19 May 2012

Top 10 Myths About Chess960

Over on my About.com material for traditional chess, one of the pages that gets a lot of views is Top 10 Myths About Chess, subtitled 'People say the darnedest things about chess'. I've been playing chess960 for long enough, plus following its subculture, that I can easily write a similar article about Bobby Fischer's greatest invention.

Chess960 hasn't been around long enough to speak of myths, so it would perhaps be better to use the word 'misconceptions', but I like my titles short. The following list isn't really in any particular order, although the first few statements are probably more frequent than the last few. I'm not going to embellish the list with explanations. I've already discussed most of the items in posts that can be found via my blog category Posts with label Pros and Cons. One aspect they all have in common is that they are invariably repeated by chess players who know little if anything about chess960. So here they are, my 'Top 10 Myths About Chess960':-

  • It isn't real chess
  • It's a variant of traditional chess
  • It wasn't invented by Fischer
  • The rules for castling are complicated
  • You need special equipment to choose the start position
  • Some start positions are forced wins for White
  • It's only for very strong chess players
  • It erases the stronger player's natural advantage
  • Some start positions are too bizarre or illogical for serious play
  • It's mainly for people who are too lazy to work on traditional chess openings
  • It will kill the chess publishing industry
  • It won't help you play traditional chess

Yes, I can count and I realize that the list has more than ten items. I could have easily added a few more, e.g. about the name or the numbering system, and I'll probably think of a few others after I post this. Let's just call this a first cut that gives me an anchor for further discussions. One more item I will add immediately was prompted by HarryO's second comment to Steering into an Iceberg:-

  • It will never catch on

Although it's too early to pass judgement on that last one, I am confident that it will one day -- very soon -- prove to be the biggest chess960 myth of them all.


Another myth that arises frequently -- chess960 is designed to address the problem of short draws.

To repeat what I wrote in Recent Comments, 'Fischer's greatest invention is not a panacea for all the ills that beset traditional chess. It is, in a word, about excessive *memorization* which has been exaggerated by computer preparation.'


HarryO said...

Let's hope one day it does catch on Mark! I think Chess960 could be struggling because of the demographic ageing of the western world.

Over the next 50 years the structural and numerical ageing of people in Europe, China, Japan and to a lesser extent America, will continue to rise and the fertility rate is continually dropping....

So Chess960 suffers from a triple whammy:

1) The oldies are set in their ways and do not want to try Chess960 and spread myths about Chess960 to try and stop it being accepted.

2) The youth are getting fewer and fewer in proportion and they are distracted by mass marketing of video games.

3) The consumer industry cannot make money out of Chess960 and so must try to distract people by convincing them to waste their money on inferior and superficial games.

To help Chess960 we must continue to show people that Chess960 is probably as good as a game gets. One day people will understand this point. Chess(960) is almost perfect because of the draw. It is perfect that the conclusion of a game can be either win/loss or draw. Three perfect states.

Unfortunately Chess960 does not appeal to the gaming industry because:

-> Chess960 is so simple
-> requires no software,
-> does not require computers
-> needs no electricity
-> the board and pieces can be made with scissors, pencils and paper.

You don't even need pencil and paper if you have a stick and can draw a chessboard on a patch of dirt.

One more comment on myths. Chess960 is about normal distribution. If any one has any interest in how the world works, normal distribution has to be understood. In chess960 most positions are balanced and sit near the middle of the normal distribution.

However there are some few positions that sit at the extremes of the normal distribution and are important and cannot be excluded without destroying the quality of the normal distribution.

These "extremes" require both sides to recognize them when they appear and the pressure is on black to equalize. This requires skill and increases white's odds of winning. Therefore the extreme positions actually help the win/draw/loss statistics and make Chess produce more concrete results.

Chess960 must be played as Bobby Fischer intended it (random chance of 960 starts) because if we ignore him, we will limit the total experience of Chess in all it's amazing formations and will skew the normal distribution which will be to our detriment in the long run.


GeneM said...

I partly disagree with Mark re his bullets about chess960-FRC, because the following bullets are True:

•[A - TRUE] Some start positions are too bizarre or illogical for serious play

•[B - TRUE] It won't help you play traditional chess

•[C - TRUE] It will kill the chess publishing industry

•[D - TRUE] It will never catch on

A - Almost half of the chess960-FRC positions have a bishop start on a corner square. Such setups are bad because the bishop has only one way to develop. Those setups should be discarded.

B - Chess960 will not help you play better chess any more than traditional chess1 will help you play better chess.

C - Fischer's truly "random" form of chess960 would hurt the chess book publishing industry because, after one or two purchases of new-style opening books, buyers would realize there is nothing to be gained or learned from chess960 opening books.
However, if we are smart and discard the "random" from Fischer Random Chess, and we pick exactly one sensible nontraditional start position to intensively reuse for a couple decades, then truck loads of entirely new opening books would be sold.

D - The "random" concept is too much when combined the new setup concept. By watch the annual Mainz chess960 tournament we learned that we have already learned all we are ever going to learn about chess960.
Too much of the fun of chess comes from studying the openings. But the overplayed traditional setup follows the same deeply worn ruts into the middle game, to which most worthwhile novelty moves now reside. Variety delayed is variety denied. Novelties should be semi-routine earlier, in the genuine opening phase.

--- --- ---

Is the following a MYTH?

[E - T/F?] If exactly one nontraditional setup was intensively reused for a decade, would that decade see a lower draw rate in elite grandmaster chess than the enormously high draw rate we endure with the traditional setup today? I hope so.

The idea is that at-home preparation would have much more fertile areas early in the opening for strong novelty moves. Sometimes grandmasters can solve in real time over the board the problems novelties pose, but sometimes they cannot.

Thanks, GeneM

HarryO said...

Gene your bullets are easily refuted:

1. What do you mean by bizarre and illogical? Can you clarify that? Why are such words not suitable for a game?

2. Chess960 does help with traditional chess but only when traditional chess and Chess960 are learned and studied TOGETHER

3. The Chess publishing industry is probably in the same problem as all the paper publishing industry because of the internet. It has nothing to do with Chess960. There is many many things to that can be written on the Chess960 opening. There are many re-occurring themes that come up time and time again.

4. Why won't Chess960 catch on? Why not? What is your intention Gene?

5. What is the problem with bishops in the corner? I don't see it.

6. How can Mainz have taught us all that there is to know about Chess960? It perhaps taught us more about human nature than anything.

7. Gene you are mixing concepts. Chess960 is not trying to fix the draw problem in Chess. It is about lessoning "pre-arrangement".

8. Chess960 does not impede home preparation! It merely changes the focus of preparation from a memory of specific lines, to a memory of specific concepts combined with a more research driven approach to home preparation. This is good!


GeneM said...


H_4: Random chess960 will not catch on because it does not grow or build from onging discovery. Discovery is fun.
Under the *exclusive* reuse of the one traditional start position (or setup), the growth of opening MCO/theory has already occurred, and it 99% completed. It is mostly spent, making it relatively dull and draw-prone. Even where novelties do occur before the middle game, they occur from positions that are well understood, making the novelties easier to solve or refute OTB.

H_5: As Kramnik noted, a bishop that starts on a corner square has only one degree of freedom in how it can be developed. It needlessly reduces the range for human imagination in using the pieces from the start of the game.

Thanks, GeneM.

HarryO said...

Gene appreciate the thoughts but am going to have to do more myth busting:

Myth 1: Chess960 does not grow or build from on going discovery? learning how to play better openings is not growth and is not ongoing discovery?

Myth 2: Chess960 is not about solving the draw problem in chess. The two should not be put in the same sentence. It may benefit the draw problem, but it is incidental and not the aim of Chess960.

Myth 3: Bishops in the corner do not occur often and so what if they do? If Chess960 adds 100% imagination to chess but bishops in the corner reduces it by 1%, does it matter?

GeneM said...

46% percent of all chess960 FRC start setups do have at least two of the game's four bishops start on a corner square.
To me that is "often".
The geometry of the bishop is simply ill-suited to starting on a corner.

Chess960 is inanimate, thus it has no "aim" of its own.
Fischer wanted to end Opening phase memorization, that was his aim. Trouble is, the majority of chess players enjoy Opening study, and enjoy seeing smart improvements as a new Opening system grows and shows itself to be stronger than others (something we learn along the way).

My aims are to see chess960 used to achieve two great benefits:
(A) All the interesting Opening growth that would arise from scratch upon the adoption of a stable second start setup, and
(B) Reduce the fricking draw rate among elite grandmasters.


HarryO said...

Fair enough I thought you were talking about both bishops in the corner which is infrequent.

Here is an example of two GM quality games with *both bishops in the corner* that were exciting, imaginative and did not result in draws:


I leave these examples for people to make up their own mind.


Mark Weeks said...

Great comments, guys, even if I don't agree with everything. I addressed the 'bizarre or illogical' discussion in....

The Myth of the Corner Bishop

...A comment on 'won't help you play traditional chess' was in...

Ducking Chess960

...Re 'will kill the chess publishing industry', chess960 will decimate the segment for variation specific opening books, but will replace it with books having more lasting value, e.g. middlegame theory (much wider in chess960), endgames, and history. There will definitely be a place for opening meta-theory, but I don't believe this will evolve into ECO style material.

Re 'It will never catch on', all that anyone can say is 'we shall see'. - Thanks again, Mark