27 June 2015

Whispering a Fond Adieu!

They say, 'a watched pot never boils'. It seems the chess960 pot is in a constant simmer, but its boiling point remains as elusive as ever. My first blog post on the subject was Shall We Play Fischerandom Chess? (August 2008), and this post will be my last, at least for the foreseeable future. It's time to turn my attention elsewhere.

Google image search on 'chess960'

Heartfelt thanks to the many visitors to this blog for taking an interest in chess960. Special thanks to the two serial commentators -- GeneM and HarryO (in alphabetical order) -- who kept me honest because I knew each new blog post would get at least two hits.

A few months ago I received an email from GeneM, aka Gene Milener, aka the author of 'Play Stronger Chess by Examining Chess960'. He wrote,

In January 2006 I published a book about chess960. This year I will publish another chess book. Even though this new book is not about chess960, I am adding a section in its appendix to discuss or update the state of chess960 now that a decade has passed. Inasmuch as you have become the preeminent voice about chess960, I wondered whether you might be interested in contributing an essay for your own attributed subsection -- on your thoughts about the current state of chess960?

I first thought of this appendix chapter as an 'Epilogue' about chess960, but that sounded too final, like chess960 did not make it and died. I rather think that changes on this scale take time as measured by generations. So instead the chapter will be presented as something like the 'Current State of Chess960 in 2015'.

For years in your blog you have put spotlight and microscope on a broad variety of specific topics within the chess960 realm. Having read your chess960 blog every weekend now for years, I am curious to see what your assessment will be when you step back to consider how the overall picture has evolved, where it stands in 2015, and where it might be headed a generation or two from now.

My essay can be found at Fischer Chess in the Year 2015. I also told Gene,

If I were writing this for the web, I would link to my post debunking certain myths: Top 10 Myths About Chess960. I consider it my top contribution to understanding chess960.

When Gene's book eventually hits the web, I'll mention it on my main blog 'Chess for All Ages' (see the link in the right navigation bar), the same place where I'll post any new reports related to chess960. I agree with Gene that the acceptance of chess960 will 'take time as measured by generations' and I will continue to play for as long as there are opponents interested in Fischer's greatest invention.

Bye for now! - Mark

21 June 2015

Updated Database of SPs (2015-06)

I don't particularly like blog maintenance chores, but there have been so many recent posts dealing with specific positions that my database -- last seen in Updated Database of SPs (2014-10) -- needed a refresh. Of the dozen-or-so posts that were included, SP864 - BBQRKRNN won the popularity prize with three separate posts. I nominate it for the title of 'Most Difficult SP for Black'.

13 June 2015

Being Outplayed

The last of my five lost games from On a Losing Streak was the toughest. As start position, my opponent and I were given SP953 RKRBBNNQ. Once again, as in the other four losses, I had the Black pieces.

All chess960 start positions present their own special challenges and this one has two striking features. The first is the RKR bunched in the corner and the second is the Queen in the opposite corner. The minor pieces are placed between them in one of four possible arrangements.

I use the castling options as a guide to early play and decided to keep those options for as long as possible. While castling O-O-O looks to be the most likely choice, the Rook on the c-file has to move before this is possible. Before that happens, castling O-O might also be possible.

The first moves were 1.f4 d5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 Nf6 4.N1d2 Ng6 5.e3 Qf8, reaching the position shown in the top diagram. The two players have chosen different paths to develop the Knights. For my next moves I intended to move the diagonal pieces off the back rank, then castle O-O.

Before I could execute that plan, the position became very tactical. After the moves 6.c4 c5 7.Qf1 a6 8.a4 cxd4 9.Nxd4 Bd7 10.g4 Bb6, we reached the position in the bottom diagram.

My opponent played 11.Bg3, threatening discovered check, and I replied 11...Qb4, ignoring the threat while attacking the Knight on d2. After the further 12.f5+ Ka7, my castling strategy was in tatters. The next moves were 13.Nb5+ Bxb5 14.axb5 Qxd2 15.fxg6 a5, after which I let my opponent's advanced Pawn settle on h7, which proved to be enough to win the game 30 moves later.

Somewhere in the moves between the two diagrams I made a mistake. Even after looking at the game a second time while preparing this post, I still can't pinpoint it. Sometimes you lose simply because your opponent plays better than you do. It's called being 'outplayed'.

06 June 2015

Botched Castling

In my first three examples from On a Losing Streak, I could point to a section of the game where my play was substandard. In this next game my play was a botch from start to finish. Like the game from the previous post, An Imperfect Understanding, it was played on the LSS server.

I had Black in SP242 BNRKQBNR, where my opponent opened 1.O-O-O, and commented, 'What a funny first move! LOL!'. I had just finished the game described in 'Losing Streak', where I played 1...O-O-O!?, followed by a dubious idea. For this next game I decided to take a different road and to avoid castling for as long as possible.

The next moves were 1...e5 2.e4 a6 3.b3 b5 4.d3 Nc6 5.f4 f6, reaching the position shown in the top diagram. At some point during this sequence -- with 2...a6 & 3...b5 played to 'take advantage' of my opponent's early castling -- I realized that I had forfeited the possibility of castling 1...O-O-O, and would have to find another way to keep my King safe.

The next five moves were 6.Nc3 Bd6 7.Kb1 exf4 8.Nce2 Nge7 9.Nh3 Ng6 10.Qf2 Qe6, reaching the position shown in the bottom diagram. White is temporarily a Pawn down, but its recapture is guaranteed.

Instead of recapturing the Pawn, White went for a real sacrifice with 11.g3!. After accepting it I tried to get some counterplay with ...c5 and ...c4, but my opponent played d3-d4-d5, locking the Bishop on a8 out of play. By the time I decided to castle ...O-O on the 19th move, White had complete control of the center. The Kingside attack on the open g- & h-files was quick and decisive. When I resigned on the 36th move, material was still equal, but White was preparing an invasion that would net a few Black Pawns.

The castling choice in chess960 is often a difficult decision. Ignoring the common sense option can be a path to quick defeat.

30 May 2015

An Imperfect Understanding

Both game one of On a Losing Streak and game two, Passive vs. Active Play, were played on SchemingMind.com. The next three games were played on LSS. The biggest difference between the two sites is that engines are forbidden on SM, but allowed on LSS. That means the games on LSS are generally tougher and of higher quality.

For this next game I had Black in SP388 QBBRNNKR. The Queen is in the corner and the three diagonal pieces on adjacent files are aimed at the enemy King, While it might be advisable to get the King away from their influence by castling O-O-O, this is probably not going to happen. Opening the diagonals means moving Pawns, which means the Queenside will be too loose for the King.

The first moves of the game were 1.d4 d5 2.b3 c6 3.c4 Nf6 4.cxd5 cxd5 5.Ba3 Bd6 6.Bxd6 Rxd6 7.Ne3 Ne6 8.Nd3 O-O 9.O-O, leading to the position in the top diagram. After both players have castled, a chess960 game often starts to look like a position that could have arisen in traditional chess, and that is the case here. While I wasn't entirely comfortable with my position -- the pieces, especially the Rook, are not well coordinated -- I didn't feel that I was in any particular danger. My next few moves would be spent developing the rest of my pieces and coordinating them into some sort of a plan.

White has an awkward threat in Ne3-f5, so I played 9...g6, planning to reposition the Knight via g7, thereby opening the diagonal for the Bishop on c8. White played 10.f4, a move which I had underestimated. The hole on e4 is not really useful for Black, while White is planning to operate on the f-file with the possibility of switching a Rook to the h-file to support an attack on the King.

The game continued 10...Bd7 11.Ne5 Qd8 12.Qb2 Ng7 13.g4, leading to the bottom diagram.

Now I started to feel really uncomfortable. With every move White is building a Kingside attack, while Black has not yet latched on to a real plan. More pseudo-active moves for Black followed -- 13...Bc6 14.f5 Nd7 15.Qd2 Qb6 -- but after 16.Nf3, how does Black continue? I felt that my position was teetering on disaster and engine analysis confirmed it. White continued to whip up a terrific attack, I played on in an increasingly hopeless position, and finally resigned well after I should have.

Going back to the top diagram, I still can't find a better plan for Black. If that position is bad for Black, then I must have made a mistake in the moves preceding castling. But where? Was it a general problem of not finding an effective plan earlier in the game? If so, how to avoid this in the future? I'm afraid that there's something here that I'm not understanding.

23 May 2015

Passive vs. Active Play

Continuing with On a Losing Streak,
In recent months I've lost five important chess960 games. In most of those games I'm not even sure why I lost, so I'm going to spend a few posts looking at them in more depth. Perhaps I can uncover a general pattern of weakness in my play.

There were some extenuating factors in the string of losses:-

  • My opponents were competent players, rated 2000+
  • I had too many simultaneous games, including traditional chess, most of them against good opponents
  • The countdown time control was used in three games
  • I had a new tool set, i.e. software and methodology

In all five games I had Black, one of two parallel games with the same opponents where I drew the game where I had White. Achieving +0-1=1 in a single two game mini-match is not a good score; what to say of five such mini-matches?

I've already discussed the countdown time control in two previous posts -- The Lechenicher SchachServer (December 2012) and Thinking Time Can Be a Guide (January 2014) -- where the entire time for a game is allocated at the start of the game. There are no further increments. I now try to play these at the rhythm of one move a day, planning to increase the tempo when the game reaches the endgame. The non-countdown games were also played at a move per day, with a fixed time allocation at the start of the game and one day added per move.

As for the new tool set, the most important consideration is to be comfortable with the methodology. I normally practice a new methodology on unimportant games before trying it important games, but I had no such opportunity before these games were played.

The following game, like the game I discussed in 'Losing Streak', was played in a team match on the SchemingMind server, where I was on first board. SchemingMind is particularly difficult at fast time controls because of the site's no-engine policy.

We were assigned start position SP849 BRKBNRNQ. The most striking characteristic of this SP is the Queen in the corner, facing a Bishop on the long diagonal. After the initial moves 1.Nd3 f5 2.e3 e6 3.f4 g6 4.g4 fxg4 5.Bxg4 Bf6 6.Bf3 Ne7 7.e4 b6, we reached the position shown in the top diagram.

After the further 8.e5 Bxf3 9.Qxf3, I was comfortable with my position and played 9...Bh4, leaving the square g7 for the other pieces. The Bishop is slightly out of play on h4, but is in no particular danger. Now my opponent played 10.b4, a move which I had underestimated. Not only does it develop the Ba1, it also prepares the Rook lift Rb1-b3, where the Rook will operate on both wings. Combined with White's space advantage, this will present ongoing problems for Black. I was no longer feeling so comfortable.

After the further moves 10...Qg7 11.Ne2 c6 12.Nc3 g5 13.Ne4 Qg6 14.Nd6+ Nxd6 15.exd6 Nf5 16.Ne5 Qe8, the game reached the position shown in the bottom diagram. Here White played 17.Rb3. Now I had to decide how to wriggle out of my constricted position.

The move 17...Rb7 proceeds positionally; Black's Rook is temporarily out of play, but by continuing Kb8-a8, the King will be relatively safe in the corner while Black frees his position with Queenside Pawn moves. The move 17...Nxd6 leads to a tactical melee, where White has the upper hand because of the space advantage. I chose 17...Rb7.

My game proceeded as I just outlined, where I eventually sacrificed a Pawn to free the Rook on b7. I hoped to regain the Pawn by capturing on d6, but White was always able to defend it. I eventually tried to set up a fortress, but White was able to breach my defense and I resigned after 70 moves had been played.

If I had to play the position in the second diagram again -- which, given the nature of chess960, I never will -- I would try 17...Nxd6. With active play you might lose quickly, but sitting there for 50 moves struggling to escape a passive position is no fun either.

16 May 2015

On a Losing Streak

In recent months I've lost five important chess960 games. In most of those games I'm not even sure why I lost, so I'm going to spend a few posts looking at them in more depth. Perhaps I can uncover a general pattern of weakness in my play.

The first game I lost was in round three of the 2014 SchemingMind Chess960 Dropout Tournament. The last time I discussed a game from this type of tournament was for the 2013 event in The Initial Positional Considerations. I had played my opponent in three previous games, all of them draws. I told him, 'I see we're +0-0=3 in past games. Time for a tiebreaker?', and he answered, 'I think so!' He was White in SP218 NQRKBBNR and played 1.c4, giving the position shown in the top diagram.

I don't know what came over me in this position; perhaps it was an unconscious urge to take a risk. I normally would have played something like 1...c5, maintaining symmetry. Instead I saw the possibility of playing a gambit and after some analysis decided to roll the dice. I played 1...O-O-O.

My opponent played 2.d4, the move that I was expecting. I answered with a Pawn sacrifice, 2...e5, reaching the position in the bottom diagram. After 3.dxe5 f6 4.exf6 Nxf6, my gambit idea was achieved.

What does Black have for the Pawn? I thought the moves ...d5 and ...Bg6 would give me active play, especially since it's not clear where the White King will eventually castle to find safety. White played 5.e4, meeting both of my 'active' ideas and challenging me to find a new idea.

Now the idea 5...d5 6.exd5, doesn't work. The game continued 5...c6 6.Nb3 Bg6 7.Bd3, where another 'active' idea 7...Ng4, is met with 8.Nh3. After the further moves 7...Nb6 8.Ne2 Ng4 9.O-O-O, White's King is perfectly safe and Black has nothing for the Pawn. My position went from bad to worse to lost, and I resigned on the 33rd move, my King in the center, subject to a vicious attack.

In retrospect I would give my moves 1...O-O-O a '!?' and 2...e5 a '?!'. I can't think of a first move for Black in traditional chess that deserves a '!?'. After the game, my opponent said, 'I have found from past personal experience, castling on the first move makes for a very difficult game!' I could hardly disagree with him, especially when it is followed by a dubious gambit.

09 May 2015

Unlearning Chess

On my main blog I've been posting an occasional piece on the theme Controversial Keene, using material from the English GM's forum on Chessgames.com, where
Keene chats with both fans and detractors, bringing to mind Em. Lasker's famous dictum that 'a fighter is a target as well as a shot'. While the conversation meanders through many topics of little interest to the chess player, it occasionally stops to focus on some aspect of chess history where Keene played a role.

After the post Keene on 1993 & 2000 WCCs, I continued working through the forum in my spare time, eventually running into this (kpage=79):-

Oct-18-04 ray keene: i hate fischerrandom - i cant even get chess right and along comes someone to make it more difficult and forcing me to unlearn decades of hard earned opening theory. bad idea. if you want another form of chess play shogi or xiangqi - beautiful variants of chess hallowed by centuries of oriental culture.

Although the opinion was written more than ten years ago, I doubt that Keene has changed his mind since then, unless of course he's actually played chess960. I also imagine that Keene's sentiment echoes the thoughts of many GMs and IMs. It's a restatement of 'I'm too old for this crap!' that we saw in my previous post Stuff Happens.

That in itself doesn't merit any further comment, but what caught my attention was the phrase 'unlearn decades of hard earned opening theory'. What's to unlearn? Since the fundamental opening principles -- development, center control, etc. etc. -- are the same in chess960 as in traditional chess, the real difference is that thousands of memorized variations no longer serve a useful purpose. Is that what Keene meant? He continued,

Oct-18-04 ray keene: [...] if you recall the roman senator cato used to end all his speeches with the words - cartago delenda est! well - a bas fischerrandom!!

The French phrase 'a bas fischerrandom!' translates to 'down with fischerrandom!' Keene repeated the condemnation after a few more posts before abandoning it.

I've said it before, but it's worth repeating: chess and chess960 are not competing against each other. It's not a zero-sum game where the winner takes all. Chess players who want to continue studying opening variations are free to do so. Chess960 players who have no interest in this are also free to do so, without being at a disadvantage against the traditional players. Players like me, who enjoy playing both chess and chess960, have no compelling reason to abandon one for the other.

Was Keene, the author of myriad chess titles which could become irrelevant in a chess960 world, worried that the chess960 public might stop buying his books? I doubt it, because players taking him up on his alternatives -- 'if you want another form of chess play shogi or xiangqi' -- would also not be interested in his books.

That raises another question: Are chess960 players interested in books on Nimzovich, Petrosian, or recent World Championship matches (topics about which Keene has written)? I know I am, because the history of chess960 extends back through the history of chess, but I don't know that other chess960 players would agree with me.

02 May 2015

Stuff Happens

Even though it's been four years since the demise of Chess Classic Mainz (CCM; see No Place for Chess960, February 2011), the Chess Tigers continue their support of chess960 in other ways. The Chess-tigers.de page, Chess Tigers Training Center: Chess960, lists 20 posts starting from the beginning of 2014.

One post that caught my attention was '"Ich bin zu alt für den Scheiß!": 5 falsche Gründe, kein Chess960 zu spielen', which Google helps to translate as '"I'm too old for this crap!", five wrong reasons not to play Chess960'. The five reasons are:-

I. "I'm too old for this crap!"
II. Chess960 will displace traditional chess!
III. Chess960 players are just too lazy to learn theory!
IV. Some starting positions are forced lost!
V. I will not embarrass myself ...

Points II, III, and IV are also on my list of Top 10 Myths About Chess960, so we are in substantial agreement. As for 'I will not embarrass myself', this refers to the possibility of losing in less than ten moves, where the Tigers give three embarrassing examples. I can't think of a way to express this as a myth. 'Crap happens!', as they say.

25 April 2015

Chess960 1-2-3, April 2015

I updated my Index to Blog Posts, last seen in A New Page, a TOC, and a Logo (June 2014). Most of the new links were in sections 2A and 3D. I haven't done as much with the page as I had hoped, mainly because of a lack of ideas. Perhaps something compelling will come to mind.

11 April 2015

Illegal for Chess, Legal for Chess960

A few weeks ago, in CHESSIS2C960 Visually, I mentioned,
Certain problems/studies that are illegal in chess might be legal in chess960, but I can't give any specific examples.

While writing that post I didn't have time to hunt for examples, but they aren't too hard to discover. In Chess glossary for Freshman Seminar: Chess and Mathematics, I found

Legal position (n.): a position that can be reached from the initial array by game consisting entirely of legal moves, however bizarre. Conventionally every chess problem should have a legal position. Naturally then, an illegal position is a position that cannot be reached by a legal game. For instance, a position in which one side has more than 8 pawns, or has both White and Black Kings in check, is illegal (why?). So is any position with a White Bishop on a1 and White pawn on b2 (why?), such as the following mutual Zugzwang (q.v.), which Lewis Stiller discovered in the course of an exhaustive computer search: White Kg6, Bh1, Pg2; Black Kg4, Pg3.

The given position is shown in the following diagram.

Mutual Zugzwang

[FEN "8/8/6K1/8/6k1/6p1/6P1/7B w - - 0 1"]

The tablebase used in Shredder Computer Chess - Endgame Database accepts the position as valid and gives WTM 'Draw' and BTM 'Lose in 20'.

04 April 2015

CHESSIS2C960 Chess.com

In the previous post I tried to present Chess is to chess960 [CHESSIS2C960] Visually. At the same time I asked the collective brainpower at Chess.com,
I'm looking for chess analogies to explain chess960: 'Chess is to chess960 as ... is to ...' Any suggestions? • Chess960 Analogies

It was the right forum to ask. Eliminating a handful of examples that I threw in myself, some worthy suggestions were:-

  • as black & white TV is to color TV
  • as V2 is to V3
  • as raw spaghetti is to cooked spaghetti
  • as blind obedience is to self reliance
  • as Nascar racing is to F1
  • as F1 is to Nascar racing

Midway through the discussion, I realized that a better formulation might have been 'Chess openings are to chess960 openings as ... is to ...'. Thanks to the racing analogies another angle occurred to me while I was preparing this post.

Chess *castling* is to chess960 castling as an automatic transmission is to a stick shift.

Why? Because in traditional chess the choice of 'where' to castle is usually obvious (and often conventional) although 'when' is sometimes tricky. In many chess960 openings one of the hardest early decisions is where and when to castle.

Which of the analogies do I like best? I'm not sure, but the one I understand the least is about spaghetti.

28 March 2015

CHESSIS2C960 Visually

I ended my previous post, Know Your Competition, with a call for a verbal analogy.
Let's try filling in the blanks: 'Chess is to chess960 as ... is to ...'

Following the modern trend of reducing all communication to the bare minimum, I'll abbreviate that to CHESSIS2C960.

The image on the left compares chess to chess960 for the three major phases of the game. If squinting doesn't help, just know that the large boxes are labelled 'chess960', and the small, progressively larger boxes are labelled 'chess'.

In the opening, chess has somewhat more than 1/1000th the complexity of chess960. In the middlegame, I've shown it at about 1/7th the complexity. In the endgame they have nearly identical complexity. There are a few legal chess960 endgame positions that can't occur in chess, but they aren't worth worrying about (*).

As for the middlegame complexity, we don't know what the relative values are. There are many positions arising from chess960 that could arise only with great difficulty from the traditional start position. There are many never-before-seen strategies in chess960, but how could we quantify them? How would we even start to enumerate them?

Perhaps we should start by identifying some of the new strategies and hope that some pattern emerges. That's about as much as I can do with this blog.

(*) Certain problems/studies that are illegal in chess might be legal in chess960, but I can't give any specific examples.

21 March 2015

Know Your Competition

Recently seen on KingpinChess.net [Kingpin]: Arimaa, Computers and the Future of Chess by Andy Lewis.
Anyone for a variation on chess? • Is chess played out? This concern has been voiced periodically over the history of the game, and the challenges has never been more profound: over-refinement of opening-theory; perfection of endgame technique; super-abundance of draws at top-flight level; and (most recently) dominance of chess computers. To best ensure the future survival of the game, the great and the good have, over the years, proposed a number of variants to the rules of chess.

For example:
- Randomizing the starting position (Fischer)
- Adding extra pieces (Capablanca and Seirawan)
- Pawn-division (Regan)
- Redefining stalemate as victory (Short).

That is a good start, but the monologue then turns shrill.

Although not without academic interest, there is one problem which each of these chess simulants suffers from: it's just not as good as the real thing! We know it. And their inventors know it too. This is amply demonstrated by the lack of enthusiasm shown even by their originators. If you feel that your chess-variant is worthy of interest, then, by all means, start a web-site, develop a smart phone app, get sponsorship, organize a tournament, re-write endgame theory, publish a book of studies. But, if these are too much trouble for you, then, for heaven's sake, you might at least play the game yourself!

>>> Tinkering with the rules of chess is like adding a harmonica or a ukulele section to a classical orchestra: it's pointless. And sounds awful. <<<

This is all an introduction to an essay on Arimaa, which is not a topic for this blog. That last sentence about 'tinkering' leaves me baffled. It's structured like a quote, but I couldn't find the passage anywhere else. More interesting for this blog is the list of four variants. I needed help on the third and found it on Chessbase.com: Ken Regan's Tandem Pawn Chess by Kenneth Regan.

Properly speaking, chess960 isn't a variant, it's an evolution, since chess is a subset of chess960. Back to the orchestra analogy, let's try filling in the blanks: 'Chess is to chess960 as ... is to ...'

14 March 2015

The Double Kramnik Formation

In the previous post I introduced The Kramnik Formation, which is the traditional setup ('RNB*****' or '*****BNR') with the Rook and Bishop switched on one wing. This leads to the 'double Kramnik formation' (aka the Kramnik position?), SP323 BNRQKRNB and SP339 BNRKQRNB, with the pieces switched on both wings. The following diagram shows the double Kramnik formation arising from the traditional start position, SP518 RNBQKBNR.


How do the engines treat this position? I downloaded the corresponding file from the CCRL (see the link on the right sidebar) and found 178 CCRL games. I then loaded the file into SCID and used it to count the intiial moves. SCID doesn't know anything about chess960 -- it chokes when it encounters the first castling move -- but it works properly to that point. The following table shows the output from the SCID 'Tree Window'.

Move Frequency Score AvElo Perf AvYear %Draws
1: Nf3 52: 29.2% 60.5% 2622 2723 2010 13%
2: b4 34: 19.1% 61.7% 2853 2907 2011 24%
3: b3 31: 17.4% 50.0% 2659 2640 2010 29%
4: Nc3 22: 12.3% 77.2% 2674 2891 2011 9%
5: c4 17: 9.5% 61.7% 2712 2787 2010 6%
6: g3 12: 6.7% 41.6% 2582 2529 2009 17%
7: d4 5: 2.8% 40.0%     2010 0%
8: e4 4: 2.2% 37.5%     2010 25%
9: g4 1: 0.5% 1 00.0%     2007 0%

TOTAL: 178:100.0% 58.9% 2680 2745 2010 17%

Here is the same for Black after White's most popular move, 1.Nf3.

Move Frequency Score AvElo Perf AvYear %Draws
1: Nf6 19: 36.5% 60.5% 2540 2472 2010 26%
2: g6 17: 32.6% 58.8% 2680 2561 2010 0%
3: c5 10: 19.2% 60.0% 2709 2604 2011 20%
4: Nc6 3: 5.7% 66.6%     2012 0%
5: b6 2: 3.8% 50.0%     2011 0%
6: d5 1: 1.9% 1 00.0%     2012 0%

TOTAL: 52:100.0% 60.5% 2643 2542 2010 13%

The most popular sequence for both sides, 1.Nf3 Nf6, follows basic opening principles. The Knight move (1) develops a piece, (2) prepares castling O-O, and (3) blocks the long diagonal in order to develop the corner Bishop without having it exchanged immediately. A look at the other popular first moves reveals other basic opening principles in action.

As long as I'm assigning random names to positions arising from the traditional setup, let's give GM Kasparov credit for the formation with the Knight and Bishop switched: 'RBN*****' or '*****NBR'. Why Kasparov? I introduced the 'double Kasparov formation' (aka the Kasparov position?) in two previous posts, Dog-Tired from Memorizing Openings and Switching Bishops and Knights.

07 March 2015

The Kramnik Formation

In my previous post, Lechenicher, RemoteSchach, SchemingMind, I quoted GM Kramnik speaking about chess960 in 2004...
It is hard to explain but when in the initial position the Bishop stands on h8, the Knight is on g8, and the Rook on f8, the artistic beauty of chess disappears. By the way, I asked my colleagues about it and many of them share my feelings -- something is dubious and unaesthetic.

...and decided to call his example the 'Kramnik formation'. How many of the 960 start positions (SPs) use this formation? Taking the Queenside (a-side) formation 'BNR*****', there are three squares where the other Bishop can be placed, then four where the Queen can be placed, then three for the other Knight. The King and Rook drop into the last two squares with the King between the Rooks. Multiplying 3*4*3 gives 36, which must be the number of Kramnik formations on that side of the board.

Using the same logic on the Kingside (h-side) formation '*****RNB', there must also be 36 positions. This gives us 72 Kramnik positions, right? No, wrong, because two of the positions have the formation on both the Queenside and Kingside: SP323 BNRQKRNB and SP339 BNRKQRNB. I'll call these double Kramnik formations.

SP323 is the traditional start position (SP518 RNBQKBNR) with the Rooks and Bishops switched. SP339 is the twin of SP323, with the King and Queen switched. It's worth noting that in SP339, castling O-O-O is possible on the first move. It's also worth noting that both SPs fall into the category of positions with four corner Bishops.

SP323 is shown on the left. As for Kramnik's assertion that 'the artistic beauty of chess disappears', what can I say? That 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder'? That beauty is also found in the unfamiliar?

The beauty of chess is so much more than the all-too-familiar positions that arise from the traditional SP. Chess960 opens an entirely new, unexplored world of chess beauty.

28 February 2015

Lechenicher, RemoteSchach, SchemingMind

Continuing with this blog's list of Correspondence (Turnbased) resources, after Chessmaniac, Comments on Chess960 is the Lechenicher Schach Server (LSS), 'Schach' being the German word for 'chess'. Nearly the entire site sits behind a paywall, making it problematic to link to relevant resources. The content of the site's forum is focused 95% on traditional chess, but there is no search function to locate the 5% relevant to this blog. I'll just mention that LSS has a tag on this blog (see below) and move on to the next site.

From its name, RemoteSchach.de, we again know that it's primarily a German resource. I spent some time browsing the site, found less than two dozen active chess960 games and no promotional chess960 content. A search on the site's forum returns 'Keine Übereinstimmungen gefunden' ('No matches found'; ditto for a search on 'schach960'), so there's not much more to say here.

Last on the correspondence list is SchemingMind.com, which also sits behind a paywall and also has a tag on this blog. I've written previously about the site's public content, but just before I was ready to take a third strike for the subject of this post, I rediscovered the article Symmetrical Fischer Random Chess. Although I mentioned this content in another context, Chess960 @ Chessville.com, there's an angle to be explored further. The essay starts,

Kramnik (Chess Life, June 2004), has made an interesting point about Fischer Random Chess, regarding the lack of aesthetic balance of random starting arrays when compared with the familiar RNBQKBNR.

I located the referenced issue of CL and turned to 'Kramnik Reflects on Draws, Kasparov, and the State of Chess Today' by Vladimir Barsky.

Q: [Chess960] serves the same purpose [as drawing lots] -- to level the home preparation. Don't you like it? • A: I have played [chess960] a little bit. It diminishes the home preparation completely. But the problem is that some harmony of the game is missing. It is hard to explain but when in the initial position the Bishop stands on h8, the Knight is on g8, and the Rook on f8, the artistic beauty of chess disappears. By the way, I asked my colleagues about it and many of them share my feelings -- something is dubious and unaesthetic. And the fans got used to the beautiful interaction of the pieces in a normal initial position. So if we want to devalue the opening preparation, drawing lots is preferable. In this case the theory would be studied on a general basis.

I'm going to dub the 'BNR*****' and '*****RNB' positions the 'Kramnik formation', and will return to it in a future post.

21 February 2015

Chessmaniac, Comments on Chess960

After ChessRex, More Comments on Chess960, next on this blog's list of Correspondence (Turnbased) resources is Chessmaniac.com. I discussed this site a few years ago in Second Looks (February 2012), and there's not much to say beyond that. The chess960 comments in the site's forum are mainly about the initial rollout of the function and I couldn't find an archive of games.

The site has a large number of articles about chess, some of which mention chess960. Many of the articles are copies of material available elsewhere on the web. One article I had seen long ago, then forgotten, is Bobby Fischer's Pathetic Endgame, where the original by Rene Chun is subtitled Paranoia, hubris, and hatred -- the unraveling of the greatest chess player ever (theatlantic.com, December 2002). The portion covering the birth of chess960 takes seven paragraphs, which I'll quote in entirety. It ties together a number of events which I've discussed in separate posts on this blog and introduces a few new angles.

Fischer stayed in Yugoslavia after the rematch [Spassky 1992] , and began promoting what he called Fischer Random Chess -- a tweaked version of shuffle chess, in which both players' back-row pieces are arranged according to the same random shuffle before play begins. Although not revolutionary, the premise of FRC is compelling: with 960 different starting positions, opening theory becomes obsolete, and the strongest player -- not necessarily the player who has memorized more strategies or has the most expensive chess-analysis software -- is assured victory.

Fischer envisioned FRC as a means of democratizing chess and as a lucrative business venture -- and as an easy way to reinsert himself into the world of competitive chess without having to immerse himself in opening theory. He had designed and patented two electronic devices that he hoped to sell to FRC enthusiasts: a clock for timing games, and a pyramid-shaped "shuffler" to determine the starting positions. A 1996 press release described the two instruments as "essential to playing according to the new rules for the game of chess." Fischer desperately wanted the Tokyo-based watch company Seiko to manufacture his FRC products but couldn't generate interest.

Worse than Seiko's snub was the loss of Zita [Rajcsanyi]. After less than a year she left Fischer and, against his protestations, eventually wrote a book that chronicled their relationship. After the book's release he accused Zita of being a spy hired by the Jews to lure him out of retirement.

Following the breakup Fischer roamed around Central Europe for several years. He ended up being befriended by Susan and Judit Polgar, two young Hungarian Jews who were at the time the Venus and Serena Williams of the chess world. "I first met Bobby with my family," Susan recalls. "I told him rather than spending the rest of his life hiding ... he should move to Budapest, where there are a lot of chess players."

Fischer did, and was welcomed as a guest in the Polgar household. He appears to have behaved himself. "I remember happy times in the kitchen cutting mushrooms," Susan says. "He's very normal in that sense, very pleasant." Although Fischer refused to play classic chess, he graciously helped the Polgar sisters with their games. When he wasn't sharing his expert analysis with them, he was playing FRC games against them. He was astounded at how accomplished the sisters were. Seeing that he was impressed by the Polgars' play, a friend of Fischer's suggested a publicized match to promote FRC. Fischer agreed.

Fischer was well aware that a high-stakes match pitting the game's strongest male player (in his own mind, anyway) against Judit Polgar, the game's strongest female player (now ranked in the top ten in the world), would interest the media. But the battle-of-the-sexes extravaganza was not to be. "The Jewish-nonsense stuff caused a problem between Bobby and the girls' father," says a Fischer confidant. "One day Bobby just changed his mind. He said, 'No, they're Jewish!' He just couldn't handle it and walked away."

Would Fischer be able to beat a top grand master in an FRC match today? Doubtful. He played numerous FRC games with Susan, who concedes that the results were "mixed." She isn't optimistic about the prospect of a Fischer comeback either. "He's not that young anymore," she says.

What's new here? First there is the statement that 'Zita [...] eventually wrote a book that chronicled their relationship'. This might shed additional insight into Fischer's ideas for random chess, but it turns out it isn't true. In Responses to and by Rene Chun for her article Bobby Fischer's Pathetic Endgame (bobbyfischer.net), Rene Chun informs,

Petra Dautov was indeed the woman who published a memoir chronicling her relationship with Bobby Fischer. I stand corrected.

Then there is the statement that

[Fischer] had designed and patented two electronic devices that he hoped to sell to FRC enthusiasts: a clock for timing games, and a pyramid-shaped "shuffler" to determine the starting positions. A 1996 press release described the two instruments as "essential to playing according to the new rules for the game of chess." Fischer desperately wanted the Tokyo-based watch company Seiko to manufacture his FRC products but couldn't generate interest.

This sounds like confusion about two ideas: the clock and the shuffler. The clock, patent no.4884255 on my page Chess Patents, has been widely adopted for traditional chess and I discussed it on 1992 Fischer - Spassky Rematch : Highlights.

The Fischer chess clock: The match was the first chess event to use the "Bobby Fischer chess clock". The clock had been patented by Fischer in the U.S. in 1989, but a working model had never been constructed. A clock was made for the event in a working time of five days.

As for the shuffler, I incorporated a (the?) 1996 press release in a post titled Fischer Announces Fischerandom, where a 'Fischerandom Chess Computerized Shuffler' is mentioned. A search on '"essential to playing according to the new rules for the game of chess"' returns only the quote by Rene Chun. It is not in the 1996 press release. In fact, there are many methods to determine a random chess960 start position and most of them require no technology, pyramid-shaped or otherwise.

Re the Polgar connection, this is well established. I posted about it in Pictures of a Fischer Random Precursor.

14 February 2015

ChessRex, More Comments on Chess960

Continuing with ChessRex, Comments on Chess960, the site conducted a number of interviews with top women players. I've extracted the portions dealing with chess960 from two of those interviews. Note that the question were sometimes from different people.

Anna Muzychuk Interview (February 2013):-

Q: If you had the opportunity would you Enter a World Championship "Fischer Random Chess960" tournament? • A: I know about this kind of chess, though I have never played any tournaments of chess960. The World Chess960 Championships were organized but now we don't have them. If once they will be organized again, I think I would consider about taking part in it. Why not?

Q: I'm trying to play all the chess960 starting positions from 000-959 OTB -- it's taken a few chess years already to complete 215 SP's and against the same player in five minute sudden death games as we are playing both the light and dark pieces, so that's 1920 games in total to play. Do you know anyone that has played all the starting positions over the board? [See Chess960 Enthusiasm for a video about this exercise.] • A: I have never thought about that and never asked anyone but I don't think that someone has tried to play all the positions. It looks like it really takes a lot of time and I am not sure that it will be so useful. I think it will be more reasonable to train chess skills and try to better as a chess player as after some moves of chess960 you already get some position which by structure is similar to some opening in normal chess. So, the more you know in chess, the better chess player you are the better you will play chess960. This is just my opinion, maybe I am not completely right. We will be able to check it if Fischer chess becomes more popular. But as we can see from the very popular festival in Mainz which was including World Chess960 Championships among men and women, a great general open and also a computer tournament, the winners were the players who are very good in normal chess.

Q: As Chess has evolved over the years and within the Fischer Random starting positions the traditional start position is just One of many that make chess960 so exciting to play. Where do you see chess evolving for the coming chess years? • A: For me it is still very interesting to play normal chess. Of course, it has evolved and this will continue but the game is still very interesting with many "undiscovered" ideas.

Natalia Pogonina Interview (October 2012):-

Q: I like chess960 because I think have a better chance at winning since I haven't studied the opening book. What do you think of chess960? Should it become more important in the chess world? • A: I am not a fan of chess960 and believe that all these moans about having to cram up too much theory that we've been hearing lately are a) exaggerated b) apply only to the very top GMs. Yes, at 2700+ level people do spend a few hours before the game memorizing and going over variations. However, the prevailing majority of the players in the world don't need to dedicate so much effort to studying theory. I like Magnus Carlsen's practical approach: don't stuff too many lines into your head; just outplay the opponent later on.

Q: I am a huge lover of Fischer Random chess. Is it good and advisable to play it or not? • A: In terms of being "good and advisable to play it" – it depends on your goals. If you like the game and enjoy playing chess960, then why not do it. Or, if you meant using chess960 as a way of increasing your mastery in regular chess, then I wouldn't recommend it. There are lots of more efficient training techniques available.

Alexandra Kosteniuk Interview (October 2012). Here I extracted a single question, since GM Kosteniuk has been featured on this blog many times in the past:-

Q: The great Bobby Fischer never publicly stated his feeling about the name 'chess960'. Alexandra, when you talk about this great game what do you call it and why? • A: I know it's Fischer who invented Fischer Random Chess so he deserves most credit for it. But Hans-Walter Schmitt in Germany worked to popularize the game a lot, and under his leadership and support the name "chess960" came out, which is fine. Since he had the "chess960" festivals, I tend to call it that way now.

NB: Schmitt once asked Fischer 'Can I use this name "Fischer Chess"?'

07 February 2015

ChessRex, Comments on Chess960

After Chess.com Comments and More Comments, next on the online play sites listed on the right navigation bar is ChessRex.com. Like many online play sites, the game area is available only to signed-on members, but links to the content should work even if you are not a member. This is good marketing for any play site.

The most recent post that I found particularly interesting is titled Chess960 Equalizer (September 2013). It's based on a video whose content no longer works outside of Youtube, but you can watch it onsite: Guinness Basketball Commercial. It features a group of athletes playing basketball in wheelchairs. ChessRex founder Ernesto comments,

Chess960 is often called a variant. Chess960 is not a variant of chess because it is played by the same rules with the same pieces and executes to the same outcome as traditional chess.

Since chess is widely played by memory and recognizing openings and tactical positioning is key in becoming a successful chess player, knowledge will give you a great advantage over less experienced players. Chess960 evens out the playing field because there are 959 other starting positions including the traditional position used as the norm. Most players of high caliber do not want to give up their advantage over any player no matter what so they result in calling chess960 a variant or "not chess" at all.

To force or request a player to give up his memorized opening and positional recognition is like asking a basketball player to use a wheelchair to compete. All in all chess960 is not a variant or a handicapper but an equalizer.

While I agree with the comment about chess960 not being a variant -- and like the reason given -- I don't agree with the comment about it being an equalizer. In chess960 a good player has to think about the opening starting from the first move, just like his opponent. His understanding of positional play in the opening -- rapid development, piece activity, center control, Pawn structure, etc. -- gives him a big edge in reaching a position that he understands very well. That edge will remain after the transition into the middlegame.

Although many chess960 middlegame positions are unlikely to arise from the traditional start position, there are many other positions that could easily arise, especially after both players have castled. In the endgame, which is indistingushable from traditional chess, the good player's experience will guarantee a big edge.

Fun, yes; challenging, yes; equalizing, no. Chess960 has enough advantages that we don't need to invent new ones.

31 January 2015

Chess.com, More Comments on Chess960

In the previous post Chess.com, Comments on Chess960, I linked to a post dating the introduction of chess960 on Chess.com to mid-2009. Since that time, tens of thousands of players have experimented with Fischer's invention and have left hundreds of comments on the site's various forums. Here are a few comments from the last year (or so) which highlight different areas of practical concern.

The question of how to start the clocks equitably is more complicated than for traditional chess.

I propose that if/when chess960 is added to Live Chess, white's clock should not begin immediately. There should be an extra time bank for the players to examine the position. I propose that the amount of time in the extra time bank should be 1/30th of the time control for the game, proportionally. Thus, for a 5 minute game, there would be 10 seconds to study the position; for a 30 minute game there would be a minute. • Live 960 extra clock at start

Everyone who gets hooked on the game wonders whether all 960 positions are fair to Black.

I was looking into chess960 starting positions and came across QNRBKNBR After 1.b3 doesn't white already have a clear advantage? black is basically forced between 1...Ne6?! which must be bad since it blocks the e pawn and makes developing both black bishops very difficult. 1...f6 which is probably best but still weakens blacks king side and takes away a diagonal from the DSB which may have been quite useful. • Unfair starting position in chess960

Selecting specific start positions for all rounds of a tournament is not as obvious as one might think.

Round one of a chess960 tournament and everyone plays the same random board, as white and black against opponents. All good, but when/if you progress to Round two, what do you get? The SAME BOARD AGAIN!?? This now actually makes it a thematic tournament rather than chess960. If you've ever encountered this you'll know the disappointment at seeing the same board again that everyone's played to death in multiple games the first Round. • Time for Chess.com to sort out 960 Tournaments!

What about overall strategy? How does chess960 compare to traditional chess?

Most of the same fundamentals apply. Why I say most because one can take a risk a try an early mate threat that may lead to mate or win material. What they have in common: Develop your pieces and rapidly and effectively (people forget this part). By this place them where they are the most active. [Long...] • How to play chess 960

Selecting a start position manually is another area of concern. The following method is wrong! The Bishops must always be placed first.

In chess960, the board is arranged randomly. So when playing without using computers, you should think of a way to arrange pieces randomly. Well I will explain here... • How to arrange board for a Chess960 game in your home (Without using any electronic device) - Explained

What about software and engines?

I am looking for a database or just plain chess program that can handle the nuances of chess960 castling. [...] Is there a decent chess960 software out there? • Chess 960 Software and Database

Once players realize that there is more to chess than the traditional start position, the ideas start flowing.

Chess1920 is a variant of Western Chess much like Chess960. The initial position for a game of Chess1920 is first created according to the rules of Chess960. Then, a coin is tossed. If the coin shows heads, then the set-up process is done. If the coin shows tails, then the black pieces are taken off the board and repositioned to be the left/right reversal of the white pieces. It's simple, fair, and has twice the variety as does Chess960. • BRC/Chess1920

Ditto for the idea of randomizing.

I was thinking, why not let us choose our own army setup? For me at least, it's infinitely more interesting than getting a random position and playing that. People could master their own setups, theory would still be almost as useless. You would see traditional setups (R-N-B-Q-K-B-N-R) against hybrids, totally bonkers stuff too! • New idea for chess960

Because Chess.com doesn't offer live chess960, there is occasionally a discussion of other servers where it is offered.

Passion is probably what made the creators of Lichess create the server. It is a chess site with a very clean interface, a lot of options, even a REST API (that's a programming thing, don't worry about it). Most of all, the site is completely free, no ads, no nags and a mission statement that ensures that the game will remain thus forever. • LiChess, a very interesting chess server; (see also my recent post Lichess, Third Look)

I have a bigger collection of Chess.com comments from even further back, but I'll save those for a rainy day.

24 January 2015

Chess.com, Comments on Chess960

The previous post, FICS / ICC / Lichess, Comments on Chess960, discussed the last of the Crossboard (Live) Chess960 servers listed on the right. With this post I'll tackle the Correspondence (Turnbased) Chess960 servers.

I'm sure that nearly everyone is familiar with Chess.com, a site that has been discussed many times on this blog; earlier posts can be found under Label Chess.com, also listed to the right of every page. Along with correspondence play, the site has the most active chess960 forum on the web: Chess960 and Other Variants. The only function missing from the site is live chess960 play, an anomaly mentioned frequently in the forum.

[There is another chess960 forum on Chessgames.com which was active during the early days of chess960, a time when the topic was more controversial, but the frequency of posts has declined steadily over the last few years. I once used it as the subject of another post, Chess960 FAQ (June 2009).]

The most important chess960 forum post on Chess.com is undoubtedly Chess960 101. Along with pointers on aspects of chess960 that might be useful to the newcomer, it has links to Erik (aka Mr. Chess.com) Allebest's introduction to the new chess960 function (June 2009?) and to IM David Pruess's followup essay on tips to play successfully.

I have many other links to the Chess.com forum that are worth referencing. Unfortunately, as mentioned in a recent post on my main blog -- Blog Maintenance -- I'm currently overhauling my bookmarks. A discussion of those resources will have to wait for another day.

17 January 2015

FICS / ICC / Lichess, Comments on Chess960

After ChessCube, Comments on Chess960, let's take a look at comments about chess960 on FICS. First, here are the FICS rules on how to play (first written in 1996!):-

FICS doesn't have a forum and I couldn't find much discussion on other forums. The recurring theme seems to be how problematic it is to find a game there. For example:-

As for the last two servers listed after ICS under my 'Crossboard (Live) Chess960' links, I've already discussed them on this blog. Here is the final post for each server; follow the link to find earlier posts:-

In my next post I'll start looking at servers listed under 'Correspondence (Turnbased) Chess960'.

10 January 2015

ChessCube, Comments on Chess960

While working on Lichess, Second Look, I thought it might be a good idea to look at comments about chess960 from each of the ten online play sites listed on the right. That would give me some insight into practical issues involving the implementation of chess960. First on the list is ChessCube.com, where I found two good comments about when the clocks should be started.

Chess960 clock change (Feb 2011):-

At the moment the clock timer only starts once White has made his first move. White gets too much advantage! White is free to think for as long as they like while Black cannot predict what White will play with any degree of confidence and thus cannot properly prepare a reply during the time the clock is still. Once White has moved, Black's time is then the first to suffer!

The situation is made worse because White automatically get's one free tempo simply because they are White. Statistically speaking, this tends to put Black on the defensive from the game start. If White's time counts down immediately, this tends to balance out Black's chances to attack and play aggressively because at least there is some compensation to Black for being a tempo down.

Chess960 clock change (Aug 2013):-

White's countdown clock should start immediately on White's first turn. Black is already at a disadvantage and so when it comes to their first turn, all of the thinking they were doing on White's first turn might well come to nothing because White plays a different first move.

They almost sound as if they had been written by the same person. Whoever the author is, I agree with the reasons given.

While I was working on ChessCube, I deleted its label, which had also been listed on the right. When I set it up, I thought I would be playing frequently on the site, but it hasn't worked out the way I expected.

03 January 2015

Lichess, Third Look

After Lichess, First Look and Lichess, Second Look, is there any more to say? Yes, there is. That 'First Look' post only introduced the site's chess960 play against an engine, while 'Second Look' was a review of all my links to online play sites.

The site appears to be managed from ornicar/lila · GitHub, which bills itself as 'Best chess web application, ever'. Wikipedia, on its GitHub page, tells us,

GitHub is a web-based Git repository hosting service, which offers all of the distributed revision control and source code management (SCM) functionality of Git as well as adding its own features. Unlike Git, which is strictly a command-line tool, GitHub provides a web-based graphical interface and desktop as well as mobile integration.

The ornicar/lila page adds,

It's a free online chess game focused on realtime and ease of use. It has a search engine, computer analysis, tournaments, forums, teams, puzzles, a weird monitoring console, and a world map. The UI is available in 80 languages thanks to the community.

Since my interest in the site is mainly for chess960, I searched both the web and the Lichess forum for material relevant to Fischer's greatest invention. One forum post from the past month, Forum > General Chess Discussion > Chess 960, asked, 'How popular is this variant here?', and led me to the site's search page.

There I learned that of the 50.000.000+ games recorded on the site, almost 600.000 are chess960. As a percentage that might seem small, but it's hardly discouraging; chess960 adoption is still in its very early days. I also learned that 32 games have been played where the average rating of the two players was more than 2400. That could be a good starting point for a future post on this blog.

Another starting point might be the on the site's GitHub page.

If you want to add a live chess section to your website, you are welcome to embed lichess. It's very easy. [...] Just embed lichess using an iframe.

I'm looking at those tabs at the top of every page on this blog -- 'Home' ... 'Chess960 1-2-3' -- and telling myself, 'Let's give it a try!'