Chess 960

by ChessBase
7/16/2008 – Have you tried Chess 960 yet? It's a chess variant (devised by Bobby Fischer) which is steadily growing in popularity. In fact, you can even play Chess 960 in Fritz 11 and analyse it with ChessBase 10. In his latest column, our ChessBase Workshop correspondent shows you how. Workshop...

ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024 ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024

It is the program of choice for anyone who loves the game and wants to know more about it. Start your personal success story with ChessBase and enjoy the game even more.


I still remember when Robert J. Fischer ended his self-imposed exile from the world of chess in 1992. Nearly lost amid all the political uproar and fan hoopla which surrounded his return to play an unofficial "world championship" match against his old nemesis Boris Spassky was the fact that Fischer had been thinking long and hard about the game of chess in the two decades since he'd won the FIDE world crown.

During those well-reported weeks in Yugoslavia and in the years immediately following, it became clear that two (chess-related) issues were at the forefront of Fischer's thoughts. The first was his opinion that rigid "sudden death" time controls were marring the quality of endgame play at chess' top levels. His proposal was the now famous "Fischer clock" in which a small time increment was added to a player's total time when he completed a move; theoretically, if a player made each move quickly enough he need never fear running out of time. The Fischer incremental clock has proven to be so popular that it's become a generally-accepted standard even for amateur play in many countries.

Fischer's second concern was with the nature of the game itself, at least at its upper levels. In his opinion, chess was becoming less a game of creativity and more a game of memorization. Titled players appeared to be trotting out game after game in which the same old hoary opening sequences, memorized out to fifteen, twenty, or even more moves, were repeated endlessly. True novelties were becoming scarcer, and sometimes these "opening" novelties didn't appear until well into the middlegame. (A master-level friend once proudly showed me a novelty he'd discovered at move twenty-seven of a very well-trodden chess opening, and it's said that even as far back as the 1950's Mikhail Botvinnik had some openings memorized past the thirtieth move).

Fischer's answer was so obvious and simple, many people wondered why they hadn't thought of it. If the game has become so well-travelled that the actual "game" portion didn't start until somewhere in the middle, change the game.

To be fair, Fischer wasn't the first to voice the concern that memorization was ruining the game; J.R. Capablanca was saying the same thing back in the 1920's. Capa, like Fischer, had the idea that the game should be changed and he advocated the addition of a new major piece, the Chancellor, which would appear between a Bishop and either the King or Queen (I forget which one, sorry). The game would consequently be played on a 9x9 board.

Chess variants utilizing the concept of one (or more) "new" pieces have been kicked around for nearly a century. Back when I worked full-time in the chess software business, it seemed that every two or three months the phone would ring and a voice on the other end would pitch a new idea for just such a chess "improvement". These "new" ideas were all drearily similar -- add one (or more) pieces to the back rank, make the board bigger, and maybe even add some kind of obstacle "terrain" to the chessboard (if the person pitching the idea was really thinking big). Oh, and by the way, would we be willing to send the caller some money as an advance royalty or to help fund "further development" of the concept?

I don't mean to sound jaded here, but chess variants come and go -- and I've played quite a few of them. There's a basic "design flaw" inherent in any chess game which relies on adding pieces to the chessboard (that is, if the designer wishes to maintain a square board): the larger the board, the farther apart the players's forces are when they begin the game. If you think this sounds like no big deal, try a chess variant played on a 10x10 board in which pawns move just as they do in regular chess -- by the time the opposing forces make contact, you'll think you've been sitting and playing forever (and you won't be far off the mark; I once proposed that Capa's idea not be called "Chancellor Chess", but instead be called "Let's Pick Up Tomorrow Where We Left Off Tonight Chess").

Fischer'd thought it through and realized that adding pieces and creating a bigger board weren't the answers. Instead, he proposed that each player's first rank pieces begin on different squares than they do in classical chess. Players could either place a screen between them while they arranged their pieces or else some method of random piece placement could be devised. Thus "Shuffle Chess" (or "Fischerrandom" as it was sometimes known) was born.

Shuffle Chess has itself spun off into variants, usually differing in the method of determining initial setup or in castling rules. Currently one of the most popular is Chess 960, so named because the symmetrical setups for both players result in exactly 960 different starting board configurations. Here's a sample starting position:

Note the symmetrical opening positions of the pieces; a first-rank piece is "faced" by the same corresponding opposing piece on the last rank (as though a mirror had been placed between the fourth and fifth ranks).

Castling is handled by a set of special rules (quoted here from the Fritz11 Help file):

The king and rook...end up on the traditional squares after the move is completed: Kg1-Rf1 or Kc1-Rd1. The conditions for castling are similar to orthodox chess: the squares between the two pieces must be empty, and neither the pieces nor the squares they cross or land on may be under attack. Obviously the destination squares of the King and Rook must also be empty.

Note that sometimes the King or the Rook will not move during castling [if one or the other already occupies the correct square -- SL].

Chess 960 is an interesting variant. But is it any good? Does it actually inject new life into the old game? Now you can try it out (and form an opinion) without the hassle of trying to find a human opponent willing to test it with you. Fritz11 allows you to play Chess 960 against the computer, through the use of a special chess engine included with the Fritz software.

To start a new Chess 960 game, launch Fritz11 and, in the min chessbord screen, go to the File menu to select "Chess 960". You'll see the following dialogue appear:

This is an amazingly simple dialogue. The number in the dialogue refers to the specific Chess 960 position which will be loaded (all nine hundred sixty positions are officially catalogued and numbered). At this point you can simply click the "OK" button to begin the game.

However, you're also provided with two means of changing the starting position. The first is to manually type a new number in the "Position" box (especially useful for Chess 960 afficionados who are interested in exploring a certain starting position by repeating games). The second is to click the "Draw lots" button; the software will randomly select a new position, displaying the catalogue number in the "Position" window. As before, you can click the "OK" button to start the actual game.

After you've had some experience with Chess 960, you'll have a better basis for comparison with the traditional form of the game. Will 960 "save" the game of chess? (Much of that answer will depend on whether or not you agree with Fischer's thesis that chess needed "saving".) Will 960 catch on with the general chessplaying public? Regardless of the answers, at the very least we have another chess variant to enjoy when we feel the need to take a break from the rigors of the game's traditional form.

Until next week, have fun!

You can e-mail me with your comments on ChessBase Workshop. No tech support questions, please.

© 2008, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

Reports about chess: tournaments, championships, portraits, interviews, World Championships, product launches and more.


Rules for reader comments


Not registered yet? Register