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.

1 comment:

Mark Weeks said...

While writing the post I was blinded by a cut & paste gremlin. The move 1.Na3 is, as everyone knows, Durkin's Opening. I've also seen it called Durkin's Attack; maybe the Knight is attacking something to the side of the board? The Amar is, of course, 1.Nh3. Apologies to Mr. Durkin and Mr. Amar for the confusion. - Mark