25 January 2020

From van Zuylen to Benko

In the previous post, An Alternative to a 'Boring, Mind-Draining Process', I discussed an article from the January 2020 Chess Life. The same article had a short sidebar titled 'What is Fischer Random Chess?', which started,
Fischer Random Chess was publicized by the 11th World Champion, Bobby Fischer, in Buenos Aires in 1996. The foundation of Fischer Random chess had been laid two centuries earlier by Philip Julius van Zuylen van Nijevelt as a means of combating expanding opening theory, requiring players to rely on creativity rather than rote memorization and repetition.

We've seen van Zuylen once before in this blog -- More Arguments Against Chess960 (April 2010) -- where Dutch writer Tim Krabbé placed van Zuylen's idea on an equal footing with Fischer's idea. In fact, the two ideas have as much in common as an acorn has to an oak tree. Van Zuylen shuffled the pieces on the rank behind the Pawns, not even taking care to place the Bishops on different colored squares. It's an interesting idea, but it's not particularly difficult to imagine. Fischer invented a castling scheme that was comprehensive enough to make the rules governing the traditional start position (SP518 RNBQKBNR) a subset of his own invention. The intellectual leap between the simple shuffling and the complex castling was a real feat of imagination.

For more about van Zuylen, see Philip Julius van Zuylen van Nijevelt (wikipedia.org). That page includes a link to van Zuylen's book, written in French, where the shuffling idea was introduced. I haven't had time to study the book, but another page, La Superiorite Aux Echecs: The first chess book of endgame theory by van Zuylen van Nyevelt (chess.com/blog/introuble2), makes it clear that shuffle chess represents only a miniscule portion of its total content.

Jumping from the 18th century to the 20th century, the November 1978 Chess Life (CL; p.609) had a pair of articles on shuffle chess. The introduction to the first article, showing the opposing pieces in a strategic huddle, is pictured below.

'Pre-chess : Time for a Change' by GM Pal Benko
(Drawing: Nelly Kastelucci)

GM Benko wrote,

About ten years ago someone told me of another idea, which he said had come originally from Soviet grandmaster David Bronstein, certainly one of the most original thinkers in chess The idea is to begin with the sixteen pawns set up as usual, but with no pieces on the board. White's first move is to set any one of his pieces on any square along his first rank. Black then places any of his pieces anywhere on his own first rank.

Play alternates, each player placing another piece on his first rank. No piece or pawn may be moved until all the pieces of both sides are in place. To keep the game as close as possible to orthodox chess, Bishops must be placed on opposite-color squares and castling is permitted only if the King is on "K1" and at least one Rook is on a corner square.

That's certainly more sophisticated than van Zuylen's acorn, although still far from Fischer's oak tree. The rest of Benko's article was about a four game 'pre-chess' match with GM Arthur Bisguier. It was followed immediately by the second CL article, titled 'Pre-chess : For the Thinking Player' by GM Bisguier, who won the match. The two GMs' thoughts on their version of shuffle chess foreshadowed the thinking about chess960 more than two decades later.

18 January 2020

An Alternative to a 'Boring, Mind-Draining Process'

If, like me, you thought that last month's post, FWFRCC Wrapup, was the last on that subject, then you would be wrong. The January 2020 edition of Chess Life (CL) had a four page article by GM Robert Hess titled, 'So Showcase', subtitled, 'GM Wesley So goes on a winning spree at the first FIDE World Fischer Random Championship'. It started,
Between the U.S. Championship, five Grand Chess Tour events, the FIDE Grand Prix cycle, the World Cup, and the FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss, GM Wesley So hardly had any downtime in 2019. Breaks from tournaments are necessary: time is spent mending holes in the repertoire and diving deep into the weeds of openings to unearth a new variation.

Preparation often requires rote memorization of long series of moves, countless Berlin lines stored for future use. Many do not find this an enjoyable endeavor. The FIDE World Fischer Random Championship, then, was a nice reprieve from the typical drudgery required to be competitive at the game’s highest level.

Near the end of the article, GM So confirmed that sentiment.

[Wesley] So certainly wants to see the variant grow. To him it was "wonderful not having to memorize lines and go over and over the same material searching for a novelty somewhere. I have a good memory, but it is such a boring, mind-draining process." In Norway, not having anything to memorize, his daily routine consisted of solving chess puzzles, studying chess books, working on tactics over the board, eating well, and sleeping regular hours.

Between those paragraphs was a high-level summary of GM So's path to the title, including his crushing win over GM Magnus Carlsen in the final match. The following photo (photographer unknown) shows the playing arena in Norway's 'Henie Onstad Art Center'.

Caption: 'So emerged as the surprise leader after his day one matchup with GM Magnus Carlsen.'

Along with that article, GM Hess analyzed two games from the FWFRCC competition. The first was a Nakamura - Caruana game in the December 2019 issue of CL. The second was So - Carlsen in the January 2020 CL, game two of the final match.

For a chess magazine which has long emphasized American juniors and has lately been emphasizing American women, the chess960 articles were a welcome change. I wonder if there's any demand for more of the same.