Not Your Father’s Chess
“Fischer feels ‘old chess’ has nothing left
to contribute to chess in general.
What exactly is chess960? From the book's introduction:
A random chess960 position (R#155)
It is critical that you have an understanding of the rules of Chess960/Fischer Random before getting into my review. I found the rules on the internet by David A. Wheeler to be slightly more concise than Mr. Milener’s description in the book, and thus am giving an excerpt here to help the reader understand how the game is played:
The starting position for Fischer random chess must meet the following rules:
Note that the king never starts on file a or h, because there has to be room for a rook.
There are many procedures for creating this starting position. Hans L. Bodlaender has proposed the following procedure using one six-sided die to create an initial position; typically this is done just before the game commences:
This procedure generates any of the 960 possible initial positions of Fischer Random Chess with an equal chance; on average, this particular procedure uses 6.7 die rolls. Note that one of these initial positions is the standard chess position, at which point a standard chess game begins.
It's also possible use this procedure to see why there are exactly 960 possible initial positions. Each bishop can take one of 4 positions, the Queen one of 6, and the two knights can have 5 or 4 possible positions, respectively. This means that there are 4*4*6*5*4 = 1920 possible positions if the two knights were different in some way. However, the two knights are indistinguishable during play; if they were swapped, there would be no difference. This means that the number of distinguishable positions is half of 1920, or 1920/2 = 960 possible distinguishable positions.
Once the starting position is set up, the rules for play are the same as standard chess. In particular, pieces and pawns have their normal moves, and each player's objective is to checkmate their opponent's king.
Fischer random chess allows each player to castle once per game, a move by potentially both the king and rook in a single move. However, a few interpretations of standard chess games rules are needed for castling, because the standard rules presume initial locations of the rook and king that are often untrue in Fischer Random Chess games.
After castling, the rook and
king's final positions are exactly the same positions as they would be in
standard chess. Thus, after a-side castling (notated as O-O-O and known as
queen-side castling in orthodox chess), the King is on c (c1 for
White and c8 for Black) and the Rook is on d (d1 for White and d8 for
Black). After h-side castling (notated as O-O and known as king-side
castling in orthodox chess), the King is on g and the Rook is on f. It
is recommended that a player state "I am about to castle" before castling,
to eliminate potential misunderstanding.
So chess960 (the 960 refers to the number of possible starting positions) is what most of us know as Fischer Random chess. However, according to the book’s author, the term Fischer Random is slowly being fazed out (yet one more thing for Bobby to rant about!)
Like most chess players, I really didn’t know anything about chess960. However, when David, our intrepid Publisher here at Chessville, asked me to review this book, I replied, “Well, I wouldn’t normally have picked it, but sure, send it over.” Like most things in life that we don’t understand, it is human nature to want to stay clear of it. I mean, chess is hard enough without having to look at games that looked like the pieces were knocked over and then set up on the back rank by a non-chess playing five-year-old on a sugar rush!
Funny enough, even the book’s author admits to thinking that the game looked strange, even unsightly, upon first seeing it (pg. 22):
Obviously, Mr. Milener no longer feels this way. What changed him? It turns out that he was looking over a game between Timman and J. Polgar from Nunn’s Understanding Chess Move by Move, when he discovered that all of Polgar’s beautiful moves had been played previously in several other games. For whatever reason, this slightly turned him off and got him to take a second look at chess960 where most of the landscape was as of yet still unexplored. It’s sort of like going from planet Earth, where practically everything has been mapped out, to Mars, where relatively very little is known. This is where the appeal of chess960 comes in: you have to start thinking from move one!
Throughout the book, Milener gives his opinion on interesting, but non-chess960 topics, such as why poker is currently popular on TV, but not chess (in a word: complexity—chess is simply too complex a game to be quickly picked up by the average TV viewer). However, Milener points out one area where chess really shines: repeated viewings. In other words, whereas watching old football or baseball games is generally not very exciting (and usually not done more than once) playing through old Morphy or Alekhine games never seems to get old, as there is always something new to learn.
One thing about Milener that you have to admire is his objectivity. While he is passionate about chess960, he is willing to admit that it is not perfect. For example, Milener disagrees with Fischer’s contention that chess960 will help eliminate pre-arranged draws. If a player needs a draw in the last round of a big tournament to secure victory and his opponent, for whatever reason, agrees to go along with this, Milner admits there is little anyone can do. What’s more, he agrees with GM Susan Polgar who says that a draw can sometimes be a player’s best strategic move and thus players cannot be expected to go against their own best interests.
Overcoming Prejudice in Chess
Milener’s enthusiasm for chess960 is strong, and like the Pied Piper he won me over with his many persuasive arguments. I have to tell you this was no easy task, as by nature I am a traditionalist, and tend to come from the school of, “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” In fact, previous to picking up this book, I had never even played through a single chess960 game. However, Milener makes you feel as if you’re not being open minded if you don’t at least give chess960 a try. Indeed, I now suspect that many critics of chess960 have never even played it! Don’t fall into this trap. Milener is NOT saying chess960 is better than regular chess. He’s just saying that it has a tremendous amount to offer, and I agree.
In fact, I think his best argument for chess960 is to imagine that it was one of the original rule changes that had taken place in 1475, along with such new rules as castling, a pawn being able to advance two squares on its first move instead of one, en passant, etc.
So now, in the year 2006, chess960 is the standard way to play chess. However now imagine that suddenly a GM comes along and says, “Hey, I want to limit the starting piece set-up to just ONE position, and no longer use the other 959 possible starting positions.” Milener suspects, and I agree, that most chess players would vigorously oppose this idea, as we’d all be use to the freedom of having 960 different positions to choose from. Limiting it to just one position would seem like a huge step backwards.
Of course, the reality is that having one standard set-up for the pieces is the norm, but once you think about it in this light, it does make you realize that the only reason you and I play regular chess (or chess1 as Milener calls it) is because that is how it has been traditionally played for the last 500+ years, and not because it’s necessarily better.
A Sample Game
Here is a sample game of chess960 between two grandmasters that I found on the internet. It was played at the FiNet Chess960 Open, in Germany, in 2004. This game is certainly interesting and exciting, as Morozevich quickly gets a knight planted on h3 and then uses it to launch an unusual combination (by the way, that’s one of the nice things about chess960; you sometimes see combos that rarely, if ever come up in regular chess.)
Although the above game is given in algebraic notation, Milener recommends using a special form of notation for Chess960 which he calls CRAN, which stands for Concise Reversible Algebraic Notation. The point of it is to allow the replaying of a game in reverse. Here is a list of five different chess notations given by Milener for when a rook captures a bishop on the d6 square:
Notice that in CRAN, the d (to indicate which file the bishop is on) after the B is eliminated, as it is seen as redundant. I have to tell you that seeing a chess960 game written out in CRAN takes some getting used to. For example, here are the first five moves of a game between IM Zaitsev and GM Harikrishna:
So obviously White moved his f-pawn two squares on his first move, and Black did the same. While this notation does look a bit strange I’m sure after you’ve gotten used to it it’s no big deal.
My Devil’s Advocate Question
Does chess960 really eliminate the need to learn openings?
I would be remiss if I did not admit to you that I am not sure if the most popular argument for chess960 is completely true. And that is that it eliminates the need to memorize openings. Indeed, Milener raises the interesting notion that perhaps Reshevsky (who was known for not studying openings), instead of Botvinnik (who WAS known for his in-depth study of openings) would have become world champion in 1948, after Alekhine had died, if chess960 had been used.
While there is certainly no way to prove this, my feeling is that if chess960 ever does catch on in a big way, the top players will all begin to analyze the openings, eventually breaking them down into PKGs! (Patterns Known to be Good—a term I just invented.) Next, chess960 opening books will begin to appear, and eventually, some day far off into the future, I can just imagine some chess player lamenting, “Ugh, chess960 is no fun… all the openings have been analyzed to death!”
Obviously this is a long way off, but I do believe that it is an eventual logical outcome, given that certain patterns of development are better than others. Indeed, I would be surprised if top chess960 players haven’t already begun to categorize which opening set-ups work best against certain defenses. [Editor's Note: Indeed the research into the opening has already begun - see On the Opening in Fischer Random Chess by Robert Tuohey] Anyway, I just throw this out here as food for thought.
A Few Minor Quibbles/Observations
Although my overall review is extremely positive, there are a few areas of the book that I felt could have been improved.
1) The first has to do with the cover. While most chess reviewers focus on a book’s content and rarely discuss its cover, those of you who have read my reviews know that I almost always comment on a book's cover. This is because the reality is people DO judge a book by its cover! A good looking cover draws you in and makes you want to pull the book down from the shelf. Unfortunately, this book’s cover doesn’t do its content justice. First of all, the cover type is too small, with the subtitle being painfully small.
Secondly, the four color pictures of rooks (all different sizes!?) from various chess sets are ugly (also, what do four rooks have to do with chess960? I think a photo of two super GMs playing chess960, such as Ponomariov and Svidler - both of whom play it - would make a far better, not to mention more persuasive, cover shot.) Clearly this book was self-published, and while there is nothing wrong with this, if you are not an expert on cover graphics and layout, you would be wise to hire someone who is.
This also applies to the books interior, which is somewhat dry and technical looking due to the numerous charts. Some photographs of people playing chess960 (both GMs as well as class players), as well as some drawings (chess cartoons to help illustrate key points?) or other art work would have made for a more visually pleasing book. Also, a chapter containing interviews from some of the world’s top GM’s on there thoughts on chess960 would have been interesting.
2) Another flaw I noticed was that the book was printed too high on the paper (at least my copy is), meaning that there is 3/4 of an inch of blank space at the bottom of each page and only 1/8 of an inch of blank space at the top. While these flaws (poor cover and printed too high) do not hurt the book’s content, they do somewhat detract from the books overall appeal (how much depends on how important a book’s aesthetics are to you), and should be corrected in any future reprints.
3) The author uses the letters WCC throughout the book to indicate World Chess Champion, however I would have preferred he drop one of the C’s, and simply use WC (meaning World Champion), as the word “Chess” is not needed. I say this because most chess players are use to WCC meaning World Correspondence Champion.
4) This is not so much of a quibble as an observation: Milener uses the strange word “plair” to indicate when a move for both Black and White (a pair of moves) has been made. The word comes from combining the word “ply” (meaning a single move for either side) with the word “pair” (meaning a move by both sides has been made). Milener justifies the use of this word as being less cumbersome than saying, “pair of moves” or “set of moves.” While I can’t think of anything better, I will say that when Milener writes, “So Kasparov successfully predicted the first 21 plairs…” it does sound strange!
5) It is important to remember as you read the
book that what you and I refer to as chess, Milener refers to as
chess1. Thus there is Chess1, Chess960, and then the word “chess”
to refer to anything related to chess in general (i.e., not specific to
either chess1 or chess960.)
The Bottom Line
I like this book! Mr. Milener’s writing style is open and honest, and his enthusiasm for chess960 is infectious. As I mentioned, I would not have thought to pick up this book, but am glad I was asked to review it as I found the subject matter quite fascinating. Indeed, a treasure chest of new and interesting adventures awaits those that are willing to explore the world of chess960. Will it ever replace standard chess? No, but can it help improve your overall chess skill and is it a lot of fun? Yes. Just as playing “bug house” helps you develop an eye for unusual mating patterns, chess960 can help you understand the full power of each chess piece and their often surprising capabilities.
In fact, I now bring a die to my chess lessons and have begun playing chess960 with several of my young students. They like rolling the die and setting up the pieces (we tried using the shuffle chess function built into the Chronos clock (you have to click through about 20 settings to get to it), but it would not always put the king between the two rooks, which is one of the rules of chess960, so we gave up on using the clock to generate the starting the position.)
Lastly, if you
are one of the minority that already play chess960, this is a must purchase
as Mr. Milener provides you with a ton of useful and well thought out
information that I doubt you can find anywhere else. The fact that he backs
up his arguments with solid logic is sure to stimulate debate amongst
chess960 enthusiasts (this is a good thing!). On a scale of 1-10,
Play Stronger Chess by Examining Chess960 gets an enthusiastic 8.5.