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.

22 July 2017

First the Non-routine News

After a short break from blogging, I had two problems to solve with this current post. The first problem was what date to use. According to my current posting schedule, it could have been 15 July 2017, but vacations are vacations and I'll stick with the date that falls after the vacation. The second problem was what to write about. 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.

A comment by HarryO to an old post, Chess960 Simuls @ Mainz (May 2010), started 'Simultaneous blindfold chess960. What an achievement by GM Timur Gareyev!', and linked to Blindfold in Idaho: 'I Feel Sorry if You Missed it' (uschess.org; July 2017).

Timur was up at 5 AM making "power-smoothies" in preparation for the blindfold simul. [...] The simul began with beginners being taught how blindfold chess960 blitz works.

A message from GM Andrey Deviatkin, featured in last month's post, 'The Essence and the Rules of Chess', linked to Aronian: 'I get over losses more easily than wins' (chess24.com), which quoted the Armenian GM...

Q: The computer has now already studied many opening tabiyas in such depth that, perhaps, the moment really has come to switch to Fischer Random Chess?

A: I’ve already on many occasions declared my love for Fischer Random Chess. I hope there will still be tournaments and people will value that variation of the game as I do. In principle, though, we’re currently playing something akin to Fischer Random Chess thanks to Magnus Carlsen, who brought a lot that’s new with his approach. Above all, he managed to minimise the role played by the opening. It’s the Petrosian-Fischer approach -- let’s manoeuvre and see who turns out to be the best. Carlsen has changed modern chess and the majority of players now seek ways to get off the beaten path as soon as possible in the opening, to get a non-standard position. That’s prolonging the era of classical chess.

...then pointed to a tweet by GM Carlsen's sidekick Tarjei Svensen, 'Good news for Aronian' (twitter.com):-

There are serious plans to organize a FischerRandom/Chess960 World Championship in Norway next year!

I'll save the routine chess960 news for my next post.

24 June 2017

A Concrete Publishing Proposal

My previous post, 'The Essence and the Rules of Chess' was a call for action by GM Andrey Deviatkin to raise the popularity of chess960 [aka 'Fischer chess']. It ended,
There've been no serious progress with chess960 popularity for quite a long time. But even if the change might be invisible, the potential energy of Fischer chess has been growing. And the appearance of just one rich enthusiast or serious sponsoring company can become the last straw and cause the real breakthrough like the domino effect. The situation can change very quickly and drastically.

When I first saw the GM's Facebook post, I jumped in with a comment on what I think is the number one problem facing widespread adoption of chess960. (To protect the innocent, I've changed the names of the commenters to their initials.)

MW: To make real progress with chess960, someone has to solve the publishing problem. It renders obsolete every opening book ever published as well as many middlegame books. Only endgame manuals survive (and you know what many players think about studying endgames). What sort of books will the chess publishing sector produce? They are the natural enemies of chess960.

The phrase 'natural enemies of chess960' might be strong, but I'm not sure it's wrong.

PL: Databases would also be largely obsolete.

PL is the Peter Long of Peter Long on Chess, who writes extensively on the web. When people talk about chess databases, they often mean Chessbase.

SN: We aren't suggesting migrating from chess to chess960. What is being proposed is gradual diversification.

PL: I believe the solution here requires drastic action!

The series of comments ended with several concrete proposals.

AD: Firstly, in my opinion, the number of opening theory manuals is already excessive, to say the least. Secondly, I don't believe that chess960 will just kill the theoretical topics and not bring about any of new ones. Why so if it's in fact a much richer game? I can easily imagine books and videos on 'How to handle starting positions with bishops in the corners', 'Queen in the corner', 'To castle or not to castle', 'Flank-based development of the rooks', 'Preventing a bishop from being locked' etc etc.

MW: While I agree that there are too many books on openings, people write them, people publish them, and people buy them. I believe they are the most popular genre in chess literature today. Chess960 has been known for almost 21 years -- a full generation -- and there is almost no literature: zilch. One problem is that it defies classification; you can't start analyzing position no.1 and continue through no.960, because you learn nothing useful from the exercise. The furthest I have seen anyone get is around no.250, about 25% of the total start positions. • Here's a challenge for you. Taking your example 'Queen in the corner', develop an outline for a 150 page book.

I didn't get an answer to that challenge, but I didn't expect to get one. It's a tough problem that can't be answered in 25 words or less. If it were easy, someone would have already published such a book. I gave my challenge some further thought. A Queen in the corner can be developed in three ways:-

  • Along its file.
  • Along its diagonal.
  • Along the back rank.

'Along its file' breaks down to three further cases. Let's say the Queen is on a1. To develop along the file requires pushing the a-Pawn. It can be pushed to a3, to a4, or beyond. The choice depends on (a) whether Bishops are sitting on f8, g8, or h8; and (b) whether White intends to castle O-O-O.

'Along its diagonal' has two main cases: whether a Bishop is sitting on h8 or not.

'Along the back rank' depends on what pieces are sitting to the immediate right of the Queen and whether White intends to castle O-O-O.

Any further subclassification requires looking at how the other pieces are arranged at the start of the game and becomes an analysis of specific start positions. Since that is neither feasible nor useful, a better next step would be to gather game examples of the types of Queen development (from both a1 and h1) and show how the games evolved for both the White and the Black players.

Since the problems of development are most important in the first 10-15 moves of a chess960 game, an analysis of specific examples needs only to be carried out until the middlegame is reached. What I'm thinking of here is a sort of move-by-move analysis showing how the specific features of the position translated into a choice of plans and of moves within those plans. And let's not forget that some examples will inevitably involve bad plans and bad moves. To fill 150 pages in a book (that's an average size for the opening books I have at hand) would take something like 40-50 examples.

Note that one-eighth of the 960 start positions (SPs) have a Queen on a1 and the same number have a Queen on h1. That makes 240 SPs to be considered. I know that some people would prefer to exclude all of these positions from being chosen as an initial SP, because they are so foreign to the traditional start position (SP518 RNBQKBNR), but I'm not one of those people.

A few years ago I worked out A Framework for Chess960 Opening Theory (April 2009). A 'Queen in the corner' is one of the 19 discrete examples in the framework; I labeled it 'Q:a/h'.