Opening theory vs chess variants
Capablanca was not the first to think that opening theory was becoming so vast that it stifled creativity. It seems like, particularly at a high level, opening preparation is becoming ever more significant. Even Carlsen, who is often trumpeted as bucking this trend, said at yesterday’s press conference, “Really I work on the openings before the tournament. I think the endgame, middlegame, calculating stuff it comes mostly with the tournament practice. In that sense I didn’t do anything...[in terms of preparation for the middle and end game]”. He also once again refused to reveal his team of seconds, the players who would have helped him prepare his openings, lest it give any clues as to which openings he has been preparing. The implication being that he may still have a few rare lines saved up for more challenging competition. En passant, I’m not saying Carlsen is by any means wholly reliant on opening theory for edge, I’m sure he would be number 1 at any chess variant too, but just that even he has to study theory.
Still from 2013 WC match Anand vs Carlsen
Capablanca was not the first to suggest introducing new pieces, the archbishop and the chancellor, to disrupt all this theory.
A Capablanca Chess Set
Fischer famously referred to Capablanca's viewpoint on this: "... Capablanca… spoke his mind… He wanted to change the rules [of chess] already, back in the twenties, because he said chess was getting played out. He was right. Now chess is completely dead. It is all just memorisation and prearrangement. It’s a terrible game now. Very uncreative."
Fischer may well have been worrying about variations of the Sicilian when this photo was taken
Fischer came up with Fischer Random Chess aka 960 - where the conventional pieces are placed randomly, albeit maintaining some of the characteristics of standard chess, by ensuring that the bishops are on different coloured squares, the kings are between the rooks and the board is set up symmetrically. This distinguishes it from "Shuffle Chess", suggested as early as 1792. With 960 possible board formations preparing openings before the match is nigh on impossible, so the result is much more the result of the thinking that goes on over the board, rather than preparation. Arguably this makes it a better spectator sport, as any spectator without reams of book knowledge will at least have an equal chance of understanding the first few moves.
The pyramid scheme of chess
Like many human activities, i.e. professions, art forms, sports, whatever, there is a de facto pyramid scheme in chess. You join at the bottom of the pyramid as a rookie and probably will never make it beyond the base. However, the more you learn you more likely you will shock and awe a rookie and potentially even sell them lessons or books, particularly important when it's hard to make money actually playing a game which intrinsically is not a spectator sport; after all, if your play is easy to understand it's easy to counter. So it pays to bring other people into the scheme. At least someone else will have some comprehension of what you are doing with all those hours you could have been learning to be a chef or something.
Well I guess we could all start playing 960, but then we couldn't wax lyrical about the Sicilian Defence Najdorf Variation or King's Gambit and how we're in the ancient tradition of blah-de-blah. However, it's not like chess is set in stone, the rules have changed many times, for instance the introduction of the two square pawn advance in the 15th century. One way to combat opening theory would be to turn back the clock to playing Chaturanga, one of the early grandfathers of chess, Sanskrit for "having four limbs or parts", referring to the four parts of an army "elephants, chariots, cavalry and infantry."
Some ancients playing chaturanga
The main reason to stick with chess is just that, it’s pretty obscure already, so if you start pursuing some obscure variant, or go, for that matter, it’s even less likely your family and friends are going to have a clue what you’re spending your time doing. Enjoy your chess/variants! And feel free to send me a challenge for either chess or 960.
For more information you might want to follow some of the following links, to pages I enjoyed reading in putting together this blog.
The UK's leftish broadsheet ran an interesting obit for Fischer by Leonard Barden who recalls: "We played five-minute blitz at which, although I was then British lightning champion, he trounced me: "You're just a British weakie."
The patent for the Fischer chess clock