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The birth of Fischer Random Chess

by Eric van Reem

Why Fischer Random Chess ?

In the 20th century, professional chess made a development, in which knowledge of opening theory became more and more important. This development has not come to an end yet. A lot of players spend, maybe even waste their time, by analysing opening theory and trying to find new moves. It is amazing to see that average club players have inside knowledge about the latest developments in complicated Sicilian systems, but their creativity and knowledge about middle- and endgame is insufficient and leaves much to be desired. However, there are also some players, who have their own theories. A good example is English Grandmaster Michael Basman, who made all sound positional players shiver with 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 the opening. When you become a 2500+ player, it will become inevitable 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 like Gary Kasparov, who has fabulous memorization capacities, 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 above mentioned Kasparov in the Braingames Match last year. The "Berlin Wall" proved to be an excellent choice against Kasparov, who couldn´t break through. However, creativity in well-known openings is still possible: players like Morozevich and Shirov keep coming up with amazing plans 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.

Loads of theory

Bobby Fischer must have been shocked to see how opening theory had developed since his last game in 1972. It is said, that friends from throughout the world sent him masses of analysis, that he ignored during the match against Spasski in 1992. The sheer volume of material probably made Fischer realize, that there was no way back.. After that experience Fischer started thinking about an alternative and started promoting his variant of Shuffle Chess: Fischer Random Chess, in which having knowledge about openings is not relevant. In F.R Chess, just before the start of every game, both players pieces on their respective back rows receive an identical random shuffle, with the provisos, that one Rook has to be to the left and the other Rook to the right of the King, and one Bishop has to be on a light-colored square and the otherone on a dark-colored square. White and Black have identical positions. In F.R. Chess there are 960 starting postitions, the Classical Chess starting position and 959 other starting postitions.

Of necessity, in F.R. Chess the castling rule is somewhat modified and broadened to allow for the possibility of each player castling either on or into his or her left side or on or into his or her right side of the board from all of these 960 starting positions. However, after "a"-side castling, the King and Rook find themselves on the usual squares: King on c1 (c8) and Rook on d1 (d8), after "h"-side castling : King on g1 (g8) , Rook on f1 (f8). Sometimes castling looks odd in F.R. Chess: 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; you are not allowed to castle "out" of check.

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

Buenos Aires 1996: The birth of Fischer Random Chess

At a press conference on June 19, 1996 in the Argentine capital, Fischer was received by hundreds of journalists and chess fans, many of whom had come from all over the world. The object of the conference was to publicize 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 memorization and analysis. He stated, that many games are prearranged before the players begin the game, and that even the so-called world championship between Russian players Kasparov and Karpov had been prearranged, this would be impossible in Fischer Random Chess. He also pointed out, that due to such long hours in front of the computer screen, many top players today, such as Anand and Kramnik, wear thick glasses. He also mentioned, that all of the study necessary to play conventional chess made it hard work, and that he had gotten into chess in order to avoid work!

Fischer stated, that without access to databases of 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 dífferent 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 playing F.R Chess 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 did with Hungarian Grandmaster Andras Adorjan. Friedel showed Adorjan several positions for a period of ten seconds. The Hungarian could recall those "normal" postions far better than amateur players did. Humans remember so-called "chunks" e.g. they do not remember pawn on f2, g2 and h2, King on g1 and Rook on f1, they remember the chunk "Castling Kingside". If you build up a position without those patterns, but try to put up a position that really doesn´t make sense, with pawns on the first and eigth rank for example, there is hardly any difference in memorization 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 some hundreds of points. A computer can play with 3 knights or 5 rooks, no problem.

Fischer Random Chess in practice

The object of the pressconference was also to announce a match of Fischer Random Chess between Philippine Grandmaster Eugene Torre and two-time 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 July 12, 1996 in La Plata, Argentina. Unfortunately, Fischer and the organizers had a fight 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 between "Triple Brain" Prof. Ingo Althöfer from Jena (Triple Brain=two chess engines + Althöfer) against Artur Jusupov back in 1997. Shuffle Chess Classic, because computers can not cope with the complicated castling rules in F.R. Chess.

The world had to wait until 2001 before a brave organiser decided to organise a F.R. Chess match between two world class players. Hans Walter Schmitt wants to make F.R. Chess as popular as rapid chess, with which he started 7 years ago in Frankurt. 5 years after giving birth to F.R. Chess it is going to take place in Mainz and we will wait and see if F.R. Chess can become a popular chess variant in the future. The two top ten players, Michael Adams, number 4 and Peter Leko, who is ranked 7th will play 8 games. It will be interesting for the audience to think with the players from move 1 on. Leko and Adams will see one of the 960 initial positions just a minute or two before the game begins and they can try to show the world the new varieties in this fascinating experiment. Like a new-born child, they have absolutely no orientation and their knowledge of openings is not relevant.

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

Written by Eric van Reem.
WWW page created: May 31, 2001.