Educational Benefits of Chess Variants

Chess variants are versions of chess that incorporate changes to the way in which the game is played. These variants range from Fischer Random 960 chess, in which the pawns remain on their same starting ranks and squares but the pieces themselves start off on different starting squares (starting off on their initial ranks; 1st rank for White and 8th rank for Black), to Bughouse (A four player version of chess) to variants made up by imaginative children. The questions I pose is should we include these variants within our teaching curriculum? I’ve spoken with many chess educators and there seems to be a line drawn in the sand with one side supporting variants while the other side claims no educational value to these unique versions of the game. We’ll start by examining Bughouse, a favorite variant that’s even played at rated tournament settings.

For those of you unfamiliar with this variation of chess, Bughouse employs four players and two boards. Players work in teams of two. One team member plays Black and the other team member plays white, both team members sitting side by side. Their opponents do likewise, with one player manning the white pieces and the other the black pieces. What makes this game interesting is that after you capture a pawn or piece, you give that captured piece to your teammate who can either hold onto in or place it anywhere on the board. Pawns cannot be dropped on their promotion squares and pieces cannot be dropped on a square that creates an instant checkmate. Let me further explain how this works for those of you unfamiliar with the game. If you’re playing White and your teammate is playing black (you’re sitting side by side, each with a board in front of each of you), each time you capture one of your opponent’s pawns or pieces (your opposition team sits across from you and your teammate) which are Black, you hand that pawn or piece to your teammate. When it’s your teammate”s turn, they can either drop the newly acquired pawn or piece that you gave them onto the board or hold on to it for later use. When your teammate captures a pawn or piece (which is White because your teammate is manning the Black pawns and pieces), they give it to you to either use right away or later on. Dropping a pawn or piece on the board constitutes your turn, so you have to wait until it’s your turn again to move that dropped pawn or piece. The first team member to checkmate ends the game for all players.

Many chess players ans teachers don’t see any benefit from this version of chess. However, I use it for tactics training. Beginners have a tough time with tactics because tactics require being set up via a combination of moves which is above the skill set of the average beginner. With Bughouse, you look at the board and see a potential fork, for example, and rather than trying to maneuver a Knight across the board in order to exploit this tactic (meanwhile your opponent foils you plan with a counter move), you simply drop the Knight on the square that creates the fork. Of course, you don’t get to execute the fork right away because you used your turn up placing the piece on the board, but you start to visualize tactics and that helps beginners identify the patterns that can lead to tactical plays. Pattern recognition can be developed through this variation. Bughouse is also a great way to learn the art of attacking and defending. In this variation, you can drop (place) a pawn or piece onto a square that allows it to attack the opposition. You opponent can also drop a pawn or piece to block the attack or add another defender to the position. Players have to carefully count the number of attackers versus defenders and decide whether or not they should add more material into the fight. Beginners often lose material due to an inadequate number of attackers or defenders and this version of chess helps them with attacking and defending calculations. Is there a downside to Bughouse besides the high level of noise emanating from the rowdy players?

Honestly, there’s no substitute for the traditional form of the game. Kids love Bughouse because they can have a stockpile of additional pieces making attacks much easier and therein lies one of the problems. Kids will often blindly throw material into their attacks, losing the material in the process without reward, because they can always acquire more material from the teammate. This creates a sloppy way of thinking about attacking (and defending). If you’re already a good chess player, Bughouse can be fun and won’t aid you in developing bad chess habits. If you’re a beginner, it can create some bad chess habits unless those beginners are careful. This means, you the chess teacher (or parent) have to instill the principles used in regular chess into the minds of younger players before they play Bughouse on a regular basis. While it’s a fun way to play chess, it’s no substitute for good old fashion chess. However, lessons can be learned within the format of Bughouse as long as you think in teems of principled play so it has some benefit (besides being fun).

Now for Chess 960 as first introduced by Bobby Fischer. In this version, the pieces all start out on their starting ranks but where they are placed on the rank is different. This means Knights, Bishops, Rooks, Queen and King don’t start off on their traditional starting squares. This means all that opening theory goes partially out the window. However, this is a game that is heavy on tactics and serves as a tactical training aid. It also teaches beginners to attack where the action is. What do I mean by “where the action is?” Beginners tend to miss attacking opportunities because they don’t look at the entire board, only focusing in on where the opposition King is. This means they often miss weaknesses in their opponent’s position, lines where an opening to attack the enemy King can be created. Again, you have to be careful with young beginners when introducing them to this variation because it’s important they employ the opening principles in their regular games and follow sound middle and endgame principles as well. However, it can be used to help with improving a student’s attacking skills.

Children play a number of variations of chess from Suicide Chess to Exploding Chess. These variations should not be encouraged because they don’t aid in student’s chess education. Any variation played should always offer something in the way of training that incorporates the games principles. With that said, I encourage my students to create variations that have an educational purpose. Why? Because it gets them really thinking about the game, it’s principles and has them really examining the game in greater detail than when they simply play it. You should always encourage your students to explore the game as long as it’s a serious exploration. If my students are willing to approach creating a new variation of chess with the eyes of a scientist, I’ll support their quest. Don’t dismiss all chess variants because some of them can actually help improve aspects of your game. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).