I’m about to talk about chess. First I’m going to put out a disclaimer: I’m not a great chess player. I’m probably better than your kid brother… but maybe not. As an adult I lost to a 12 year old in the tournament at the county fair in CT. I’ve met people that thought they could play chess and wiped the board with them. I’ve met people more humble than I and crashed against their defense like breakers against a cliff. I’ve played passable players that shook their heads at my stupidity, and I’ve made strong players nod their head thoughtfully.
So it was 1997-ish and I’m at the P&H café on some random week night in the summer. I end up playing this guy who uses an opening which I’m unfamiliar with. He pushes the Queen’s bishop pawn 2, and on his second move brings his knight in right behind it. I could play a solid Ruy Lopez and could play a decent queens gambit either accepted or declined. I was competent against a Sicilian defense though I would never play one, and knew none of this jargon when I learned these openings. But this opening took me completely out of my comfort zone. It was like fencing against a lefty, or bowling with a heavier ball. All the principals of play were the same, but the mechanics were just a little different from the way they had always been. He smeared me 2 or 3 times in a row, then I finally had a game where I survived the opening without screwing up and I ate him alive. This guy had no mid-game. No ability to coordinate an attack. No understanding of how the pieces worked together. No grasp of the beauty of it.
It’s called an English opening, by the way.
So recently I heard of Fischer Random Chess. Proposed by the great chess player, and general lunatic Bobby Fischer in 1996. He also felt that the beauty of the game was in creative combinations and deep understanding of the way the pieces relate and work together. He despised tournament rules that encourages someone up a game to play for draws to win the match instead of playing for wins, and he hated a trend of players memorizing longer and longer openings that covered more and more variations. “Some kid of fourteen today, or even younger, could get an opening advantage against Capablanca,” he lamented. I think this is a natural result of people training their chess game against computers. Prior to home computers the key to individual improvement was to study annotated master games. Now individual training with a computer game feels more interactive and engaging, but the static responses of chess programs will lead you down the same paths over and over again. Each time your mind gets an opening variation wired in a little harder, possibly without ever fully understanding why that path works, just firm in the knowledge that if you stray from it the machine eats you.
The proposed answer is Fischer Random Chess. The rules set up the pieces different for every game with the following restrictions:
- Pawn always in front
- Bishops always on 2 different colors
- King always between the Rooks
- Black is set up symmetric to white
The rules for casteling are a little screwed up, but other than that the pieces move just like in normal chess. And now there are 960 times as many openings to memorize. Would this change the balance in the question of man vs computer? That totally depends on the nature of the computers programming. If the computer is legitimately programmed to evaluate the conditions on the board and possible responses then it will make no difference. If the program was written by someone who studied chess openings as a shortcut to finding the best move, then 960chess would screw it up pretty good.
I look forward to playing Thomas, though both of us are rusty enough it probably wouldn’t matter.