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The Birth of Fischer Random Chess

This time it is Creativity, Ingenuity and Pure Talent that will win the game

Excerpts from the article written by Eric van Reem with additional commentaries from The Realm

more chess texts by Eric van Reem


The Need for Fischer Random Chess

   In the 20th century, professional chess underwent a development in that knowledge of opening theory or book moves became more and more important. This development has not yet, or will never, come to an end. A lot of players spend - maybe even waste - their time analyzing opening theory and trying to invent new variations. It is amazing to see that average club players have intimate knowledge about the latest developments in complicated openings or defences such as the Sicilian systems, but their creativity and knowledge about middle and endgames are insufficient and leave much to be desired. Once someone becomes a 2300+ rated player, they inevitably have to learn something about classical opening theory. Bobby Fischer himself who has a super-human photographic memory, had to work very hard on his openings to become world champion in 1972.

Even a player such as former world champion Garry Kasparov who has incredible memorization capabilities, complained that he could not always remember his opening preparation. GM Vladinir Kramnik showed the importance of having perfect knowledge of the opening system when he beat Kasparov in the Braingames world championship last year. The "Berlin Wall" variation of Ruy Lopez proved to be an excellent choice of defence against Kasparov, who could not break through. Although creativity within well-known openings is still possible, if you don't work on your openings, like former world champion Anatoly Karpov, who relies on his strength in the middle and endgame, you will lose rating points.

Disappointingly, modern chess has turned out to be a boring game due to the simple fact that the player would win, not because he is the stronger or more talented player but because he has prepared more or, in a more accurate sense, he has memorized more than his opponent.

Myth of Origin

   Some people speculate that in 1992, Bobby Fischer must have been shocked to see how opening theory had developed since his last major game twenty years ago. It is said that friends from all over the world sent him masses of analysis which he ignored during his rematch against former world champion Boris Spassky. It is guessed that the sheer volume of material may have made Fischer realize that there was no way back to the situation he had known. And so it is hypothesized that it is after this experience that Fischer began to think about an alternative game.

However, according those Grandmasters and other associates who really have kept in touch with Fischer through the years, Fischer is still as sharp as ever. According Grandmaster Eugene Torre of the Philippines, who served as Fischer's official second during his 1992 rematch with Spassky, Fischer would still demolish Kasparov, believe it or not.

If Kasparov found Fischer's performance in 1992 was way below expectations, some people honestly think Fischer actually hid his real strength but in spite of that, he was still able to rout Spassky. Spassky was no pushover, as evidenced by his match against a top GM, Judit Polgar in 1993 where he lost by only a solitary point. For most people actually, its harder to believe that Bobby, who has been a chess player all his life, would not keep a close look on the development in chess even during his self-exile.

A Fresh New Game

   Fischer Random Chess (FRC), is actually Fischer's own invention or variant of shuffle chess. In this kind of chess, knowledge about openings is irrelevant. In FRC, just before the start of any game, both players' pieces on their respective back rows receive an identical random shuffle, with the prerequisites that one rook has to be on the left and the other rook on the right of the king and, one bishop has to be on a light-colored square and the other on a dark square. White and Black have identical positions. In FRC there are 960 starting positions, the classical chess starting position plus 959 others.

Fischer modified and broadened the castling moves for FRC which is not allowed in shuffle chess. Fischer's improvement allows the possibility of either player castling either on or into his left side or on or into his right side of the board from any of these 960 starting positions. Nevertheless, after a-side castling, the king and rook find themselves on the usual squares: the king on c1 (c8) and the rook on d1 (d8); after h-side castling the king is on g1 (g8) and the rook on f1 (f8).

Sometimes castling looks odd in FRC: e.g. when the king is in b1 and the rook is in c1, they pass through a lot of squares and end up in the usual king on g1 and rook on f1 after a h-side castling, or, 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; one is not allowed to 'castle out' of check.

What did Fischer have in mind when he thought up this chess variant? Because of the many possible starting positions, knowledge about opening theory becomes irrelevant, and the stronger player will win the game, not the one who is better prepared. FRC prevents prepared theory variations that are just being played through mechanically. From move 1 onwards, both players have to come up with original strategies and cannot use well-known thought patterns.

Fischer Strikes Again!

   At a press conference in the Argentine capital in Buenos Aires on 19 June 1996, Bobby Fischer was greeted by hundreds of journalists and chess fans, many of who 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.

The eccentric genius revealed that many modern games are pre-arranged before the players begin the game, and even the so-called world championships between the two then-Soviet players Kasparov and Karpov were pre-arranged, and this would be impossible to do in Fischer Random Chess. He likewise pointed out that, due to such long hours in front of a computer screen, nowadays many top players, such as the so-called current world champions Anand and Kramnik, wear thick spectacles. He also mentioned that all the study necessary to play conventional chess made it hard work, and that he had taken up into chess in order to avoid work! Furthermore, Fischer stated that without access to databases containing the millions of opening variations in traditional chess, computers do not really play chess all that well.

The press conference also announced a match in Fischer Random Chess between GM Eugene Torre, Asia's first-ever Grandmaster, former interzonal champion and candidates matches veteran against the two-time Argentine champion GM Pablo Ricardi. Both players attended the conference and displayed enthusiasm regarding the match and the new game. The match was due to start on 12 July 1996, in La Plata, Argentina. Unfortunately, Fischer and the organizers had a disagreement and the match was cancelled. Anything new?

Birth Pains

   Some creative chess enthusiasts in Scotland, Denmark and Holland have already organized Fischer Random Chess tournaments for amateurs. An interesting shuffle chess match was played back in 1997 between 'Triple Brain' Professor Ingo Althöfer of Jena (Triple Brain = two chess engines + Althöfer) against GM Artur Yusupov. It was only a shuffle chess classic, because computers could not yet cope with the complicated castling rules in FRC. Last year, Yusupov played against Fritz On Primergy but again, it was shuffle chess for the same reason.

The world had to wait until the year 2001 before a brave organizer decided to organize an FRC match between two world-class players. Hans Walter Schmitt is aiming to make FRC as popular as rapid chess, with which he started 7 years ago in Frankfurt. Five years after the birth of FRC, it is going to undergo its test in Mainz, and everyone will be waiting to see if FRC can become a popular chess variant in the future.

GM Michael Adams of the United Kingdom and GM Peter Leko of Hungary were chosen as the most logical players to play FRC for the first time at the highest levels. Both players are in the top five in the January 2001 world rankings joining Kasparov, Anand and Kramnik. Adams, the world no.1 in rapid chess is known as the famous improviser of the board. He is regarded as the strongest player in unfamiliar positions because he often relies on unorthodox variations. Meanwhile, Peter Leko has actually played some private Fischer Random games with the inventor of the game himself, Bobby Fischer. Fischer and Leko became friends when Bobby had lived in Budapest, Peter's hometown. Leko is also known for constantly producing new super novelties to the known theories or openings lines.

It will be interesting for the audience to think along with the players from the very first move onwards. 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 plays no part.

Is FRC the start of a new era? Artur Yusupov, who is also part of Leko's team of seconds, thinks that FRC is not the end for classical chess. "However, due to the influence of computer programs and over-analyzed opening variations, it could become a popular variant. No more theory means more creativity. It is somewhat premature to predict how FRC will develop, but it could become a real alternative," Yusupov said. However: "Chess is very beautiful and difficult, and will be played for many years to come" he concluded.

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