Chess with no opening book
February 2, 2012 5:56 PM   Subscribe

A major element of serious chess play is the study of openings* -- of known series of moves from the starting position whose effects to the later stages of the game are well established through previous games and through manual and computer analysis. Chess960 a.k.a. Fischer Random Chess was introduced in 1996 by chess genius (and reclusive paranoid anti-semite) Bobby Fischer as an alternative that aims to remove the emphasis on this laborious element while keeping other central aspects of the game intact. The tagline of one blog dedicated to the game calls it 'a return to the pleasure of the first move in a vast unexplored wilderness'. Some of this wilderness is being explored with new theory, linked below the fold among other things.

A quick summary of the basic rules as they are deviated or rephrased from traditional chess:

* The positions of the pieces on the back rank are randomized with the following constraints:
* The bishops must be on squares of opposite colors.
* The king must be on some square between the rooks.
* The positions of the pieces are mirrored on the opponent's side.
* Castling is done into the same positions as in traditional chess. All the squares between the rook's and the king's starting locations and their castled locations must be free of other pieces.

Given this setting, basic chess strategy and tactics (previously) are still in effect, but traditional opening theory will only apply in one of the 960 possible starting positions (often numbered like this). So, once you've rolled a new starting position, what to look for?

On the Opening in Fischer Random Chess presents some general considerations, focusing on 'naturally weak' pawn squares.

Chess960: How to practice it - part two has additional points on how to exploit those (part one is for the hard core).

Some advice for more specific scenarios along with statistics on how often they may occur:
Chess960: Queens in the Corner
Chess960: Develop the Centre Bishop with Bf3?

Two and a half blogs on the subject:
Chess960 Jungle, already linked above.
Chess960 FRC and a number of older chess960 posts on its mother blog,
Chess for all ages

A natural question that arises is whether some of the starting positions are trivially unfair for either black or white. That would appear to not be the case; dozens of games in each starting position between top-level chess engines have not turned out a starting position with a clear advantage for either side. Some, though, can have some hairy early situations, as illustrated by this series of posts.

Some YouTubers who've posted chess960 games with live commentary:
ChessNetwork -- 1 2 3
kingscrusher -- 1 2 3 4
CharlesGalofre -- 1 2 3 4 5
Piewalkermatt -- playlist

Piewalkermatt has also posted analyses of two chess960 games between top-level chess grandmasters Hikaru Nakamura and Levon Aronian.

Where to play online?
lichess does not require registration (which itself is also very simple) and sets up a game for you with a couple of mouse clicks.
ChessCube has tons of features, and several (high-speed) chess960 tournaments every day.
Free Internet Chess Server can be accessed with your preferred chess client software
Internet Chess Club
posted by Anything (34 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
I'm on lichess as tsinnema for Mefites who want to play.

Warning: I played some very unserious chess for a while as a kid, and that's about it for my chess experience until the last week-and-a-half. My skills, accordingly, are horrible, but I'm having fun.
posted by Anything at 5:56 PM on February 2, 2012

I'm an apostate - I was pretty serious about chess for a while, but it was the opening book that actually sent me away from the game.

When I was serious, I told people, "I'm not going to memorize the specific openings - I'm going to learn the theory and work from that." The response, "OK, kid, tell me how that works out for you," was unfortunately too accurate.

These days I play Go. One of the things I cherish about the game is that you're recommended not to memorize the openings - I play (somewhat too many) online games and I can see the moment where I get out of the book and my opponent is confused - I win a lot of those games. I can literally say that I'm 6k and I don't know a single "joseki" (the Go equivalent of a chess opening) - though I clearly play quite a few of them in practice.

This idea would fix a lot of the difficulties of chess for me.... welll... I think I'm too hooked on Go these days to go back, but it'd attract some future kid like I was...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 6:02 PM on February 2, 2012 [7 favorites]

Oh, and reading some more about this - I don't think Chess 960 would be damaged if "by convention" some subset of the initial positions like SP941 were simply disallowed as "uneven".

I agree completely that Chess 960 is the future of chess. We're already at the point in checkers, and chess isn't that much more complex.

Go isn't amenable to that sort of cooking - because the initial board position is empty!
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 6:08 PM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

We're already at the point in checkers, and chess isn't that much more complex.

this was sarcasm or a joke or something, right?
posted by radiosilents at 6:17 PM on February 2, 2012

I opened an untimed invitation game on lichess. First come, fist served.
posted by Anything at 6:30 PM on February 2, 2012

(again, it won't ask for registration)
posted by Anything at 6:30 PM on February 2, 2012

Eh, first, not fist -- but we'll see if that turns out to be appropriate :)
posted by Anything at 6:34 PM on February 2, 2012

I haven't opened these invitation games before. Someone got in and out -- is anyone else able to join or should I start another one?
posted by Anything at 6:36 PM on February 2, 2012

Here's a new one. I think the first one who comes in joins the game for good, so you'll need to intend to play :). I'll post another link for observers after it starts, if necessary.

I promise I'll stop spamming after that :)
posted by Anything at 6:42 PM on February 2, 2012

Great post, but do we really have to do the boilerplate Bobby Fischer paranoid recluse anti-Semite thing in a chess post? It's cool to call the guy a brilliant chess player, because he was.
posted by downing street memo at 6:51 PM on February 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Frankly, I made an educated guess on how to best avoid the derail. If it wasn't mentioned in the post, someone would have brought it up early on anyway.
posted by Anything at 6:53 PM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lupus: have you considered Arimaa? You use your old chess board!
posted by leotrotsky at 6:53 PM on February 2, 2012

I tried to play, Anything, but it insists I'm a spectator.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:23 PM on February 2, 2012

Oh, I see now the game was aborted.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:24 PM on February 2, 2012

I suspect that someone had joined and left before you. Others entering after that become spectators, as far as I can tell. I'll memail you a new link and you can try again joining the game if you want to.
posted by Anything at 7:26 PM on February 2, 2012

Lupus: that was precisely my experience with chess. I hit the memorization wall, and made the jump to Go. The only chess I play nowadays is bughouse, specifically because it completely screws with people who try to stay in book almost immediately.
posted by phooky at 7:33 PM on February 2, 2012

> > We're already at the point in checkers, and chess isn't that much more complex.

> this was sarcasm or a joke or something, right?

No, I'm dead serious. The complexity of chess is IMHO between one and two orders of magnitude greater than checkers but two to four orders of magnitude less than Go.

I don't remember a real surprise in the opening of a grandmaster-level chess game for a long time - at least ten years, although I could have missed something. Chess badly needs randomized openings to prevent boredom...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 7:39 PM on February 2, 2012

leotrotsky: oh, very sweet looking game!

I have to say that I consider my Go playing like my pot smoking - tolerable as long as it doesn't interfere with my work too much. I'm not sure I want to try this new drug... :-D
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 7:40 PM on February 2, 2012

Oh, and one more comment: Bughouse seems great! It's really blitz Go that I do these days - again, it's the addiction thing, I like the adrenaline rush and I want to get it over... Bughouse seems to satisfy all these criteria.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 7:42 PM on February 2, 2012

Oh, dear, Anything's game just took a run for the worse with a TRIPLE fork...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 7:44 PM on February 2, 2012

Yeah that got downhill way too fast
posted by Anything at 7:50 PM on February 2, 2012

It's going to be hard to get me out of Go because I'm the game persona I always wanted to be - aggressive and unsound, I make most of my wins through sheer naked aggression rather than actual cogitation.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 7:52 PM on February 2, 2012

For some reason I got it into my head that e2 was undefended, reality set in and I had to crawl back and get clobbered. I must restore my honor.
posted by Anything at 8:11 PM on February 2, 2012

I like the idea of synchronous chess, in which players move simultaneously (with special rules for exchanging moves and for what happens when moves clash in some way). This should introduce a factor of unpredictability without needing any form of randomness. Sadly I've never tried it (and I think I'd be as bad as synchronous chess as I am at normal chess).
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 8:50 PM on February 2, 2012

I like the idea of synchronous chess, in which players move simultaneously

Interesting... although it might turn chess into a game of Rook/Paper/Scissors.
posted by Crane Shot at 9:01 PM on February 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

We should have a "random game evening" on Mefi - a round of Chess 960, a round of Go, a round of Arimaa. Frankly, the place badly needs a chat function... and that's both lichess and mefi.

I'll leave you with my favorite chess variant, Bombalot. Very playable, a lot of fun (many games end with all the pieces being destroyed!) and uses a standard chessboard.

I was taught this by a friend in junior high school, and I was very happy to see that he was associated still with the game when I looked it up again... though he seemed unwilling to chat about it... :-(
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:19 PM on February 2, 2012

Ooh! Thank you very much for the post. I had heard of this on Radiolab a while ago but forgot about it.
posted by Mayhembob at 10:42 PM on February 2, 2012

I play both chess (1900) and Go (4k), and honestly I think they both require lots of memorization to play well. Go doesn't have openings to memorize, but it has joseki, lots of life-and-death status knowledge to keep track of, sizes of endgame moves, etc. I find that most people who worry about how much chess opening theory they have to memorize to be good would improve much more by studying other things than openings. (This includes me!)

I've played some Chess960 but it doesn't really appeal to me in practice. One of the things I like about chess is the common landscape from game to game. Playing Chess960 feels like having all the furniture in your house rearranged every time you reenter it.
posted by dfan at 6:54 AM on February 3, 2012

RedHotPawn also allows a Fisher random start. (You probably have to be logged in to get to this link)

I've never been interested. I still have a lot to explore with the normal starting position. There's lots of ways to get out of the book early.
After Trurl's FPP on the 23rd, I started (so far) three different games (so far) of the Swiss Gambit, which I'd never heard of before, and seemed fairly unsound, but certainly playable.
posted by MtDewd at 7:03 AM on February 3, 2012

> I play both chess (1900) and Go (4k), and honestly I think they both require lots of memorization to play well. Go doesn't have openings to memorize, but it has joseki, lots of life-and-death status knowledge to keep track of, sizes of endgame moves, etc.

With all due respect, your opinion differs profoundly from that of experts in both games.

You literally can't get to a certain level in chess without knowing the chess openings well - and you can't do that from first principles. Every book on chess I've ever read has told me this, and I found it to be true. If you watch high-level games, master or grand-master, you can follow right along in Modern Chess Openings - any deviation from that standard is an Event, and these days, extremely rare.

Conversely, almost all the Go books I have contain an explicit warning against learning josekis. I have two separate Go books with sections showing you how the standard josekis are deeply misleading if you fail to look at the entire board position. Commenters on high-level games always seem to be pointing out how quickly they get out of the joseki book. There is a famous 9-dan game where one of the players makes his first four moves at the 5-5 points - and wins the game - that's something like playing P-KR4 in chess, which would kill your game at a master level.

I hate memorization and yet I was forced to learn a lot of openings in chess once I hit a certain low level (1400s? it was decades ago...) - and yet I still ended up losing a lot of games in the opening. I'd done well to that point with just a good idea of the theory, but time and again my opponent would make some "weird" move and I'd lose - then I'd discover that I'd fallen to a "book" move that you simply can't figure out by pure brain power.

I literally don't know a single joseki by name, and yet I more often than not end up doing very well in the openings because I work hard to get the "big picture" idea.

As for tesujis, I don't think "memorization" is particularly useful there - in fact, my tesuji book rails against this, constantly making fun of people who play at a spot because they saw it in a book, and constantly emphasizes reading ahead instead.

Only in life-and-death is there great scope for memorization. In fact, I'm realizing in the last few weeks (I just made 6k) that I'm recently losing a lot of close games because I lose a corner which I should have won because I didn't know the correct move to protect a given shape. Back to the books!
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:20 AM on February 3, 2012

lupus_yonderboy: I didn't say that chess doesn't require lots of memorization of openings. I explicitly said that it does require lots of memorization to play well. What I did say is that 1) Go requires memorization too (to reach a certain level), and 2) most of the energy chess players spend on memorizing openings could be better spent on studying other things, such as opening principles. That latter statement comes not from me but from countless chess teachers and high-level players all the way up to grandmasters. It is common wisdom that you shouldn't really be spending tons of time on opening theory until you get to 2000.

1400-level players are constantly being told that they should study tactics, not memorize openings. I'm 1900 and I get told the same thing (although I am just starting to get to the point where it is becoming important). I have won many tournament games against 1400s in which I was worse after the opening and outplayed my opponent in the middlegame.

(You will note that I never said anything about memorizing tesuji, and I totally agree with your paragraph about them. You do need to pick up a lot of pattern recognition, but that's different from memorization.)

Let me clarify my position once more:
1) You don't need to memorize a lot to play either chess or Go at an okay level (say the 1400-1900 / 6k-4k range that the two of us occupy).
2) You do need to memorize a lot to play either chess or Go at a high level (say 2200 / 3d).
posted by dfan at 9:37 AM on February 3, 2012

dfan: well, I'm clearly not the only one with a trouble with the rigidity of chess openings, or else this whole thread wouldn't exist!

The fact that top-level players go out of the book almost immediately in Go and almost never do in chess sums up the issue for me...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:49 PM on February 3, 2012

I don't remember a real surprise in the opening of a grandmaster-level chess game for a long time - at least ten years, although I could have missed something.

They happen all the time, they just occur later in the game than they used to. For example, there's a weekly online newsletter devoted to exploring the most interesting opening innovation of the previous week. (You are absolutely correct that Go games diverge way earlier, and of course Chess960 games diverge earlier still.)

Off the top of my head, Humpy Koneru's 8...Qe8 a couple months ago (in the Women's World Championship Match) was a shocker, and forced a real reevaluation of White's chances for an advantage in the 5.Nc3 Petroff.
posted by dfan at 5:53 PM on February 3, 2012

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