25 August 2012

A Clash of Styles

After our first test of Non-random Fischer Random, which I documented in The Barbecue Positions, HarryO and I immediately started a second test. This time I had White.

I placed the first Bishop on the d-file, because I wanted to play with a center Bishop. HarryO placed the second Bishop on the e-file, because 'I really enjoyed the Bishops in the center in the past'. Whereas in our first game, HarryO had chosen to place the Queen for his second turn as White, I chose to place the two Knights. I put them on the c- and f-files to create a symmetrical position on the central files: **NBBN**.

For his second move, HarryO decided he wanted his King on the g-file, because 'I want to be able to castle short as soon as possible'. This left two squares for the Queen: either the a- or the b-file. He placed it on the a-file, because 'as Black, I don't want to add complications but want to simplify'. I imagine that would be a common reason for placing a Queen in the corner, especially against a good player. It takes the Queen longer to get into the game when it starts in the corner. Those starting choices gave us SP393 QRNBBNKR.

As White, I had the privilege of the first move and played 1.d4. Harry answered with 1...b5. That gave us the position shown in the diagram.


Some time ago, in Attention to the Chess960 Center, I observed,

There are two distinct, fundamental ways to treat a chess960 opening. The first way is to follow traditional chess opening principles, of which one of the most important is to pay attention to the center. The second way is to pay less attention to the center, but by taking into account the specific start position, to emphasize the rapid development of the pieces to good squares, even if this means making early moves like g4 or b4.

I am definitely in the first camp, following traditional chess opening principles. After playing a few games with HarryO, I now know that he is in the second camp, paying less attention to the center. That makes our games a clash of styles from the outset.

I spent a lot of time studying the position after 1...b5, looked at many different moves that adhered to classical principles, and finally decided that the non-traditional 2.a4 was my best shot. It solved the problem of developing my Queen and gave Black an immediate problem.

The rest of the moves and associated commentary -- we are only playing to move ten in these trial games -- can be found on HarryO's blog, Non-Random Chess960 Trial Game 2. Our first two non-random chess960 games have shown that the players can indeed determine the start position without any special equipment. Whether it is the best way to do so remains to be seen.

18 August 2012

The Barbecue Positions

The idea I proposed in Non-random Fischer Random, where the two players take turns deciding on which squares the pieces start, has already received two trials. The first game was played using comments to Fischer-Bronstein Non-Random Chess960 Trial on HarryO's chess960 blog, Chess960 Jungle.

Harry placed the first Bishop on the b-file and I placed the second Bishop on the a-file. Harry then decided to place the Queen, setting it down on the c-file. Bishop on a, Bishop on b, Queen on c is BBQ*****, which we promptly named a Barbecue position. A quick calculation shows that there are ten such positions, from which I chose the position with the Knights on the e- and f-files: SP384 BBQRNNKR. Harry played 1.c4 and we were off.

After we played ten moves, enough to get a feeling for the tactical and positional opportunities lurking in that start position, Harry summarized his impressions of the first trial in Non-Random Chess960 Trial Game 1: SP384. As for me, I learned a lot during the trial. Having some control over the placing of the pieces led to considerable reflection over how my choices influenced further play.

It turns out that the first position in the standard numbering scheme, SP000 BBQNNRKR, is also in the BBQ family. We dubbed this position the Extreme Barbecue (or Barbecue Extreme) both for its number and for the BBQ pieces attacking the RKR pieces on the opposite flank. We're currently conducting a trial of SP000 and its twin, SP959 RKRNNQBB (the last in the numbering scheme!), to make sure that Black is not busted from the start.

I'll report on those results, as well as our second trial, Non-Random Chess960 Trial Game 2: SP393, in a future post.

11 August 2012

Opening Logic Sets the Course

The last time I discussed parallel games, where a player has both White and Black in two simultaneous games using the same start position against the same opponent, was in Chess960 Needs Fresh Eyes. I recently played another such pair of games on SchemingMind.com, where I tackled the opening using logic alone. This made the games particularly instructive.

The games were assigned SP826 RKNQBBRN, a lineup that can be seen in the diagram below. Both players opened with the natural 1.d4, occupying the center with a Pawn, making space for the Queen and Bishop, and providing a natural square for the Knight at d3. For similar reasons, both players continued 1...d5, reaching the diagram.

In my game with White, I gave the position some serious thought. A natural move is 2.Nd3, as previously prepared. Although castling O-O-O looks more likely, the King is not in any immediate danger and castling O-O will require only three additional moves: by a Pawn and the two Bishops. Since White can afford to wait to decide where to castle, the next step is to determine the development of the pieces from the c- through the f-files.

The more I looked at 2.Nd3, the less I liked it, because I couldn't find a good way to develop the other pieces. After e2-e3, the light squared Bishop will go to e2. Then the Queen must go to d2, but only after the dark squared Bishop develops further out on the a5-e1 diagonal. Neither of the squares b4 or c3 looked particularly attractive, and Black's ...e6 will anyway render Be1-b4 awkward. The real problem is that there are only two squares, d2 and e2, for three pieces, the Queen and Bishops.

One solution is to fianchetto the light squared Bishop to g2. This requires playing g2-g3, which has the obvious disadvantage of blocking the Knight on h1. Of course, that piece can go to f2, which requires pushing the f-Pawn. On top of adding two additional Pawn moves, the f- and g-Pawns, to the list of moves to be played, the f-Pawn is awkwardly placed both on f3, where it blocks the Bishop on g2, and on f4, where it leaves a raggedy stonewall formation d4-e3-f4-g3. There is much to be gained by harmony in a chess position, and this plan was as unharmonious as I could imagine. There had to be something better.

At that point I realized that the Knight on c1 isn't forced to develop to d3. It can also go to b3. With the Knight on b3, the squares d3, d2, and e2 are available for the Queen and two Bishops. The Knight on h1 will then go to g3. On top of all these positives, castling to either side remains an option, giving me plenty of time to observe the deployment of my opponent's pieces and act accordingly.

So as not to show my hand, I waited for my opponent's move as White. He played 2.Nd3, giving me the green light to play 2.e3 in my game as White and 2...e6 as Black. Note that, unlike the traditional start position, the single step of the e-Pawn does not interfere with a Bishop on the c-file. It's a good waiting move that doesn't reveal the plan behind it.

The first moves of my game with White were 1.d4 d5 2.e3 Nd6. Black insists on continuing with the development I had found wanting. Now I played 3.Bd3. This last move gave me a bonus that I hadn't noticed in my previous meditations: the undefended h-Pawn is attacked. Now after defending with 3...g6, Black has made the concession in logical development that I had so carefully avoided. After 4.Nb3 Bb5 5.Ng3 Bxd3 6.Qxd3 Bg7 7.Bc3 e6 8.f3 f5, the game steered off in a direction I hadn't anticipated, but my position was ready for it. I castled O-O, planning the central break e3-e4 before Black has completed his own development.

My game with Black went 1.d4 d5 2.Nd3 e6 3.Ng3 Ng6 4.e3 Nb6. White must have realized that the pieces were getting in each other's way, because he played 5.Bb4. After 5...Bxb4 6.Nxb4 Qe7 7.a3 Bd7, I was happy with my game and felt that I had already equalized.

I eventually won both games in the endgame. Given the many twists and turns in both games, it would be an exaggeration to say that I won because of the opening, but it certainly played a role. A winning game plan starts with the first moves.

04 August 2012

Another Analogy

A couple of years ago I came up with Two Analogies to explain how traditional chess was a subset of chess960. Here's another analogy to explain how traditional chess differs from chess960 in practice.

Let's imagine that a chess game is an exam of 40 questions. I use the number 40 because that is approximately the average number of moves in an average chess game, grandmaster draws not counting. Then let's imagine that some time before the exam you are given all of the possible questions in advance. Let's say there are 1000 possible questions from which the 40 exam questions will be drawn. I picked the number 1000 out of thin air, so if you want to use another number, I won't argue with you. Those 1000 questions are equivalent to the number of opening variations, middlegame plans, and endgame themes in the arsenal of an average club player.

Your task as the taker of the exam -- its importance depends on your personal situation -- is to research as many of those 1000 questions as you can before taking the exam. You can consult books, talk to friends, practice working out examples, and even take trial exams. The only limitations are the time and other resources you have available. The more time and resources you have, the more questions you will master during your preparation. The other exam takers have also been given the 1000 questions, and your score on the exam will be relative to the others.

Chess960 is like taking the same exam without any foreknowledge of the questions. You have some idea about the types of questions you might be given, endgame themes for example, but until you open the exam you don't know with which specific questions you will be confonted. The other exam takers are in the same situation and the favorite to score highest is the person with a better grasp of the underlying subject material.

The difference between an exam where you know the questions in advance and one where you don't is equivalent to the difference between a chess game where you know the start position in advance and one where you don't. Knowing the start position allows you to discover the most effective opening variations and to explore the typical middlegame positions that arise from those variations. That's what chess players have been doing for hundreds of years with a single start position, which made for a captivating pastime until the coming of computer chess. Now it has become drudge work, memorizing scads of variations as the computer presents them. Thanks to Fischer, there's another way to approach the magnificent game of chess.