31 December 2011

Setting Chess on Course for the Next 100 Years

In my previous post, I pursued the frequent objection to chess960 that it will somehow be responsible for Setting Chess Back 100 Years. I quoted from IM John Watson's Book Review #82, where he tackled a chapter from 'Nunn's Chess Puzzle Book' by GM John Nunn. In that chapter, titled 'The Test of Time', the British GM presented (to quote myself) 'the results of a study where he compared the games of the great 1911 Karlsbad tournament with the 1993 Biel Interzonal'. Nunn wrote,
My general impression of the play at Karlsbad was quite poor, but the main flaws did not show up in the areas I expected. It is often said that the great growth of opening theory makes it hard to compare the chess of other ages with that of today, but I did not find this factor very important. It is true that there was no Sicilian Najdorf theory in 1911, but this is irrelevant as nobody played the Sicilian Najdorf. The range of openings played at Karlsbad was very narrow by today's standards. [...] The whole of ECO E was represented by just two games, nor was there a single game in the range B80-B99. The openings which were played had been developed theoretically, not to the same extent as today, of course, but enough so the players were not at a total loss.

He also concluded that the time control was not a factor. If not the openings and not the clock, what then? The words are Nunn's, the brackets are Watson's, the italics are mine:-

On the whole, the main deficiencies revealed at Karlsbad fell into three categories. The first was a tendency to make serious oversights. It is quite clear that the Karlsbad players were far more prone to severe errors than contemporary players. Even the leading players made fairly frequent blunders. Rubinstein, for example, who was then at virtually the peak of his career (1912 was his best year) failed to win with a clear extra rook against Tartakower. He also allowed a knight fork of king and rook in an ending against Kostic. [...] The second problem area was an inclination to adopt totally the wrong plan [examples follow]. The third main problem area was that of endgame play [horrendous examples of elementary blown endgames follow].

How exactly would chess960 return the royal game to the level of 1911? Taking Nunn's third point first, the endgame play in chess960 is exactly the same as in traditional chess. While there are some positional features that can occur in chess960 but never occur from the traditional setup -- a Bishop on a corner square blocked by an adjacent Pawn on the diagonal -- it is unlikely that they will endure into the endgame. Even if they do, they can be handled by the same general techniques that apply to all other endgames.

As for 'the wrong plan', Nunn's two examples are at move 20 and move 17, the point in a chess960 game where the position is looking very much like a game of traditional chess. In both examples, Nunn uses specific aspects of the position to determine a general course of play, a course contrary to the move selected in the actual game. This application of chess logic is no less valid in chess960 and any player capable of reasoning this way has a good chance of finding the right plan.

As for serious oversights, aka blunders, Nunn again gives two examples. The first leaves a piece en prise, while the second overlooks a two move tactical sequence. I can see modern masters making such mistakes in a blitz game, but not under standard time controls. Did the old timers calculate variations less effectively than modern players? So it would appear, but why?

So if it's not the opening, not the time control, not carelessness, not planning, and not endgame play, what is inherent to chess960 that puts chess back 100 years? The games from 1911 were played before the hypermoderns presented their case, before Nimzovich codified positional play, and before the Soviets adopted scientific methods of tackling a chess game. All of those evolutions apply just as equally to chess960 as to traditional chess. Chess960 doesn't invalidate them. It's not taking us into the past, it's taking us into the future.

24 December 2011

Setting Chess Back 100 Years

In my most recent post, Not Everyone Likes Chess960, my second of three examples included a quote from Yakov Damsky.
'One Step Forward, Two Steps Back' is the title of a book by that chess lover V.I. Ulyanov or Lenin, and that is wholly pertinent as a judgement on Fischer's idea.

Damsky didn't explain what he meant by that remark, and since he died in 2009, we're not likely to get an explanation. I understand it as saying that chess960 somehow sets chess back, a notion which I've already encountered in this blog.

First we had More Arguments Against Chess960, where I quoted Tim Krabbé saying, 'Any form of shuffle chess puts chess back 200 years'. This wasn't just the respected Dutch writer having a bad hair day. Some time earlier he is on record saying, 'chess would be put back 100 years'. The more he thinks about chess960, the more it puts chess back.

Later we had A Highbrow Dismissal of Chess960, where I quoted Mark Dvoretsky saying, '[Chess960] games almost never show us any aesthetic value. If we remember how hard it can be to discover the secrets of a position even in traditional chess, where we can refer to many generations' worth of experience, what I’m saying becomes logically obvious.'

I was reminded of all this when I encountered John Watson Book Review #82 : Historical and Biographical Works, Installment 3 on TWIC. In that 'review', really several reviews rolled into one article, the American IM tackled two books by GM John Nunn: 'Grandmaster Chess Move by Move' and 'Nunn's Chess Puzzle Book'. The review isn't dated, but the newest book reviewed was published in 2007, so it's from a few years ago. My interest on this blog is in the 'Puzzle Book', where Watson wrote,

I'd like to describe a fascinating and potentially controversial section that Nunn incorporated into this book, one that seems to have escaped notice in most book reviews: his historical comparison of older, pre-World War I players to modern ones. Nunn calls this section 'The Test of Time'.

In his review Watson quoted large portions of the book, enough to let us follow Nunn's complete train of thought. The British GM started,

One of the great perennial questions in chess is: how do the great masters of the past compare with the leading players of today? Like all really interesting questions, it is very hard to answer. It is even possible to disagree on the ground rules for the comparison: for example, should you take into account the development of chess theory over the intervening time, and not mark down the old masters for their naive handling of many opening systems?

He then went on to describe the results of a study where he compared the games of the great 1911 Karlsbad tournament with the 1993 Biel Interzonal. Since the Karlsbad tournament was played 100 years ago, you can guess where I'm going with this post...


Today is Christmas Eve, I'm running late, and there are more pressing matters than the evolution of chess theory. I'll leave you to read Watson's synopsis of Nunn's findings and will come back to the topic for my next post, scheduled for the day of New Year's Eve.

To all those who celebrate the holiday, have a Merry Christmas! And please be careful about drinking and driving.

17 December 2011

Not Everyone Likes Chess960

The title of this post is borrowed from a post I wrote two years ago on my main blog, Not Everyone Likes Chess, and reused recently to introduce a silly video in Life's Too Short for Chess. Saying 'Not Everyone Likes Chess960' is the chess960 understatement of the year. In recent weeks I collected a few more examples that I'll share here.

The first example is from the one player who can challenge Fischer for the title of best chess player of all time. A few weeks ago I summarized a recent video interview in Ask Kasparov. About 44 minutes into the video the 13th World Champion had this to say:-

As for Fischer Random or similar ideas, I'm very much in favor. Let's be very specific. Fischer Random in its purity is not such a great idea. It creates a mess at the chess board from the very beginning. Out of 960 positions, 95% are quite bad.

What I think could help, and I've been saying it for almost ten years, if certain positions selected by a committee of grandmasters or chess fans, I would say at least 20 positions are pretty good. They are playable and these positions could be picked up on a random basis for a whole year, or for a special tournament. They could be announced in advance, a week or two. If you want, you can play for a whole year. Even one year is not enough to come up with a comprehensive theory, but it adds a component that is very important.

Starting from scratch is wrong. It eliminates a very important element of chess beauty. When you are preparing, you are looking for strategies. You won't do much, but at least you will be able to start in unknown territory and start working out some kind of decent strategy for games to look real. Not to have Pawns blundered at move ten or five, which happens, because the geometry is totally alien to our eyes, with new weaknesses in the position. That's my take.

After hearing Kasparov say, 'As for Fischer Random or similar ideas, I'm very much in favor', you might take him at face value, but when he says, 'Out of 960 positions, 95% are quite bad', you know which side he's really on. I've explored his proposal before, so if you search this blog for 'Kasparov' using the search box on the right, you'll find those posts. There is nothing to stop any circle of players -- be they GMs or club players -- from restricting their chess960 activity to a handful of positions. This is, after all, what traditional chess does in restricting its focus to SP518 (RNBQKBNR). The rest of the world should not be obliged to follow their narrow choice.

The next example is from 'The Batsford Book of Chess Records' by Yakov Damsky (p.222). It's an interesting book, although somewhat sloppy, which is why I've let the typo stand.

Out of artistic indloence [sic], the genius Capablanca -- who had not even had a chess set in his home -- demanded in the late 1920s that the positions of Bishops and Knights should be swapped round in the starting position. This would nullify all the theoretical work on the openings, which for all its modest dimensions at that time, was not the forte of the third World Champion.

Across the span of the decades, he was echoed by another Chess King -- Fischer. Gone were the days when the young Robert James's opening preparation dumbfounded his opponents and plunged them into gloom. A quarter of a century of absence from chess had duly left its mark. Catching up with the 'theoretical train' which had pulled off into the distance became unrealistic, so the ex-World Champion sought a different way out: by starting the game with the pieces arranged at random.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back is the title of a book by that chess lover V.I. Ulyanov or Lenin, and that is wholly pertinent as a judgement on Fischer's idea. Whereas 'Fischer clocks' immediately caught on, 'Fischerandom chess' has yet to establish itself in tournament practice, and is hardly ever likely to -- even though semi-official Fischerandom World Championships have already commenced...

Although I've explored the idea of Switching Bishops and Knights and once looked at Capablanca and Chess960, I wasn't aware that the ideas were somehow related. Until now I was only familiar with Capablanca's idea of playing on an expanded board. The Damsky book deserves a closer look, which I might do on my main blog.

The last anti-chess960 example harks back to my recent post Chess Isn't Boring, where I pondered an anti-chess960 idea from Chessvibes.com; see that post for a link to the original. One of the comments said,

Fischer Random's flaw is that it's too wildly different, as you point out. As its name and creator remind us, it's random (incoherent, meaningless), and therefore disrupts in too violent and shocking a way the inner coherence and logic of chess that is its essence. A game perhaps appropriate only for Bobby Fischer himself, or someone of his inner chaos and insanity. If only we could stop idolizing far-and-away the single most insane and dangerous of chess genius, we may be more receptive to good ideas.

Many amateurs won't appreciate the idea because they won't think it's a major difference. They like Fischer Random for that reason. But the truth is a pawn on a3 or a6 is a monumental difference. Some of those who bemoan the dying of chess by opening theory, in my view, are plain dishonest with themselves. They laud themselves as ultra-creative as a defense mechanism to defend bruised egos. Their problem isn't really with opening theory, it's that they lack comprehension, may be a bit lazy (or frustrated with past attempts) and, yes, may lack creativity compared to better players. Wanting to "invent" from move one is not a sign of brilliance or creativity, people! Like some spoiled child who slaps paint on paper and wants to be praised a brilliant artist, they want to be appreciated as creative geniuses without doing any work or respecting the history of the game.

In what other field -- math?, science? -- do we praise people who want to invent everything anew, without absorbing the body of material collected by humanity first? Most theoretical chess opening lines leave us in early mid-game positions that are unclear, with many possibilities reflecting different styles and values. That's where the limitless creativity kicks in, and if you listen to any GM review his or her games you won't help but be filled with an appreciation for his/her creativity. Do some opening lines lead directly to equal endgames? Sure. The exception proves the rule.

There are so many curious statements in this flat-earth diatribe that I hardly know where to start. When I read the question 'in what other field -- math?, science? -- do we praise people who want to invent everything anew', I immediately thought of the science of astronomy. What would we know of the universe if astronomers everywhere pointed their telescopes at the same little piece of the sky? Then I thought of similar examples in other sciences. Suppose all botanists studied the same plant family or all mathematicians worked only on number theory. I thought HarryO countered the scientific angle rather well in a comment to When Vishy Met Bobby.

[Some people] are confusing the idea of a game with the idea of scientific inquiry. The only difference between traditional chess and 960 is that traditional chess has a huge opening database of accumulated "facts" that support the theories on best practice. But since when has chess been about scientific inquiry? That is just one aspect of it. Chess is a game, that is all! It is good to have theories that are tested over the board on the spur of the moment but that have no substantive fact to back them up. It's just a game!

Shall We Play Amar's Opening? The author of the Chessvibes comment answers with an enthusiastic 'Yes!'. On the one hand we have the idea of forcing White to open with a dubious move; on the other hand we have Fischer's brilliant conception. Amar or Fischer? Fischer or Amar?

The one thing all of these commentators have in common is that it's obvious that none of them has ever tried chess960. But why should they? If they are happy with the current state of chess, that's great. At least they're playing chess. Just show me the same courtesy and don't start calling me a 'spoiled child who slaps paint on paper'. I don't need anyone's permission, Kasparov included, to enjoy the entire gamut of chess960 positions.

10 December 2011

'Can I use this name "Fischer Chess"?'

Toward the end of When Vishy Met Bobby, there's a link to a Macauley video where various well-known chess personalities talk about Fischer just after he died in 2008. One of the speakers is Hans-Walter Schmitt, aka Mr. Chess Classic Mainz. At 7:50 into the clip he says,
My children [said about] this Fischer chess, or chess960, 'This is the modern chess.' Modern chess is the right name for them.

There's a nice story about the name when we go for looking for a name. In 2002 we [ask] 500 people around the world, 'What is the right name to [use]?' More than half of these people ask, or vote, for 'chess960'. Then there is some [contact] with Fischer and he says this is not correct what we do. 'The right name is Fischer chess'.

'So can I use this name Fischer chess?'

'No, this is my idea and I [might] want to license it some day.'

Although I've edited the dialog a little, I haven't changed the meaning. When Fischer talked, people listened.

03 December 2011

When Vishy Met Bobby

An article yesterday on Guardian.co.uk has been getting mentions on chess blogs everywhere -- not too surprising in that it features the current World Champion talking about one of his greatest predecessors: Vishy Anand: I found Bobby Fischer surprisingly normal and calm. Here's the portion that relates to this chess960 blog.
Q: The BBC are currently showing the documentary Bobby Fischer, Genius and Madman. You met Fischer in 2006, a couple of years before he died. What was he like?

A: I found him surprisingly normal. Well, at least not very tense. He seemed to be relieved to be in the company of chess players. He was calm in that sense. He was also a bit worried about people following him, so the paranoia never really went away. But I am really happy I got the chance to meet him before he died in 2008. It was weird as well because I kept having to remind myself that this was Bobby Fischer sitting in front of me!

Q: Were you tempted to whip out a pocket chessboard and challenge him to a quick blitz game?

A: No, because he whipped out his pocket chess set first and we started to analyse some recent games I'd played.

Q: Really?

A: Yes, I showed him some of my games from Wijk aan Zee and tried to share some interesting developments. He was sort of able to follow everything – he hadn't lost his sharpness for chess – but his methods were a bit dated. In that sense he had fallen behind.

Q: How do you mean?

A: Well, he had some suggestions, and he was sort of in the ball park … but when I would tell him that the computer says white is winning here, for me that was a sign to move on – but for him it was a starting point to argue with me! [Laughs]. I found it difficult to say to him 'No, no, no – these computers are really strong. You shouldn't be arguing with them!"'

Is it a coincidence that, as I recounted in 'Hardly Ever Played Chess960 Before', Anand first played chess960 the following year? Whatever the reason, another account of the same meeting appeared in October 2008 on Chessbase.com -- Vishy Anand: 'Chess is like acting' -- which featured an interview with Anand from Der Spiegel:-

Q: The American Bobby Fischer, who died at the beginning of the year, was chess crazy, paranoid, misanthropic. You met this chess genius two and a half years ago in Iceland, where he was living in exile. How did that happen?

A: I played in a tournament in Reykjavik and the Icelandic grandmaster Helgi Olafsson asked me if I would be interested in meeting Bobby Fischer. Olafsson picked him up from his flat, while I waited in the car. Fischer probably wanted to avoid my knowing which apartment was his.

Q: What did you talk to him about?

A: Fischer told me how he sometimes rode around Reykjavik with the bus, in order to see the city. He complained that he could not get Indian balm [Amrutanjan] in Iceland. Suddenly he wanted to go to McDonalds. So there he was, this legend of the chess world, asking me if I took ketchup.

Q: Did you talk about chess?

A: Of course. We were standing in a park and Bobby pulled out an old pocket chess set and we analysed a couple of games between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi in 1974. He wanted to prove that all world championship games after his victory were prearranged. He did not convince me.

Q: Why did Fischer specifically want to meet you?

A: Perhaps he felt an affinity. We are both from countries in which chess was not popular until we came along. I am not Russian and Fischer felt persecuted by the Soviets in the past. And there is evidence to suggest that Soviet grandmasters actually ganged up against him.

Q: Fischer proposed a new variation of the game, which is called Fischer Random Chess. He wanted the pieces in the starting position to me shuffled before every game. Would that not be a more creative form of chess?

A: I do not think much of a random placement of the pieces. That is perhaps something for people who were previously active and now have very little time. They don't want to study openings theory. But the opening systems are part of chess.

Looks like we won't be seeing Anand anytime soon in another chess960 tournament. In fact, that assessment complements an item posted by Thechessdrum.net just after Fischer's death in January 2008: Fischer wanted to play Kasparov, Anand.

A story from the Iceland’s Morgunbladid has stated that Bobby Fischer desired one last match with Garry Kasparov and/or Viswanathan Anand. [...] In interviews he stated that he would only play Fischer Random, but there was keen interest in a match with a top player. [...] Anand had been asked about a match with Fischer and expressed keen interest in the possibility.

It's not clear from that account whether Anand's 'keen interest' for a match applied to chess960, or was reserved for traditional chess, where he would have trounced Fischer. The Chess Drum's post leads to another account of the Anand - Fischer meeting, this time preserved on video -- Fischer Remembered | Macauley on blip.tv -- where Anand speaks about the Reykjavik meeting at both 5:50 and 7:40 into the clip.

[NB: I could be wrong, because I haven't seen either documentary, but the Guardian's reference to Bobby Fischer, Genius and Madman seems to be the same film as the Liz Garbus effort titled Bobby Fischer Against the World. To be confirmed...]

26 November 2011

The Impact of Chess960 on Chess Publishing

A couple of years ago I jotted down some thoughts about the potential negative impact of chess960 on the publishing industry -- Some Numbers on Chess Book Publishing and Whistling Past the Graveyard? -- followed by a couple of potential solutions: Kasparov's Chess960 Proposal and Winter's (Chess960?) Proposal. Neither of these solutions is completely satisfactory. Kasparov's violates the spirit of chess960, while Winter's, a reaction to the emphasis on opening books, assumes a greater interest in chess history than the facts suggest.

After two more years experience of playing chess960, I have a little more insight into the subject. First, I've found that I have a far greater interest in endgames than I did previously. While I've always known that endgames were important, the time involved studying -- dare I say memorizing? -- opening theory doesn't leave much time for endgames. Since chess960 eliminates the need for the study of specific openings, that time is available for endgames. I know that many players consider endgames to be dry and somewhat tedious, but that might be because they've never applied themselves to the subject. An analogy would be the attitude that non-players of chess have to the game itself. It takes more than superficial knowledge to appreciate the subtleties of the game (or its endgame).

I've been exploring endgames more and more on my main blog (see Posts with label Endgames and Posts with label Endgame TB, where TB = TableBase) and am convinced this isn't a coincidence. I have more time to spend on endgames and the time I spend on them increases my appreciation substantially.

Another area of chess publishing where chess960 is bound to have an impact involves middlegames. It is certain that, because it introduces so many types of middlegame positions that can't arise from the traditional start position, chess960 lifts middlegame theory to new heights. I don't own any reference resources specific to the middlegame, so I did a quick survey of the web to find out what's available.

I started by looking for encyclopedia-like resources and found two. The older of the two is 'Encyclopedia of Chess Middlegames: Combinations', published by Chess Informant in 1980. The qualifying word 'Combinations' tells us that it's about tactics. A Wikipedia article on Chess tactics gives an idea of the book's content:

The Encyclopedia of Chess Middlegames gives the following tactical categories: Double Attack, Pawns Breakthrough, Blockade, Decoying, Discovered Attack, Passed Pawn, X-ray Attack, Interception, Deflection, Pin, Demolition of Pawns, Overloading, Annihilation of Defense, Pursuit (perpetual attack), Intermediate Move, and Space

without identifying it definitively as the volume published by Informant. Other references to the book confirm that it is indeed organized by tactical motif. That organization is, of course, equally valid for chess960.

The more recent reference is 'Encyclopedia of Middlegame', a software series produced by Convekta starting around the year 2002. As is typical of Convekta, the product is sold both alone and bundled into other products, which complicates any casual attempt to understand exactly what is offered. I found descriptions of the individual components of the series on Wholesalechess.com: Encyclopedia of Middlegame I, II, III, IV, and V. Their description of 'Encyclopedia of Middlegame I' says,

[A] program for studying the middlegame plans behind various openings and the playing techniques. A theoretical section includes over 600 games/lectures, each of them illustrating the popular openings' typical plans and methods. There is also a special training section with more than 1000 exercises for a user to solve as well as 400 training positions to be played against the built-in chess playing program Crafty. The course is composed by GM Kalinin.

The descriptions of the other components are similar and all reference specific openings. This leads me to understand that the series is based on the study of specific openings, an approach which is not feasible for chess960. It's not clear how any systematic study of the chess960 middlegame could be based on positional themes rather than tactical motifs, but that might be because we just don't have enough experience.

Finally, although chess960 diminishes the need for encyclopedias of chess openings, there is still a need to catalog common chess960 opening ideas somehow. I'm not aware of any breakthroughs in this area, which might well be because the subject is so new and hasn't attracted sufficient attention. As with so many other aspects of chess960, time will tell.

19 November 2011

A Few More Chess960 Resources

Although my two most recent posts -- Chess Isn't Boring and Shall We Play Amar's Opening? -- were mostly critical of Chessvibes' suggestion about Non-random Fischer Random, there was one mention of chess960 history that I was pleased to see.
I recently went to watch the Dutch Fischer Random Championship in my hometown, Amsterdam. I was just in time to witness what everybody felt was the ‘dream final’ - the decisive game between Dutch GM Dennis de Vreugt and Yasser Seirawan, who in regular chess beat many a World Champion in his best days, including Karpov and Kasparov.

This reminded me of one of the video clips in the recent St.Louis event (see Chess960 Kings and Queens for links) where someone mentioned that GM Seirawan was a former chess960 champion of the Netherlands. Now I had enough information to conduct a search with some hope of success. Living in bilingual Belgium, I understand some Dutch, which helped in the search.

After a few minutes I found Het Martin Walop toernooi om het open NK Fischer Random Chess 2011 which Google dates to June 2011. Unfortunately, the links near the bottom only lead to results, not to games. The home page of that site, Fischerz.nl, has a section 'Random Chess' in the sidebar with info on previous events stretching back to 2004, where Seirawan was the winner with a perfect +7-0=0, 1.5 points ahead of the runnerup.

The details from those events lead to the discovery of other pages, like Reinderman wint open NK Fischer Random (Google: May 2010), with a report on the 2010 event, including a few annotated moves and a couple of working videos at the bottom of the page. DGT, the Dutch supplier of chess clocks, including a chess960 model that I mentioned once in DGT960 Chess Clock, sponsored the event in recent years.


A recent post on Susan Polgar's blog, Chess 960, Breathing new life into the game!, pointed to a chess960 resource that looks like a recent convert: Chess 960, Breathing new life into the game! (OnlineChessLessons.net). The site, operated by NM Will Stewart (see his Chess Biography) has a heavy emphasis on bughouse, so maybe we'll see more on Fischer Random Bughouse.

Susan Polgar's post reminded me that she once played an early version of Fischer's invention with the 11th World Champion himself, a topic I explored in Pictures of a Fischer Random Precursor. It would be useful to explore her previous posts on chess960 (sometimes called 'Fischer Random' on her blog), but that will have to wait for another day.

12 November 2011

Shall We Play Amar's Opening?

In my previous post, Chess Isn't Boring, I pointed out that the rationale behind chess960 was not 'to avoid any kind of heavily analyzed opening theory', but rather to avoid the increasing role of memorization in playing a chess game. The scenario -- which becomes obvious in a match at the highest level, such as a World Championship match -- is of two players working alone (or in teams, it makes no difference) to study reams of computer analysis, memorizing the highlights of that analysis, and eventually meeting the opponent over the board to test the quality of the memorized variations.

If the crisis facing chess was mainly a question of heavily analyzed opening theory, then chess960 would only be interesting to elite players at the highest level, because it is exactly those players who have mastered the intricacies of modern opening theory. As it is, chess960 is also interesting to average players at the club level, players who just want to play a game of chess without falling into some trappy variation which the opponent happens to have analyzed extensively in home preparation.

Having said that, let's suppose that there are players at all levels who are indeed attracted to chess960 because they want to avoid all opening theory -- 'boring theoretical chess duels' and 'boring computer preparation' as Arne Moll put it in Non-random Fischer Random. His alternative is to force the start of a game down lesser known pathways.

But let's for a moment assume that it's impossible to force the King's Gambit (or the St. George, or any other opening that's not considered to be 'main stream') down professional players' throat: what if we simply adjusted the starting position a little to help the pros make up their minds? Suppose from now on everybody would need to start their game with the following position:

Here he gave a diagram of the traditional start position (RNBQKBNR) with a Black Pawn on a6 instead of a7.

All openings would have to be studied anew, because the slight modification will create all sorts of subtle and not so subtle differences. The game would still resemble chess sufficiently not to lose the interest of the general public, but the nuances would be different enough for the insiders to immediately appreciate the complete make-over of "boring" chess opening theory.

Perhaps some will argue that this new beginning position is actually to Black's advantage, even though it's still White to move. Well, that might turn out to be true, but how "fair" is the current starting position? Isn't that considered to be better for White? Even so, to make it a bit fairer maybe we shouldn't put a black pawn on a6 (which might also makes queenside castling slightly less attractive), but a Black Knight?

Heck, we could even have this position and let White choose whether he wants to play with White or Black. It still would be a much more modest change and thus be much more likely to be accepted by both professionals and laymen. Doesn't this modest change of the initial position makes the "real" Fischer Random chess look absurdly radical?

As someone pointed out in a comment to the essay, Moll's idea is equivalent to forcing White to play 1.a3. His alternative, to start with the Black Knight on a6 instead of b8, is equivalent to forcing White to play 1.Na3. A few years ago I wrote an introductory tutorial on Chess Openings - Unusual First Moves, subtitled 'the good, the bad, and the really ugly'. I concluded that 1.a3 was (at best) 'bad', while 1.Na3 was (indisputably) 'ugly'. In his 1858 match against Paul Morphy, Adolf Anderssen played 1.a3 in three games, scoring +1-1=1. Was the wily German romantic avoiding Morphy's opening preparation or did he really believe that the 'new beginning position is actually to [White's] advantage', as Moll worries?

Whatever Anderssen's reason, it's hard to imagine that excluding all variations other than 1.a3 confers any kind of advantage over multiplying the possibilities by 959, as in Fischer's creation. Furthermore, the idea of limiting a chess game to 1.a3 or 1.Na3 doesn't address the scenario where players simply memorize computer moves. It just starts the memorization much earlier than move 15. The same drawback applies to arguments that chess960 would be more attractive if, for the foreseeable future, we were to limit the number of authorized start positions.

In another comment to Moll's essay, someone else pointed out that IM Mark Dvoretsky had already proposed something similar to the 1.a3 idea. I mentioned this almost a year ago in a post, Dvoretsky on Chess960, and noted,

The sixth section, 'An Alternative Suggestion' is an attempt to decouple chess from the burden of opening preparation while keeping the familiar RNBQKBNR setup. I don't know if anyone has tried the idea in competition, but I'll leave the investigation to others who are more interested than I am.

I concentrated instead on Dvoretsky's objections to chess960 itself, which I summarized in A Highbrow Dismissal of Chess960. I'll also leave the investigation of 1.a3 to others who are more interested than I am. In that 'Unusual First Moves' tutorial, I mentioned that 1.Na3 is known as Amar's Opening. Shall we play chess960 or shall we play Amar's opening? The choice is clear for me.

05 November 2011

Chess Isn't Boring

Am I keeping my promises or what? In my previous post, A Chess960 Almanac, I followed-up a topic introduced in Chess960 Encounters, Past & Future, and now I'm going to follow-up a second topic. The lucky winner this time is Non-random Fischer Random, an essay by Arne Moll that appeared on Chessvibes.com last month. Moll is one of my favorite chess writers and I've enjoyed reading many of his previous essays. He usually knows what he's talking about, but he missed the mark on that Fischer Random piece. I'll start with a few excerpts from the essay.
Watching the 7th game [1.Nf3 b5 2.e4 a6] of the Kasparov - Short blitz match last week made me realize once again how radical Fischer’s proposal to shuffle all the pieces on the first rank was and still is. If you want to avoid boring theoretical chess duels, all you have to do is force the players to play an unexplored variation or opening – problem solved.

The italics are mine. Here's another excerpt.

Short also beat Kasparov with the now-rare King’s Gambit -- and with a rare line within the King’s Gambit at that -- providing another argument for those people (and I think I consider myself to be among them) who claim that all it takes to solve boring computer preparation is some creativity in the opening. Is that too much to ask of professional chess players?

At this point Moll introduced the main idea of his essay, playing the traditional start position with a Black Pawn on a6 instead of a7. Why do this?

All openings would have to be studied anew, because the slight modification will create all sorts of subtle and not so subtle differences. The game would still resemble chess sufficiently not to lose the interest of the general public, but the nuances would be different enough for the insiders to immediately appreciate the complete make-over of "boring" chess opening theory.

And here's an excerpt from one of Moll's comments.

I love our game as it is and I think there's plenty of room to avoid boring theoretical duels without doing anything to the starting position! But some think more radical measures are needed, such as Fischer Random. This article is mainly written for them: my position is that you don't need Fischer Random to avoid existing opening theory: if you want to get rid of current opening theory, then all it takes is making minimal changes to the starting position.

Here's another excerpt from a comment, this time without the keyword 'boring'.

Isn't the main goal of this form of chess to avoid any kind of heavily analyzed opening theory?

No, that's not the 'main goal of this form of chess'. It's a side effect. Fischer addressed the real issue in a quote I used in another post, Fischer: 'The *Old* Chess Is Dead':

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.

And because Fischer's 'pre-arranged' accusation has been so misunderstood, here's another quote from him that I used in Fischer Compares Chess960 to Puffed Wheat:

'Because I know what chess is all about. It's all about memorization, about pre-arrangement.' • 'But creativity?' • 'Creativity is lower down on the list', shaking his head. • 'But you became World Champion on creativity.' • 'First of all, it was a long time ago when I played with Spassky the first match. And even the second match is already some time ago, thirteen years ago. And chess just in the last few years has changed dramatically with all this computer stuff. But really, if you analyze chess objectively, very objectively, it's been a lousy game going back even to the time of Morphy. There was a lot of book.'

Fischer never said that traditional chess was 'boring'. He said it was 'dead'; he said it was 'about memorization, about pre-arrangement'; he said it was a 'lousy game'. He never said it was boring. This entire train of thought reminds me of another of my recent posts -- Capablanca and Chess960 -- where I encountered a different 'straw man' argument.

While we're on the subject, there is indeed a boring aspect to chess. Short draws are boring. Remember the 1984-85 Karpov - Kasparov match, or the 1995 Kasparov - Anand match? Short draws, especially one after another, are *really* boring, but chess960 won't eliminate them. If you want to prevent two players from agreeing to draw after playing only a few moves, other mechanisms are needed and those mechanisms apply to chess960 as much as they do to traditional chess.

Back to Moll's solution to his 'straw man' argument against chess960, the use of a slight alteration to the traditional start position, I'll discuss that in another post (a follow-up to this follow-up). It's the second time the idea has appeared from a knowledgeable source as an alternative to chess960, so it deserves some consideration.

29 October 2011

A Chess960 Almanac

In my latest post, Chess960 Encounters, Past & Future, I gave myself a number of actions to followup. Contrary to my usual treatment of followups, I'm now actually going to follow one of them up. The lucky winner is the 'Chess960 Almanac', mentioned in Chess960 II, a Wordpress blog. Zenquaker, the author of the post, wrote, 'I could probably count the number of people in the world interested in this on both hands even if you chopped off all my fingers.' Ouch! At least that makes two of us who are interested.

The downloadable almanac is an XLSX spreadsheet with three sheets. The first sheet ('Data') is a list of the 960 start positions with a number of technical characteristics calculated for each position. The second sheet ('Fields') is an explanation of each of the characteristics in the first sheet. The third sheet ('Swaps') is specific to one of the fields in the first sheet.

For example, the 'Data' sheet has five columns ('Fields') showing the equivalence of five different numbering systems for each start position. These include 'Scharnagl's scheme', which has already been widely adopted as a standard (this blog included); 'Milener's scheme', proposed by the author of one of the early books on chess960; and the 'number of the position in alphabetical order', where 'BBNNQRKR' is no.1, 'BBNNRKQR' is no.2, etc.

Another set of fields tracks the relationships between pairs of identical pieces. For example, 'files of the two Knights' and 'files of the two Bishops' are 'bg' and 'cf' for the traditional start position RNBQKBNR. This reminded me of a post Naming Things, where I linked to a couple of Chess960 Jungle blog posts that assigned names to the various start configurations of the minor pieces. Some people also believe that a field 'flag for Knights on different color squares' has special importance. Time will tell.

An idea that I haven't encountered elsewhere is 'the number of two piece swaps required to get the postion' and 'the swaps required to get the position, each swap represented by a number or character'. That character is documented in the third sheet ('Swaps') mentioned above. I don't see how these swaps were derived, but given the accuracy of the rest of the data, I have no reason to doubt them.

I've also done a little work in analyzing the characteristics of each start position, which I derive from a personal database last seen a year ago in Castling Patterns Visualized and When Castling Undevelops a Rook. I dragged my database out of storage and compared it to the almanac.

My first check was the data I derived for posts Undefended Pawns in Chess960 Start Positions, Naturally Weak Pawns, and Four Weak Pawns. Almost everyone agrees that -- even if their importance is only fleeting -- weak Pawns deserve special attention at the beginning of a chess960 game. Moreover, if anyone ever finds a start position that favors White heavily (to date no such position is known), it will probably be due to a naturally weak Pawn. Fortunately, my own calculations and the relevant fields in the almanac matched perfectly.

After that, I checked the data I used for posts on Randomness in Chess960 Start Positions and More on the Concept of Distance. The almanac has a pair of fields 'offset = number of pieces not in their starting position' and 'displacement = a list of how far each piece is displaced from it's starting position', which touch on this subject. The 'offset' was a new idea for me, while 'displacement' was an intermediate result I had also derived to calculate the 'Concept of Distance'. The term 'distance' is a measure of how far removed the pieces are from their normal start positions in traditional chess.

Here's a table showing the number of positions that have a certain 'offset' and a certain 'distance'. By definition, offset=0 and distance=0 apply only to the traditional start position.

Besides the traditional position, there are a few other unique positions flagged in this table. For example, offset=8 and distance=4 indicate a position where none of the pieces are on their traditional start squares, although they are not very far. It turns out that this position is SP329 NRQBBKRN. Note that this is the traditional position RNBQKBNR where, moving left to right, each pair of pieces has been swapped with its neighbor : the Queenside Rook has been swapped with the Queenside Knight, the Queenside Bishop has been swapped with the Queen, and so on.

How does this study of start positions improve your chess960 play? Quite frankly, I'm not sure that it does. It does, however, make you more aware of subtle differences across the 960 positions, all of which tend to look very similar to the unpracticed eye. It might indeed be the first step in some uber-theory of chess960 openings.

22 October 2011

Chess960 Encounters, Past & Future

My most recent post, Capablanca and Chess960, pulled in more comments than I usually get on a chess960 post. Two comments that really got me thinking were both on the subject of chess variants and evolution. HarryO pointed to an old thread on Chess.com, Could we please stop calling Chess960 a variant?, to which I'm drawing attention here because it was the same discussion I had in mind when I wrote the Capablanca post.

For me, the classification of chess960 as more than a variant is not a simple difference of opinion on semantics. It's critical to the eventual adoption of Fischer's creation. Many chess players dismiss chess960 as 'just another chess variant', like Capablanca chess or Seirawan chess, because they don't realize how close chess960 is to traditional chess. One of these days I'd like to construct a quiz featuring middlegame positions taken from real games of both chess and chess960. The object of the quiz will be to decide which positions are which. I mention the middlegame because the opening is too easy to distinguish and the endgame is almost always impossible. It should be fairly easy to find dozens of middlegame positions where the obvious answer is the wrong answer.

Another comment on the Capablanca post was from GeneM, the author of one of the few chess960 books ever published. At the same time he left a few other comments on other posts, one of which was Pawn Power in Chess960, where he mentioned 'Reuben Fine's famous list of nine opening principles'. I'm only familar with the 'ten practical rules' that I listed in Fine's 'General Principles' of Opening Theory, and wonder if we are talking about the same thing. GeneM left even more comments on the Chess960 Jungle blog, which HarryO pulled together into a new post, Play Stronger Chess By Examining Chess960.


An email from a regular reader of this Chess960 (FRC) blog alerted me to a 'Chess960 Almanac' (see Chess960 II) on the Zen Quaker blog, a resource that was new to me. One of the concepts in the Almanac is 'Displacement', defined as 'how far each piece is displaced from it's starting position'. This reminded me of some investigation I once did on a concept I called 'Distance', and which I documented in a pair of posts Randomness in Chess960 Start Positions and More on the Concept of Distance. In a future post I'll combine zenquaker's tables with my own unpublished data to see if we are indeed talking about the same thing.

The first of zenquaker's chess960 posts, appropriately titled Chess960 I, looked at the choice of start positions in the recent St.Louis event. I also covered this topic in The Chess960 Wheel of Fortune. It appears that the St.Louis organizers used a faulty procedure for determining the start positions in their tournament.


Another recent chess960 article, Non-random Fischer Random, appeared on that staunch supporter of traditional chess, Chessvibes.com, a site sponsored by New in Chess (see Review: NIC Yearbook 100 for a discussion of the relationship). That 'non-random' post raises so many discussion points that it deserves special treatment. I'll return to its points in a future post.


Also worth noting is a page Chess Quotes (aka Rotten Tomatoes) mentioned in an earlier post of mine, Stats and More Stats. The page has evolved since I first mentioned it and I should include it in a series I last discussed on my main blog in World Championship Opening Preparation in 2010.


Finally, I updated the list of 'Correspondence (Turnbased) Chess960' sites in the sidebar to add E-chess960.com. I haven't spent much time on the site and it deserves a closer look.

15 October 2011

Capablanca and Chess960

A frequent argument against chess960 is that Fischer, when he proposed it, was just repeating Capablanca's lament from the 1920s about the death of chess. That line of thought inevitably leads to two conclusions:-
  • Chess didn't die in Capablanca's time, so it can't be in trouble now.

  • To avoid the imminent death of chess Capablanca proposed a chess variant which never caught on, so Fischer's creation is doomed to the same fate.
In other words, Capablanca was wrong, so Fischer must be wrong. I was reminded of this dubious logic in a recent post on the USCF's forum -- Nakamura on Modernizing Chess -- and used the opportunity to make two points:-
  • Capablanca and Fischer were addressing two different illnesses that have beset chess.

  • Unlike Capablanca's solution, Fischer's creation is not a chess variant, it's an evolution.

On the first point, Gligoric said it succinctly in a quote I used a year ago in The Rampant Expansion of Theory.

Capablanca feared the spectre of the "draw death" of chess, while Fischer feared the rampant expansion of theory.

On the second point, Fischer talked about the differences in a conversation that was captured on video. I transcribed this in 'Me and Bobby Fischer' and Chess960.

I was just looking at a book Saemi [Palsson] gave me, a book about Capablanca. Capablanca had a very interesting game that he proposed, it was 10 by 10 or something. [...] It might be a very creative game and maybe much better than Fischer Random, but it looked very intimidating. [...] You can learn Fischer Random in five, ten seconds practically, so there is no impediment. [...] People think I'm anti-chess. No, I'm not anti-chess, I'm pro-chess. I'm trying to keep it alive. I'm not coming up with anything radical at all.

There's a lot more to be said on this topic -- What exactly was Capablanca's lament? What is the relationship between opening memorization and draws? Will there come a day when chess (or chess960) is 'played out' or 'exhausted'? -- but I'll leave that for another time. I suspect that Capablanca, an intuitive player who was blessed with a marvellous positional sense, would have been an excellent chess960 player. Fischer, too.

08 October 2011

'A Tempo and a Half in a Symmetrical Position'

Returning once more to the St.Louis event Chess960 Kings and Queens, I covered the first round in my post titled 'Fianchetto the Light Squared Bishop'. Thanks to the power of social networking on the web, I was able to ask Eric van Reem, who was invited to St.Louis because of his long experience with the Chess Tigers of Mainz, whether he could recommend a game or two from the event. He replied
I liked Finegold - Kosteniuk a lot. As far as I remember, Finegold was very happy with the game.

That game was played in round two, so I reviewed the commentary preserved in video for that round. The start position SP713 RKQBBNNR, shown in the first diagram below, sparked some immediate commentary.

YS (GM Yasser Seirawan): I always find it difficult when either of the Bishops are on e1 or d1. In this particular position, both Bishops are on the center squares. In order to control the center, you're going to have to bring those Bishops out.

JS (WGM Jennifer Shahade): What is it you don't like about the Bishops on d1 and e1? • YS: Let's take the Bishop on e1 for instance. In this particular position Martha [Fierro] opened 1.e4. How is she going to develop the Bishop on e1? How is she going to develop the Bishop on f3? It would be great if White could play both e4 and d4, followed by Bf3 and Bc3 together. But after the logical response 1...e5, it's hard to get in d4, Bc3, and Bf3. The move 1.e4 opened up the Bishop on d1 to be developed, but after Nf3, a very natural move, the Bishop on d1 still hasn't been solved. Also, once you've played Nf3, the Bishop on e1 has another problem: how is it going to solve its development? [...] It's almost tortoise-like to get your Bishops off d1 and e1. Black, of course, has the same difficulties.

The Finegold - Kosteniuk game, won by White in 25 moves, started 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Ng6 3.d4. When it was over, GM Ben Finegold chatted with the commentators about his impressions during the game.

BF: Normally, I don't play the Scotch, but I thought it was funny in chess960 to do that. • JS: It's also funny how people keep referring to the openings by their chess names.

3...exd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Ng3 d5

BF: The move ...d5 surprised me. Then we were symmetrical.

6.exd5 Nxd5. (See the second diagram.)


BF: It seems like I'm better because I can castle O-O quickly and when my Queen goes to e3, Black can't move her Queen out, so I've stopped her from castling O-O. It's weird. I had a symmetrical position against Anna [Zatonskih] yesterday and I was much worse with Black. Here is also a symmetrical position and Black is worse. We got double edged positions.


YS: We thought in case of 7...Bf6, you get one of those positions where you're a tempo up in a symmetrical position and after castling that tempo might be meaningful. • BF: Maybe a tempo and a half, because the Bishop has to move.

BF: I expected 7...Nb6, because I wanted to play Bc3. Then ...Na4 seems annoying, but I realized I have this bxc3 idea. That's not the way I play chess, but if the King is on b8 and you can't castle, then I'll play that way.

8.Qe3 Bf6 9.Nh5 Be5 10.Bc3 Na4 11.O-O
YS: This is the longest King move you've made in your career.

After a few more moves, everyone agreed that Black's position was 'really bad'. Black couldn't even castle O-O-O because of Qxa7. The game ended when Black overlooked mate in one.

JS: How do you like playing chess960 so far? • BF: I like the results, but I don't know if I'm a big fan yet. As soon as the position is set up, I just stare at it until the bell rings [to start the game]. OK, g2 is hanging. That's what I figured out before the game. Does that matter? I don't see how Black is going to take on g2, but don't lose it in the first five moves, because that's embarrassing. • JS: Some great chess960 tips here!

Yes, some great tips indeed.

01 October 2011

The Chess960 Wheel of Fortune

In a comment to my previous post, 'Fianchetto the Light Squared Bishop', HarryO informed that the most recent episode of The Full English Breakfast (FEB) -- World Cup Kings and Queens -- the 13th podcast in the FEB series, included a long segment on the chess960 portion of the St.Louis event. Toward the end of that audio clip, there's a mention by St.Louis arbiter Chris Bird of a roulette wheel used to select two of the five chess960 start positions (SPs) played in the event. There's more about the roulette wheel on TheFEB Facebook page, under Bonus Clips. It turns out that the wheel was one of several methods used to select SPs.
CB: Half an hour before the first round started we realized we didn't have any idea [how to select the SP] so we quickly devised the card system, a through h. [...] In the second round we built the giant die about an hour before the round started. We used 2' by 3' [that's feet, not inches!] poster boards and cut a foot off each poster board to keep the die in shape. [...] FEB: And then came the roulette wheel. [...] CB: Depending on the spin of the wheel, whichever piece came up we started on a1 and worked our way across the board. For the fourth round we used some games that the previous players had played, based on the last move in those particular games. We chose the games that finished one with a King move, one with a King move, a couple of Knights... The two players that didn't have games chose in order alternating which game they would choose related to which piece we would place on the squares. For our last round we used the roulette again, slightly modified.

The last round selection is captured in a video clip.

Kings Vs. Queens - Selecting the Chess 960 Starting position (4:49) • 'Arbiter Chris Bird and GM Yasser Seirawan chose the final Chess 960 position in St. Louis.'

While it was a great idea to make a ceremony for the selection of each round's start position, there are easier ways to go about it. A random procedure to determine the start squares for the Queen and minor pieces also establishes the position of the King and Rooks. To have a completely unbiased choice, the Bishops are best placed before the Queen and Knights. Another idea that I've not seen anywhere else is the set of Special Chess960 Dice used in Canada last year. After I wrote that post, I asked the organizers if they knew where to procure the dice, but never received a response.

The FEB podcast wasn't only about roulette wheels. There was also a discussion about the prospects of chess960 ever catching on in a big way. GM Kosteniuk, one of the five women who played in St.Louis, was surprisingly downbeat.

Q: So you don't see chess960 growing to become more established or more widely played among grandmasters? A: I don't think so. It's interesting, it's fun. You don't have all these theoretical lines, but it's not considered to be serious and I don't think it will substitute for classical chess.

This is the most important question that can be asked and answered about chess960. I think Kosteniuk is wrong, but no one really knows for sure.

24 September 2011

'Fianchetto the Light Squared Bishop'

Getting back to the recent 'Kings vs. Queens Tournament', I discussed the chess960 portion in my post on Chess960 Kings and Queens. There is a wealth of information to be gleaned from the video commentary by GM Yasser Seirawan and WGM Jennifer Shahade, although at the beginning of the first round, I thought we were off to a bad start.
Seirawan (YS): The start position is 'goofy'. • Shahade (JS): 'The [position] that we have is nothing like real chess'

Goofy? Nothing like real chess? Were we in for a bout of bashing Fischer's greatest invention? Then I remembered that chess960 commentating is new for everyone, including these two experienced chess commentators. The level of the discussion soon improved when GM Seirawan gave some excellent advice that applies to all start positions.

YS: 'You have to develop a long term plan early. It's very difficult in chess960 (*) how to best use your time. I start very slowly. When I get the feeling that my pieces are finding their natural squares, I speed up. But I start very slowly, then I get faster.'

Here's a diagram of the position used in round one.


When I first saw it, my eye went immediately to the minor pieces on the Kingside. The commentators' first remarks were instead about the Queens.

YS: 'One of the things you have to be really watchful for is Pawns that in regular chess you assume are defended. In chess960, tactical opportunites really happen very early. Unfortunately, because the Queens are buried in the corner, I don't see real tactics breaking out in the first dozen moves or so.' • JS: 'I was talking to Eric Van Reem, who wrote the FIDE rules for chess960. He said that some of the toughest positions to play are those in which the Queens start in the corner.'

The discussion quickly moved from generalities to specifics. Seirawan used a technique that I've discovered is particularly helpful : start by examining the castling options, what it takes to achieve them, and where they leave the King.

YS: [Discussing the diagrammed position notes that the move b3, to develop the Queen] 'may open you up to ...Ba3+. I noticed that Anna [Zatonskih] at the board is really studying. I would do exactly as she is, trying to think the long term plan here. I would think that e4, Nf3, Ng3, Bc4, developing the Kingside pieces and then castling O-O would be the natural inclination. It will be interesting, since all five games start from this initial position, what opening plans the White players will develop.' • JS: 'It will also be interesting to see how many people wait and look to see how Hikaru [Nakamura] is playing.'

Later in the same session, we had a chance to hear from GM Nakamura directly, who won with White against IM Martha Fierro. I doubt that his thoughts on the position would have helped any of the other players.

JS: What did you think about the starting position and how long did it take you to decide what you would play?

Nakamura (HN): I think the time showed that it didn't take me long to randomly pick something. I haven't played chess960 in quite a while so this was the first time I'd seen a rather unusual position at the beginning of a game.

There are two approaches. Either you can take 3-5 minutes on trying to figure out which move makes the most sense, looks the lost logical, and go from there, or you can sort of randomly pick. I looked briefly at all the first moves and none of them really impressed me.

This morning I had a conversation with a good friend of mine and I told him to give me an idea what to play on the first move. He said, 'Play something to fianchetto the light squared Bishop'. I wanted to play g3, but after ...b5 I wasn't in love with the position. [Interruption] If the Bishop had been on b1, I would have played a3 and Ba2, but the Bishop happened to be on f1. Therefore g3 made the most sense, but after 1.g3 b5, I didn't really like the position that much. I thought 2.Nf3 e5 and I didn't like the feel of the position. Black's going to get a lot of squares in the center.

One thing that I've noticed about chess960 from playing a couple times in Germany is that when you try to play these openings where you don't put Pawns in the center, like Alekhine's Defense or the Pirc/Modern, those sorts of setups, you tend to get in a lot of trouble because the pieces don't go on the squares they normally should. Therefore you usually want to play in the center. I had already agreed that I was going to move the Bishop to g2 if I could, but g3 wasn't any good, so I had to play g4.

With Nakamura, you're never completely sure if he's taking things seriously, but the idea to start with 'fianchetto the light squared Bishop', no matter what the start position, was new to me. The conversation continued,

JS: So you had your eye on the Queen on a8.

HN: It works out that way. Clearly I knew what the starting position was going to be ahead of time, so that's why I made this agreement to put my Bishop on a light square.

JS: So you knew like 10 minutes before the game?

HN: I just knew. I'm psychic.

YS: Being psychic and a chess player, that's a good combination. So after g4, how did she play? Could you take us through the moves? • JS: We liked the position she got.

HN: Martha made very standard moves. I think she played ...e5. Since Martha's not that familiar with chess960, I thought that playing something a little more offbeat made some sense as opposed to say, the game Lahno - Cao, where they found a way to transpose back into a normal position which you could reach out of a Ruy Lopez or one of those systems. I figured it was to my advantage to throw Martha off very early in the game. That's why it also worked out.

There's a lot more to the discussion, but you can listen to it yourself if you're interested. In my next post, I'll continue with another game from the event.


(*) Throughout the commentary, different people use different terms to describe the game that I call chess960 on this blog. In transcribing the remarks, I'll adhere to my own convention.

17 September 2011

Chess960 Kings and Queens

When I mentioned in my previous post, Rare Bird Tracking: Summer 2011, that St.Louis would be hosting a chess960 event, I was hardly expecting the extravaganza we got this week. The official web site, Kings vs. Queens Tournament, hosted on the main site of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, told us,
This will be a Scheveningen-paired tournament, in which each of the five team members will play each of the opposing team members twice: once in a Fischer Random (Chess 960) game with a time control of G/25 + 10-second increment and once in a rapid game with a time control of G/25 with a 5-second increment.


GM Yasser Seirawan and WGM Jennifer Shahade will provide live commentary of the event, which will be open to the public.
The team of 'Queens' included GMs Kateryna Lahno and Alexandra Kosteniuk, both of whom competed in the last Chess960 Women's Rapid World Championship at Mainz 2008, won by Kosteniuk (see Women, Chess960, and Video), while the 'Kings' featured GM Hikaru Nakamura, who won the unrestricted World Championship title at Mainz in 2009 (see CCM9: Nakamura, Grischuk, and Rybka).

The Seirawan / Shahade live commentary is preserved in video clips on the official site (all clips are around 90 minutes long) and is worth a look, especially for the Nakamura interviews after his first four rounds. The complete set of Aviv Friedman's reports on all five rounds is available on TWIC at Kings vs. Queens Tournament 2011. The Queens were trounced in both the chess960 and the rapid events, making me wonder if it was such a good idea to bill the event as a 'Battle of the Sexes'. Both Nakamura and teammate Ben Finegold, also a GM, scored 5-0 in chess960.

The starting positions for the five chess960 rounds were:-

  • R1: SP874 QRKRBBNN
  • R2: SP713 RKQBBNNR
  • R3: SP108 QBNRNKBR
  • R4: SP763 RKNNBRQB
  • R5: SP326 NRBQKBRN

The five games in each round used the same position. There are lots of interesting games to choose from and I'll present a position or two in subsequent posts.

10 September 2011

Rare Bird Tracking, Summer 2011

A year ago I wrote a pair of posts -- Rare Bird Sightings and Rare Bird Tracking -- about the dearth of chess960 tournaments in the world. The situation hasn't changed much since then.

The Swiss Chess960 Championship was one of the events making up the 44th Biel International Chess Festival in July, where Magnus Carlsen finished ahead of second place Alexander Morozevich in the elite GM event. GM Boris Grachev (RUS, 2680) edged out GM Tigran Gharamian (FRA, 2670) on tiebreak to win the chess960 event. GM Alexandra Kosteniuk (SUI, 2530) finished third ahead of 37 other players, which was good enough to become the 2011 Swiss (!?) chess960 champion.

For the second year, the U.S. Open featured a chess960 side event, attracting 12 players this time; see Fisher Random (sic, see also below) for the results. WGM Jennifer Shahade, a two time U.S. Women's Champion, participated and wrote about the event for USchess.org: Jennifer on 960 (Fischer Random). She also mentioned another rare bird,

I'm really excited to deepen my understanding of 960 as some of the most creative chess minds in the World, including GM Hikaru Nakamura will face off next week in alternating rounds of 960 chess and rapid chess in K v. Q aka the Battle of the Sexes in Saint Louis.

GM Kosteniuk will be one of five women representing the Queens team in the Scheveningen style tournament.


Call it chess960, call it Fischer random, call it anything you want; just don't call it 'Fisher' chess, as in DAIVD NAVARA: FISHER CHESS HELPED ME (chess.ugrasport.com, the official site of the 2011 World Cup, currently in the quarter final stage). OK, they spelled GM Navara's first name wrong as well -- it's David, of course -- but at least they got a good quote from him after his first round victory.

My opponent made a good preparation and surprised me. I made a mistake, then another one and at some point Black had got an advantage. There was a non standard position where it was easy to blunder. But I play Fisher chess very well, I like these positions and as a result I managed to win.

The moral of the story: Even 2700+ GMs can be outprepared by opponents rated 200 points below them. Add chess960 techniques to your arsenal of chess weapons.

03 September 2011

Chess960 with YouTube's Kingscrusher

In my most recent post, Chess960 on YouTube's ChessNetwork, I spotlighted a chess960 video from a popular chess instruction channel on YouTube. Here's another clip from a different instruction channel that is also extremely popular.

Chessworld.net presents: Kingscrusher vs Kingscrusher Cafe Team (28:41) • 'Consultation game - Fischer Random' • SP431 RNQNKRBB

For more video clips, most of them about traditional chess but with a few chess960 videos in the mix, see Kingscrusher's Channel.

27 August 2011

Chess960 on YouTube's ChessNetwork

ChessNetwork is one of the most popular chess instruction channels on YouTube. Here's a chess960 clip from its owner, Jerry, 'A National Master in chess who enjoys educating others.'

LIVE Blitz Game #12 - Fischer Random - Chess 960 (14:19) • 'This is a video where I share my thoughts while playing a Fischer Random / Chess 960 blitz game.' • SP304 BBNQRKRN

For another chess960 clip from the same channel, see LIVE Blitz Game #17 - Fischer Random - Chess 960.

20 August 2011

Updated Database of SPs (2011-08)

For some reason I thought I had updated my database of start positions (SPs) after the beginning of the year, but was surprised to discover that it had in fact been almost a year ago: Updated Database of SPs (2010-08). I added 14 posts written since then that had addressed specific SPs, including two SPs where I had previously discussed the position:-

For SP535, which appeared in important rounds in two different years at Mainz, the post I added was the third.

13 August 2011

'Alles muss raus!'

In a perfect world this is the time of year I would be reporting on the chess960 events at Chess Classic Mainz (CCM). Unfortunately, the world we live in is far from perfect, and as I reported six months ago in No Place for Chess960, CCM is no more.

My first ever post on CCM was Chess Classic Mainz 2008 (CCM8), written a few months after I started playing chess960. I followed this up with an overview of all previous CCMs in Chess960 @ Chess Classic Mainz, a post that I frequently consult for detailed information on the different events.

In early 2009, I wondered if the Mainz event would survive the global economic slowdown that smacked our imperfect world in 2008, but was soon reassured that the organization was on track: Chess960 @ CCM9. As things turned out, the report on the 2009 event, CCM9: Nakamura, Grischuk, and Rybka, was my last. The chess960 events at CCM 2010 were severely curtailed to a single simul (see Rare Bird Sightings) and six months later the entire CCM 2011 extravaganza was cancelled for lack of sponsorship. The global slowdown had taken two years to exact its toll.

A few months ago I posted about one of the early events, CCM 2003,
and I plan to go back to the other early events -- 2004 through 2007 -- that I've never looked at in any depth. I would rather work with new material, but there just isn't any.


This year, at what should be CCM11, the only sign of life is a fire sale on CCM memorabilia, including t-shirts and caps: Alles muss raus! ('Everything must go!'). Get 'em while they last.

06 August 2011

A Logical Contradiction

This week I spent some time cleaning up my Every Move Explained series (see Last Proofreading? on my main blog) and was reminded of a relevant quote by GM Korchnoi that I used in the game 1969 Sarajevo - Kovacs vs Korchnoi.
Modern opening theory helps the weak, strange as it may seem. One can learn and even understand a variation without having a high chess qualification, but true strength manifests itself in positions which have been studied little or not at all. In playing [his previous move], White, in contrast to the positions in fashionable variations, quickly moves away from the well-trodden paths. As early as the next few moves, he is forced to think for himself, and this, as is well known, is the most difficult.

I've noted in the past that one of the arguments against chess960 is that, by obliterating opening theory, it somehow helps the weaker player against the stronger player; see, for example, More Arguments Against Chess960, although I could have used other sources. This seems contradictory. If opening theory helps the weaker player, how can the absence of it also help the weaker player? Who's right, Korchnoi or the chess960 critics?

30 July 2011

Pawn Power in Chess960

If the title of this post reminds you of the book 'Pawn Power in Chess' by Hans Kmoch, that's exactly what it's meant to do. I read it years ago, and while I can't say that it had any direct impact on my knowledge of chess, it certainly made me think more about Pawn structures. Already having some familiarity with the book's ideas, I wondered, 'How much of its content is relevant to chess960?'

'Pawn Power' is divided into three parts: 'The Elements of Pawn Play', 'Pawns and Pieces', and 'Pawn Power in the Game'. The first part, the 'Elements', presents the basic formations of Pawns that can arise during the course of a game: passed, isolated, backward, doubled, chained, etc. Unfortunately, Kmoch introduced an entirely new terminology that obscures his explanation and that renders his exposition meaningless without a guide to translation. For example,

'Helpers and sentries neutralize each other if there is a helper for every sentry. A half-free Pawn with inadequate help is no true candidate, but a faker.' (p.6) • 'An unfree Pawn or a faker may suddenly become a passer of decisive power by means of a sacrificial combination. We call such a Pawn a sneaker.' (p.8) • And much more of the same.

Chessville.com has just such a guide: Glossary of Terms 'Pawn Power in Chess'. If you manage to cut through the jargon, which was never adopted by other chess writers, you will see that his catalog of Pawn structures is comprehensive and applies equally to chess960.

The second part, 'Pawns and Pieces', presents specific characteristics of Pawn structures that enhance or reduce the powers of the Bishop, the Knight, and the Rook, with one chapter on each of the three pieces. For example, Bishops are affected by masses of Pawns on the same color or the opposite color that the Bishop moves; Knights prefer outposts where they can't be harrassed by enemy Pawns; Rooks work best on open files. This again applies equally to chess960, although Kmoch's examples are naturally drawn from positions in traditional chess (SP518 RNBQKBNR) where the specific opening is usually discernible in the position.

A further chapter, 'The Sealer and the Sweeper', deals with Pawn moves that close and open the position. I can't remember seeing any of this sort of action in any chess960 games, but there is nothing inherent to chess960 that excludes it from taking place. The last chapter in part two, 'The Center and the Fork Trick', is about a specific tactic that occurs in traditional chess, usually from 1.e4 openings.

The third part, 'Pawn Power in the Game', is about common formations that arise in the opening of traditional chess. About 60 pages, representing 20% of the book, deal with Benoni formations. I doubt there is much here that applies to chess960.

A web search on 'Pawn Power in Chess' returns reviews of more recent books in the same genre, for example Understanding Pawn Play in Chess on JeremySilman.com. While I haven't read any of these other books, I wouldn't be surprised to find that their content is just as relevant to chess960 as Kmoch's opus: 50% exclusive to traditional chess, 50% generic to chess960. This is still a higher percentage than most chess books, especially books on the opening, which are 100% exclusive to traditional chess.

23 July 2011

Castling Too Soon

My most recent pyramid game on Schemingmind.com (see Pyramids and Dropouts for an explanation) was an instructive example of when not to castle. I outrated my opponent, who challenged me, by almost 700 points, so the result was a foregone conclusion, barring some kind of a horrible blunder on my part.

The diagram shows the game after my opponent's first move 1.g3. At first I was puzzled by the move, but then realized that he intended to play the Queen to g2 and castle O-O as quickly as possible.


After 1.g2-g3

While King safety is certainly important, the Kings are not in any particular danger here. I played 1...c5 with an eye on (1) development -- the move opens a diagonal for the Bb8, opens a file for the Rc8, and prepares ...Nc6 -- and on (2) the center, by staking a claim to d4. After the expected 2.Qg2, I continued 2...d5, opening a diagonal for the Be8 and staking a bigger claim to the center. Black's second move invites 3.Qxd5, but after 3...Bc6, I calculated that the complications were in Black's favor.

The game continued 3.O-O Nb6 4.c3. Since White's fourth move continued to ignore the center, I decided that it was already time to attack the castled King with 4...h5. After the further moves 5.h4 g5 6.hxg5 Qxg5, Black's attack is probably winning. By the time I castled O-O-O on the 11th move, all of my pieces were aimed at the White King. White resigned on the 18th move.

While castling is generally good, it's not always best, especially early in the game. It's primarily a defensive move, which renders it somewhat passive, and it fixes the position of the King as a target for the opponent's pieces. Its shortcomings were exemplified in this miniature.

16 July 2011

Fischer Random Bughouse

Although it's been ages since I last played a game, my favorite four-person chess variant is bughouse. It's fast, it's social, and it lets you blame losing on your partner's bad play. If you're not sure what bughouse is, see the Wikipedia entry on Bughouse Chess. The USCF's Chess Life Online recently ran a piece titled The Secrets of Brooklyn’s Bughouse Champs, Part I: Openings, where you can see that bughouse players, for the first few moves at least, follow the same opening strategies used in traditional chess.

When I was active playing bughouse, I came to the conclusion that there were a lot of chess openings that didn't work very well. Wikipedia confirms this:-

There are significantly fewer bughouse openings than there are chess openings. Many chess openings create weaknesses which can be easily exploited in bughouse.

An obvious solution to this drawback is to introduce chess960 start positions (SPs) into bughouse. When I mentioned this idea to a friend who is both a teacher of traditional chess and a keen bughouse player, he answered,

Fischer Random Bughouse seems logical, because the choice of bughouse openings is not a large one. On a practical level, however, it is unlikely to take root just because it takes to long to set the board up. Among young players now, there is practically no down time between the end of one game and the start of another. It's all I can do to get them to wait a second so that the clocks can be started simultaneously. It could be an interesting idea for bughouse tournaments.

This is useful feedback, and I see no reason why the same SP couldn't be kept for the duration of a session. It would allow the players to explore some of the subtleties of the chosen SP. At the same time it occurred to me that keeping the same SP would also be an advantage in a chess960 blitz match.

The upshot of all this would be some sort of a gadget that allows the players to record an SP and then refer to it at the start of each new game. Nothing fancy is required. Eight tiles showing the pieces and a rack to hold them in place would be sufficient.

09 July 2011

Chess960 Chaos

Over on Chess960 Jungle, in a post titled Tricky Tricky Chess960, HarryO investigated a start position that I encountered in A Chess960 Catastrophe. The position, SP941 RKRBNQBN, was the start of a game at Mainz 2005, where GM Bacrot was completely lost against GM Aronian after four moves. HarryO concluded, '[Bacrot] stumbled on what I think could be amongst a few very very tricky SP's for Black to play and even worse it was against Aronian!' and 'There will be a very small number of SP's where Black's first move may have to be memorized or at least the tactical motifs will have to be memorized.'

Critics of chess960 like to say that there are some positions where the odds are stacked against Black at the beginning of the game and present this as a reason for not considering Fischer's greatest invention. Since these critics never give examples with analysis, unwitting readers might assume that they are right. Is SP941 such a position? I decided to take a closer look, subjecting it to engine analysis.

I'm not a big fan of using engines to analyze the early opening, where the best moves are often based on positional ideas like development and the center, rather than tactics. Engines also know nothing about piece harmony and coordination, a central concern in chess960 where the pieces are usually not as well coordinated as in the traditional start position, SP518 RNBQKBNR. In the case of SP941, where strong tactical motifs are present at the beginning of the game, an engine can help to cut through the tangle.

The first diagram shows the Aronian - Bacrot game after Aronian's first move. The most striking feature of the position is the RKR sitting in the corner. Castling is not going to be easy in this game and castling O-O is highly unlikely. The second feature is the weakness of the b- & d-Pawns. This was the problem that Bacrot underestimated.

To analyze the position, I used a normal engine that has no specific knowledge of chess960, i.e. without knowledge of the castling rules. Since castling does not play a role in the early moves, this is not a big disadvantage. The engine is the strongest I have, analyzing the early opening to >20-ply in only a few minutes, a feat that my chess960 engines can't do. After running the engine against the position with 1.e4, I looked at the top four moves it suggested: 1...f5, 1...f6, 1...e5, and 1...c5.

The first candidate move, 1...f5 leads to the early development of the Black Queen after 2.exf5 Qxf5. Now White can attack the Queen immediately with 3.Ng3, when 3...Qa5 calls to mind the Scandinavian Defense in SP518. Not all players are comfortable with an early deployment of the Queen and, while it looks safe on a5, its exposed position will certainly become a factor sooner or later.

Like 1...f5, the second candidate, 1...f6, opens the diagonal for the Bg8, but does little for the center. White can play an immediate 2.Bg4, hitting the weak d-Pawn, when Black responds 2...e6. This line of play looks passive and might not appeal to players who are looking for more than solidity in the opening.

The third candidate, 1...e5, was Bacrot's choice. It certainly looks natural. It uses a strategy of symmetry, which is often a good strategy for Black in the early moves of a chess960 game, and it opens diagonals for a Bishop and the Queen. The engine favors Aronian's move 2.Nd3 over all others, then suggests 2...f6 and 2...Ng6 for Black. Bacrot chose 2...Ng6, when Aronian answered 3.f4, also the heavy favorite for the engine. The two-fisted threat is 4.Nc5 & 5.Qb5, winning immediately. Instead of Bacrot's 3...Bf6, which overlooked the threat, the engine suggests 3...c5.

After the similar 2...f6 3.f4 c5, shown in the second diagram above, Black's position looks chaotic. The three Black Pawn moves aren't harmonized into any obvious plan and the e-Pawn is hanging. Although Black can recover it, the variations I looked at were all equally chaotic. It would take more analysis to determine if there is anything more to Black's game than parrying White's threats, but I stopped there.

The fourth candidate move, 1...c5 (the SP941 Sicilian?), also leads to chaotic looking positions. Its first merit is to interfere with White's Nc5, and by opening the file for a lift of the c-Rook and a diagonal for the dark squared Bishop, it heads for a fast ...O-O-O. HarryO advises to forget about it, but I think it's worth a try.

If I were faced with the position after 1.e4, I would probably play 1...e5, because I like advancing in the center. Would I see the idea with 4.Nc5 & 5.Qb5? If one of the world's top grandmasters missed it, what are the chances for us grandpatzers?

02 July 2011

Chess960 Waits for No One

Two weeks of vacation means three weekends without chess960 blogging which means four weeks since my last post, Alas for GM Grischuk and for Chess960. It took me a few days to catch up with chess news (what in the world was Ilyumzhinov thinking when he travelled to Libya?) and I was happy to see some good, new ideas on chess960.

Continuing with the 'Alas!' post, I noted two more chess960 references on ChessInTranslation.com. The first was another interview with GM Grischuk, It’s the end of classical chess as we know it (and I feel fine):-

A: For now we can discuss and debate about whether we’ve come to [the death of traditional chess] yet or not. But it’s clear that the situation will get worse and worse, by the year, by the month. How is it all going to end? For me that’s obvious. For now it’s still possible to argue about whether we’ve come to that stage. • Q: And how can we escape? • A: The escape is either reducing the time control, or chess960, which I consider the ideal solution – simply ideal in all regards. That also allows you to play with a long time control.

Moreover, at the moment we’ve got a situation where the control is quite artificially extended, because it was always two hours for forty moves (well, or two and a half), but that was for forty moves! Or for thirty. While now you often end up with two hours for fifteen moves. What on earth is two hours for fifteen moves? It’s idiotic. In chess960, however, it really will be two hours for forty moves, without any forced draws… I simply don’t entirely understand why chess will lose anything from that. Well, it’ll be impossible to tell children that the king is the king, the queen is his wife, and they should stand together, holding hands. And then that to the side of them are the pontiffs, the horses and in the corners there are castles. I really don’t think that’s such an enormous part of chess.

The second was an interview with the President of the Russian Chess Federation, who is also a FIDE Vice President, Ilya Levitov: "For me, classical chess is opera":-

Fischer Random Chess tournaments should be run – only not using all 960 possible positions that the computer can randomly choose, but excluding those which lead to overly absurd and disharmonious starting positions. Vladimir Kramnik says, "That’s a different game". I agree with him. But just look who becomes World Champion in that "different game": Svidler, Aronian, Nakamura. Well-known faces! Those who play well in normal chess don’t feel so uncomfortable in Fischer Random Chess either!

On the same theme is an opinion piece from Technorati.com,
Chess Is Dying?:-

Chess is fast approaching a dead end one can say. That does not mean that every chess game has been played or chess is "solved". But top grandmasters with the help of chess engines have figured out most of the positions in today's chess openings and have concluded them as either winning for one side or a draw. [...] A radical solution would be to play Fischer Random Chess - a variant of chess in which both the sides have their first rank pieces in a random order. There are 960 starting positions in Fischer Random Chess and none of them have been studied even with a fraction of the resources as the traditional chess starting position. All the opening analysis and home-cooked novelties are meaningless in this chess variant (and there are enough of them to last a few centuries!) and you play the man over the board.

On Chess.com I encountered an idea to generate start positions that I hadn't seen before, Chess 960 Pieces:-

A good method for setting it up, is to write the numbers 1-8 on the bottom of the white Pawns, let the black player put the white Pawns on the board to make sure the white player does not know what is on their bottom, and let the white player put the Pawns on the second rank. Then, look on the bottom of each Pawn, and put behind them on the same file in the following order: Behind 1, put a Bishop. [...]

Chess960 Jungle hasn't been sitting still either. HarryO has started collecting puzzles that arise from the opening moves of a chess960 start position. The first one is at Chess960: Opening puzzles no.1. This is a great idea if you're tired of seeing puzzles that start with, e.g., a Bishop sac on h7. I'm sure that one day we'll see entire chess960 books, ebooks most likely, on this topic.