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.