28 October 2017

The Seeds of Defeat

In a recent post, Engine Trouble ('Talk about a disastrous tournament!'), I listed five factors in a particularly poor result:-
  • Strong opponents
  • Insufficient engine power
  • Too many games
  • Fast time control
  • Too many vacations

Although none of these factors is exclusive to chess960 -- they can apply equally to the traditional start position -- at the end of that post I mentioned another factor that is exclusively chess960:-

I had several pairs of games -- the same start position against the same opponent playing White in one game and Black in the other -- where I reached uncomfortable positions in both games after 10-15 moves. That means there is something wrong with my approach to chess960 openings.

A few years ago, in May/June 2015, I wrote a series of five posts where I looked at five painful losses:-

The second post in that list ('Passive vs. Active') counted '[four] extenuating factors in the string of losses'. These match the first four above. Back in 2015, vacation didn't play a role, so at least I'm consistent with my excuses. Another characteristic of 'Losing Streak' was that 'in all five games I had Black'.

Looking at the more recent series of losses (+0-9=1, horrors!), I noticed two games with Black that I lost without a fight. The diagrams below show both games after the castling choices have been made. That is the point where the same techniques used to analyze traditional chess also apply to chess960.

In the top position, the players have castled to opposite sides. You can almost count the nine individual moves that have been made by both players to arrive at their respective positions. The game continued with a typical strategy for castling on opposite sides: both players launched a Pawn attack against the castled King. White eventually achieved an overwhelming attack while Black achieved nothing. After another 20 moves, Black resigned.

In the bottom position, White hasn't castled, but the King is in no particular danger. Black's King, however, is threatened by the Bishop on the long diagonal and the two Rooks on the open g- and h-files. These combined forces eventually won a Pawn, during which the Black Pawns on b5, c5, & d5 became increasingly vulnerable. The game lasted another 25 moves.

Since both games are essentially lost at the diagrammed position, an error must have been made before the diagram was reached. But where? In the third game of 'Losing Streak' above, analyzed in the post titled 'Imperfect Understanding', HarryO weighed in with a series of comments. The first comment was 'every move you played in the opening lacked initiative'. While that was undoubtedly an oversimplification, it still contained a big grain of truth. My approach to playing a chess960 opening with the Black pieces is:-

  • Pay attention to the intermediate goals of piece development, of the fight for the center, of King safety, and of keeping a healthy Pawn structure;
  • Avoid the quick, tactical knockout; and
  • Give the move back to the opponent to see what comes next.

In the two games shown above, I failed with the goal of King safety. It took more than 20 moves to realize this for certain, but the seeds of defeat were already planted in the diagrammed positions. At what point should an early fight for the initiative play a role?

21 October 2017

Three Chess960 Developments to Watch

The first development is potentially the most likely to fuel an increase in chess960 interest. Last week, in Chess960 battle: Nakamura vs. Carlsen?, Chessbase.com informed,
In February 2018, there may be an unusual exhibition match held between Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura, playing chess960 (also known as Fischer Random). The competition is planned for the Hening Onstad Art Center in Baerum, Norway. It's funding is not yet fully secured, but Carlsen's manager is confident.

This relates to a blog post from this past summer, First the Non-routine News, (July 2017), that quoted Twitter: 'There are serious plans to organize a FischerRandom / Chess960 World Championship in Norway next year!'. As I reported a few months earlier in GM Blitz Battle PGN (March 2017), the same players met earlier this year in an event that included chess960: 'Chess.com report on the final match, Carlsen - Nakamura [...] Nakamura would go on to take 2.5/3 in the three iterations of chess960'.

The second development is an evolution of that GM Blitz Battle, another event organized by Chess.com: 2017 Speed Chess Championship Schedule, Results, Information (May 2017, but kept up to date as the matches are played). The final match will take place end-December:-

The 2017 Chess.com Speed Chess Championship features 16 of the world's best chess players in an innovative eSports bracket tournament. [...] Each 2017 Speed Chess Championship match will feature 90 minutes of 5/2 blitz, 60 minutes of 3/2 blitz, and 30 minutes of 1/1 bullet chess. One chess960 game will be played in each time control at the end of each time period.

The third development stems from a post last week on my main blog, Understanding Lombardy, where I wrote,

It turns out that the fastest way to understand Lombardy is to study his book, 'Understanding Chess: My System, My Games, My Life'.

Early in the book (p.21), Lombardy observed,

Sadly, Nimzovich died at 48, far too young for a chance to expand on his thinking and summarize that thinking into a true system, for his first work (My System, 1925) can hardly be considered a "system", but rather a collection of interesting games in which Dr. Nimzo offers advice on strategy and how to recognize and avoid mistakes. Yet his thoughts provided a foundation towards advancing chess strategy, even to my recommendation of the super-version of Fischer Random Chess!

This passage is significant for two reasons. First, I've often thought that Nimzovich would have been a brilliant chess960 player, given his penchant for unusual openings and deep strategical concepts. Second, given Lombardy's claim that 'I was Bobby's only chess teacher from [end-1954], and right through Reykjavik', any further thoughts on Fischer and chess960 are bound to be relevant. I'm slowly making my way through the book and will report any further discoveries on this blog.

30 September 2017

Engine Trouble

Talk about a disastrous tournament! If this crosstable is too small to read, all you have to know is that my result is shown on the last line, the one with all the zeroes.

LSS: FC-2015-F-00001

A few months ago I used the red rectangle gimmick in another post, Correspondence Chess and Chess960 (May 2017), where I explained,

This observation indicates that the top players used more advanced hardware (and perhaps software) than the others. Their engine setups are all calculating roughly the same variations, so it's difficult to get an advantage over each other. The [others] used less advanced setups that couldn't keep up with the top players. In other words, correspondence chess has evolved to the point where the players have little to add to the chess content of the games. Their role is to pursue a more powerful environment for their engines. What can be learned about chess960 from this?

That's all very nice, but how did I manage to finish with such a poor result (and lose 100 rating points in a single event)? It was through an unfortunate combination of several factors.

Strong opponents. The tournament was the final section of the LSS 2015 Chess960 Championship, a three-stage elimination tournament. All of the players, including me, finished first or second in both a preliminary tournament and a semifinal tournament. The eventual winner also won the site's 2014 Chess960 Championship. I had played him in four previous chess960 games, achieving a total score of +0-3=1.

Insufficient engine power. Although I follow the evolution of chess engines, I make no effort to maintain a state-of-the-art setup. The PC I use to run the engines (I use several PCs and several engines for different tasks) is now seven years old and the engines are between three and five years old. Once in a while I'll upgrade something, but it's never a priority. The outcome is easy to foresee: if my engine is calculating to a depth of N ply, while my opponent's engine is calculating to N+5 ply, I will eventually be out-calculated.

Too many games. At the same time I started the ten games shown in the crosstable, I started six games in the 2016 semifinal tournament. These were on top of another six games that were already in progress. Normally, I make up for my weakness in engine power by working hard on the games, but this only works for a small number of games, around 10-12 maximum. I play correspondence chess to improve my overall chess ability, which requires that I choose the moves myself rather than let an engine do it for me.

Fast time control. The LSS chess960 games use a countdown time control, which I last discussed in Passive vs. Active Play (May 2015). I try to play these games at the rhythm of a move per day, but with so many games, I end up spending 2-3 days per move (and still getting bad positions).

Too many vacations! The LSS chess960 rules only allow two weeks vacation per tournament, but my wife had scheduled five weeks vacation during the time the tournament was to be held. I used a couple of LSS vacation days at the beginning and end of each real vacation, but sometimes 3-4 vacation days would slide by without any work on my games. There are too many other things to do on vacation besides playing chess.

I should have declined the opportunity to play so many games in these circumstances against good players, but I wanted to see if I could handle the pressure. I set myself the goals of finishing with an even score in the 2015 final and of qualifying from the 2016 semifinal. I failed miserably on the first goal, but succeeded on the second. The 2016 final tournament starts soon, but I probably won't participate. I've taken enough psychological punishment for one year. No one likes to lose!

Why mention these tournaments on this blog? First, because I had several pairs of games -- the same start position against the same opponent playing White in one game and Black in the other -- where I reached uncomfortable positions in both games after 10-15 moves. That means there is something wrong with my approach to chess960 openings. Second, because I would like to investigate what sort of engine setup I would need to improve my result. I'll do that on my main blog.

23 September 2017

Start by Placing the Bishops!

Looking for code to generate a chess960 start position randomly? Don't overlook Generate Chess960 Starting Position (rosettacode.org): 'You are encouraged to solve this task according to the task description, using any language you may know.'

The page currently offers 35 solutions in programming languages from A to Z (literally, AutoHotkey to zkl), but I have no idea how many different algorithms are used. Some algorithms appear to be suspect, especially those that start by placing the RKR, then fill in the other pieces.

The reason is that although there are 56 different RKR patterns, some of them have 18 associated start positions, others have only 12. The difference occurs when the RKR all start on the same square color. For more about this, see Castling Patterns Visualized (September 2010).


Later: After I wrote this post, I noticed that the 'Task' on the Rosetta Code page is wrong. Instead of

The purpose of this task is to write a program that can randomly generate any one of the 960 Chess960 initial positions.

it should say something like 'randomly generate with equal probability'. Specification errors are worse than coding errors!

26 August 2017

Chess960 Arena on Lichess

Last month, in (Not so?) Rare Birds, Summer 2017, I took my periodic look at recent / forthcoming chess960 tournaments. One small event that received a mention was:-
GM Yermolinsky VS. IM Bartholomew Chess960 Consultation Match: Former U.S. Champion GM Alex Yermolinsky and IM / YouTube sensation John Bartholomew will lead two competing teams in an interactive consultation Chess960 (Fischer Random) match.

I'm always interested in any YouTube sensation that has to do with chess960 and I found a relevant clip on the 'John Bartholomew' channel.

Chess 960 Arena! (1:41:10) • 'Streamed live on Apr 10, 2017 • Join the tourney on lichess.org: [...]'

That last link leads to IM Fins Arena #0HECUP4x (lichess.org), which now has the tournament results. Between the start and the end of the live stream, there is plenty of discussion about chess960. The embedded chat is an integral part of the show.

19 August 2017

Twelve Popular Posts

Since adding the 'Popular Posts' feature to the blog (see my comment dated 17 December 2015 on the Adieu! post), I've noticed that a few posts consistently appear in the 'Last 7 Days' list at the top of each page. Which posts are the most popular overall? Here's what Blogger.com reports as most popular of 'all time':-

I've split the list into three groups. The first post has a view count nearly double the second group, where the posts have about 50% more views than the third group.

Compare this with a similar exercise I did in December 2012: Top Posts of All Time. Of the seven posts on this current list that appeared before December 2012, four were on that first list; I've marked them with an asterisk '(*)'. Three of those posts address common questions about chess960, but I have no idea why 'Recent Comments' continues to be popular.

These statistics can't be taken too seriously. I also have a 'viewed' count for each individual post on the blog, where 'Online Play Sites' and 'Calculate SP Numbers' show about the same number of views. In the same ballpark with these are two more posts that are missing completely from the list of top posts:-

Of the nearly 400 posts on the blog (not counting the artificial pre-2009 posts), these twelve attract the most attention from the search engines.

29 July 2017

(Not so?) Rare Birds, Summer 2017

In my previous post, First the Non-routine News, I wrote,
I started by looking at chess960 news over the last month, but two reliable correspondents interrupted that routine procedure by pointing to non-routine news that begs to be repeated. [...] I'll save the routine chess960 news for my next post.

I was wrong to use the word 'routine' for news about chess960. Any news is still unusual and most news is about tournaments at the local, club level. One exception is the 'Swiss Chess960 Championship', held as part of the 50th Biel Chess Festival.

As with most chess960 reports, there are no full game scores, but there is a link to the Archives - Biel International Chess Festival, where we learn that the chess960 event has been held since 2009. I covered it once before in Rare Bird Tracking, Summer 2011 (September 2011) and hope to see its 10th anniversary next year. In Biel/Bienne, Wikipedia informs,

Biel/Bienne is on the language boundary between the French-speaking and German-speaking parts of Switzerland, and is throughout bilingual. Biel is the German name for the town, Bienne its French counterpart. The town is often referred to in both languages simultaneously. Since January 1, 2005, the official name has been "Biel/Bienne". Until then, the city was officially named Biel.

I mention that because the German speaking countries seem to be the leaders in chess960 events. Two more examples:-

The skbaden.at page eventually points to a 2016 event at chess-results.com, and looking further into that well known site finds hundreds of references to chess960. As for French language references, I noted one at...

...and I even found an English language (USA) reference at

  • Iowa Chess | Twin Ports Open (iowa-chess.org) • 'GM Yermolinsky VS. IM Bartholomew Chess960 Consultation Match: Former U.S. Champion Grandmaster Alex Yermolinsky and International Master / YouTube sensation John Bartholomew will lead two competing teams in an interactive consultation Chess960 (Fischer Random) match'

As long as I'm splitting this post by language, I'll mention an Italian language reference at

  • E-Book Chess 960 - Vol. I • 'Chess 960 Informator a cura di Filiberto Pivirotto; Volume 1; Anno 1 – num. 1; Giugno 2017'

The last page says, 'The C960 Informator will be just a collection of games played with the same [start position].' That's a good idea, but I doubt the author can do all 960 positions (959?) alone.

There might not be much chess960 activity at the level of the world class players -- see, for example, Rare Birds 2015-16 (February 2017) -- but there is plenty of activity at the local level. In the long run we need both world class and local.