please, can we make white have to think for once?

  • chessroboto: 'When you introduce randomness in the game of chess such as Chess960's piece placement, it changes the nature of the all-information game. Such games belong to a different category that include card games and board games that use dice or jumbled tiles.'

    So if I play a game of traditional chess, it's an 'all-information game'. If I then play a game of chess960 with start position RNBQKBNR (SP518), which uses *exactly* the same rules as traditional chess, it's not an 'all-information game'. It appears that you've confused information available before the game with information available during the game. - Mark [11th October 2010, 10:41pm]

  • chessroboto: 'Can you please name one or more all-information-type games where two or more people can play and the starting positions or conditions are randomized?'

    Random conditions? Before a casual game you don't know what color you will play. Haven't you ever hidden a White Pawn in one hand and a Black Pawn in the other and asked your opponent to choose? That selection is a random process. Before a tournament game, you don't know who your opponent will be until the pairings are announced. The pairings are determined by a third party and there are always random factors involved.

    There is more hidden information in a traditional chess game than there is in chess960. In traditional chess you often have no idea how much your opponent knows about the particular opening you are playing. He might have played it dozens of times and analyzed it into the endgame. In chess960 you know that both players are playing without preparation. - Mark [14th October 2010, 01:12am]

  • CapAnson: 'That is in fact the problem with chess 960... It's by and large a game only for 20 or 30 people in the world, for everyone else it's a novelty.'

    The idea is so new that it's a novelty for everyone, but I accept your point. I also wonder whether it's more interesting for experienced players than for beginning chess players. Time will tell.

    As for how experienced you need to be to appreciate it, I think most class A players (rating 1800+) know that opening preparation goes a long way to getting a good game. It would be interesting to conduct a poll asking 'When you study chess, what percent of your time do you spend on A) the opening, B) the middlegame, C) the endgame, D) Other [history, for example]', then correlate the responses according to rating. I wouldn't be surprised to find average club players and below (<1500) spending a lot of time on openings.

    What got me hooked on chess960 was being forced to think about the game starting with the first move. It's not at all the same as reeling off the first 10 moves of a Closed Lopez (or Poison Pawn Najdorf, or King's Indian Bayonet Attack, or ..., or ..., or ...) from force of habit, then relying on preparation for the next few moves, then really starting to think creatively somewhere around move 15. With chess960, the creative thinking starts when you see the initial position. You don't have to be a GM to enjoy that. Isn't the intellectual challenge one of the reasons we play chess? - Mark [14th October 2010, 01:44am]

To summarize these arguments against chess960: traditional chess uses the only logical start position; it has survived 500 years without change; Fischer didn't invent chess960; it's really a different game; the rules of castling are different; it should be called chess480; it introduces uncertainty; only top GMs will be interested in it. I'm sure there are more...

24 October 2010

More on Computer Assistance

While I'm on the subject of computer assistance in chess960 (see my previous post, Advanced Chess960 @ Chess.com) here are a few more points of view. In Fischer Announces Fischerandom, a portion of the press release announcing Fischer's version touched on computer analysis.
With many people wondering about the future of chess after the IBM computer Big Blue beat Garry Kasparov earlier this year, Fischer's statement that computers would be at a considerable disadvantage in Fischerandom Chess received a great deal of attention. He stated that without access to databases of the millions of opening variations in traditional chess, computers do not really play chess all that well.

As an aside, don't read too much into the sentence that 'IBM computer Big Blue beat Garry Kasparov earlier this year'. The press conference took place in June 1996, so the Kasparov - IBM match would have been the first, played in February 1996. Kasparov suffered his only loss in the first game, but won the match by winning the last two games. It wasn't until the following year that Deep Blue beat Kasparov in a match (see a page on my World Championship site, Kasparov vs. IBM's Deep Blue, for a few details about the two matches).

Fischer's thoughts on computers drew attention from the experts. In The birth of Fischer Random Chess by Eric van Reem, which first appeared in 2001, the well known chess journalist wrote,

Fischer stated, that without access to databases of the millions of opening variations in traditional chess, computers do not really play chess all that well. However, Matthias Wüllenweber, one of the founders of ChessBase, has a completely dífferent opinion on that subject. Last year, when "Fritz on Primergy" played two Shuffle Chess games against German number 1 Artur Jusupov [Yusupov], the software specialist said: "When playing F.R Chess unusual patterns come up on the board. Knowledge of these patterns, however, is one of the main weapons for humans in their battle against computers.

Wüllenweber refers to a test his partner Frederic Friedel did with Hungarian Grandmaster Andras Adorjan. Friedel showed Adorjan several positions for a period of ten seconds. The Hungarian could recall those "normal" postions far better than amateur players did. Humans remember so-called "chunks" e.g. they do not remember pawn on f2, g2 and h2, King on g1 and Rook on f1, they remember the chunk "Castling Kingside".

If you build up a position without those patterns, but try to put up a position that really doesn´t make sense, with pawns on the first and eigth rank for example, there is hardly any difference in memorization between amateurs and grandmasters. According to Wüllenweber this 'thinking in chunks' is the main difference between humans and computers and the difference in ELO is some hundreds of points. A computer can play with 3 knights or 5 rooks, no problem.

This last point is in accordance with a sentiment I reported in A Few Novel Ideas (with links to the ICCF.com forum for the context of the discussion).

"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."

So who is right, Fischer or his critics? Since Fischer's heyday occurred when computer chess was still in its infancy (the first World Championship for Computer Chess took place in 1974), it's easy to conclude that the experts who came later were far more knowledgeable. Fischer, however, surprised us many times in the past and he might well surprise us in the future, long after his death.

23 October 2010

Advanced Chess960 @ Chess.com

One of my five Questions of Chess960 Theory is 'How useful are computers in evaluating the different start positions?' A few months back I wrote about Chess960 Groups @ Chess.com, where one of the members took the question about computers to another level. In Advanced Chess960 - a Debate, glider1001 suggested,
The area of interest I have is in Advanced Chess960 (computer assisted). I want Chess.com to recognize this way of playing by allocating it a rating's category. If you want to read up on Advanced Chess, type it into Wiki. If you type in Advanced Chess960 however, you only get a couple of links. It is early days. [...]

Why would I want to have computer assisted Chess960 play accepted at Chess.com? That question is actually quite simply answered with an analogy. The computer is like a telescope that can help to peer deeper into the Chess960 galaxy than can be seen with the naked eye of our own intellect. Why not use a computer then?

Responses to the question, 'Why not use a computer?', came quickly.

Kacparov: 'Advanced chess is cheating here, if you want to play it you need to go somewhere else, sorry.' • Atos: 'It's not allowed to use assistance in rated games, even if both sides agree.'

Right question, wrong forum. Chess.com members have the same tolerance for accused computer cheaters that the Holy Office of the Inquisition had for those poor souls suspected to have strayed from Catholic orthodoxy. A recent case involving IM (and WGM) Yelena Dembo was discussed on The chess games of Yelena Dembo at Chessgames.com. In the online world, tongues will wag and you're guilty until proven innocent. Good luck with that.

Not one to give up easily, glider1001 set up his own group on Chess.com: Advanced Chess960 Community, complete with its own forum, Advanced Chess960 Community - Forums. While member numbers are low, and likely to remain so, there are already a screenful of interesting chess960 topics, penned by glider himself, on the forum. Many of these are more about chess960 opening theory than about computer assistance. I hope glider doesn't mind if I rely on some of his ideas, duly attributed, for future posts on this blog.

17 October 2010

Strategical vs. Tactical Openings

In The Seeds of Victory?, I analyzed the opening of a game between the co-winners of the SchemingMind 2009 Chess960 Dropout Tournament. In this next post I'll look at a win by the loser of that previous game.

I discussed the format of the SchemingMind dropout tournaments in Pyramids and Dropouts. The current game was played in the last round of the 2009 event, where all four surviving players were on the verge of elimination. A loss in either of the two last round games would be curtains for that player. In this current game a draw for White would also mean instant elimination, while Black needed a win here and a draw in the other game, or vice versa. The bottom line was that both players were in a situation to play for a win.

The following diagram shows the game with Black to play his fourth move. The start position (SP880 BBRQKRNN), still visible in the diagram, has a curious symmetry. The royalty, located on the same center squares as in traditional chess, is flanked by the Rooks on the c- and f-files. The Bishops are on adjacent files, meaning also adjacent diagonals, on the Queenside, while the Knights are on adjacent files on the Kingside. The g- and h-Pawns are unprotected and subject to immediate attack by the Bishops. Castling O-O-O, to keep the King out of range of the opponent's Bishops, looks better than O-O.

During the first few moves, both players have been preoccupied with the safety of the Kingside Pawns, at the same time following a policy of development coupled with attention to the center. White has just played 4.Nhg3. Black could have continued similarly with 4...Ng6, but instead went into complications with 4...h5, threatening the enemy Knight. Unlike the game in the 'Seeds of Victory' post, which opened with strategical maneuvering by both players, the current game veered into tactical calculations, based on mutual shots against the Knights.

After a few more moves the game reached the position shown in the second diagram, where White has just castled O-O-O. It's hard to say who stands better. The swap of a center Pawn for the h-Pawn probably favors Black, but this sort of positional reckoning takes a back seat when tactical complications abound. The attacks on the Knights continued with 11...f5 12.f4, and Black eventually prevailed. Here again is the complete game score, courtesy of SchemingMind.

[Event "2009 Chess960 Dropout Tournament"]
[Site "SchemingMind.com"]
[Date "2010.07.29"]
[Round "6"]
[White "thebirdolux"]
[Black "wilfried"]
[Result "0-1"]
[Variant "fischerandom"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "bbrqkrnn/pppppppp/8/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/BBRQKRNN w KQkq - 0 1"]

1.c4 Nf6 2.e4 c5 3.Ne2 e6 4.Nhg3 h5 5.b3 h4 6.e5 Ng4 7.Ne4 h3 8.Nf4 Nxe5 9.Nxh3 Qh4 10.Qe2 b6 11.O-O-O f5 12.f4 Qg4 13.Rfe1 Qxe2 14.Rxe2 Nc6 15.Bxg7 fxe4 16.Bxf8 Nd4 17.Re3 Kxf8 18.Bxe4 Bxe4 19.Rxe4 Ke7 20.Rh1 Nf7 21.g3 b5 22.d3 Rh8 23.Nf2 Bc7 24.Ree1 Ba5 25.Ref1 Nd6 26.cxb5 N6xb5 27.Ne4 d5 28.Ng5 Ne2+ 0-1

Once again, it's not immediately clear why White resigned in the final position. White has a Rook and two Pawns for a Bishop and a Knight, but Black's minor pieces are swarming around White's King. I imagine that a detailed analysis would show imminent material loss for White.

16 October 2010

The Seeds of Victory?

Earlier this year I reported on the SchemingMind 2008 Chess960 Dropout Tournament (see Tartakower and Chess960 and Strange Moves, Strange Game), and now I can report on the site's 2009 Chess960 Dropout Tournament (you have to be a member to see the crosstable behind that link, but membership is free). The co-winners were the same players who knocked me out of the event in the penultimate round, in games I covered in two posts: Castling Misjudged and Symmetry Misjudged. Those players met in round 3 of the event, contesting the position shown in the next diagram (SP783 QRKNRNBB).

SP783 presents a couple of awkward challenges. First, the Queens are in a corner facing a Bishop at the other end of the long diagonal. On top of that, castling O-O-O looks to be more likely than O-O, but the King on the a-side will be under pressure from the enemy Bishops sitting on adjacent diagonals. How did the game proceed?

The second diagram shows the position after ten moves have been played by each side. Using the techniques that I introduced in Count the Developing Moves and Move Order in the Opening, let's summarize the development thus far.

White has made four Pawn moves, Black six (the a-Pawn has moved twice). Both players have castled O-O-O as expected. Of his remaining five moves, White has made three with the Knights to take control of d5, and two with the Queen to transfer it to c2. Of his remaining three moves, Black has taken two to get the Knights off the back rank and one to move the King to b8.

Neither player has moved a Bishop, but all four are already playing an active role in the game; moving the f- and g-Pawns was sufficient to activate them. Except for castling, neither player has moved a Rook, but all four are developed on central files, waiting for lines to open.

All things considered, White's position makes a better impression. The Queen and Knights are more active, while the d2-d4 break is a bigger threat than Black's pushing the a-Pawn. Although White went on to win, it would take a more profound analysis to determine if the seeds of victory were already present in the diagrammed position. Here is the complete game score, courtesy of SchemingMind.

[Event "2009 Chess960 Dropout Tournament"]
[Site "SchemingMind.com"]
[Date "2009.07.02"]
[Round "3"]
[White "Tyler"]
[Black "wilfried"]
[Result "1-0"]
[Variant "fischerandom"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "qrknrnbb/pppppppp/8/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/QRKNRNBB w KQkq - 0 1"]

1.f4 g6 2.e4 Nc6 3.Nde3 O-O-O 4.O-O-O d6 5.g3 Kb8 6.c3 e5 7.Nd5 f6 8.Nfe3 Nd7 9.Qb1 a5 10.Qc2 a4 11. Kb1 Ne7 12.Nxe7 Rxe7 13.d4 Qa5 14.fxe5 fxe5 15.d5 Nb6 16.b4 axb3 17.axb3 c6 18.c4 Bg7 19.Re2 Kc7 20.Qa2 Qxa2+ 21.Rxa2 Nc8 22.Kc2 h5 23.b4 Red7 24. Bg2 Bh6 25.Bh3 Rh7 26.Ra8 h4 27.Bg4 hxg3 28.hxg3 Nb6 29.Rxd8 Kxd8 30.c5 1-0

I'm not sure why Black resigned, but he must have been looking at material loss and had too much respect for his opponent's endgame skill to continue.

10 October 2010

Fine's 'General Principles' of Opening Theory

In my previous post, Yusupov's 'General Principles of Opening Play', I repeated some chess guidelines given by GM Yusupov, who was a World Champion candidate two decades ago. A set of similar guidelines from a World Champion candidate of the more distant past can be found in 'Ideas Behind the Chess Opening' by Reuben Fine. His first chapter on 'General Principles' includes the following, which are important enough to be called Fundamental Principles. Fine said,
It is perhaps not generally realized that opening theory in chess proceeds on certain definite assumptions. They are simple enough and once learned will never be forgotten. They are:
  • In the initial position White, because of the extra move, has a slight advantage. Consequently:
  • White's problem in the opening is to secure the better position, while
  • Black's problem is to secure equality.

The elaboration of these questions in each individual case is what is meant by 'the theory of the openings'.

Although we don't know for sure, it is highly likely that those three 'definite assumptions' apply to the other 959 chess960 start positions. A few paragraphs later Fine continues,

There are two fundamental concepts in the opening : development and the center. Development is getting the pieces out. The center consists of the four squares in the geometrical center of the board. The basic principle is that it is essential in the opening to develop all the pieces harmoniously and in such a way as to secure the most favorable position possible in the center.

More elaborately, there are ten practical rules which are usually worth sticking to, though the expert player will be aware of the many exceptions. These rules are:
  • Open with either the e- or the d-Pawn.
  • Wherever possible, make a good developing move which threatens something.
  • Develop Knights before Bishops.
  • Pick the most suitable square for a piece and develop it there once and for all.
  • Make one or two Pawn moves in the opening, not more.
  • Do not bring your Queen out too early.
  • Castle as soon as possible, preferably on the King's side.
  • Play to get control of the center.
  • Always try to maintain at least one Pawn in the center.
  • Do not sacrifice without a clear and adequate reason.

[Followed by four reasons for a Pawn sacrifice]

Note the mention of harmonious development in the first paragraph of the quote. A frequent criticism of chess960 is that many of the start positions lack the harmony found in the traditional position (SP518 RNBQKBNR). While this is certainly true, it is also true that an unskilled player will often ruin the natural harmony of SP518 by developing the pieces unharmoniously, thereby turning gold into rubbish. In contrast, the skilled chess960 player is often faced with the challenge of turning rubbish (speaking figuratively; I've never met a chess960 start position I didn't like) into gold. Since both players are faced with the same start position, the skilled player will achieve harmony of the pieces faster than the unskilled opponent.

As for the 'ten practical rules', there is some overlap with Yusupov's principles plus many new ones. Again there are guidelines particular to the RNBQKBNR setup mixed with more general guidelines. Specifically, the cautions on the minor pieces and on the Queen sortie apply to SP518; the cautions on the center Pawns and on castling Kingside probably apply to many start positions, although not all; while the other cautions undoubtedly apply to all chess960 start positions.

I'm starting to assemble a good collection of opening principles and, in future posts, will look at what other GM-level writers have to say on the subject. Then I'll return to the distinction between general chess960 principles and those that apply to SP518.

09 October 2010

Yusupov's 'General Principles of Opening Play'

In Questions of Chess960 Theory, I asked,
Do the opening principles in traditional chess (SP518 RNBQKBNR) apply to the other 959 positions?

An answer to this question requires some agreement on what is meant by 'the opening principles in traditional chess'. In Dvoretsky & Yusupov's book 'Opening Preparation', the first chapter 'General Principles of Opening Play' was written by GM Yusupov, a world class player who has dabbled in chess960. He opens the chapter with a question -- 'Let us ask what constitutes the strategy of the opening struggle in chess' -- then hones in on the following points.

  • 'Fast development is the basis of opening play.'
  • 'Endeavour either to seize the center with Pawns or put pressure on it with pieces.'
  • 'A great deal may depend on whether you obtain a good Pawn structure or a bad one.'
  • 'From the very first moves, a struggle for the initiative is under way, and this perhaps is the very essence of opening play.'

These points are easily applied to all of the chess960 start positions. I would have liked to see a point about King safety, but maybe GMs assume this is obvious. Yusupov then adds a further point on 'opening structure'. The first time I read this I thought he was talking about Pawn structure, but I now think his meaning is broader.

  • 'Modern opening structures are firmly linked to a middlegame plan of action (and sometimes you have to take the eventual endgame structure into account).'

He then refines the foregoing points, all of them very general, with 'Some simple rules'. (That is Yusupov's term; I would prefer to call them 'guidelines', since the 'rules of chess' are usually used to specify how the pieces move, the definition of checkmate, and that sort of thing.) His rules are:-

  • 'Don't move the same piece twice (without serious justification).'
  • 'Don't waste time on prophylactic moves with the Rook's Pawns; developing the pieces faster is more important.'
  • 'Don't bring the Queen out too early; choosing the right place for it is a crucial task, since the nature of the subsequent struggle is in many ways dependent on where the Queen is placed.'
  • 'Don't be rushed into a premature, unprepared attack.'
  • 'Don't go in for Pawn hunting, especially in open positions where a lead in development makes an immense difference. Remember that a tempo in the opening is sometimes more important than a Pawn.'

Here the general application to chess960 becomes less obvious. The point about Rook Pawns (a- & h-Pawns) is specific to the SP518 setup, where the Bishops often attack (and pin) the enemy Knights. The early development of the Queen might also be more important to SP518 than to other start positions. There are some chess960 positions where an early sortie of the Queen is needed to prepare the smooth development of the minor pieces, which in turn prepares castling.

These differences raises another question: Can the 'rules' that are specific to SP518 be generalized to apply to all start positions? I'll come back to that after examining 'opening principles' formulated by other top players.

03 October 2010

Questions of Chess960 Theory

The different points that I emphasized in Questions of Theory can be summarized as following:-
  • How fair are the 960 start positions with regard to the chances for both White and Black?
  • Do the opening principles in traditional chess (SP518 RNBQKBNR) apply to the other 959 positions?
  • Are there guidelines for developing the pieces that start from unfamiliar squares (e.g. other than c1/f1 for the Bishops)?
  • How useful are computers in evaluating the different start positions?
  • In the absence of compilations of standard variations, what does 'theory' mean?

The first point will remain open until someone discovers an example which is not fair to both players; to date, there are no known examples. The second point requres a survey of opening principles in traditional chess. I'll start that in the next post.

02 October 2010

Questions of Theory

The 800-pound gorilla in chess960 is the question of opening theory: is there or isn't there? I've noticed that many newcomers to chess960 often start by assembling a database of games, gathering every game to be found on the web. Since they are not likely to play the same start position more than once or twice, what's the point? Another common approach is to try and limit the number of different start positions 'authorized' for competition. This is usually stated with an unproven conviction that it will somehow improve the understanding of chess960, thereby accelerating its acceptance.

Other than these flawed approaches, what factors can guide the player who is facing a brand new chess960 start position? Are there hidden principles of chess960 openings waiting to be discovered by some future genius, the Steinitz of chess960? We may never know, but I thought it would be a good idea to collect a few ideas that I've introduced in previous posts on this blog and to take them to the next level.

  • Chess960 Opening Theory • 'A key question for the acceptance of chess960 is knowing whether all chess960 positions are equally fair, and, if not, are they reasonably fair.'

  • Comments on Chess960 Opening Theory • 'Since the only difference between chess960 and traditional chess is the starting position of the pieces, it's natural that discussions on chess960 tend to focus on the opening phase of the game.'

  • Lasker's Table of Opening Values • 'Since chess960 is only an expansion of the start position used in traditional chess, can we consider how Lasker's values -- or any other system that tries to weigh opening variations objectively -- apply to the 959 other start positions?'

  • A Framework for Chess960 Opening Theory • 'Although there are 960 different start positions, there are many similarities across those positions. For example, any start position with a Bishop on the a-file has certain characteristics in common with all other positions having a Bishop on the a-file, and those positions have the same general characteristics as positions with a Bishop starting on the h-file.'

  • First Move Advantage in Chess960 • 'I haven't seen this problem of start positions where "some give White a huge advantage, some are too drawish". Are there any positions that are known to be problematic?'

  • Differences Between Chess and Chess960 [Opening Theory] • 'Chess: Under development since mid-19th century; Chess960: Almost none'

  • A Few Novel Ideas • '"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?"'

  • More Arguments Against Chess960 • '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.'

  • The Rampant Expansion of Theory • '"[Fischer] was panicking about how theory had developed during his twenty-year absence from chess. That was why he came up with his own version of chess, where the starting position would be determined by the drawing of lots"'

In future posts I'll combine those ideas with known general principles in opening a traditional chess game.