28 December 2013

Who's Interested in Chess960?

A few years ago, in Stats and More Stats, I presented some statistics about visitors to this blog. Here's an update.

May 2009 – December 2013

The three charts, all of which are prepared on demand by Google, show 'Pageviews by Countries', 'Pageviews by Browsers', and 'Pageviews by Operating Systems'. The most significant difference between this world map and the 'More Stats' world map is the appearance of Russia. Interest in this blog -- and by extension, interest in chess960 -- is now at the same level as in Germany and the U.K.

Here's wishing you a great 2014!

21 December 2013

Fischer and 'Wild Variant 22'

I ended the previous post, Notable Chess960 Players (on the ICC) with an observation.
I discovered two active players who don't feature on any 'best' list but who might be important to the history of chess960: GM Miguel Quinteros, aka mquinteros, and GM Eugene Torre, aka Bradidik. Both are known to have been friendly with Fischer.

After writing that paragraph I started to wonder whether Fischer might possibly have played chess960 on the ICC. There were, after all, rumors that he had been spotted there in the early 2000s. Before looking into the details, I checked whether chess960 was available on the ICC at that time. Indeed it was: ICC News Item #1125, 'Fischer-Random Chess is now available on ICC', dated 15 January 1999.

The Internet Chess Club now has Fischer-Random Chess available as wild variant 22. The pieces start out in one of 960 possible initial positions. Pieces are arranged randomly on the first rank, with the only restrictions being the King must be between the two Rooks, and the Bishops must be on opposite colors.

That was well before the ICC sightings were reported; for example, The third coming of Bobby Fischer? [Chessbase.com], 18 September 2001:-

The story is not going away, in fact it is gaining momentum. Many people believe that Bobby Fischer has returned and is performing miracles on the Internet. Nigel Short said he was "99 per cent sure" he has played Fischer.

The reports attracted so much attention that the ICC put up a help page titled Short's Encounter with...Fischer? [Chessclub.com]. Using the links on that page I located a radio interview where he was asked about the rumors (see Bobby Fischer Radio Interviews '20th, Reykjavik, Iceland, Jan 27 2002', about 2:00 into the first audio clip).

Q: There has been news that you might have been playing on the Internet. Is that true? A: Not true. That's a lot of BS. [...] Q: Nigel Short said that he met someone on the Net that might have been you. A: He can say whatever he wants.

It turns out that the radio interview was the same I once featured in Fischer: 'The *Old* Chess Is Dead'. The question about Short was asked between the two excerpts I gave in that 'Chess Is Dead' post.

None of this rules out the possibility that Fischer played 'wild variant 22' on the ICC, but it's definitely a stretch. If the ICC ever releases better tools to query the game database, I'll take a second look, but that's unlikely to happen soon.

14 December 2013

Notable Chess960 Players

Afer that brief detour for The Week in Chess960, let's return to Finding Top ICC Chess960 Players. At the top of the 'Best' list is Hikaru Nakamura, aka Smallville, whose last chess960 game was played in August 2010 against the second best player on the list. The American GM has been featured several times on this blog, where the previous post was 'I wish there were more opportunities to play'. While I would like to present some of his ICC games, they were all played at a three-minute blitz time control and there is no classification by start position on ICC. If I think of some clever way to filter the games, I'll take another look.

Further down the ICC list is Yasser Seirawan, aka Om (as in the Hindu mantra?), another former U.S. Champion. He last played in November 2013, and was last featured on this blog in A Few More Chess960 Resources.

Ranked just beneath Seirawan is Fabiano Caruana, aka Adaptation, and, like Nakmura, another world top-10 player at traditional chess. I wasn't aware that he was a chess960 player until I wrote the 'Top ICC' post. He last played in July this year.

While I was writing this current post, I discovered two active players who don't feature on any 'best' list but who might be important to the history of chess960: GM Miguel Quinteros, aka mquinteros, and GM Eugene Torre, aka Bradidik. Both are known to have been friendly with Fischer. Did they ever play his invention with him? I hope that some day we find out one way or the other.

07 December 2013

The Week in Chess960

In my previous post, Elite ICC Chess960 Players, I ended with a declaration by GM Andrei Deviatkin [Andrey Devyatkin], "Maybe I will continue playing Fischer's chess, but the fact that there are no tournaments in this format means that chess is over for me. It's time to try out something else." Around the start of the recent Carlsen - Anand match (game two), I happened to record a Twitter dialog between Deviatkin and TWIC's Mark Crowther. For some reason that escapes me, Twitter excerpts are usually presented as visual snippets. Here it is.

And here's the same conversation transcribed for the sightless, like search engines.

Mikhail Golubev ?@mikhail_golubev 10 Nov • GM Nigel Davies: "I wonder when the fans of 'classical chess' World Championships will finally admit that a change is required".

Andrey Deviatkin ?@AndreyDeviatkin 10 Nov • @mikhail_golubev Fischer random change

Mark Crowther @MarkTWIC 10 Nov • @AndreyDeviatkin @mikhail_golubev If Fischer random is the answer then it's time to take up a completely different game.

Andrey Deviatkin @AndreyDeviatkin 10 Nov • @MarkTWIC @mikhail_golubev Global chess laws, middlegame and endgame theory, tactics - everything will be the same except the openings.

Mark Crowther @MarkTWIC 10 Nov • @AndreyDeviatkin There is a beauty and balance to the start position we have. You can be pretty much lost with some random positions.

The last tweet, missing from my snippet, was

Andrey Deviatkin @AndreyDeviatkin 10 Nov • @MarkTWIC "Ugly" is subjective. And I'm sure Black isn't lost in any of the positions. Isn't it like saying Caro-Kann or French is losing?

It's mind-boggling how often I see fans of traditional chess rejecting chess960 for imagined faults. I'll cut Crowther some slack, because the success of TWIC is partly based on his weekly distribution of recent games. The interest in his work stems from players maintaining chess databases for opening research and would shrink (disappear?) if the game scores were chess960 games. In the world of traditional chess, the middlegame and endgame receive far less attention than the opening, putting Crowther in the same company as titled players who earn a living from books like 'Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Amar's Opening'.

Question to Mark Crowther: If 'it's time to take up a completely different game', what game do you recommend? Halo?

30 November 2013

Elite ICC Chess960 Players

In my previous post, Finding Top ICC Chess960 Players, I linked to an interesting resource that does exactly that: lists top ICC chess960 players. I also included a snapshot of a portion of the (then) current list, 'The 'Best' list, identifies the top-20 chess960 ratings of all time. It currently looks like this.' What can be learned from this resource?

First, we learn which world class players have dabbled with chess960. The current list includes five players rated over 2700 by FIDE. See the 'Finding Top Players' post for an explanation of the data.

1  Smallville    g Hikaru Nakamura    (2786 USA) 2480 82
3  quangliem     g Quang Liem Le      (2703 VIE) 2297 70
8  depressnyak   g Alexander Grischuk (2785 RUS) 2271 33
14 Vladimirovich g Dmitry Andreikin   (2710 RUS) 2249 114
16 Adaptation    g Fabiano Caruana    (2782 ITA) 2240 106

After that, we learn who are the most serious chess960 players among the elite. There are five titled players on the list who have played over 1000 chess960 games.

2  Vidocq        g Boris Grachev      (2669 RUS) 2389 1217
4  RoadKing      g                               2293 1460
7  Impitoyable   m Benoit Lepelletier (2476 FRA) 2275 1374
11 Shadeath      g Andrei Deviatkin   (2526 RUS) 2257 1651
12 TheDuns       m Aurelien Dunis     (2517 FRA) 2256 1032

Of those five titled players, one name was more familiar than the others: Shadeath (Andrei Deviatkin). Where had I heard his name before? His 'finger' page -- Andrey Devyatkin [Deviatkin] -- gave me a clue:-

3: I play only chess960, or Fischer chess - this name seems more appropriate to me than the ugly 'Fischerandom'. Robert Fischer was a genius.
5: Since there are no serious Fischer chess tournaments, I'm retired.
7: Anyway, chess is just a game like minesweeper and shouldn't be taken too seriously unless your (chess) talent is enormous.

A few months ago his name appeared in the general chess news: "It's Time to Try Out Something Else." GM Andrei Deviatkin Decides to Quit His Chess Career [chess-news.ru].

GM Andrei Deviatkin decided to finish his chess career and announced his decision on his Facebook page: "Maybe I will continue playing Fischer's chess, but the fact that there are no tournaments in this format means that chess is over for me. It's time to try out something else."

The article further quoted him as saying, "I just understood that chess became an absolutely different game from the one I have played in my childhood and youth. The computer has changed it dramatically.' What else does this elite player have to say about Fischer's greatest invention? I'll continue with that in another post.

23 November 2013

Finding Top ICC Chess960 Players

In my previous post, Carlsen's First Chess960 Move?, I mentioned a resource titled Highest ICC ratings, which includes a section on chess960. Since ICC attracts many of the top players in chess, a 'highest ratings' looks like a good way to identify top players in chess960. This is in spite of the warnings by the author of the page (Juha Kivijärvi of Finland): 'These lists are meant for personal use. Nothing is guaranteed to be correct. I am not affiliated with ICC in any way.'.

Like the other sections on the page, chess960 is split into 'Current' and 'Best' lists. The 'Best' list, identifies the top-20 chess960 ratings of all time. It currently looks like this.

The columns are for ICC handle, player (title / name / elo / age / country), rating, number games. More info on the players can be found using the ICC 'finger' command. For example, the command for the first entry in the list is Finger: Smallville

Information about Smallville(GM) (Last disconnected ...

              rating [need] win  loss  draw total   best
Wild            2232  [6]   200   132     7   339   2321 
Chess960        2410  [8]    75     3     4    82   2480

The difference here between 'Wild' and 'Chess960' isn't completely clear to me. The ICC help page, Playing "Wild" Chess Variants, says

Fischer Random Chess -- Wild 22 • This is also a type of shuffle chess, and was invented by Bobby Fischer. [...] See help Fischer-random.

That 'Fischer-random' page starts,

Fischer Random Chess (wild 22 on ICC) is a chess variant invented by Bobby Fischer. To play a game of Fischer Random Wild on the ICC, type "seek w22" to issue a seek, or "match Fred w22" to offer a game to a specific player.

After looking at many finger pages, I'm sure that the 'Wild' line includes counts for Wild 22 (aka 'Fischer-random', aka chess960), plus other 'Wild' variants. Why the separate data for chess960? Again, I haven't figured it out yet.

There's one more thing before I sign off for today. The 'Highest ICC ratings' page says it is updated daily, but there appears to be no archive of previous pages. As with so much information lost from the web, Archive.org comes to the rescue: Saved 22 times between April 27, 2006 and ....

Now that I know a little more about who plays chess960 on ICC, I'll come back to the top players in a future post. There are some well known names on both the 'Current' and 'Best' lists.

16 November 2013

Carlsen's First Chess960 Move?

While I was working on this post, Magnus Carlsen, playing Black, beat Vishy Anand in the sixth game of their World Championship match, giving him a 2-0 lead with six games to play. Not many observers would now rate very highly Anand's chances of retaining the title. It might seem opportunistic to point out that Carlsen Played Chess960, but so he did, if only for a few games.

The first game mentioned in the 'Carlsen Played' post -- 'McShane' vs. 'Magnus' -- was played in September 2004, the year Carlsen became a grandmaster at age 13. It was played at a blitz time control of three minutes per player plus an increment of one second per move. I can't imagine that anyone would play chess960 for the first time at a bullet or blitz control, so it's entirely possible that Carlsen had already played chess960 before this first recorded game.

The start position was SP317 NQRBKRBN, and after 1.e4 c6, the players reached the position shown in the top diagram. I don't really like Carlsen's first move, 1...c6. Although it opens diagonals for the Queen and Bishop, it neglects the center, allowing White to play 2.d4 with impunity, which he did.

After the following moves, 2...Nb6 3.c3 d5 4.e5 e6 5.Ng3 f6 6.f4 f5 7.Be3 Bf7 8.Rc2 Qc7 9.Nb3 Nc4 10.Bc1 Ng6, the players reached the position shown in the bottom diagram. The blocked Pawn center, which could easily arise after 1.d4 in traditional chess, looks better for White because of the space advantage. Both players now castled O-O, and White won on move 44.

After this game, ICC returns only two more Carlsen games, both played against 'JonLudvig' (probably Norwegian GM Jon Ludvig Hammer) in 2007. It's fair to say from this small sample that Carlsen was not overly impressed by chess960. Which strong players compete regularly at chess960 on ICC? The answer is on a list at Highest ICC ratings, where chess960 is the last section on the page. I'll take a closer look at this resource in a future post.

09 November 2013

Carlsen Played Chess960

This week, in an email message, I received an offer from the Internet Chess Club (ICC) that said, 'The first two days of the World Championship match will be free for everyone in ICC.' That sounded good to me, so while I was watching game one of the Anand - Carlsen match on another site, I followed the instructions and joined ICC.

As most of the chess world knows by now, game one of the match ended in a draw by repetition after only 90 minutes of play. Signing up with the ICC took somewhat longer than that. What to do with the new membership? While watching GM Benjamin's commentary, I remembered that Carlsen was rumored to have played chess960 on ICC. One of my posts earlier this year, Carlsen and Chess960, started,

Magnus Carlsen and chess960? As far as I know, the world no.1 has never shown any interest in Fischer's invention.

A few days later, I was corrected in one of the comments to the post.

I read somewhere some years ago that Magnus Carlsen likes to play chess960 on ICC.

After a few minutes reading various ICC help pages, I learned how to search the game archives and discovered that the Norwegian GM had indeed played at least three games on the site.

I was able to download the three games, but will save any discussion about them for another time. It appears that saying, 'Carlsen likes to play chess960', is an exaggeration, but three games are better than none.

I hope game two of the Anand - Carlsen match will be more exciting than the first game. In any case, I'll be watching it on ICC.

02 November 2013

Chess960 Better than Traditional Chess?

Last week's post about Chess960 Interest on Chess.com reminded me of the time I spent on the site a few years ago. I summarized the exploration in a post titled Chess960 Point and Counterpoint. Here's the gist of it.
Advocates of traditional chess love to invent arguments against chess960. I mentioned several in 'Some Arguments Against Chess960' and 'More Arguments Against Chess960'. While following the pros and cons about 'Advanced Chess960 @ Chess.com', I had the opportunity to encounter a few more arguments.

With nearly 69.000 chess960 players currently registered on Chess.com -- plus another 400 in the week since I wrote the 'Chess960 Interest' post -- I am happy to report that the discussion has moved up a level or two since then. For example, following are excerpts from a thread started six months ago, Chess 960. Love it? Or not really?. The initial question was straightforward.

varelse1: So what do you think of chess960? Is it better than standard chess? As good? Or worse?

This was followed by the questionner's own viewpoint.

varelse1: I thought 960 would time-warp me back to the days of Greco and Lopez. Challenging me to invent opening theory, the way they did. But now that I've tried 960 for a while, I'm not so sure. Okay, I'm shakey in the opening part, that much I expected. But I never realized how uncomfortable I would be in the middlegame as well. The middlegames I reach are completely unfamiliar. There is no sense of "been there, done that." The positions are almost an alien landscape. Only as the endgame approaches, do things start to look familiar again. I still intend to keep trying 960. But so far, I am disappointed.

It's easy to overlook that not only were Greco and Lopez trailblazers in the opening, they were on equally unfamiliar ground in the middlegame and endgame. Anyone looking for 'been there, done that' in chess960 middlegames is bound to be disappointed. Here's an opinion on the opening phase.

SaharanKnight: If you thoroughly follow the principles of opening play, which is the same in chess960 except for a few added considerations, then you as a lower rated player can indeed compete against a chess master, especialy if he is new at chess960. Of course, if he/she is an old pro at chess960, it will be harder, but strict following of opening principles should allow one to remain competitive. But who thoroughly follows the opening principles, or who has mastered them? Conclusion: Mastery of opening principles = enjoyment of chess960.

And another on the middlegame phase.

morgondag: Chess960 in my experience (which isn't that great) often enter relatively quickly into sharp and even chaotic positions. According to the "Chess for Tigers" [by Simon Webb] book, this is the kind of positions in which a much lower ranking player has the greatest possibility of beating a much stronger player.

A common sentiment is that chess960 offers a bigger intellectual challenge than does traditional chess.

FM marljivi: I give no credit to the victory of the game, which lasts, let's say, 40 moves,and the first 20 moves had been prepared with computer, then the moves 21-30 had been a part of prepared general plan, which had probably also been merely worked out by computer, and then the last 10 moves were just conversion of the big advantage into a full point. I would really like to hear someone to explain to me the drawbacks of the chess960. Please, I am all ears.

This requires a bigger investment in thinking time.

Patscher: Chess 960 can't be played live. You have to spend lots of time since the opening, so blitz 960 isn't good.

In traditional chess, a player who knows opening theory can steer a game into his strengths. This is more difficult in chess960.

AngeloPardi: The problem with playing competitive chess960 is that this introduces an element of luck : some starting positions will favor tactics, other will probably be very positional. Some might even be lost for one side from the start!

That last remark brought a favorable mention of Chess960 Jungle (see the sidebar for a link) and investigations into diffcult SPs.

morgondag: The blog Chess960 Jungle has made some more serious attempts to clasify and analyze chess960 openings. They have also tried to find SPs that are lost for black but so far not found any, although there are some SPs that are more dificult than others and black can quickly get in serious disadvantage if he does not play accurately.

Over the past few months I've noted other Chess.com forum threads that offer new angles for looking at chess960. I'll consider highlighting them in a future post on this blog.

26 October 2013

Chess960 Interest on Chess.com

Here's a neat graphic from Chess.com, Players - Online Chess, showing the chess960 rating distribution.

The data on the side says,

Players: 69.831
Average Rating: 1304
Average Glicko RD: 123
White Wins: 49.4%
Black Wins: 46.9%
Draws: 3.7%

That compares to 343.252 players of 'standard' chess (traditional chess, SP518 RNBQKBNR). These numbers are all for 'turn-based' chess, i.e. correspondence chess.

The numbers of players for 'live' chess, i.e. crossboard chess, are

Bullet: 520.896
Blitz: 1.422.635
Standard: 723.394

It's not surprising that the player count for chess960 is the smallest of the five playing categories. Even so, it's roughly equivalent to total USCF membership.

19 October 2013

Updated Database of SPs (2013-10)

Since the last time I updated my database of start positions, linking specific SPs to the blog posts I've written about them, I've accumulated another dozen posts to add. While doing the new update, I had one SP with a previous entry -- SP491 QRNKBNRB -- which I wrote about twice in the last month. Some SPs get all the attention...

12 October 2013

Choosing a First Move - Part 2

In my previous post, Choosing a First Move, I stepped through an exercise to choose two first moves in identical start positions (SPs), one game playing White and one game playing Black (SP491 QRNKBNRB). The twist for playing Black was that I selected my opponent's first move from a list of 'viable' first moves that he thought were acceptable for that particular SP.

In that first exercise I chose my own first move based on what I considered to be the logical requirements of the SP, and I chose my opponent's first move by determining the least favorable move on his list. My hypothetical opponent was HarryO of the Chess960 Jungle blog, who has set up a second experiment similar to the first. He started by identifying an SP with a long list of first moves, SP395 beats SP491 in the competition for the most number of viable starts, then whittled the list down by applying another level of logic, What is a logical first move?.

If the position shown in the following diagram looks familiar, it's not your imagination playing tricks. It is similar to the SP used in the first 'Choosing' exercise; the only difference is that the King and Knight are switched. Just as in traditional chess, where a small difference in two positions can make a large difference in the evaluation of those positions, similar chess960 SPs can have large differences in their logical underpinnings.

For example, in SP491 I saw 'no reason to favor one of the castling options over the other'. In the current position, the players can castle O-O without any preparation, while castling O-O-O will take four moves: one Pawn move and three minor piece moves. This means that castling O-O is more likely to occur. When you consider that the players will also need to weaken the Queenside (a-side) slightly to let the corner Queen out, castling O-O looks even more likely.

Based on the principle of making the obvious moves first, 1.O-O is a good candidate move. Unlike many chess960 players, I prefer to hold off early castling even when possible. Castling, being a mainly defensive move, is somewhat passive and thereby risks losing White's natural initiative. On top of that, there is always a possibility that castling to the other side will prove to be appropriate. Are there any other good moves?

The move I chose in the SP491 exercise, 1.d4, suggests itself again. It plants a Pawn in the center, opens a diagonal for the Bishop on e1, and prepares a shelter for the Knight on d3. It also shields the Queen from the Bishop on the long a1-h8 diagonal. Also worth considering is 1.f4, which opens the other diagonal for the Be1, prepares an open file for the castled Rook on f1, and plans to build a Pawn center with e2-e4. The move 1.c4 also looks playable, hoping to play d4 on the next move and preparing to bring the Knight to c3.

All things considered, I would play the solid 1.O-O against a higher rated player, giving me one move to see how he assesses the position. I would play the looser 1.d4 against an equal or lower rated player. Nothing dictates that the same first move is best in all circumstances.


To choose White's first move in the game where I am playing Black, let's look at the list in HarryO's 'Logical First Move' post. He leaves a choice of eight moves, including two that I also like for White, 1.c4 and 1.d4. Of the remaining moves, the two Knight moves, 1.Nc3 and 1.Ne3, aren't something I would play, but they both prepare Nd5 with an attack on the weak c-Pawn. If this happens, Black can defend adequately with ...Ne6, leaving a large number of other moves to play first. Both Knight moves leave White with the natural initiative of the first move, so they are good moves for White.

Are there any first moves for White that don't keep the initiative? Both 1.d3 and 1.e3 look suspicious, because they are passive and put no pressure on Black. The move 1.d3 at least opens a diagonal for a Bishop, but 1.e3 does nothing to further the development of any pieces. The move 1.e3 even allows Black the same range of options as White had on the first move. I could continue and choose a first move for Black, but that goes beyond the objective of this exercise.

To summarize, either 1.d4 or 1.O-O, according to circumstances, would be my first move, and 1.e3 would be the first move for my hypothetical opponent. I get good play in both games.

05 October 2013

Choosing a First Move

I closed last week's post, Counting Viable First Moves, with the comment, 'What move would I play in SP491? That's an exercise that I'll save for another post.' In the meantime, HarryO has discovered another start position (SP) that appears to have a large number of possible first moves: SP395 beats SP491 in the competition for the most number of viable starts.

As interesting as HarryO's idea is, I believe it has a fatal flaw, which I stated in a comment to that SP395 post:-

I propose we play a two-game match with one of these SPs that you've flagged, where we each take White in one game. In the game where you are White, I will select your first move from your list of viable moves. In the game where I am White, I will choose my first move myself.

Let's return to SP491 and choose a pair of moves for the hypothetical match. I'll begin with the game where I'm playing White.

When I look at a new SP for the first time, I start with the castling choices. In SP491, I see no reason to favor one of the castling options over the other. Castling O-O-O will be possible after the Nc1 moves, while castling O-O requires the Be1 and the Nf1 to move off the back rank.

I adhere to classical opening principles, especially the one about paying attention to the center. For this reason, the moves 1.b4 and 1.g4 don't appeal to me, even though it is often attractive to advance by two ranks the Pawn directly in front of a Rook. On top of ignoring the center, both moves preclude future castling to that wing.

I also don't like developing Knights until I get some idea where they will be most active. In the given position it is too early to decide about the Knights. On top of that, the moves 1.Nd3 and 1.Ne3 leave the Knight exposed to harrassment by the Black center Pawns.

After a few minutes thought, I decided that 1.d4 is my preferred move in this position. It prepares Nc1-Nd3, where the Knight is both centralized and protected, and where castling O-O-O is already possible. As a bonus, the castled Rook would be placed on a partially open file. The move 1.d4 also opens a diagonal for the Bishop on e1, bringing White one step closer to castling O-O.

The downside of 1.d4 is that the Pawn is exposed to attack by the Bishop on h8 and by ...Ne6. After playing with the position a few more minutes, I decided that both of these attacks can be defended in various ways.


As for choosing a first move for my opponent, my eye immediately jumped to the 12th possibility on the list of viable SP491 moves: 1.h4. HarryO justified this move with the comment, 'it takes control of g5, threatens h5, and allows Nh2/f3', but none of those reasons is particularly compelling. The downside of 1.h4 is that it ignores the center, does nothing to develop a piece, and signals that White will not be castling O-O. Each of those disadvantages is enough to reject the move and taken together they brand 1.h4 as positionally weak.

A skilled chess960 player like GM Nakamura might whip up some serious threats with 1.h4, but he knows more about chess than the average player does. So 1.d4 for me and 1.h4 for my hypothetical opponent, and I'm off to a good start.

28 September 2013

Counting Viable First Moves

Over on the Chess960 Jungle blog, HarryO has come up with an interesting concept: Competition to find the SP with the highest number of viable first moves. He explains,
Discovered a start position SP today that has a ridiculous amount of viable first moves options! More than standard chess in fact, 15 in total. The absolute maximum number of first moves in some Chess960 starts is 21, but usually a large number of those can be [written] off because they are possible but theoretically too weak.

He then lists the 15 moves and reveals the methodology used to determine that number.

After a depth-24 search, Houdini-3 thinks that the variation in score between the best and worst first moves in that list is +/- 0.1 which is tiny. [...] In contrast, standard chess has at the very most 13 viable first moves but the variation in score is much bigger at +/- 0.43.

In other words, 1) Run your engine to a fixed depth on a certain SP, and 2) Record how many top moves have a similar evaluation. I imagine that different engines produce different results and that the results for one engine across all 960 SPs would probably tell us something new about the entire set of SPs.


A few months ago I did a similar experiment that I recorded in a post titled First Move Diversity in Chess960. Working with a sample of real games between real players, most of them less than master strength, I calculated how many different first moves had been played with each SP. My sample was small by chess960 standards, so I'm not convinced the results showed anything conclusive. If the sample had been an order of magnitude larger, I could have also counted responses to the first moves.

For SP491 QRNKBNRB, I discovered that five different first moves had been played (shown here with the number of times each move was played):-

5: 1.g3
4: 1.g4
3: 1.d4
1: 1.Nd3
1: 1.Ng3

Note that the last move in this list, 1.Ng3, isn't even one of the 15 moves on HarryO's list. What move would I play in SP491? That's an exercise that I'll save for another post. In the meantime, it's also worth noting that SP491 was the position that appeared in The First Recorded Fischerandom Game, GM Bronstein - IM Douven 1996. Bronstein, who missed becoming World Champion by the narrowest of margins, played 1.d4.

21 September 2013

Pieces in the Corner Square

Remember the following diagram? I developed it to illustrate A Framework for Chess960 Opening Theory. Its objective is to document different combinations of pieces and possible chess960 start squares.

The first column in the table, covering the a/h-files, represents one of the controversial aspects of chess960 : pieces that start in the corner squares. A corner square, having only three adjacent squares, offers fewer opportunities for development than the other back rank squares, which all have five adjacent squares.

A Rook in a corner square is not controversial. That is, after all, the setup used in traditional chess. Starting in the corner, a Rook doesn't interfere with the development of the minor pieces. It just waits patiently until an open file appears on the board, then heads for that file like a boat heads for open water. The first move of a Rook is nearly always along its back rank.

Once in a while a Rook is lifted to its second rank, where it gets active play laterally, but a lift to the third rank is rare. There is a stigma attached to the early two-step move of an a/h-Pawn, making that move psychologically difficult to play. Once in a great while, the blocking Pawn disappears on a capture or an exchange to its adjacent file, opening a file for the Rook immediately.

A Knight in the corner is not particularly controversial. It has only two choices for development, where the third rank on the adjacent file is often the natural move. Going to the second rank two files away requires another move to bring the Knight into full play. This is sometimes an attractive choice when the Knight continues to a central square, like the sequence Na1-c2-e3.

A Bishop in the corner is the most controversial corner placement. The first move of the Bishop can only be on its long diagonal, which requires moving the Pawn on the adjacent file. Even if this limitation can be considered a disadvantage, the Bishop is ready for action after a single Pawn move, which is a distinct advantage.

That leaves the case of a Queen in the corner. There are three ways to activate the strongest piece. I gave examples of diagonal development in a revent post, Opening Queen Swap in the Corner, although the early Queen exchange seen there is not typical.

The Queen can also be developed along its file, by moving the blocking Pawn one or two squares. Another recent post, Activating the Corner Queen, gave an example of a Queen developed vertically. This occurs more frequently than for the Rook, because the Queen obtains a new diagonal for its second move, thereby increasing its activity.

The most popular development of the Rook -- laterally along the first rank -- is perhaps the least popular for the Queen. It requires too many moves to get the Queen into the game, although it might be interesting to collect examples of this to see the circumstances under which it occurs.

There is a choice for any player who has trouble with these many possibilities for the corner square. Stay with the traditional start position. The corner Rook maneuvers are well known and there is little need for further thinking.

14 September 2013

Activating the Corner Queen

The family of chess960 start positions (SPs) with a Queen in the corner is among the most challenging to play. There is no applicable principle from the traditional SP (RNBQKBNR) to serve as a guideline, so the players are on their own. Since 25% of all SPs (240 out of 960) have the Queen in the corner, the positions are seen frequently.

I touched on the topic of the corner Queen a few years ago in 'Fianchetto the Light Squared Bishop', where I quoted GM Seirawan saying, 'Unfortunately, because the Queens are buried in the corner, I don't see real tactics breaking out in the first dozen moves or so.' I don't believe that such positions are 'unfortunate'. There is no reason why fireworks need to occur immediately and good results often come to the player who is patient.

My previous post, Opening Queen Swap in the Corner, discussed a treatment of the corner Queen which doesn't happen often. I recently played another game which had a more normal treatment. It started with SP180 NBBRNKRQ and I had the Black pieces. Note that castling O-O is possible on the first move.

The first moves were 1.c4 c5 2.Nb3 Nb6 3.Nxc5 Nxc4 4.b3, reaching the position in the top diagram. Retreating the Knight didn't appeal to me, so I decided to play 4...b6, continuing the symmetry and offering a Pawn sacrifice. In my notes to the game, I wrote, 'Not sure if this is sound, but it's interesting!', a sentiment which arises frequently when I evaluate chess960 opening moves.

The critical line is the desperado continuation 5.Nxd7+ Bxd7 6.bxc4 Nd6 7.d3 Bc6, threatening the c-Pawn and keeping the initiative with Black. My opponent played instead 5.bxc4, and the game continued 5...bxc5 6.Bc2 O-O 7.Bb2 Bb7 8.O-O, reaching the bottom diagram.

In this position I felt that Black had a slight initiative. How is this possible? In fact, the move 6.Bc2 wasted a tempo because the Bishop is not posted any better on c2 than on b1. The b1-h7 diagonal is far more important than the a4-d1 diagonal. This observation helped to answer the key question: how should I develop the Queen. Since the Queen has no aggressive prospects on the a1-h8 diagonal, it can only come into immediate play via h6.

With this in mind I played 8...h5, reasoning that if White played similarly, Black's activity would occur first. The weakening of Black's Kingside (h-side for the purists) is secondary, because the h-Pawn can't be attacked. It might even play an aggressive role by advancing to h4.

Instead of 9.h4, White shielded the Queen on the long diagonal with 9.Nf3. I continued with the plan from the previous move and played 9...Qh6. After 10.d3, the time was right for 10...d5, opening the game. Black's Queen can transfer in one move to the Queenside (a-side), thereby supporting any tactical variations with the most powerful piece on the board. Meanwhile, White's Queen will languish in the corner.

Although the game lasted another 50 moves, Black was always in command and eventually won. The early activation of Black's Queen was the deciding factor.

07 September 2013

Opening Queen Swap in the Corner

During the five years that I've been playing chess960 (see Thanks, Bobby for some general reflections), I've played around 100 games. Among my favorites are several games that I won with Black against good players, but one game in particular stands out.

The game was my first playing for a team, conducted under the system described in Parallel Games, two games against the same opponent with the same start position. Much to my dismay, the team was already losing 0-2 a short time into the match when our last board lost both his games by blitzing his moves. 'Overconfidence' was his excuse.

I won my game with White while the other team members played their games to an even result, so the team was one point down with only my game as Black remaining. The game started as SP861 RKNBRNBQ, a Queen-in-the-corner position. The first moves were 1.f4 f5 2.Nd3, reaching the position shown in the top diagram. Here I played 2...g5, planning the continuation 3.fxg5 e5, where Black has excellent play for the Pawn.

My opponent avoided this and the game continued 3.g3 gxf4 4.gxf4 c6 5.e4 fxe4 6.Qxe4 Nd6 7.Qe5, reaching the bottom diagram. White is hoping for an exchange of Queens on e5, repairing his Pawn structure and retaining the initiative.

Black can't avoid the Queen swap, but he can dictate the terms. I played the unusual idea 7...Ng6, when White has nothing better than 8.Qxh8 Nxh8. Black is not worse and has good play against the isolated f-Pawn. The game continued 9.Bg4 e6 10.Ng3 Kc7.

White launched a Queenside attack with the a-Pawn and castled O-O. Black repulsed the attack and launched a counterattack on White's weak Kingside, eventually winning a Bishop for a Knight. A long period of maneuvering set in and I finally converted my positional advantages into an extra Pawn. I wrote about the endgame in a post on my main blog, Simple Positions, Pretty Geometries.

The league's organizer, in a summary of the match, noted,

The cliffhanger of Section B delivered the teams New England [my team] and Team XLink who shared the victory with a result of 5-5. Funnily enough no draws occurred. Absolutely well worth seeing was the clash of two chess960 heavyweights at the first board. Mark with Black managed to defeat Carl in a model correspondence game.

It's always nice to win, but it's even nicer when the game has special value.

24 August 2013

Thanks, Bobby!

I passed an anniversary milestone this week. I'm not talking about my wedding anniversary, which was a week earlier; I'm talking about five years playing chess960. I recorded the decision to play in a post on my main blog, Shall We Play Fischerandom Chess? -- yes, we shall, and a month later I reported on my first game, Chess960? I'm Hooked!

At the same time I began playing, I started looking into the nuances of the game, including a weekly post on that main blog. Some months later, in May 2009, I set up this current blog, Chess960 Blogging Leaves Home, and have been writing at least one post a week.

My first chess960 games brought back powerful memories of the days when I started to take a keen interest in chess. The thrill of discovery used to be a rare emotion, but now I experience it during every chess960 game, where the intellectual challenge starts on the first move.

After five years I'm still full of enthusiasm. My chess middlegame is stronger, thanks to the fantastic number of new types of position that chess960 offers, and my endgame is much stronger, now that I have time available for study that used to be spent on the openings. Knowing that I can tackle endless varieties of never-before-seen positions has given me additional confidence in all phases of the game.

For me, the only open question is whether chess960 will ever become as popular as chess is. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. As long as there are other keen players against whom I can match wits, its popularity doesn't matter at all.

17 August 2013

'Reform Chess'

Pleased that I actually learned something from old rec.games.chess (rgc) posts -- see my previous blog post, Foraging the 'News Groups' -- I returned to the resource looking for more material on the early days of chess960. Here's a snippet by IM Mark Ginsburg from May 1993, titled Fischer (again).
Fischer met with the Polgars recently on the Yugoslavia / Hungary border. He attempted to negotiate a match when he would play Judit a variant of chess, known in some circles as "Reform Chess" - where the piece arrangement for both sides on the first rank is determined at random before the game starts (except that the Kings, and the Rooks, stay on their 'normal squares' to allow for eventual castling).

No doubt Fischer feels that Judit is a product of intense training (and by extension, memorization) and wants to 'prove' his superior talent. Whatever the case, the Polgars have rejected his initial overtures to a Reform Chess Match and they went back to Budapest - and I suppose he likewise retreated to a hotel room in Belgrade. One anecdote that came out of this meeting is that Fischer is now being asked to pay for his hotel room daily, in cash.

A follow-up post, also titled Fischer (again), but from another rgc-user, gave more details about Fischer's new idea.

While some may interpret this as Fischer being unwilling to play Judit straight-up, I'd counter that Fischer has been promoting the idea of randomized chess for some time. Also, during a [Fischer - Spassky] II press conference (perhaps it was the one before the match started?) Fischer was discussing randomized chess.

Randomized chess was experimented with early on by Aaron Alexandre (1766-1850) and later by Erich Brunner (1885-1938). Of course, Bird (1830-1908) and Capablanca (1888-1942) were also very big supporters of unorthodox chess to get away from mechanistic memorization of openings. Fischer is obviously of the same belief.

This squares with other facts that I've featured in earlier posts. See, for example, Pictures of a Fischer Random Precursor. As for the youngest (and strongest chess player) of the three famous Polgar sisters, Judit is on record as having said, 'To be honest, I never was a big fan of Fischer Random'; see KC-Conference with Judit Polgar.

10 August 2013

Foraging the 'News Groups'

The heyday of rec.games.chess (rgc; a piece of a technology once known as 'news groups') was long ago, but the forum's posts through the mid-2000s are a valuable archive for the early days of the Internet. What can rgc tell us about the early days of chess960? For example, what can it tell us about the evolution of the 'chess960' name? I searched rgc for the first occurrence of the most popular chess960 synonyms.

'fischer random'

The two word spelling was the earliest reference I could find.

April 1996 was after the first (tentative) formal mention by Fischer in November 1995, as I recorded in An Aborted Announcement, and the formal announcement in June 1996, Fischer Announces Fischerandom. There is not enough information in the rgc thread to identify what happened in April.


  • 1996-06-02: The Week in Chess No. 85 • 'One person who always attracts attention when he appears is the long lost Bobby Fischer. He is about to appear in Argentina to promote his newchess game FISCHERANDOM with a press conference later this month.'

The spelling with one 'r' was Fischer's preferred spelling, but it didn't take long for the two 'r' version to appear.


That thread uses both 'r' and 'rr'spellings in posts by two different people. The chess960 name, which has since been adopted as the preferred name (except perhaps in the United States), emerged more than six years later.


  • 2002-12-29: Wishes for the coming year 2003 • 'My computer chess related hope for 2003 is for more chess programmers to integrate the Fischer Random Chess (FullChess / Chess960) variant into their engines.'

The post was signed 'Reinhard Scharnagl', another of the early promoters of Fischer's greatest invention.

03 August 2013

Queen Safety in the Center

'Do not bring your Queen out too early', as I once quoted in a post on Fine's 'General Principles' of Opening Theory. There are at least two reasons for this: (1) the best square for the Queen is usually not apparent until some other pieces and a few Pawns have moved, and (2) the opponent can develop more pieces harrassing the Queen at the same time.

While this is a tried-and-true principle of traditional chess, some chess960 positions leave room for more specific considerations. One such position that I encountered, SP679 QRBKNNRB, is shown in the top diagram. I played it as White in a pyramid game on Schemingmind.com (see Pyramids and Dropouts for an explanation of the event format). I had been playing chess960 for less than a year, my opponent, a top-10 player on Schemingmind.com, was the highest rated player in the pyramid, and I was curious to see if I could hold my own against him.

The initial moves were cautious, 1.b3 b6 2.Nf3 Ne6 3.Bb2 Nd6 4.d3 Bb7, as is often the case when the Queen starts in the corner. After the first contact between the forces, both players decided to castle O-O-O: 5.e4 f5 6.exf5 Nxf5 7.N1d2 O-O-O 8.O-O-O. This led to the position in the bottom diagram.

The game continued 8...g6 9.Bxh8 Rxh8, exchanging the dark squared Bishops. Now I wondered what to do with my Queen. I finally hit on the idea of 10.Qe5, placing it in the center. This might seem paradoxical, given that all of the pieces, except the Bishops that were just exchanged, are still on the board. Black, however, doesn't have many possibilities to harrass the Queen. The move ...d6 leaves the Knight en prise. If the Knight first moves away, or if Black moves the other Knight followed by a Rook lift to f5, White can retreat the Queen down the e-file.

The game continued 10...Rhf8 11.g3 a5 12.a4 Rf7 13.e4 h6 14.h4 Rdf8 15.Rde1 Nfg7 16.Nh2 d6, finally attacking the Queen, which retreated 17.Qc3. I eventually lost in the endgame, after declining my opponent's draw offer, but was happy with the course of the opening. I learned that there are chess960 positions where the Queen is quite safe in the center.

27 July 2013

More on Displacement and Distance

Responding to my post on 'Bizarre Castling Rules'?, HarryO suggested examining the R***K**R positions (see Non-Random Chess960 Trial Game 9: SP864 after 4)...e6), e.g.
1) Do these 18 starts allow [full] Queenside and Kingside castling strategies or are they restricted in some way? [...]

with the further restriction that

The main culprits we should investigate are the six SPs with Knights on the same color probably starting with the four N*N SPs.

I had some difficulties to compare the different positions, so I created a chart in the same style I used in The KID Family Goes the Distance.

With the left Rook (zLR), King, and right Rook (zRR) fixed to their original squares, the list includes SP518, while the 'distance' (Dist) from that position to the other positions is typically low. It turns out that HarryO's suggested positions can be identified easily from a calculation based on the displacements of the pieces (zLR, zLN, etc.).

For example, the first position in the list, SP414, has the left Knight (zLN) displaced by one square and the right Knight (zRN) by three squares. The sum of these -- four squares -- is an even number; the Knights start on different color squares, because they start on different color squares in SP518. For the second position in the list, SP430, zLN = 0 and zRN = -3. The sum of these displacements (using their absolute values) is an odd number, so the Knights are on the same color square (N*N in SP430).

[By similar reasoning, the combined displacements of the Bishops must always be an even number. The Bishops are on different color squares in SP518, a requirement that holds for all chess960 positions.]

Of the 18 positions in the R***K**R family, HarryO is right in pointing out that only six have the Knights on the same color. That means twelve positions have Knights on different colors. Why the imbalance in the two cases? Because Knights on the same color mean there are fewer possibilities for placing the Bishops.

Another curiosity of the same type is the number of positions in the family where a Knight starts on the same square as SP518. There are eight positions where zLN = 0, but only six where zRN = 0. Why the difference? Because in R***K**R, the left Rook and the King are on the same color as the right Knight. This again limits the choice for placing one of the Bishops.

That's all nice to know, but it doesn't tell us anything about the dynamics of the different SPs. Some practical tests will be necessary to do that.

20 July 2013

A Two Pawn Gambit for Black

Along with the game featured in my previous post, Dynamic Imbalances Are Instructive, I played another unusual game in the same LSS event. The start position, SP305 BNQBRKRN, is still visible in the top diagram, where my opponent opened with 1.b3.

Here I had the idea to sacrifice a Pawn by playing 1...e5, which my opponent accepted with 2.Qa3+ Be7 3.Qxa7. The game continued 3...Na6 4.Qe3 b5 5.Qh3, when I sacrificed a second Pawn with 5...O-O 6.Bxe5, reaching the bottom diagram.

What's the compensation for the two Pawns? Black is better developed and will gain further time by threatening the Bishop on e5 and the Queen. The Knight on a6 will come into play via c5 (less likely is b4), after which the move ...Qa6 will initiate an attack on the Queenside. The move ...f5 will activate both Rooks and threaten to advance into White's Kingside, supported by the light-squared Bishop on the long diagonal.

All of these objectives were met in the following moves: 6...Ng6 7.Bb2 f5 8.e3 Nc5 9.Ng3 Qa6. Black sacrificed two more Pawns with 10.Nc3 f4 11.Nh5 Ne6 12.Be2 fxe3 13.dxe3 Qa5 14.Bxb5 Bb4 15.Bxd7, when White was no longer able to cope with the pressure. Short of time, he blundered on the 19th move and promptly resigned.

My note to my first move said, 'Not sure it's sound, but it's definitely interesting!' That's one of the attractions of chess960. There are new ideas to be tried as early as the first move.

13 July 2013

Dynamic Imbalances Are Instructive

Studying traditional chess often yields benefits in chess960. One obvious area is the endgame, where the old chess and the new chess are virtually indistinguishable. Another crossover occurred while I was working on the series Practical Evaluation on my main blog, in particular the topic 'material imbalances'.

I was playing White in a game on LSS that started as SP009 QNNBBRKR. One of the problems both players have is how to castle. I took a leaf from some ideas documented in a previous post -- Extreme Barbecues -- and decided I would lift the f-Rook up the f-file, thereby getting it out of the way in order to castle O-O. That explains my first moves, 1.f4 d5 2.e3 e6, reaching the position shown in the top diagram. Black has played a couple of normal developing moves.

Now I became attached to an idea that I couldn't get out of my head. It started with 3.f5. In my notes, I gave it '!?' and commented, 'Looks interesting, but is it sound? Willing to take the risk to find out...' My opponent played the obvious moves and the game continued 3...exf5 4.Rxf5 Nd6 5.Rxd5 Bc6 6.Rc5 b6, reaching the bottom diagram where the Rook is effectively trapped. Now I sacrificed the exchange with 7.Rxc6 Nxc6 8.O-O.

It looks like White is simply down the exchange with a single Pawn as compensation. According to IM (now a GM) Larry Kaufman's database research, this is more accurately calculated to be a 0.75 advantage for Black. As compensation, White has the Bishop pair (a 0.50 advantage for White) and two unopposed center Pawns (a 0.20 advantage for White). Since -0.75 + 0.50 + 0.20 gives Black a trivial advantage of -0.05, the material is almost equal. On top of this, both sides are approximately equal in development, with Black perhaps having a slight edge.

The game lasted until move 49, during which time the material imbalance transformed to a Bishop for White versus three Pawns for Black (plus other matched pieces for both sides). Although the result was a draw, the shifting dynamic imbalances were both fun to play and instructive.

06 July 2013

'Bizarre Castling Rules'?

From 'Counterplay / Readers Respond', Chess Life (CL), July 2013:-

Chess960 is a noble, but flawed attempt to force players to start thinking from the very first move of the game. The biggest problem with Chess960 are the bizarre castling rules. For anyone not familiar with Chess960, consider the following, which is just one bizarre aspect of “castling.” Depending on the opening setup, when castling, the king can move anywhere from five squares to zero squares to minus one squares (yes, the king can actually move in the opposite direction than it normally would). It would be difficult to teach this maneuver to anyone not familiar with standard chess. A variant called Chess480 seeks to simplify these castling rules, but in doing so creates some of its own issues.

I propose a variant which achieves the goal of eliminating memorization of openings while avoiding the failings of both Chess960 and Chess480. This variant, which I have dubbed Chess18, has a randomized opening setup just like its “predecessors.” The difference is that the rooks and the king start on the same squares that they do now so that castling remains exactly the same as it is now— problem solved!

An additional benefit of Chess18 is that it avoids the situation in Chess960 where with some opening setups White can attack an undefended black pawn with her first move.

When Bobby Fischer met with former FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov to propose the switch to Chess960, Ilyumzhinov advocated “step-by-step” changes mindful of the heritage of chess. Well, here is such a step.

David Couture, via e-mail

CL also provided a response:-

Chess Life asked Damian Nash, a two-time Utah state champion who ran small Chess960 tournaments at the U.S. Opens in 2010 and 2011, and also conducted small break-out sessions on the topic, to reply:

David Couture hits the nail on the head. Bizarre castling rules are a serious problem with Chess960 (Fischer Random). His solution is novel: Leave the rooks and king on the same squares as classical chess, thereby keeping familiar rules intact. Chess18 is a logical first step toward the evolution of the world’s greatest game, expanding opening books by a factor of 18. Another interesting alternative is “Moab Random,” a form of pre-chess that replaces castling (already a bizarre move in classical chess) with the much simpler ‘evacuation’ of the king to any empty back-rank square.

Kudos to Mr. Couture and other game theorists who attempt to wrestle chess out of the grip of the brilliantly obsessive memorizers at the top, who hold Ph.D. equivalents in opening theory. Consistent with Bobby Fischer’s hope for the future of the game, Chess18 could help return chess to the vastly larger audience of brilliant tacticians and strategists worldwide; at least for a little while, until opening jargon catches up. In classical chess, opening experience usually trumps raw talent. But in ChessX, as X increases, natural ability and sound strategy will yield progressively better results.

What do you think? Are 'bizarre castling rules' the 'biggest problem with chess960'?

29 June 2013

The KID Family Goes the Distance

After writing my previous post on The KID Family, I noticed that the start position (SP) featured in that post (SP599 RQBNKRNB) had another unusual property. It differs from the traditional start position (SP518) in that exactly two pairs of pieces have been switched. The Queen and Queen's Knight have been switched, while the King's Bishop and Rook have also been switched. The other four pieces are all standing on their traditional start squares.

Is this a trivial observation or something significant? I decided to compare all twelve members of the KID family to answer the question. I dragged my chess960 database out of storage -- last seen in the related posts Pieces, Start Squares, and Scores and Of Knights and Start Squares -- and constructed a query based on 'distance'.

I discussed the notion of distance in a couple of old posts: More on the Concept of Distance and A Chess960 Almanac. In brief, it's an attempt to measure the displacement of the pieces in a chess960 SP compared to SP518.

Here's a table showing the distance calculation for the twelve members of the KID family (****KRNB). The column 'zLR' shows the displacement of the 'left' Rook from the a-file, while 'zRR' shows a similar calculation for the 'right' Rook. The distance is the sum of the eight displacements divided by two.

What does this table show? Probably not much. The simplest KID position is SP615, where only the King's Bishop and Rook have been switched. This amounts to a distance of two. One SP has a distance of three, and three SPs (including SP599) have a distance of four. Since the maximum distance is ten, all of the KID positions are well under the max. This means that they don't stray too far from SP518, but we knew that already from the way the family was defined. If I get any other bright ideas from this table, I'll let you know.

22 June 2013

The KID Family

Playing White against SchemingMind's top-ranked chess960 player at the time, I was dealt the position shown in the first diagram (SP599 RQBNKRNB). Notice anything special about it? No, I didn't either until I started considering my first move.

Now look at the second diagram, showing the position three moves into the game. Notice anything special now?

The bottom diagram, which arose from the first diagram after 1.c4 Nf6 2.g3 d6 3.Nc3 O-O, looks a lot like a King's Indian Defense (KID) in a traditional chess game (SP518 RNBQKBNR). I wanted to play 4.Nf3, preparing 5.O-O, but that leaves the Rf1 exposed to 4...Bh3. Instead I prepared the same idea with 4.Bg2, covering h3. The game is still in progress, so I can't comment on the subsequent moves, except to say that KID themes occurred on nearly all opening moves.

How many positions are in the chess960 KID family? If we freeze the four pieces on the Kingside (h-side for the purists; i.e. ****KRNB), the second Rook can be placed legally on any of the remaining squares. The dark squared Bishop has two possible squares, then the Queen has three squares and the Knight two squares (or vice versa). That makes 2x3x2, or 12 possible positions in the same family. The start position SP599 is one of the leading members of the family because the Queenside Knight can go directly to c3.

Other members of the family can be imagined by shifting the King one or two squares toward the Queenside. The twins of the KID family -- for example SP258 (BNRKNBQR), the twin of SP599 -- have a similar set of dynamics. One significant difference: in SP258, castling O-O-O is possible on the first move.

25 May 2013

Organizer's Hat

I've reported on SchemingMind's chess960 league in several previous posts:-

The league format is a great way to meet other keen players and I joined a team for Season Five. I played eight games against good players and reported on two of the mini-matches without identifying the event:-

Season Six ran aground when the organizer disappeared just before the start of round one, so I volunteered to take over the job. He left big shoes to fill and I hope I'm up to the task. In any case, it might give me new perspectives on chess960 plus some good material for this blog.

18 May 2013

SP518 Status

Since I'm still Wading in Opening Theory, I thought it would be appropriate to give a status report on how deep that theory is in practice. To be clear, I'm talking about correspondence games using the traditional start position (SP518 RNBQKBNR).

The seven games that started two weeks ago have all advanced to around moves 8-12. All of them are still in theory, meaning that I can find games on Chesslab.com with the same position I'm playing. Of the seven games, three are still in basic theory, where hundreds of games have already been played to the position in my game. In one of those three games, my opponent is taking a 'long think' to decide between two theoretical moves of equal importance that branch into completely different paths.

Of the other four games, three are in positions where I find 10-20 previously played games. In all three of those games, one variation has been played more than any other, and the effort required on my part is to understand why that variation is so popular and where it will eventually lead. Previous experience tells me that all of those games will eventually reach a position where several different moves have been tried, each move having a handful (less than five) of representative games. That's the point where I have to start thinking for myself.

The last of the seven games has already reached the 'handful' stage. That, of course, is where the chess starts to become interesting because I'm really on my own.

In contrast to those seven SP518 games, I just started two chess960 correspondence games, one with White and one with Black. Both games are on the first move and I'm already on my own. I know from experience that the CCRL database (see the link in the right sidebar) is unreliable for opening ideas, since engines just don't understand the opening. I also know that I won't find more than a few dozen games elsewhere using the same start position, many of those between players who have a different idea about opening objectives than I have.

I know that preparing for correspondence chess is not the same as preparing for crossboard chess. In fact, preparing openings for crossboard chess is even more time consuming and the work is never finished. In a world where time is a limited quantity for all of us, that pretty much sums up why I prefer playing chess960.

11 May 2013

Chess960 Strategy

Since I'm still Wading in Opening Theory, desperately short of time, I took the lead from that post and decided to follow one of Google's search suggestions. The first suggestion, 'chess960 castling', is undoubtedly top-of-the-list because it's essential knowledge and looks mysterious for all chess960 newcomers who are already familiar with traditional chess. Once they've played a few games and have castled a few times, the mystery transmigrates into the second suggestion, 'chess960 strategy'.

Unfortunately, chess960 strategy is a topic too big for a post where the primary objective is to get it finished as quickly as possible. After looking at several pages of search results for 'chess960 strategy', the most I can offer is a summary. The phrase is subject to at least four different interpretations.

  • Not too surprisingly, 'chess960 strategy' is often understood to mean the same as 'chess960 opening strategy'. This is partly because the main difference between traditional chess and chess960 is in the opening phase, and partly because 'opening strategy' is also a mystery for novice players of traditional chess. Here we find lists of well known opening objectives like piece development, attention to the center, and so on.

  • After lists of the components of opening strategy, the next step is to treat each component as a separate topic. What does 'piece development' mean when the pieces start on different squares? How does 'attention to the center' apply to specific start positions? And so on.

  • After considering 'chess960 strategy' applied only to the opening, the concept blossoms into principles that are valid into the middlegame and endgame. These can be extensions of the lists of opening objectives -- because they also apply throughout the game -- supplemented by lists of generic strategies that spring into action after the pieces have been developed. One example would be attacks against the castled King. Another would be maneuvers around a blocked center. And so on.

  • After lists of typical, generic strategies, the next step is to examine specific strategies using concrete examples. Here we find detailed examples from real games showing 'attacks against the castled King' or 'maneuvers around a blocked center', and so on.

It looks like I've stumbled into the wrong topic for someone who is desperately short of time. It also looks like I have several ideas for future posts. Before I tackle those, I have to return to traditional chess and wade through more opening theory.

04 May 2013

Wading in Opening Theory

Every once in a while I get overwhelmed when a new SP518 online tournament starts and I have little time for blogging. Two years ago I mentioned this for a post titled The Clock Is/Isn't Ticking, and now, for similar reasons, I plead Cup Play.

What to do? How about a quick post on the terms Google suggests for a chess960 search. I found a good explanation of the mechanism at How Google Instant’s Autocomplete Suggestions Work, written by Danny Sullivan, aka Dr. Search Engine. Here are the terms suggested when you start typing 'chess960':-

  • chess960 castling
  • chess960 strategy
  • chess960 openings
  • chess960 chess.com
  • chess960 tips
  • chess960 computer
  • chess960 play online
  • chess960 tournament
  • chess960 games
  • chess960 software

Ditto for 'fischer random':-

  • fischer random chess
  • fischer random chess online
  • fischer random generator
  • fischer random chess castling
  • fischer random chess960
  • fischer random castling

The term 'fischerrandom' (two 'r's) automatically corrects to 'fischer random', while 'fischerandom' (one 'r') returns only three suggestions:-

  • fischerandom chess
  • fischerandom chess computerized shuffler
  • fischerandom wiki

There are some interesting terms in these lists and I might come back to them for my next post if I'm still wading in opening theory.

27 April 2013

A Difficult SP for Black

Continuing with Proof of Concept with HarryO, after we analyzed the two start positions (SPs) discussed in Problem with the SP or with the Engines?, we moved on to another problem SP discovered in Waving a Yellow Flag. The moves and comments for this position -- SP868 QBBRKRNN -- can be found in HarryO's blog post Non-Random Chess 960 Trial Game 8: SP868.

The position after White's first move is shown in the top diagram. White threatens 2.Nf5, attacking g7 with the not-so-trivial threat of a smothered mate. I was playing Black and quickly determined that I didn't have many options. I finally decided to give up the possibility of castling O-O, and played 1...Nf6 2.Nf5 Rg8. The game continued 3.b3 Ng6 4.Nf3, reaching the position shown in the second diagram.

Now I played 4...Nf4, with an attack on e2 which seemed to prevent White from castling O-O. White played 5.O-O! anyway, after which I realized that the e-Pawn is poison because of Black's subsequent weakness on the e-file. The game continued 5...d6 6.Ng3 b5 7.c4 bxc4, when I discovered that White almost has a forced win. I requested to take the game back to White's fourth move and, in the spirit of discovering the truth about the initial SP, HarryO agreed.

My second attempt from the diagrammed position (instead of 4...Nf4) was 4...c5. The game continued 5.d4 b6 6.c4 Nf4, with the same idea as the first variation, but in a different setting. This time the move 7.O-O was not as powerful. After 7...Nxe2+ 8.Kh1 d5, White tried 9.Ba3. This led to a series of exchanges which took the pressure off Black. After move 15, we agreed that Black was out of danger and decided to start a new game with the corner Queen and Bishop swapped. That next game is being played at Non-Random Chess960 Trial Game 9: SP864.

Around the same time that the SP868 game started, I was working on a series of posts for my main blog with the theme of 'engine evaluation'. On one of those posts -- One Imbalance Leads to Another -- I learned that the value of castling is approximately equal to a Pawn. This meant that when I gave up castling O-O by playing 1...Nf6, I was making the equivalent of a Pawn sacrifice. I looked again at the position after 1.Ng3, and discovered that the alternative 1...g6 can also lead to a Pawn sacrifice, where Black has considerable compensation for the Pawn. If this is true, then Black has two methods of meeting the difficult challenge posed by 1.Ng3.

20 April 2013

Games Between Skillful Players

The last time I looked at the LSS game collection (see the link to LSS in the sidebar) was in my post on Really Short Games, where I gave an example of a chess960 opening blunder ('??'). There are many more examples and while it might be useful to catalog the patterns involved, this is not the most interesting aspect of chess960.

Continuing with my copy of the LSS database, I identified games between players rated 2000 or more. Of the 7308 games on file, a little more than 100 games met this criteria. The reason is that until a year ago, LSS offered only one type of chess960 event, where players of all strengths are placed into the next event -- first come, first served -- until the available places are filled. Then the next event is opened. This often leads to rating mismatches with differences of 1000 points or more. The site now offers annual 'LSS Chess960 Championships', but the 2012 edition has only completed the preliminary stage, where there was just a single pairing of 2000+ players. We should see more games between top players as the semifinal and final stages complete.

All of the LSS events use the parallel game format, where opponents play two games using the same start position, one with White and one with Black. I've discussed this format in several posts, where the most recent was Opening Logic Sets the Course.

For this current post I chose a game played last year in an event named FO-2012-0-00316. One player was rated 2335, the other 2175, and they were assigned SP456 RBNNBKQR as the start position. The following diagram shows the position after five moves in both games.

In the top diagram, the initial moves were 1.f3 f6 2.Qf2 a6 3.c3 Ba7 4.d4 Nc6 5.Nd3 h5.

In the bottom diagram, the moves were 1.f4 Nd6 2.c3 f5 3.Qe3 Qe6 4.Qh3 O-O 5.Ne3 a5.

Both games show a curious symmetry of the f-Pawn. In the first game, f2-f3 and ...f7-f6 were played. In the second game, f2-f4 and ...f7-f5 were played. Can you tell from looking at the diagrams which player was higher rated?

13 April 2013

'I wish there were more opportunities to play'

American GM Hikaru Nakamura has figured in many posts on this blog, for example CCM9: Nakamura, Grischuk, and Rybka (for more, see 'Search This Blog' in the navigation bar on the right). I was pleased to see a comment in the April 2013 Chess Life (CL): Cover Story; 'The Resolute Grandmaster: Hikaru Nakamura’s slow progress towards the top' by Macauley Peterson (p.24).
Highlights from Nakamura at the London Chess Classic: In general, I try to surprise my opponents much more, as opposed to having a set repertoire of one or two openings. The more weapons you have -- the more chances to surprise your opponents and reach positions that you're more familiar with -- the better off you are. That's why, I would say, Carlsen has such great results. He's very good in pretty much every structure that's out there. He knows the concepts and the piece play a lot better than some of the other players.

With the computers now, you can't just be successful with one opening. You look at players like Karpov or Kasparov. Karpov for almost his whole career played the Caro-Kann, and some Frenches as well, and he did great. And with Garry, he played the Scheveningen and then the Najdorf for the better part of 20 years, whereas nowadays you really have to know more than that because with the computer you can analyze any opening and probably within one day you can have a very good understanding of it. So, because of that it's really changed the whole landscape of chess.

I really like Chess960 [also known as Fischer Random chess - MP]. I think it is the future of chess. For now classical chess is still very much alive, but at some point I think ... most people will be playing [960] ... The pieces are more random but still the skill factor is there, and I really enjoy it because it's really playing pure chess, there isn't the same preparation the way there is now ... I wish there were more opportunities to play it.

The same issue of CL (p.10) had 'Benko Remembers Fischer : Three compositions in honor of Fischer’s 70th birthday (born March 9, 1943)'. Two of the compositions used chess960 castling rules.

30 March 2013

Random Position, Random Results?

On my main blog I've been running a series on the three 'Black Is OK' books by GM Andras Adorjan. I wrote the most recent post, 'Black Is OK' - 12 Discussion Points, with chess960 in mind. Here are the first three of the 12 discussion points, adapted for chess960.
  1. I presume -- in the spirit of the presumption of innocence -- that [all 960 start positions are] equal.
  2. The logical outcome of [any start position] is a draw.
  3. If one of the players wins [a] game, his opponent has certainly made some mistake.

Not as convincing as the same statements for traditional chess (SP518 RNBQKBNR), are they? To be clear, saying that 'all 960 start positions are equal', doesn't mean equal to each other; it means equal for White and Black, i.e. neither color starts with a winning advantage in any start position (SP). At this point in my chess960 education, I presume this is true, but I am far from convinced and wouldn't be surprised if this presumption turned out to be false. In the ongoing series of games I presented in Proof of Concept with HarryO, my sparring partner admitted that he doesn't have the same confidence that I do. He is certainly not alone.

Getting back to traditional chess, the foundation of the 'Black Is OK' philosophy rests entirely on the second point. To quote the original statement in full:

Qualified players will mostly come up with the same reply as a great number of world champions or chess thinkers since Lasker: the logical outcome of the game is a draw.
If the 'qualified players' are right, as the accumulated experience suggests, then Black is OK; if they are not right, then there is a tree of related variations where all branches inevitably lead to a forced win for White, and Black is definitely *not* OK (ignoring the minute possibility that traditional chess is a forced win for Black, which is highly unlikely).

Since there aren't really any qualified players in chess960, and since the accumulated experience is skimpy at best, we just don't know if 'Black Is OK' across all SPs. All we have is our presumption of innocence, which is an act of faith. That brings me to the third point: a game is only lost because of a mistake. In chess960 it might indeed be lost because of a flaw in the start position. We will never know for sure, will we?

In his 'presumption of innocence' essay (see the '12 Discussion Points' post for a link), Adorjan touched on one metric that might be relevant. He mentioned that the ratio of White wins to Black wins in practice 'could be something like 55:45 in 100 games'. This corresponds to an observation I made in A Pawn Equals 200 Rating Points.

A difference of 40 rating points [value of first move as a fraction of a Pawn] gives the higher rated player a little less than a 0.56 chance of winning the game. This means a 56% expected score for White, and a 44% expected score for Black, which is close to the result derived from databases of historical master-level games.

Is this ratio related to the specific start position in SP518 or is it a function of the first move? Perhaps it is both. I'm afraid that, once again, we will never know for sure, will we!

23 March 2013

Commentating the Opening in London

Like most other die-hard chess fans, for the past week I've been following the Candidates tournament in London. I commented on the event in a post titled London Candidates - First Week on my World Chess Championship blog, but I've also been watching the action with chess960 in my thoughts. Today the seventh round, the last round of the event's first half, is being played.

While I was waiting for the games to start, I picked a round at random -- Round 5 - Commentary on Livestream -- and reviewed the video, which I had already watched live. Then I noted all of the comments on the openings which were on a higher level than straight analysis of the moves; let's call them meta-comments.

Ivanchuk - Carlsen: In every round Carlsen's game has been one of the commentators' favorites. In this game we see that they were already unfamiliar with the opening variation on the eighth move. (LT is IM Lawrence Trent, the anchor. NS is GM Nigel Short, guest commentator and former challenger for the World Championship title. The numbers show the time into the clip when the commentators switched to talk about that game.)

LT: 'This is all main line theory.'

LT: 'This is all main line.'
NS: 'I've completely forgotten everything here [...] This is the Karpov - Kasparov stuff'

LT: 'That [move] must be a novelty'
NS: 'I don't know. We need some Gruenfeld experts. I don't know this [move]'
LT: 'It's a rare one. It's certainly not one of the main ones. I'm not a Gruenfeld expert either.'
NS: 'We'll probably find on the database that there were vast numbers of games played, but I'm not very familiar with this at all.'
LT: 'No. We don't use engines here. We don't use databases. We just use our raw talent.'
NS: 'That's why we're struggling.'
LT: 'We get up to move eight in a Gruenfeld and that's about it.'

Kramnik - Aronian: No one ever seems to find much of interest in Kramnik's openings and no one ever seems interested in spending much time on them. He is on too high a level.

[They explain some features of the moves; no meta-comments.]

LT: 'It's dull o-clock'

Grischuk - Radjabov: Just like the Ivanchuk - Carlsen game, neither commentator is familiar with the specific line played.

NS: 'This [move] is quite trendy. God knows what the point of it is. [...] This [other move] is the old stuff and I'm an old-fashioned player. There's nothing wrong with it, but it's very old. That's my sort of chess.'
[After some moves]
LT: 'This has been seen a lot of times as well. [...] Grischuk has only spent a few minutes on this.'
NS: 'I'm sure he's got all of this prepared.'

Svidler - Gelfand: Here we see some real enthusiasm. White played an unexpected move that allowed the commentators' imaginations to roam.

LT: 'Look at this! That's more like it!'
NS: 'Is that a move? You can't do this in the Gruenfeld. That's illegal, isn't it?'
[They discuss the move.]
NS: 'I'm enjoying this.'

To summarize: At an early stage of three games the commentators were unfamiliar with the opening variation played. In one of those games they found it uninteresting. The fourth game they loved because it was unexplored territory.

The commentators are both titled players, one of whom was world class in his heyday. If they can't follow the early stages of the game, what hope is there for keen club players like the rest of us? Then consider the other 600 million players (?!; FIDE's number) who might only have played a few dozen games in their lives. The theory is too deep, the precedents are too wide, and the players' computer preparation is too complex. No one knows what is going on in the game except the two players themselves.

In that last game, GM Short said, 'I'm enjoying this'. At that moment he was on the same level of understanding as at least one of the players, as were the rest of us. This is not to say that everyone understood equally. The players, after all, are among the best in the world with a better understanding of chess than 99.999% of all chess players.

To return to chess960, this is exactly the attraction of Fischer's greatest invention. Everyone -- whether player or commentator or spectator -- is looking at the position for the first time ever, applying their own knowledge of chess to tackle a completely new chess position. Chess might not be a great spectator sport, but chess960 might well be.

16 March 2013

Really Short Games

In First Move Diversity in Chess960, I used a collection of games from The Lechenicher SchachServer (LSS; see the link under 'Correspondence Chess960' on the right sidebar). Since that post, the site has added games played in 2012:-
Database with all LSS Chess 960 tournaments finished up to and including December 2012. 7308 games in zipped PGN format.

After downloading the file and adding it to my database, I developed some queries to identify short games. Of the 7308 games, I found over 1000 that finished in ten moves or less. Many of these were games that had been abandoned by one of the players after only a few moves, but some were genuinely short games. One way to identify real games was where they contained the checkmate ('#') symbol. Consider the following start position (SP).


One game with this SP lasted only three moves -- 1.Nf3 Nf6 2.Ne5 Ne4 3.Nxf7# 1-0 -- ending in a smothered mate. Many of the short checkmates were more examples of smothered mate, although I also found quite a few that were the result of a Queen and Bishop battery on a long diagonal checkmating the enemy King sitting on b8 or g8.

In the past, I've seen these short games used as 'proof' that chess960 is somehow deficient because it permits them. The same argument would say that traditional chess is deficient because it permits Fool's mate (1.f3 e5 2.g4 Qh4#).

Short mates are more a reflection of a player's skill than of a game's shortcomings. It is absolutely essential to look at threats created by the opponent's last move. In chess960, this often means threats created on the first move.

09 March 2013

Remembering Bobby

Today is the 70th anniversary of Bobby Fischer's birth. Here is a collection of chess960 posts where he played a central role.

The invention of chess960 might one day prove to be his greatest accomplishment.

02 March 2013

Carlsen and Chess960

Magnus Carlsen and chess960? As far as I know, the world no.1 has never shown any interest in Fischer's invention. The purpose of that headline was to introduce a portion of GM Bachar Kouatly's editorial in the March 2013 issue of Europe Echecs:-
The characteristic of a genius is to innovate and to take the opposing view against established dogma. Carlsen remakes chess today the same way as Fischer who wanted to avoid forced passage through the openings ['le passage forcé par les ouvertures']. The invention by the American genius of Fischer Random Chess or 960 was destined to measure the intrinsic strength of a player without reciting the opening by heart. His attempt to transform the game of chess by a renaissance was too brutal for a world that doesn't like change.

Carlsen succeeded the tour de force by playing at chess960 ['échecs 960'(!)] with our old rules. In effect, it is extremely rare to see him take the advantage in the opening, contrary to Kasparov who nearly always led the debate in this phase of the game. To the contrary, Carlsen tries to obtain a playable, even slightly inferior position in the first 15 to 20 moves, which goes against all of today's players who like to play with the initiative from the beginning.

He accepts to kowtow ['courber l'échine', literally: 'bend the spine'] in order to begin the real combat in the middlegame, and frequently to terminate it in endgames exhausting to all his opponents. Through his phenomenal understanding of the game he manages to abandon what we believe to be fundamental in a chess game.

[I left in a couple of GM Kouatly's original phrases because I'm not sure about my translation (in case there is any doubt, I'm not a professional translator) and mentioned 'échecs 960' because I couldn't remember encountering the phrase before.]

There is considerable food for thought in the brief passage from EE. I should point out that, unlike many mainstream chess resources, Europe Echecs is not anti-chess960. I referenced a few of their articles in one of my posts about the 2011 St.Louis event, Kings and Queens on Chess960. The statement that chess960 is 'too brutal for a world that doesn't like change' remains to be seen. It's still too early in any transition to make categorical statements like this.

As for the comparison between Fischer's idea and Carlsen's style, it comes down to the observation that geniuses know when and how to break the rules that the rest of us are struggling to assimilate. Kouatly seems to be saying that Carlsen relies on slightly inferior moves to unbalance his opponents. This would be a good topic to explore on my main blog, where I'm building a collection of Carlsen's games; the most recent post was Carlsen TMER PGN.

I've already addressed the idea of using inferior moves to escape the burden of opening theory; see, for example, Shall We Play Amar's Opening? While it has certain attractions for diehard adherents of traditional chess, it is far less rich in ideas than the universe of alternatives offered by chess960. The proof of this is the notion that it takes 'the first 15 to 20 moves' for Carlsen to find an interesting position. In chess960, this happens already on White's first move.

Although it would be a great boost for chess960 if a player of Carlsen's stature would openly support it, I have no illusions that this will happen soon. Professional players need to 'follow the money' and today there is no money in chess960. The transition from traditional chess will happen not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up. As club players realize that too much effort is required to tackle the enormous body of opening theory, which is a necessary prerequisite to finding new approaches in that theory, they will be attracted to the simplicity, elegance, and challenge of chess without opening books. As this happens, the money will start to trickle in and the professionals will follow.