I Got 960 Problems but Chess Ain’t One
Jay-Z only had 99 problems but he may have had more if he was a Chess960 player.
Originally named Fischer Random Chess and occasionally referred to as New Chess by its creator and former world chess champion, Bobby Fischer; Chess960 is one of the more well known variants of the game.
In February, we blogged about chess variants and revealed our intention to explore a different one each month beginning with Chess960. Coincidentally, a Chess960 World Championship was held in Norway that same week, indicating its global popularity and that our intuitive coverage of chess trends is on point.
Despite criticism that Chess960 is too problematic – from biased starting positions, to players’ inability to prepare for games, to the silencing of commentators at competitions as they are unable to predict players’ moves and thus as clueless as the audience as to how games will unfold – the return of the Chess960 World Championship has disproven naysayers’ claims that it would never take off.
Even FIDE accepted the inevitable a decade ago and added Chess960 as Guidelines II — Chess960 Rules of its Laws of Chess.
When Fischer officially launched his variant to the chess world in 1996, it was announced and published as Fischer Random Chess. It underwent another name change before becoming Chess960 at its introduction into the Mainz Chess Classic, coined by organiser Hans-Walter Schmitt, to reflect the number of possible starting positions.
Chess960 employs the normal chessboard and pieces but the starting position of the pieces on the first rank are randomised. The pawns are placed on the second rank as per standard chess. The starting positions of the chess pieces are symmetrically reflected on for both sides. Fischer’s creation is itself a variant of Shuffle Chess,first played in the late 18th century, but has additional rules and restrictions – the bishops must be placed on opposite-colour squares, and the king must be placed on a square between the rooks. The game also has some fairly complex castling rules and for anyone interested, can be found herein the Wiki article.
With 960 possible start positions, in practice it’s impossible to memorise opening theory. The players must think strategically from move one in a pure, creative battle of minds. This is what the critics have most issue with. That players commence the game with no prior information or practice. According to Frederic Friedel, Editor-in-Chief of the ChessBase News Page“preparation has, for more than a thousand years, been an integral part of chess – and greatly appreciated by its adherents. Chess fans swooned over new openings ideas the masters have come up with in-home preparation, and the ideas and strategies that are born of this kind of research have improved our understanding of the game.
However, this was exactly what Fischer was trying to eliminate with his variant, the ridiculous level of openings preparation that prevails in contemporary chess.
Friedel conversed with Fischer about this and the following is an extract of their discussion:
“In my conversations with him, I admitted that this was a real problem: imagine a world championship in a few years from now, where the two players reel off 28 moves of a known variation, in just a few minutes — and then one of them plays a novelty. His opponent thinks for an hour and resigns the game! Bobby enjoyed this somewhat facetious scenario that justified his introduction of New Chess [Chess960], where players must devise original moves from the start. Memorizing thousands of home prepared opening lines would be eliminated, and the playing field would be levelled.”
In human vs. human Chess960 games, the strongest players tend to win, using only playing skill and general understanding of the game as opposed to wins that are reliant on openings preparation and tricks.
Fischer Random strips the game of opening theory and the scientific approach that has characterized chess since the “Soviet School”. The variant is Fischer’s parting gift to the chess world. One that he feared would be completely dominated by opening theory and forced draws. Chess960 brings art back to chess and takes players back to the romantic chess of the 1800s, when chess theory was still unexplored and the title of world champion meaningful.
So, what do you think about Chess960? Who’s keen to give it a go at one of the Crobs chess meets?
Until next time,
Chris & the Crobs’ Team
Magnus Carlsen will challenge Hikaru Nakamura for the unofficial title at the Henie-Onstad Art Centre in Norway.