30 June 2012

Kasparov's Modern Chess

Vacation reading this year is the series 'Kasparov on Modern Chess'. While volumes two through four are more appropriate for a post on my World Championship Blog, the first volume, Revolution in the 70s, is surprisingly appropriate for this chess960 blog. If you're not familiar with the book, see Jeremy Silman's review, Kasparov on Modern Chess Volume One, for an outline of the material.

The last chapter in the book, 'The Opinions of 28 World Experts', is a 60-page look at the major issues -- 'problems', if you prefer more direct language -- facing modern opening theory. For someone like me, already hooked on chess960, the chapter is a long essay on Fischer's famous statement that 'The *Old* Chess Is Dead'. A few of the 28 experts even mentioned Fischer's invention.

  • Nikitin: So that players should think with their own brains, the rules can also be changed slightly. Apart from the invention of his wonderful clock with the automatic addition of time, Fischer also suggested a new, arbitrary arrangrment of the pieces before the start of the game. But this is perhaps too radical. I think that it would be interesting to abolish castling or at least make it different: simply exchange the places of the King and the Rook, or move the King to the Rook's square and the Rook to the adjacent one (b1 or g1).

    Or, say in the initial position both Kings and Queens should exchange places with the Bishops. Old theory will immediately be shelved, and the creation of a new theory will be done by future generations. It is also important that in this case it will be possible to learn from the games of the classics: the basic laws of play in the middlegame and the endgame, and the method of combat with different Pawn structures will remain the same. (p.356)

  • Sosonko: The excessive development of theory significantly reduces the purely playing component of chess -- that for which we so love this ancient game. How to avoid theory? Regarding this there have been many suggestions. My only comment is that Fischer or Bronstein chess is some different kind of game, and here I must 'pass', as I simply know nothing about it. (p.367)

  • Sveshnikov: To return to something like the chess that we once played, the possibility of preparation must be minimised. But in what way? I do not like Fischer chess, for the reason that in it the evaluation of the initial position depends on a random draw. [...] Far more sensible is Bronstein chess, when everything is in the hands of the players themselves: with their initial moves they themselves lay out the pieces. But even so, this is already another game. (p.391)

Re Nikitin's suggestion that 'both Kings and Queens should exchange places with the Bishops', this is none other than SP521 RNQBBKNR. I would like to research what, if anything, is already known about this position.

Re Sosonko's 'here I must "pass", as I simply know nothing about it', I wish that all players of whatever strength were so objective before passing judgement on an evolution of the traditional game. The odds are that anyone in favor of chess960 has actually played it, while anyone against chess960 is speaking without experience.

Re Sveshnikov's 'more sensible is Bronstein chess', I believe that he is referring to the variant of shuffle chess where the two players take turns placing the pieces on the back rank. I've never investigated this idea and it would make a good start point for a followup post.

09 June 2012

The Myth of the Corner Bishop

There have been some noteworthy comments made against my recent post Top 10 Myths About Chess960. The myth that received the most attention was
  • Some start positions are too bizarre or illogical for serious play

GeneM introduced his example of a family of bizarre positions in two separate comments:

Almost half of the chess960 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. • 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.

This reminded me of a concept I documented some time ago, where my first problem was to locate the post. I found it on my main blog, where I used to write about chess960 before setting up this current blog which is dedicated to the subject. While searching for the post, I realized that I had never incorporated my earliest posts about chess960 opening theory into this chess960 blog. Here they are, in reverse chronological order, because later posts tend to build on their predecessors.

The post I was looking for is the second in the list: A Framework for Chess960 Opening Theory. The 'framework' is a two dimensional array of Pieces & Possible Start Files together with a notation to identify cells in the array. For example, GeneM's example of a 'Bishop that starts on a corner square' could be identified B:a/h, i.e. a Bishop starting on the a- or h-file.

Unlike GeneM & GM Kramnik, I enjoy playing B:a/h positions. Rather than taking two moves to develop the Bishop as with the B:c/f of traditional chess -- a Pawn move followed by a Bishop move -- the corner Bishop is developed by a single move: advancing the adjacent b-/g-Pawn on the diagonal. On top of that, the corner Bishop never interferes with castling, meaning that the two operations -- (1) Bishop development & (2) castling -- can be executed independently. In traditional chess, the one always precedes the other. Furthermore, the development of the Bishop sometimes uncovers an attack on a weak Pawn on the Bishop's diagonal. When this happens, tactical complications arise immediately.

I see no reason to single out the corner Bishop as 'bizarre or illogical'. A corner Knight (N:a/h) has limited options because its first developing move is usually to the b/g file rather than the c/f file. A corner Queen (Q:a/h) often means that the Queen is slow getting into the game, giving these positions a slow, positional buildup (see 'Fianchetto the Light Squared Bishop' for an example). Since a King can't start in the corner, the only piece really suited to the corner is the Rook (R:a/h), like in traditional chess. As with the Queen, a corner Rook has the disadvantage that the piece is slow to get into the game. Early Rook actions, which can be compared to a lightning tank attack in modern, mechanized warfare, almost never happen.

What about the Bishop starting on other squares? The Bishop starting next to the corner (B:b/g) also has limited options. Its natural diagonal, the one chosen for its development in most games, is the long diagonal, opened by moving the c/f Pawn, rather than the short diagonal, opened by moving the a/h Pawn. Starting two squares from the corner (B:c/f), is the setup we all know and love from traditional chess, while the central Bishop (B:d/e) offers a different set of challenges. I quoted GM Seirawan on this last possibility in 'A Tempo and a Half in a Symmetrical Position'.

The only real disadvantage of the B:a/h setup is when both Bishops start in the corner. When this happens, all four Bishops are facing each other on their long diagonals. The order in which the Bishops are developed becomes a subtle tactical dance where a player's fast grab of one diagonal cedes the other diagonal to the opponent. Furthermore, a premature development of the Bishops can lead to them all being swapped off in the opening for a Bishopless middlegame. A player who wants to avoid this must block the diagonal before developing the Bishop, but this gives the opponent the opportunity to develop first on the same diagonal. And so the dance continues.

One point which should never be forgotten: whatever the advantages and disadvantages of a specific start position, both players are struggling with the same issues. The only difference is that one of them starts first. This is a feature of traditional chess with which we have all learned to live and is no less true for chess960.

[Note to myself: Determine how many positions have B:a/h,b/g facing a weak Pawn on the diagonal. Ditto for Queens.]

02 June 2012

Ducking Chess960

Just like two years ago, as documented in Searching for Amand - Topalon, page views on my World Championship site spiked during the recent Anand - Gelfand match. While I was analyzing the log file for the month of May 2012, I thought it might be interesting to look at referrers to my page about Chess960 Start Positions.

That page doesn't receive many visits -- about three per day on average -- and 90% of those are referred by Google. It is far down the list I developed for Google Likes Me Why Exactly. Of the other referrers, the only resource that was new to me came from another search engine: chess960 at DuckDuckGo.

I looked at the first few DuckDuckGo search results, realized there was some new material, and decided to go a little deeper. The first page that caught my eye was on Chess.com: Chess960: The Opening Makes a Comeback! Written by IM David Pruess, it presents a bit about the introduction of chess960 on the world's most popular chess site followed by a few tips on the chess960 opening.

Next was a page from Chess960.nl: Chess960 Tournament Calendar. Unfortunately, the last tournament entry is dated May 2009, so the calendar isn't much use now, but it might be interesting to look at few of the events listed to determine if there has been any sort of followup.

Next on the list, a review of Gene Milener's Play Stronger Chess by Examining Chess 960 wasn't new to me. I had already mentioned it a couple of years ago in Chess960 @ Chessville.com. It did, however, remind me of a comment that GeneM (same Gene) made to my recent post Top 10 Myths About Chess960, 'Chess960 will not help you play better chess any more than traditional chess will help you play better chess', which seems to contradict the title of his own book?! [MarkW to GeneM: 'Does not compute!']

I was also pleased to see another domain name incorporating one of the many names of Fischer's invention: Fischerrandom.com Although the site doesn't have much content, it does reference a Twitter feed of the same name. I checked whether the name Fischerandom.com (one 'r') was also taken, and it's still available.

Many years ago I played in an open section of the Biel festival and discovered that it was a great tournament. If I were playing there this year, I would definitely play in the Biel International Chess Festival: Chess960 Tournament, aka the 'Swiss Chess960 Championship'. Add this event to the list of Rare Birds 2012.

Maintaining lists of related links was popular in the early days of the web, but since then has gone completely out of fashion. A relatively recent effort ('Updated : October 2008') is Random Chess Links, meaning 'Fischer Random Chess', not 'Chess Links Selected at Random'. The first paragraph on the page mentions Capablanca Random Chess, Stanley Random Chess, and Transcendental Chess, all of which are new to me.

If you're interested in chess960 engines, the CCRL Discussion Board has a thread on Houdini 2.0 x64 chess960 testing, where Houdini whips all comers. The engine is included in the 'Chess King' package, so it's fitting that my final link is to Chess-king.com: Stopa – Kosteniuk Chess960, a game played at last year's Chess960 Kings and Queens event in St.Louis.

The DuckDuckGo search results scroll endlessly and would likely return dozens of other chess960 resources worth investigating. The handful I've given above are enough for this post, so I'll sign off with 'Happy Duck Hunting with Chess960'.