Welcome to Crazy Land!

Welcome to Crazy Land!

Nov 11, 2010, 10:00 PM |

I suppose it was bound to happen. After resisting the heretical call of Fischer Random Chess, aka Chess960, I finally had my first game at the invite of a longtime Chess friend. I have to admit…it was refreshingly different.

If you’re not familiar with it, Chess960 is a Chess variant created by the late, great Robert Fischer. Chess960 uses the same board and pieces as regular Chess, but the starting position for the main pieces is randomized. Unlike Shuffle Chess, a variant with a similar style, Chess960 ensures that castling is always possible as in classical Chess. The result is 960 possible starting positions, something that goes a long way in busting up the practiced openings that so dominates classical chess - which is the raison d’être for this variant.

Here’s our game:


So concludes my first ever game of Chess960. I found it to be just as fun as classical Chess. Would I play it again? Certainly. In fact, I already have a rematch underway. I want to explore these strange lands a bit more, at least until I feel I have a firm grip on castling, anyway.
Do I believe that Chess960 is the future of the Royal Game? Perhaps.

If that dark day arrives where some bitter scientist geek successfully completes his lifelong goal of sucking the fun out of another human endeavor by ‘solving Chess’, then I can see Chess960 becoming the new standard. While it is probably true that any ‘solution’ to chess would be so horribly complex and lengthy that only a few hardcore acolytes would attempt to commit it to memory, I suspect the mere knowledge that such a solution exists would be enough to turn most people away from the Royal Game in its current form. In this regard, Chess960 makes for an excellent fire exit.

However, short of that apocalyptic scenario, I see no reason why some are in such a rush to abandon hundreds of years of Chess tradition for Fischer’s variant. Really, when you get right down to it, the only good reason that proponents of unorthodox Chess put forth is that the opening game of traditional Chess has become too analytical; that he who memorizes the most opening moves has a distinct advantage.

Yeah. And?

Do we expect Chess to be immune from preparation? And, more to the point, do we want it to be immune from preparation? Are we to ban spring training camp for baseball? Pre-game practice from football? Why is preparation a sin in Chess but a virtue in every other human activity? If someone can beat me in a game of Chess because of his opening preparation, more power to him! The solution isn’t for me to demand that the rules of the game be changed, it is for me to adapt by doing my own preparation!

“Well, there’s that whole computer analysis factor to consider,” some would reply.

Yes there is. But until that day when an irrefutable line of play is discovered, no amount of computer-assisted Chess analysis will confer a decisive advantage to two evenly-matched players. Don’t get me wrong, computer analysis has become a vital preparatory tool for competitive players, but not a decisive one. What is more, in a day and age of inexpensive PCs, this tool is available to all. So I don’t find this much of an reason to close-out traditional Chess either.

Lastly, some say that, due to the deep analysis of opening lines by computers, that the opening is “played out”; that any chance for the “fighting Chess” of old - where imagination trumped memorization - to return is impossible. This has proven to be false. While computer analysis has cleaned up some lines of play, it certainly hasn’t put an end to opening novelties. In fact, there has been a lot of exciting innovation in the opening over the last few years, ironically due to the assistance of computer analysis! As for the end of “fighting chess”…did you see any part of the recently concluded Anand – Topalov World Championship?!?

But let’s assume all these objections had merit. So what? Do you really think that a switch to Chess960 would stop them from reoccurring in a few years? The very same computer analysis that has become part and parcel of traditional Chess would migrate over to 960 as well. Sure, it might take a few years for the analytical programs to adapt to the new rules of the game, but before you can take a deep breath, reams of deep opening analysis will start to pour forth. Granted, it will take a long time to thoroughly analyze 960 possible opening positions, but it will happen faster than you think possible. Such is the way of Moore’s Law. Before long, favorite openings will be adapted for a large number of board positions and we’ll all be right back where we started.

Edmund Burke once remarked that “We set ourselves to bite the hand that feeds us.” Such is what happens when you break with longstanding tradition. Chess960 has its novelties, and even its potential purpose as a refuge from an extremely hypothetical “solved chess”, but right now I do not see the need to shatter the monolithic, yet vibrant, Chess community into a thousand variant shards. We must be careful for very often reform morphs into revolution and revolution into chaos. If we are forced to flee to Crazy Land by future events, so be it. Until then, I’ll stick with Tradition.