Non-random Fischer Random

ArnieChipmunk
CM ArnieChipmunk
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0 | Chess Event Coverage

Watching the 7th game of the Kasparov-Short blitz match last week made me realize once again how radical Fischer’s proposal to shuffle all the pieces on the first rank was and still is. If you want to avoid boring theoretical chess duels, all you have to do is force the players to play an unexplored variation or opening – problem solved.

The 2009 poster of the Mainz Chess Classic, which doesn't exist anymore. There Chess960/Fischer Random was played every year.

In that blitz game, Nigel Short played the St. George Defense (which usually arises after 1.e4 a6 but now appeared on the board after 1.Nf3 b5 2.e4 a6) and even managed to beat the 13th World Champion (who, admittedly, blundered an exchange in the middle game). He thus created an appropriate echo of another St. George game, in which another British Grandmaster, Tony Miles, managed to beat  former World Champion, Anatoly Karpov (at the Skara European Team Championships in 1980).

In fact, Short also beat Kasparov with the now-rare King’s Gambit – and with a rare line within the King’s Gambit at that - providing another argument for those people (and I think I consider myself to be among them) who claim that all it takes to solve boring computer preparation is some creativity in the opening. Is that too much to ask of professional chess players?

Of course, some will say that it’s easy to experiment in blitz, but that one can’t expect the chess elite to actually start studying the King’s Gambit for important tournament games. Playing this dubious gambit in serious competition will cost them serious money! I only partly agree with this argument, because there’s no reason why playing blitz should, in principle, not be as profitable as playing classical chess. (It seems that even Kirsan Ilyumzhinov agrees with me on this point!)

But let’s for a moment assume that it’s impossible to force the King’s Gambit (or the St. George, or any other opening that’s not considered to be ‘main stream’) down professional players’ throat:  what if we simply adjusted the starting position a little to help the pros make up their minds? Suppose from now on everybody would needs to start their game with the following position:

[SetUp "1"] [FEN "rnbqkbnr/1ppppppp/p7/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/RNBQKBNR w KQkq - 0 1"]*

So much for all Najdorf and Ruy Lopez theory! And that’s just the beginning, of course. All openings would have to be studied anew, because the slight modification will create all sorts of subtle and not so subtle differences. The game would still resemble chess sufficiently not to lose the interest of the general public, but the nuances would be different enough for the insiders to immediately appreciate the complete make-over of “boring” chess opening theory. 

Perhaps some will argue that this new beginning position is actually to Black’s advantage, even though it’s still White to move. Well, that might turn out to be true, but how ‘fair’ is the current starting position? Isn’t that considered to be better for White? Even so, to make it a bit fairer maybe we shouldn’t put a black pawn on a6 (which might also makes queenside castling slightly less attractive), but a black knight?

[Event "?"] [Site ""] [Date ""] [Round "?"] [White ""] [Black "?"] [Result "*"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "r1bqkbnr/pppppppp/n7/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/RNBQKBNR w KQkq - 0 1"] [PlyCount "0"] *

Heck, we could even have this position and let White choose whether he wants to play with White or Black. It still would be a much more modest change and thus be much more likely to be accepted by both professionals and laymen. Doesn’t this modest change of the initial position makes the ‘real’ Fischer Random chess look absurdly radical?

We can get rid of all the special regulations of Fischer Random chess, or Chess960 as it seems to be called these days: no more need to create the various starting positions with a special computerized algorithm; no more need for confusing different castling rules. We can simply play the above position for the next, say, 600 years - until theory has evolved so much again that we’re ready for the next step – put a white knight on h3 as well. (And in the mean time, we can enjoy the evolution of completely new chess openings as more and more games are coming in.)

Perhaps even more importantly, the quality of the games will be much higher than those played under the current Fischer Random rules. Why? Simply because Fischer Random opening positions are too unfamiliar and weird even to super-GMs, causing them to blunder in a much higher percentage of the games than in regular chess. Normal pattern recognition is mostly useless in Fischer Random. As Tim Krabbé once said, “Fischer Random puts us back 200 years.”

I suspect Krabbé was even being polite in his estimation. Maybe it puts us back not 200 but 400 years. Remember those games from the 17th century in which even the strongest players in the world used to fall for what we now think of as ‘cheap opening traps’? Well, I recently went to watch the Dutch Fischer Random Championship in my hometown, Amsterdam. I was just in time to witness what everybody felt was the ‘dream final’ - the decisive game between Dutch GM Dennis de Vreugt and Yasser Seirawan, who in regular chess beat many a World Champion in his best days, including Karpov and Kasparov.

I was in for a disappointment: Seirawan blundered a full piece as early as move eight, thus robbing the audience of a thrilling finale (and handing De Vreugt his well-deserved title on a silver platter). I felt bad, not only for Yasser but also for the tournament organizers. Honestly, I think no audience in the world likes to see such ‘drama’.

And that’s hardly the only example from GM-practice in Fischer Random chess. I remember Gata Kamsky blundering on move six a few years ago. I think it was against Aronian – I’d love to show you the game, but unfortunately, because to my knowledge there isn’t any good commercial database storing Fischer Random games, let alone allowing for any kind of simple search functionality (no handy ECO opening codes, sorry!), I can’t. Whereas some people are still debating Lasker-Lasker, New York 1924, any game of Fischer Random or Chess960 seems utterly forgettable.

Why not get rid of this artificial stuff and just move a pawn or piece to a6 in the starting position instead? Even if you think I sound like a Luddite, it’s hard to deny that it’s a lot easier for all.

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