29 December 2018

'Hitting the Mainstream!'

Seen in Chess Life Kids, December 2018 (p.12): '960 Bugs on My Chessboard?' by FM Mike "FunMaster" Klein. The article started,
Chess is fun. You could play it for days on end (don’t forget to eat!). But using those same 32 pieces, chess players have invented dozens of other variations of chess to make sure the game never gets stale. Two of the most popular "variants" are Bughouse and Chess960. Yes, they are a bit silly, but they also allow for a different kind of creativity. Even the world’s most elite grandmasters play and compete in both!

No one will argue that bughouse isn't a variant -- the four players' strategies have little to do with traditional chess -- but I'll raise my hand once more to question the word when used with chess960. It is, after all, one of the first bullets in Top 10 Myths About Chess960 (May 2012)...

No.2: 'It's a variant of traditional chess'

...and I've given the better part of at least one post to the subject, Chess960 Encounters, Past & Future (October 2011), where I said, 'The classification of chess960 as more than a variant is not a simple difference of opinion on semantics.'

Let's get back to the rest of the Chess Life Kids article. The magazine appears six times per year, is 24 pages long, and is the 'Official Scholastic Publication of US Chess'. FM Klein's article was featured on the December 2018 cover, and was introduced on the contents page with 'Chess variants are hitting the mainstream!'

The three page article gave a page to bughouse and a page to chess960. A page was enough to explain the basics of chess960, i.e. the meaning of the name, the setup of the pieces, the 'funny' castling rules, and examples of castling ('Weird!'). It also gave the main reason for playing it.

So why did Bobby Fischer propose this game? Simple -- studying openings is useless. You know how masters can play 20 or 30 moves of "book"? Well, there’s no such thing in Chess960. Pretty much every game is an unexplored kingdom of newness and some grandmasters think more creativity is possible.

That paragraph gives me plenty of justification to overlook negative words like 'silly', 'funny', and 'weird'. Instead I'll concentrate on the positive : explaining chess960 to a new generation.

The introduction of bughouse to the U.S. chess scene preceded the introduction of chess960 by almost 25 years, a full generation. In Fischer Random Bughouse (July 2011), I once showed that the two chess offshoots can even be merged. That would make yet another 'unexplored kingdom of newness'.

22 December 2018

Knight Opposition

Last month I looked at two books by Gene Milener, one entirely on the subject of chess960, the other a coda to the first work:-
  • 2018-11-17: Chess960 Phase Zero • 'Gene Milener's groundbreaking book "Play Stronger Chess by Examining Chess960"' (2006)

  • 2018-11-24: Milener's Month • 'Milener's epilogue' in his more recent book (2018)

My focus on the two books at the same time was rewarded by an insight that had eluded me for years. In 'Play Stronger Chess', Milener wrote (p.130):-

Due to the particulars of the chess1 setup and to the fact it never varies, we do not think of knights as having a light v. dark shade aspect anything like bishops have. But again, it is healthy to consider the possibility that our chess experiences have been harmfully limited by our exclusive adherence to chess1.

For analyzing chess960 setups it is useful to gently apply the idea that each knight is either a light or dark knight, though only for the first portion of the game. These square shadings are central to a setup feature we can call "knight opposition". Some chess960 setups have knight opposition, strongly or weakly, while others have no knight opposition.

My reaction to this was, 'So what?' What difference does it make whether the Knights start on the same color square? The explanation on the following three pages did nothing to alleviate my lack of understanding. In the second book, in 'Milener's epilogue', the author wrote (p.373):-

A non-traditional start setup would offer welcome relief from: [...] The maximization of Knight opposition created by the one traditional setup. Knight opposition is seen in common cases such as when Nb8-c6 follows Ngl-f3, leaving both Knights in a tilt shape with each other. The two Knights oppose each other's pressures on the same center squares of d4,e5. Setups where the two White Knights start on squares of the same shade provide welcome variety from the traditional setup.

That was my 'Aha!' moment. The start positions of the Knights determine how they will engage each other in the opening moves of the game. In the traditional start position, the Knights enter the game during the earliest moves and then proceed to spar for control of the center squares. The same sequence happens in nearly every traditional opening (like the Ruy Lopez and the Queen's Gambit) : first the Pawns enter the play, then the Knights, then the other pieces. The Knights enter the battle with regard to the position of the Pawns, and the other pieces follow their lead.

Several years ago, the 'Chess960 Jungle' blog made a similar observation in a post Chess960: Naming the Knight Pairs (May 2011; 'Military Knights', 'Chivalry Knights', etc.), then went on to discuss the different combinations in subsequent posts. Since I failed to grasp the importance of the concept than, it would be worth my while to review all of those relevant posts.