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.


HarryO said...

Mark have a happy and peaceful christmas. I got a laugh out of your last paragraph I feel exactly the same. It's really fun playing any of the 960 positions win or loose and in the pleasure or the pain, and we do not need Kasparov's approval to do so!

The thing with Chess960 is that it can be incredibly satisfying to get the opening played out well, and it can also be incredibly painful when the wheels fall off after only a few moves(so painful!) The only safety net in Chess960 is lots and lots of practice, and a deep appreciation for the qualities of creativity, simple or complex.

On the topic of Kasparov and Nakamura's short lived collaboration what can be said!


"I mean you look at middlegames or endgames and I’m quite convinced there are other players who are better than he (Kasparov) was, but he was able to get advantages out of the openings so that was his main strength."

To me, that that is an indirect affirmation of Chess960. I will leave it to others to make the connection if they want.


HarryO said...

Mark, there is some new hope for Chess960 in the lead up to Christmas this year. In Magnus Carlsen latest interview I have supplied the relevant extracts that I think are relevant to Fischer Random. You can see in these extracts, the spirit of a great Fischer Random player! Let's hope that he and the other super GM's can attract sponsorship for a new era in Chess960 tournaments.

"I simply loved it when we got such unconventional positions! If every game could turn out as interesting as those I’d just be delighted. But chess, alas, doesn’t only consist of creativity"

"Above all I like to resolve unconventional tasks at the board. Perhaps that’s why I don’t really like studying the opening – everything starts from the one position"

"Carlsen agreed with the suggestion that studying openings occupied 80% of a player's time"

"I like the middlegame and endgame much more than the opening. I like when the game turns into a contest of ideas and not a battle between home analysis. But that, unfortunately, doesn’t happen often. That concerns you? To an extent, but what can I do! Work more on the opening, as the others do… I already work more on it than I want.

"It’s no secret for anyone that my opening preparation is inferior to Anand’s and Kramnik’s and that of many others. They’ve got much more experience, prepared ideas… They’re great specialists in that! But I try to place my pieces correctly on the board, so the advantage won’t be so great that I lose immediately."

Here is the source:

I think Magnus's problem in the transition to Chess960 will be the same as it is for any other player. Players of traditional chess tend to think something is wrong, bad or broken with Chess960, simply because of the initial unpleasant sensation of facing the unfamiliar start.

Anyway, cheers to all fans of Chess960 Fischer Random. Have a happy new year trying to work out your 960 opening plans!

Unknown said...

I am also skeptical of FRC because chess players like to be in control. Serendipity is not to their liking. So I suggest "relocation chess variants" where players relocate the pieces according to their own preference.