Fischer Chess in the Year 2015
When my six-year stint as About.com Chess Guide ended in August 2008, one of my first considerations was 'What will I do now to promote chess?' Fischer had died at the beginning of that year and I decided to honor his memory by spending time looking into his last invention: Fischerandom Chess, as he called it. Was it an idea worth taking more seriously or not?
I had long been a master level player in both over-the-board and correspondence play, but no longer had time for over-the-board tournaments. I started a correspondence chess960 game on the Schemingmind.com server and was immediately hooked. It was real chess! More games followed. Yes, the openings were strange and the middlegames had patterns unlikely to arise from the traditional start position, but the endgames were undistinguishable from those arising in the traditional game.
At the same time I started playing chess960, I started writing about it on my chess blog, Chess for All Ages. As they say, 'writing clarifies thought', and there was much in chess960 that needed clarification. The objections to it were numerous and there was little balanced analysis to address those objections. Six months later I branched out with another blog that I devoted to my chess960 explorations.
As for top-level chess960, the annual Chess Classic Mainz (CCM) event in Mainz, Germany, had been including chess960 events since 2001, when Hungary's Peter Leko beat Britain's Michael Adams. It looked to me like chess960 was on the upward path to eventual acceptance by the global chess community. Its future was bright.
A few years later a different vision took hold. The last CCM event to include chess960 tournaments was held in 2009, and the last CCM was held in 2010, with only a small simultaneous exhibition highlighting chess960. Although a few sporadic top-level chess960 tournaments have been held since then, none of them have been elevated to annual events. No tournaments means no money and, in our post-modern materialistic society, no money means no respect. Chess960 was relegated to amateur status.
Why hasn't chess960 earned a larger share of the resources flowing into traditional chess? The problem, as I see it, is that its most attractive feature is a huge disadvantage for many players. Fischer conceived the game to counter the growing influence of opening preparation among the strongest players of traditional chess, an influence that was accelerated by the advent of chess playing software.
Opening preparation gives chess players of all levels an intellectual pursuit even when they are not playing against an opponent. It gives chess publishers an obvious opportunity to produce endless volumes on all aspects of the opening phase. It gives good players who are specialists in certain openings a market for their research into those openings.
In Fischer's chess960, where every game starts with a 1/960 chance of a new setup, there is no opening preparation, there is no need for opening literature or databases, there is no market clamoring for new works on the opening, and there are no opening specialists. Every game starts -- really starts -- with the first move.
Some fans of chess960 have proposed that the number of start positions be restricted to allow opening preparation on those positions. This is a serious suggestion and there is nothing to prevent any circle of players from agreeing on which start positions will be permitted. If this takes hold, we will have three types of chess player: traditional chess players, chess960 players allowing the full set of 960 positions, and chess-%-of-960 players restricting themselves to some small percent of those positions. Traditional players are a natural subset of that third group.
I am an unabashed member of the group allowing the full set, where there are enough challenges to keep me occupied for many a year to come. Little understood patterns repeat across entire families of start positions: pieces other than Rooks in the corner, pieces other than Knights next to the corner, Rooks in the center, Pawns under attack after the very first move by either side, castling to one side on the very first move. Castling considerations are, as a whole, much more complex in chess960 than in traditional chess, where the choice of which-side-to-castle is usually automatic.
There are already enough chess960 players and enough online places to play -- whether over-the-board or correspondence -- that the future of chess960 is guaranteed for many years. While one part of me would like to see it become even more popular, another part of me is happy with the status quo, so that its many mysteries will endure even longer. Playing chess960 reminds me of the time when, as a beginning chess player, I discovered the world of chess openings. That process of discovery, lost long ago as I advanced in strength, now happens every time I begin to play a new position. I hope I never lose it again.
I don't have many statistics showing the growth of interest in chess960. The following charts from my blog show (1) the geographical interest in the blog, and (2) the increase in page views since statistics were made available five years ago.