The birth of Chess960 (Fischer Random Chess)

by Eric van Reem

Why Fischer Random Chess ?

In the 20th century, professional chess underwent a development in that knowledge of opening theory became more and more important. This development has not yet come to an end. A lot of players spend - maybe even waste - their time analysing opening theory and trying to invent new moves. It is amazing to see that average club players have intimate knowledge about the latest developments in complicated Sicilian systems, but their creativity and knowledge about middle and endgames are insufficient and leave much to be desired. However, there are also players who have their own theories. A good example is the English grandmaster Michael Basman, who makes all sound positional players tremble because of his amazing opening moves (e.g. 1. g4 or 1. e4 g5 and 1. d4 a6 2. e4 h6). In Germany, Stefan Bücker is a good example of a player who likes to try something new in openings. Once someone becomes a 2500+ player, they inevitably have to learn something about classical opening theory. Bobby Fischer himself had to work very hard on his openings to become world champion back in 1972.

Even a player such as Gary Kasparov who has fabulous memorisation capabilities, complained that he could not always remember his opening preparation. A good example of the importance of having perfect knowledge about an opening system was shown by Vladimir Kramnik when he beat this same Kasparov in the Braingames challenge last year. The "Berlin Wall" proved to be an excellent choice against Kasparov, who could not break through. However, creativity within well-known openings is still possible: players such as Morozevich and Shirov keep coming up with amazing structures in well-known positions; and if you don't work on your openings, like Anatoly Karpov, who relies on his strength in the middle and endgame, you will lose rating points.

Masses of theory

In 1992, Bobby Fischer must have been shocked to see how opening theory had developed since his last major game twenty years earlier. It is said that Bobby Fischerfriends from all over the world sent him masses of analyses which he ignored during his match against Spasski. The sheer volume of material probably made Fischer realise that there was no way back to the situation he had known..

After that experience Fischer began to think about an alternative and started promoting his variant of Shuffle Chess: Fischer Random Chess (FRC), in which knowledge about openings is irrelevant. In FRC, just before the start of any game, both players' pieces on their respective back rows receive an identical random shuffle, with the provisos that one rook has to be on the left and the other rook on the right of the king, one bishop has to be on a light-coloured square and the other on a dark square. White and Black have identical positions. In FRC there are 960 starting positions, the classical chess starting position plus 959 others.

Of necessity, in FRC the castling rule is somewhat modified and broadened, to allow for the possibility of either player castling either on or into his or her left side or on or into his or her right side of the board from any of these 960 starting positions. However, after 'a-side' castling, the king and rook find themselves on the usual squares: the king on c1 (c8) and the rook on d1 (d8); after 'h-side' castling the king is on g1 (g8) and the rook on f1 (f8).

Sometimes castling looks odd in FRC: e.g. when your king is on e1 and a rook is on f1, you only have to move your king to g1 ('king-move-only' castling). All the other castling rules apply as in classical chess: e.g. no other piece is allowed to stand between the castling king and rook; one is not allowed to 'castle out' of check.

What did Fischer have in mind when he thought up this chess variant? Because of the many possible starting positions, knowledge about opening theory becomes irrelevant, and the stronger player will win the game, not the one who is better prepared. From move 1 on, both players have to come up with original strategies and cannot use well-known thought patterns.

Buenos Aires 1996: the birth of Fischer Random Chess

At a press conference in the Argentine capital on 19 June 1996, Bobby Fischer was greeted by hundreds of journalists and chess fans, many of whom had come from all over the world. The object of the conference was to publicise the launch of Fischer's new game, Fischer Random Chess. Fischer pointed out that, with his new improved chess variant, chess creativity and talent would be more important than memorisation and analysis. He claimed that many games are pre-arranged before the players begin the game, and even the so-called world championship between the two Russian players Kasparov and Karpov was pre-arranged, which would be impossible in Fischer Random Chess. He also pointed out that, due to such long hours in front of a computer screen, nowadays many top players, such as Anand and Kramnik, wear thick spectacles. He also mentioned that all the study necessary to play conventional chess made it hard work, and that he had taken up into chess in order to avoid work!

Fischer stated that without access to databases containing the millions of opening variations in traditional chess, computers do not really play chess all that well. However, Matthias Wüllenweber, one of the founders of ChessBase, has a completely different opinion on that subject. Last year, when "Fritz on Primergy" played two shuffle chess games against German number 1 Artur Jusupov, the software specialist said: "When one is playing FRC, unusual patterns come up on the board. Knowledge of these patterns, however, is one of the main weapons for humans in their battle against computers." Wüllenweber refers to a test his partner Frederic Friedel carried out with Hungarian grandmaster Andras Adorjan. Friedel showed Adorjan several positions for a period of ten seconds. The Hungarian could recall the 'normal' positions much better than amateur players could. Human beings remember so-called 'chunks', e.g. they do not remember pawn on f2, g2 and h2, king on g1 and rook on f1, but they remember the chunk "castling kingside". If you build up a position without these patterns, but try to put together a position that really doesn't make sense, with pawns on the first and eighth rank for example, there is hardly any difference in memorisation capability between amateurs and grandmasters. According to Wüllenweber, this "thinking in chunks" is the main difference between humans and computers, and the difference in ELO is several hundreds of points. A computer can play with three knights or five rooks without any problem.

Fischer Random Chess in practice

The object of the 1992 press conference was also to announce a match in Fischer Random Chess between Philippine grandmaster Eugene Torre and the twice Argentine champion grandmaster Pablo Ricardi. Both players attended the conference and displayed enthusiasm regarding the match and the new game. The match was due to start on 12 July 1996, in La Plata, Argentina. Unfortunately, Fischer and the organisers had a disagreement and the match was cancelled.

Some creative chess enthusiasts in Scotland, Denmark and Holland have organised Fischer Random Chess tournaments for amateurs. An interesting shuffle chess match was played back in 1997 between 'Triple Brain' Professor Ingo Althöfer of Jena (Triple Brain = two chess engines + Althöfer) against Artur Jusupov. A Shuffle Chess Classic, because computers could cope with the complicated castling rules in FRC.

Is FRC the start of a new era? Artur Jusupov thinks that FRC is not the end for classical chess. "However, due to the influence of computer programmes and over-analysed opening variations, it could become a popular variant. No more theory means more creativity. It is somewhat premature to predict how FRC will develop, but it could become a real alternative", Jusupov said. However: "Chess is very beautiful and difficult, and will be played for many years to come" he concluded.