Saturday, March 12, 2011

Chess without the 960

Well, I thought I might as well start up a list of reasons why it could be that Chess960 seems to be hovering around the five percent mark of all Chess activities on the internet at best. I'm guessing five percent based on what I have seen personally on the chess servers and general internet news.

Top Reasons why I think Chess960 is at 5% of total Chess activity with no sign of change:
  1. Chess960 does not quickly improve a players "Chess rating". There is an irony with Chess960. Chess960 does improve your chess play because you are thinking both strategically and tactically from move one of the game and you acquire a lot of general purpose and new skills. I have seen the improvement in my own standard SP518 chess play where I'm more willing to play actively and more flexibly. However the standard chess opening can be pre-arranged by memory tasks. Therefore in rated games of standard chess where time is everything, memory tends to trump general skills because skill needs that little bit of extra time to execute. Thus the general "over the board" skills that Chess960 fosters does quickly and easily translate into an improved rating when under time pressure. If it does not translate into better ratings, then people won't play Chess960. This is because ratings improvement is by far the biggest motivating factor why people play Chess online. It is much easier to memorize specific opening lines from a book or CD which tend to give quick and instant results.
    I think the exception is at the elite level where players use Chess960 to freshen their imagination so that when they analyse volumes of standard chess opening theory, they might be more open creatively to novelties. I personally think that explains some of the reason why Nakamura has actually continued to improve as a chess player because he has personally experienced the creativity that is inherent in Chess960.
  2. Players are so used to seeing the same Chess opening configuration. When they see other configurations that appear in Chess960, it is an affront to their familiarity. When affronted, we humans either react with aversion or curiosity. For some reason when Chess players are affronted, they tend to show much more aversion than curiousity. This phenomenon of aversion is prevalent at all ratings categories from GM's to Patzers. The only time curiosity trumps aversion, is when a player is willing to sacrifice some chess ratings points to explore the vast universe of Chess960 just for the sake of it. But the guess is that 95% of chess players are strongly motivated by ratings, and thus aversion against Chess960 is much stronger than curiosity towards Chess960. Once there is a strong aversion, all sorts of bogus reasons begin to circulate in the minds of the Chess community as to why Chess960 is bad. But the only true reason is that aversion has won over true curiosity. There is always a bit of "superficial" curiosity. But what appears to be curiousity is mainly an activity of confirming one's own preconceived ideas.
  3. Players are unused to seeing some of the Chess960 piece configurations that produce new tactical and strategic ideas. For example Chess960 contains very interesting configurations of pieces such as knights that are only two squares apart. This produces specific tactical motifs that must be understood and are rarely seen in standard Chess. Because we are unfamiliar with these motifs, we get bitten when we play Chess960 and then shy away from it and make up excuses why we do not like it.
  4. The Chess960 marketing fire has not been lit yet. Without a competition base, Chess960 celebrities do not form. If Chess960 celebrity is absent and if it true that Chess960 does not improve a players chess ratings quickly and easily, then a players Identity does not attach to Chess960. If that identity does not attach to Chess960, then marketing has no fuel to light a fire of enthusiasm. If marketing does not emerge, then players perception do not change. In other words, a tiny campfire was lit when the Germans started Mainz and Chess960 competition a decade ago, but the campfire went out.

Other possible reasons I have overlooked:
  1. I am misguided about how habits change. I think that Chess960 should be taken up a lot quicker than it is, but sociological scale habit might take much longer to change than the pace I imagine from my tiny individual perspective. Likewise, I am missing other possible phenomenon simply because of my tiny perspective on what is a big process. Other possible big scale processes I am not seeing are the competition of other forms of entertainment, or that the very young are not being exposed to Chess as much as as previous generations and thus we are left with an older generation of standard chess players who are not as willing to adapt to Chess960.
  2. I am misguided about how perception works. In other words, there is some cultural/inherited reason within particular societies that causes Chess960 to be perceived as a more or less worthwhile activity. It's interesting to contemplate why Chess960 is more popular in Germany for example.
  3. That Chess960 contains some kind of flaw in it that I am overlooking. But what flaw? Standard chess is included in Chess960 and I have not seen one bad starting position. Yes some are more "drawish" than others and some are simpler than other positions. But I haven't come across a truly flawed starting position yet (one in which one player's chance of winning is so high that it destroys the experience of competition).


  1. I think a big reason is all the boring books and videos on the chess openings that are sold. The producers of this junk need an income and the consumers have already spent time and money memorizing it.

  2. Good thought Biffmeatstick. Hadn't thought of the marketing side. It is incredibly persuasive and specific opening lines are marketable products that can be repackaged for each new generation of chess player (every ten years).

    Who knows, eventually Chess960 might become more popular for the very same marketing reasons. The issue is that marketing cannot sell quick and easy chess960 products because in Chess960 the opening is about understanding concepts and that doesn't generate a lot of turn-over in products.

    Chess960 is a post-modern revival in the core values of Chess as it was intended. It means that very talented Chess960 players will write opening theory books but one book will probably serve the needs of a player for a life time, if it is well written.

    Such low sales wouldn't sit well within a consumerist framework. It looks like Chess960 will always remain a minority activity, but all I ask is that it takes it's rightful minority place.

    On a planet with seven billion people on it (10 billion within fifty years), minorities are still a huge number of people!