Bored With Chess? Then Go Wei Chi Baduk!

No, I’m not suggesting that anyone should be bored with chess – that would be sacrilege! But from time to time the subject of interesting chess “variants” comes up, including blitz, bughouse and Fischer Random to name just a few of the most popular. OK, you say that blitz is not a variant? In fact, it has its own set of official blitz rules.

In his Nov 9 blog here on chessimprover, John Rhodes described Chess960 (aka Fischer Random Chess), a variant proposed by Fischer as a solution to certain problems with regular chess, e.g. among professional over-the-board players and correspondence players, regular chess places a huge emphasis on research and/or memorization of long opening variations, arguably at some expense to creativity in the opening. Also, there have long been complaints about too many boring draws and the looming “draw death” of master chess, going back to the time of Capablanca. In fact, Capablanca suggested his own variant, played on an 8-by-10 board with two additional pieces, the Chancellor (which combines the moves of knight and rook) and the Archbishop (which combines the moves of knight and bishop). His idea Capablanca Chess is very interesting, but it never took off.

In addition to playing great moves, Bobby Fischer also had some great ideas about chess in general, including his patented Fischer clock, his insistence on improved tournament playing conditions, as well as Fischer Random Chess. Of course, he also had a few whacked out ideas, but we won’t go into them here. The idea behind Fischer Random is to throw players on their own resources at the outset, making memorization of openings impractical by randomizing the starting position (subject to a few constraints, as described by John). As a result, there are 960 unique starting positions which, together with some people’s desire to decouple it from Fischer’s name, is where the “Chess960” comes from.

I think that Chess960 would, in fact, provide additional scope for creativity, although it’s unclear whether there would be many fewer draws. However, if this variant became very widely adopted it would certainly not eliminate the need for study and memorization – in my view it would just make the problem 960 times harder! We now speculate regarding whether the opening position in chess is a theoretical win for white or a draw. With Chess960, 959 new debates will flare up. Which of the many starting positions are theoretical wins and which are draws? OK, few of us really care, but would chess professionals depending on tournament winnings for their livelihood really go into tournaments unprepared? No way! And for most people, if you increased your current workload 960 times, well, you could end up overworked, like this guy or even worse this guy.

From the viewpoint of educational benefits of chess, teaching Chess960 to novices (or anyone below some very advanced level) seems problematic. Clearly they would have to learn the rudiments of standard chess first. The Lucena position is still the Lucena position, no matter how the pieces were initially set up.

What about computers against humans in Chess960? Well, machines will still be better calculators and humans better at strategy, but neither side has much of an “opening book” advantage at this point. But If Chess960 becomes really popular, then I predict that book titles such as the following will soon appear:

  • How to Beat Your Dad at Chess960
  • Chess 960 Tricks, Traps and Swindles
  • NCO960, Volumes 1- 960 (yes, shipping is extra)
  • White to Play and Win From the First Move in Chess960 #117
  • Black is OK in Chess960 #238
  • Black is Not OK in Chess960 #239
  • Play 1.h4 h5! in Chess960 #322
  • Attacking with 1.Ne3! in Chess960 #402
  • The Opening According to Kramnik in Chess960 #501
  • Chess960 #712 Kobayashi Maru, Poisoned Pawn Variation

Of course, certain ones of the 960 variants might become more popular in club tournaments than others. Some variants are known to start out with multiple undefended pawns. This is akin to being forced to play the Latvian Gambit – or worse. There could also be political intrigue and scandals. The team from Baku is rumored to have discovered a bust to variant #444. A FIDE official is rumored to have leaked the secret number of tomorrow’s Linares960 match variant. Meanwhile, would players spend more time studying the endgame, or all of their time tackling the openings for each of the 960 variants? How much time would you spend on the first move? Would we see time forfeits at move 4?

So, what exactly am I telling you to do when I say “Go wei chi baduk?” Sounds a bit insulting, doesn’t it?. Even if the sentence doesn’t end with yourself. Well, you may recall that these were the exact  instructions given to the nuclear-powered robot, Gort, to keep him from reducing our planet to a burned out cinder (The Day the Earth Stood Still – 1951, 2008). Ha ha! No, no, the instructions were actually “Gort – Klaatu barrada nikto.” You must be very precise in speaking to Gort:

Gort – Do not say “go wei chi baduk” to him

In  fact, go, wei chi and baduk are three names for one in the same thing, a two-player game played with armies of white and black stones on a 19-by-19 board. The object of the game is to surround as much territory as possible and to kill off your opponent’s stones if they get in your way. Ha ha! Towards the end of the game a player may pass, so there is no concept of zugzwang. There are also no draws because White is given a few points plus a half a point as compensation for Black moving first.

Proponents of go (as it is called in Japan), wei chi (China) and baduk (Korea) tout the same kind of benefits as chess: improves memory and concentration, abstract reasoning, decision-making, time management, both tactical and strategic thinking, etc. I believe that professional players in Asia make a decent living, with matches being closely followed in the press and on TV. A player promoted to 9-dan professional is equivalent in rank to a top-rated grandmaster in chess.

So, again, although we don’t think it’s possible for anyone to actually be bored with chess, for your enlightenment an introduction to the rules of go are here. I personally played competitive go for about a year and played once in the US Open Go Championship. Interestingly, they used chess clocks (er, I mean go clocks) and I believe the Swiss System pairing rules. And let me tell you, there were some really old guys playing and probably still improving!