Three challenges facing Chess960: A fan perspective

So I recently suffered a serious accident resulting in me spending a lot of time in bed watching chess videos (everything in life has a silver lining). In the past week I have been enjoying the excellent coverage of the Sinquefield Cup being broadcast by the St Louis Chess Club during which the topic of Chess960 has cropped up on multiple occasions amongst the commentary team and the worlds elite players.  Indeed on the 10th – 14th September the chess club will be hosting five matches of Chess960 between 10 elite players (including the 960 debut of Gary Kasparov) with a total prize fund of $250,000. With interest in Chess960 supposedly growing (especially at the top levels of chess) I thought I would take a moment to highlight three challenges facing this variant of chess from my own personal perspective as an “average” chess fan. 

What is Chess960?

Very briefly, Chess960 is a variant of classic chess first proposed by Bobby Fischer in 1996 in Buenos Aires.  It involves the randomisation of the home rank pieces for each player therefore rendering each players home preparation moot.  There are 960 possible combinations for randomising the starting positions of the home rank pieces, hence the name Chess960.  The classical setup of pieces (you know the one which can take a lifetime to master) would be considered position 1 of 960.

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One of 960 starting position for a game of Chess960. Guess we aren’t playing a Berlin then…

Routinely Chesss960 is often referred to as the ultimate test of pure chess skill.  Whilst I recognise that this can appeal and be an interesting variant for some fans and players, in my opinion there are a number of challenges from an entertainment perspective that need to be resolved if Chess960 is to garner a large following and interest in the established chess community.

Challenge 1: Identity

The number of chess fans tuning in to watch the Sinquefield Cup has been impressive with the show broadcast in over 200 countries and daily YouTube videos racking up views in excess of 100,000 in 24 hour periods.  Indeed the St Louis Chess Club broadcasts are easily setting the bar for the pinnacle in chess broadcasting.

In round 8 of the Sinquefield Cup Alexander Grischuk played 1.f4 (Birds Opening) to an explosion of delight to the fans in the YouTube chat, on Twitter and around the globe. Several people phoned into the live studio to ask excited questions of Jen Shahade, Yasser Seirawan and Maurice Ashley about the Birds Opening.

Why?

Because, putting chess ability to one side for a moment, many chess fans love to construct their identities and styles of play (“I’m Karpovian, quiet and positional” or “I attack like Tal“) and openings (“You just can’t beat my London“).  To the average club player, identifying with a particular opening helps anchor them in the exceedingly complex game that we all love.  They know that they will never be a GM (or hit 2000 ELO for that matter) but in some spheres and realms it is enough to dream that we understand a little of this great game.  Hence when Sasha Grishchuk casually tosses the f-pawn forward on move 1, amateur fans around the word rejoice because they feel a connection, they relate and (whisper it) connect with it.

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Even Chess Arbiter Chris Bird enjoyed seeing 1.f4 on the board. Photo credit to @LennartOotes

Chess960 kills an amateur players identity dead.

There is nothing to hold onto. Nothing that is recognisable or relatable. Those openings that I’ve worked so hard on and are the reason we follow certain GMs results is suddenly gone and the amateur is set adrift in the sea of “pure chess skill”.  Leading us nicely to the second challenge in my view.

Challenge 2: Complexity

Chess is hard. Thats why we love it.

But the consistency of the starting position atleast helps give some level of understanding (even if often we are only just holding on with our fingernails) to the average chess fan.  A chess fan rated 1800 would be considered a strong club player. But when those players watch classical chess we are already starting with a 1000 point deficit compared to a Super GM.  By randomising the starting position to one of 960 possible variations, as a spectator, my ability and understanding plummets even more.

Now for a game that already suffers from an accessibility issue in terms of new people learning the game, do we really want to be making it harder for people to engage?

Don’t get me wrong. I totally understand why elite players would be interested in Chess960 as they have already mastered the classical position.  But if elite players find 960 more challenging then it is especially so for your average chess fan and infinitely so for newbies to the game.

From an entertainment perspective, in what other sport would organisers say: “Hey you know what?  Lets make it more complicated for the viewers“.

Challenge 3: History & Commentary

Chess players love history.  They love the mystique of famous matches and clashes. They love the cool names of variations and places.  They love the great stories that Yasser Seirawan casually drops into conversation when commentating about the time he was blitzing with Boris Spassky or some other such legend of chess.

Again Chess960 eliminates this aspect to the entertainment side of the game.  Admittedly, Chess960 is very young in comparison to classical chess so does not have such a rich history.  However, by reducing (a deliberate choice of word) the game to one of 960 possible starting positions it makes it very difficult to commentate on or make accessible to the casual chess fan.

At no point can someone say, “Ah yes this reminds me of the 2017 match between Carlsen and Nakamura using starting position 758“. Even if they could it will take decades for comparisons and useful commentary to start to appear.

Also, how do you name variations when a variation very very very rarely ever appears again? The short answer is you don’t.

Which leaves the commentary team just talking about the “pure test of chess skill” on the boards in front of them.  Maybe I’m old fashioned but I personally feel the chess viewing experience is lessened when the rich tapestry of chess history is removed.

Conclusion

In conclusion, It is not my intent to attack Chess960 itself. Im sure a great many players around the world enjoy the variant.  My intent was to raise question marks over how this version of chess can be marketed and promoted to the masses.

The St Louis Chess Club and others such as Chess.com are doing sterling efforts to promote chess and raise participation levels globally.  But with so much effort and research gone into making chess exciting and engaging to watch, is Chess960 really a step forward or is it a niche sub-variant for players of a certain high standard?

With $250,000 prize fund it certainly looks like Chess960 is starting to be taken seriously.

My question is by making it harder to follow, removing any sense of chess identity and eliminating chess history from the commentary are the chess masses going to as easily engage? Is the ultimate test of pure chess skill really what your average chess fan is really looking for?

Until next time.


mecircle

Jon Fisher

Jon is the Editor of The Bristol Chess Times and Publicity and Recruitment Officer for The Bristol & District Chess League. He plays for Horfield Chess Club and has been known to play 1. b3 on occasion.