29 September 2012

The KQR Corner Family

In Non-Random Chess 960 Trial Game 5: SP468, HarryO identified an important family of start positions (SPs).
This SP is part of 108 SPs that feature the combination of a Rook, a King and a Queen in the corner, leaving most of the opposite side of the board to the minor pieces and a lone rook.

His math works, too. If we reserve f/g/h for the KQR (in whatever order), that leaves five squares for the other pieces. After randomly placing one Bishop on the three remaining squares of the same color, then randomly placing the other Bishop on the two squares of the same color, that leaves three squares to place the remaining Rook. Placing the Knights on the two remaining squares doesn't change the number of permutations, so we have 3 x 2 x 3 = 18 different permutations of the five pieces for each combination of KQR. Since there are three of those (see next paragraph), there are exactly 54 positions with KQR in one corner. Doubling that to account for the other corner gives 108 SPs, which is HarryO's number.

It's also worth noting that in the 54 KQR-corner SPs, the Queen determines the position of the other two pieces. If the Queen is on the f-file, the pieces must be placed 'QKR'; Queen on the g-file forces 'KQR'; and Queen on the h-file leaves 'KRQ'.

The family of SPs is important because the KQR at such close proximity interfere with each other in their initial movements. They also have different objectives in the opening: the King seeks safety, the Queen seeks a safe development square, and the Rook wants a connection with the other Rook. On top of that, the three heavy pieces bunched together present a convenient target for the enemy Bishops, which are most likely to be on the other side of the board, ready to take up attacking positions after a move or two.

That SP468 post is in fact a game where HarryO and I have been struggling with one such position (SP468 RBBNNKRQ). I'll discuss it in more detail when we are through with our investigations.

22 September 2012

Kasparov *Did* Play Chess960

Sheesh, did I get that wrong! Late last year, in Not Everyone Likes Chess960, I listed three commentators who had gone on record against chess960: Kasparov, Damsky, and NN. I ended the post with the categorical,
The one thing all of these commentators have in common is that it's obvious that none of them has ever tried chess960.

This week I received a freebie 26-page PDF from Mongoose Press, "On Life and Chess" by Sergey Shipov. Here I learned (p.5),

In 1998 Kasparov invited me to be his sparring partner. His breaks between tournaments were fairly long, and so as not to lose his playing edge and feel for the flag Garry needed a partner who could pose problems for him at the board. He couldn't just go to a chess club and play in rapid or blitz tournaments like ordinary mortals.

In the first place, the champion's raging popularity simply would not have allowed him to play his games in peace; and secondly, in public tournaments the percentage of players who could put up any resistance to him was too small. And generally in Moscow, apart from the elite grandmasters, there weren't a lot of candidates for sparring partner. You cannot imagine how powerful he was in that period! This was probably the peak of his practical strength for his entire career. Everyone remembers that unbelievable series of wins by Kasparov at 10 straight supertournaments.

That is interesting in itself, but there was more.

By the way, those fools who for years explained Kasparov's dominance only by his opening superiority (which, let me point out, is not a gift that falls from heaven, but rather comes from hard labor) simply had no idea what they were talking about. I remember we played six games of Fischerandom chess, and there was no battle there at all! In completely unfamiliar positions, Kasparov's advantage over me was far greater than in normal chess. In the absence of the usual pathfinders his flights of fancy, his sense of dynamics, and his ability to instantly separate the important from the secondary became particularly salient.

Assuming he played according to Fischer's published rules, Kasparov did indeed play chess960. Moreover, it looks like I'll have to abandon any hope of winning against him in a chess960 game. What are the chances of getting the move record of those six games?

Of course, all the games I played with The Great One were accurately recorded on my computer, but I don't want to share them with my readers. My wins were nothing to be proud of (training and official tournaments are different things), and my losses were distressing. The chess content of our encounters would hardly embellish the treasure troves. Basically, this is just a memorable exhibit in my personal collection.

To get your own copy of Shipov's monograph, see Mongoose Press on Facebook.com.


Later: Not only did Shipov's monograph shed some light on Kasparov's experience with chess960, it also mentioned Yakov Damsky, the second of the trio in the 'Not Everyone Likes' post. There is, however, no chess960 connection (p.11):-

Iakov Damsky, our Soviet master and radio commentator, helped me a lot. In his later years he became a professional chess writer. He knocked out new books almost once a month. I myself spent at least four years on my first Hedgehog.

For more about Damsky, see 'Chess Records' by Damsky, on my main blog.

15 September 2012

Extreme Barbecues

After our first two tests of Non-random Fischer Random, which I documented in

HarryO and I decided to skip the initial phase of selecting a start position (SP) and go directly to an SP that had caught our attention in the first game. This was SP000 BBQNNRKR, aka the 'Extreme Barbecue' position. The name is derived from the BBQ formation on the first three files, aimed at the RKR formation on the last three files. Given the latent pressure of the three diagonal pieces against the bunched King and Rooks, it's an SP that could prove to be one of the trickiest for Black to navigate.

After that game, we played a second game starting with SP959 RKRNNQBB, the twin of SP000. Here the RKR on the first three files are under pressure from the QBB on the last three. Strategically, the only difference between SP000 and SP959 is the castling option. The top diagram below shows the position after the first five moves in the SP000 game, where HarryO played White. The bottom diagram shows the position after five moves in the SP959 game, where I had White. The moves and commentary for the two games are on HarryO's blog, Chess960 Jungle:-

HarryO subtitled SP000 'or SP960 depending on who you talk to'. He is referring to the common error that chess960 newcomers sometimes make, numbering the 960 SPs starting with '1' rather than with '0'. In that case, they invariably tack SP000 on to the end of the list. It's a fortunate coincidence that the two 'Extreme Barbecue' SPs are located numerically at the extremities of the standard numbering system.

Our running commentary for the two trial games can be found on the same posts where we made the moves. I don't have much to add. In both games, it's amazing how much has been accomplished on the board after only five moves for each side. The RKR setup is difficult to unravel, especially because the inside Rook (c- or f-file) blocks the corner Rook from castling. One option is to develop the corner Rook by pushing the Pawn in front of it to its fourth rank, then lifting the Rook to its third rank. This means that the Rooks are going to remain unconnected for a long time. Castling to the far side with the inside Rook involves moving three or four other pieces out of the way. All of this has to be done while the diagonal pieces are bearing down on the RKR.

In the second game, I had an unpleasant experience that I had never encountered before. The diagram shows my c-Pawn on c4. My plan in playing this was to move the Rook to c2 and castle Queenside (a-side for the purists). After that I had the mental image of the King sitting on b1 and the Rook on c1, instead of c1 and d1 when O-O-O is done correctly. I also had the persistent problem of confusing the abcd-files with the efgh-files in my analysis. In other words, while playing c2-c4, my inner voice would be saying f2-f4, and vice versa. As I wrote in a comment,

I think I made this elementary mistake because we just played the twin start position, SP000, and I simply flipped all my ideas in my head without readjusting for the new castling situation.

I took away two lessons from this. First, the chess960 castling options are not as firmly entrenched in my subconscious mind as I thought they were, certainly not to the level of the two castling options in traditional chess. Second, I consciously have to avoid the same phenomenon if I should again play an SP immediately followed by its twin. I shouldn't be thinking about how the pieces move. I should be thinking about what happens after they move.

08 September 2012

Disruption of Balance

Let's return to a position from a post I wrote a few weeks ago, A Clash of Styles. The position, seen in the following diagram, shows the start position and the first move for both White and Black.


After playing the move, Black commented (see that 'Clash' post for background and links to the game),

1...b5 develops the Queen, creates a spot for a minor piece, prevents e4, and claims space on the Queenside. Not bad for one move, eh!

Not bad at all, I had to agree. For my own part, I commented,

I spent a lot of time studying the position after 1...b5, looked at many different moves that adhered to classical principles, and finally decided that the non-traditional 2.a4 was my best shot. It solved the problem of developing my Queen and gave Black an immediate problem.

GeneM picked up that 2.a4 comment, and wrote,

I respectfully caution us against the casual habit of using the powerful word "principles" when describing chess opening theory that is based on deep experience with only the traditional start setup. I believe some of what we today call opening "principles" will eventually be exposed as being mere esoteric tactical considerations of the traditional setup.

Yes, it's the same comment I quoted in Make the Obvious Moves First, but I left off GeneM's further thought that

Your non-traditional early opening move 2.a4 might well obey an important opening priciple of pure chess, even if it violates what we all have sloppily or ignorantly been calling an opening principle based on our very narrow experience limited to only one start setup.

That remark caught my attention because I had exactly the same thought when making the move 2.a4. It reminded me of an 'Every Move Explained' article I wrote a few years ago where I touched on a concept called the 'illegitimate disruption of balance'. See 1927 New York - Alekhine vs. Marshall, especially the notes to Black's third and White's fourth moves, where I incorporated some heavyweight commentary by Alekhine, Kotov, and Yudovich, from The Soviet School of Chess (1958).

As I understand it, 'illegitimate disruption of balance' refers to a (usually subtle) violation by one side or the other of the positional principles underpinning chess. The term is found nowhere else on the web, but is so logical that I'm sure it exists elsewhere under one or more different names. Briefly summarized, it gives the opponent of the offending party a 'heads up' to look for an atypical response that also violates positional principles, fighting fire with fire, so to speak.

Later in the same chapter on Alekhine, Kotov and Yudovich give another example of 'illegitimate disruption of balance', without identifying it as such. It so happens that I posted on the game some time ago in Alekhine - Rubinstein, The Hague 1921. Here the disruption of balance was Black's wasted tempo on the third move.

The concept of 'illegitimate disruption of balance' is one of the most intriguing chess concepts I've ever encountered. To understand it requires a feeling for 'balance', which can mean either dynamic equality in a single position -or- the back-and-forth volleying that happens so often in chess, where both players attack and defend on each move. Extending this to 'disruption of balance' means that one side purposely provokes the other by breaking the equilibrium. This is usually by some kind of a premature attack, although I imagine that premature defense can be just as unbalancing. Finally, the adjective 'illegitimate' implies that there are also exists a 'legitimate disruption of balance'. How to spot the difference between 'legitimate' and 'illegitimate' would be one of the tricks of the trade for the discerning master.

What does all of this have to do with chess960? Since we aren't absolutely sure that all of the 960 positions are indeed balanced -- although the available evidence is pointing this way -- how can we know which moves maintain the balance or disrupt the balance?

While I don't know the answer to that last question, I do know that 'after 1...b5, I looked at many different moves that adhered to classical principles and finally decided that the non-traditional 2.a4 was my best shot'. Was this an accident or had I stumbled upon a chess960 example of Alekhine's concept? I'll be on the lookout for further examples.

01 September 2012

Make the Obvious Moves First

Last week's post, A Clash of Styles, attracted several excellent comments. First at bat was GeneM, who wrote,
I respectfully caution us against the casual habit of using the powerful word "principles" when describing chess opening theory that is based on deep experience with only the traditional start setup. I believe some of what we today call opening "principles" will eventually be exposed as being mere esoteric tactical considerations of the traditional setup.

I responded with links to a number of previous posts on that same subject.

It's also worth noting that opening principles that apply to the traditional start position (SP518 RNBQKBNR) weren't constructed from thin air, nor were they developed by sifting through the thousands of critical variations that arise from that position. They are based on the same considerations that guide a chess player throughout a game. I've listed these in an article that has nothing specific to do with chess960: Positional Play in Chess. They are

  • The center,
  • Open lines,
  • Piece activity,
  • Pawn structure,
  • Strong and weak squares, and
  • King safety.

If I wrote the same article today, I would add

  • The initiative

which through years of playing chess (and chess960), I've come to appreciate more and more. That makes seven points, the same as the number of colors in a rainbow or the number of notes in a musical scale. There's something natural about the number seven that appeals to me.

Back to the list of four previous posts, GeneM picked up on 'Knights before Bishops?' and made another comment.

Reuben Fine listed his famous nine opening principle of chess in his book 'Chess the Easy Way'. But... From considering chess960-FRC, I believe that some of Fine so-called principles would be found to be merely esoteric tactical considerations of the particular start setup that has been traditionally reused since 1475; and those items from Fine's list would become less interesting when seen in the proper larger context of openings for many sensible start setups.

I assume that Fine's 'Chess the Easy Way' repeats the same points from his 'Ideas Behind the Chess Opening', which I listed in 'Fine's General Principles'. As with some of Fine's other principles, 'Develop Knights before Bishops' is a guideline specific to SP518 and not necessarily to all other chess960 start positions. The principle can be expanded to include all chess960 start positions by stating something like 'make the obvious moves first'. In SP518 the Knight jump to the long diagonal is generally better than either of the two alternatives. For the Bishops, the choice is not so clear. First there is the choice of which diagonal. Then there is a choice of squares on that diagonal.

One quarter of chess960 positions start with a Knight in the corner. The obvious move there is to develop the Knight to its third rank. The alternative, to the second rank, happens less frequently. Knights starting on the c-, d-, e-, or f-files often do not have such an obvious choice, partly because they have a choice of two good squares on the third rank.

For how many positions does the principle 'make the obvious moves first' reduce to 'Knights before Bishops'? We already know about SP518. We can also add SP534 RNBKQBNR, because the development patterns are identical to SP518. No doubt there are other SPs, but how many? What characteristics of initial piece placement do they share?

Other points on Fine's list lead to similar questions. Take, for example, 'Do not bring your Queen out too early'. I have played at least one game where early development of the Queen to the center was an excellent strategy. For sure there are other positions, but how many? What characteristics do they share? For me, answering questions like these are more critical than the tree of opening variations for a single start position. In the long run they will help me to understand chess better and to play a stronger game.