Thursday, May 26, 2011

Chess960: Naming the Pawn Moves and Insider Information

(Image: Tool Pawn and Trade)
Ok here is a very simple start to this post:

There is such a thing as Chess960 opening theory...

How do I know that? Basically you have to read the most comprehensive book on Chess960 that has ever been written. What is that book and where do I buy it? It is the chess960 positions themselves position by position all 960. Reading that book is like experiencing a general lesson on chess that no other book comes close to. Read it sequentially position by position page by page. Each consecutive number changes the start position by just enough to make you think, but not enough to confuse you. 

I can say that after having read a few hundred pages of the 960 pages in that book, Chess960 opening theory does exist. How can such a theory be framed and how can it be useful? The approach that I think works best is to craft a "superannuation" or investment theory of Chess960 opening play. Such a theory is useful when time is short and players have to think quickly and efficiently....

So here we go on a basic way to play the Chess960 openings under quick time controls (forget about classical time controls for now, where Chess960 theory is much more elaborate and detailed) .....

In the Chess960 opening we look for "theories" that do a very similar thing to investing. What theory provides the best return over all 960 positions? The theory might not be the best theory, but it provides a steady return over the long term experience of 960 different openings. The theory might actually fail in some small set of circumstances, but all in all it is a solid investment. Some better theories would provide a higher return over a smaller set of the 960 positions and some exceptional theories pay off even better. The great book of Chess960 has various continuous sequences of positions that definitely do suggest that there are specific exception theories that yield a high rate of return. However those theories collapse over the entire range of 960 positions. In fact, some theories are way too conservative as well! The point is that in Chess960, we are working probably 25% harder than we would be in classical Chess, because we are having to think from the first move. Therefore a well invested opening principal will save a lot of energy that we will need for the real heart of the battle in the mid-game.

So now that I have framed Chess960 theory in terms of financial risk and investments, why not continue that argument into the most fundamental unit of investment in Chess960, the movement of the pawns? Each time you play a pawn move you are making an investment in tempo, space and initiative. You must make the investments wisely, because each investment is linked to it's other investment partners and if not played carefully, the whole industry of your pieces collapses into ruin (don't despair, learn from it, take a break, think it over and start another game!)

In standard chess, we see only one type of opening pawn move! But if you read the great book of Chess960, you find that there are actually at least three types of pawn moves in the opening. I will ignore two pawn move types that are obvious (a good pawn move and a bad pawn move :-)

Naming the Chess960 Opening Pawn Move Categories:
  1. A Free Move (a theoretical thematic allocation)
  2. A Gift Move (a temporal thematic opportunity)
  3. A Barter Move (a mutual necessity)
  4. A Money Move (a positional exploitation)
In a strict sense, these pawn types only occur during the immediate opening development phase of play:

Pawn Move 1: A "Free" Move
What do I mean by a free pawn move? Well that's really simple. All the pawn moves in standard chess SP518 are actually "free":

The Free Pawn moves of SP518
Each pawn move in green both by white and black are "free" in the sense that the player can play these pawn moves according to their own personal free choice based on thematic ideas they hold. There is a cost to every pawn move, but that cost might never have to be payed back. When you want to understand the concept, think of the pawn moves in Chess SP518. They are all free.

Pawn Move 2: A "Gift" Move
A gifted pawn move occurs when the opponent has gifted you a spare tempo to play a "free pawn move" outside of your theoretical allocation of them. This often occurs when the opponent moves the same piece twice because of a development problem that they have discovered and that must be sorted out by giving away tempo to you. Another situation might be when an opponent begins a premature attack during the opening phase that costs them excessive tempo to execute. In such cases, a "gift pawn move" might well be the winning move because a single such move can increase space as well as make it much easier to complete development. A "gift pawn" move is a "free pawn move" because not only can you execute the move without cost to tempo, but you can play it according to your free choice of thematic idea. You have to be careful about whether the pawn move is actually "gifted". It may turn out that in some SP's it is highly desirable for both players to move the same piece twice during the opening phase and as such the tempo is not actually a free gift to you. If that is the case then have been tricked and you must pay for the "gift".

Pawn Move 3: A "Barter" Move
What does it mean to play a "barter" pawn move? A barter pawn move is one that is equally exchanged with the opponent. It is a pawn move that both sides are compelled to play essentially to survive or that is a commonsense rational requirement. It is an equal trade of tempo and space to accomplish the undeniable necessities of existence . Hence they are called barter moves!

A "Barter" Pawn Move of SP192
The moves in yellow are not compulsory by any means, but are so compelling on a simple rational basis that both sides simply exchange them with each other in a barter like fashion. The deal will probably favor one side more than the other, but in every barter transaction there is some inequality! Barter pawn moves are not always as obvious as the example above. If you have a look at the Svidler/Leko example below, you see that these great grandmasters realized that there was a rationally compelling barter pawn move that BOTH black and white should play (e3/e6) but that the move was far from obvious.

Pawn Move 4: A "Money" Move
The analogy of pawns and exchange and investment carries on one step further. In Chess960 there is a pawn move that is not actually free in the sense that we feel compelled to play it for a specific reason. It is not a "bartering" move either. The hope is that the pawn move will pay off much more than what it could cost us in time, tempo and adverse pawn structure. We make a risk assessment and sense that there is a chance to exploit an opportunity that the opponent has allowed and so we make "just one more pawn move!". The move is called the "money pawn move" and it is the one that costs a lot in terms of structure, tempo and possibly material as well, but we cannot resist to play it because of the potential pay off in raw cash!

The "money move" is a feature in quite a few Chess960 SP's because of the piece layout, particularly with regard to white's opportunity. The "money move" is not seen nearly as much in standard chess SP518, because the way that the pieces most naturally develop does not facilitate attack by the money move as much as other SP's. "Money moves" of a type do occur in SP518, but the strict definition of a money move is that it occurs during the immediate opening phase of play. One particular form of the "money move" is in the Chivalry Knight starting positions (Naming The Knight Pairs) where one money move is played in order to facilitate the threat of a second money move in the form of a pawn fork on that knight combination.

A "Money" Move of SP192
The red arrow is a very crude example of the money pawn move. Black would probably not play like this, but it does highlight the money move very well. The theoretical idea behind the "money move" is that if the pawn must expend one tempo, then the the net result is that the opponent must play more tempo escaping the subsequent money moves, or simply that their possibility to develop out of the opening is more impeded than the money move player. 

If this were a subtle position, white should be pressing on with development. Castling has not been completed and the rooks remain unconnected. The bishops are hypothetically already developed as is the case with the Primary Patriarch Bishops (Naming the Bishop Pairs) but white has issues with developing his remaining knight that need to be sorted out as well as his queen. In theory, the money move can also cause structural dilemma's in our setup (but not in this case). Simply put it is that white cannot resist to play "the money move"! In this case the move d5 does pay off, but in more subtler examples it most definitely will not! Interestingly in this position, white has played two barter moves and one free move before the opportunity to exploit the money move. Just like risky financing, in Chess960 it can turn out that one money move leads to another!

An Example of Pawn Move Types - SP51: Svidler/Leko Mainz 2003

How many types of pawn moves does white play in the main line example? (Svidler's Opening)

  1. One theory allocated free move at move 1
  2. One barter move at move 2 (because both sides will have to play it)
  3. One barter move at move 4 (because both sides will have to play it)
  4. One barter move at move 5 (e3/e6 is compelling for both sides to play)
  5. A second theory allocated free move at move 7 (Note: There is a nice discussion that sometimes takes place between what is a genuine barter move verses what is a free move? For example in the example above, could Svidler have played b4 instead of b3 and if he did would that be a barter move or a free move?)
Notice that the line that is showing is different to what Svidler actually played in the tournament (see the side line). What he actually played in the tournament was two free moves before developing a knight (it did not work as well as the above alteration in the main line where a knight is played out between Svidler's two free moves)

A Beginners Guide on How to Play the Free Pawn Moves in Chess960 Openings:
The proposal is that in general Chess960 opening theory, white get's two possibly three "free pawn moves" but black get's just two. As per the example above, the proposal is that it is generally good to play out one of your two free moves followed by a knight and then working towards the second "free pawn move". For roughly 10% of Chess960 positions there will be severe exceptions to this general principal of opening play, but that is a matter of experience!
  1. Learn to distinguish between the three types of pawn moves
  2. Allocate yourself two Free Moves in your opening plan (possibly three if you are white)
  3. Find one good Free Move to start (that promotes your thematic idea)
  4. A genuine Barter Move does not count as a free move
  5. A Money Move does not count as a free move (be extremely skeptical of it)
  6. A Gift Move does not count as a free move (be extremely skeptical of it)
  7. Try to play out a piece that influences the centre, before the second genuine Free Move
  8. Calculate if the opponent has given you an opportunity to play a Gift Move above your theoretical allocation of Free Moves
Do you see how this theoretical breakdown of the pawn move types in Chess960 helps? Looking at the example above, Svidler played barter moves as well as free moves but it about the net number of free pawn moves that Svidler played which did not exceed two such moves and is thus in accordance with theory.

The Juicy Bit
Ok now onto the juicy bit where I get to tell you some insider information on playing the Chess960 opening. If you have read this far then you deserve the reward! In Chess960 we count the total number of actual free moves that are distinguished from barter moves.

If you want to win at Chess960 in situations where there is limited time and you want the best rate of return on your pawn move investments over the entire 960 positions, then you have:
 2 FREE MOVES (possibly 3 if you are white!);
As black, try to conserve free moves by finding ones that release two pieces;
You possibly have up to 3 BARTER MOVES (calculate carefully!);
Either 0 or to as many MONEY MOVES as the opponent will give!
Either 0 or as many GIFT MOVES as the opponent will gift you!

 To play the money move, you have to be VERY confident that you can exploit a situation that would not normally have taken place with correct play. As such the money move actually PAYS OFF. Most of the time the money move does not pay off because the dividend is only a temporary gain.....If you are a novice player it is usually far better to continue developing your pieces no matter how tempting it is to pull the money lever and play the money move....

Essentially what I am saying is that for novice level play in Blitz or Rated categories, there is a specific way to play the Chess960 opening according to principals that does not pay off with the highest rate of return, but does pay off with a solid position where the opening did not take long to play. You will most likely not have played the best line theoretically, but your opening style will be much more adaptable to all 960 positions and the mid-game position you get will be solid in any case.

....Even more importantly because you played according to solid principals, you will be feeling confident and have plenty of time. Matter of fact even more importantly, because you have played according to solid principals, you will be calmer of mind and be thinking more clearly positionally and tactically in the many unfamiliar situations that Chess960 tends to throw up. Even more importantly, because you have played according to solid principals, you have a principal that you can learn how to break when necessary, and thus will form a tree of principals rooted in one solid theory.....

More on that in future posts, but for now remember that in Chess960 you have two free moves that can be distinguised from barter moves and possibly a third free move if you are white. It is usually better to play out one free move, a knight or a piece that takes some control over the center squares, and then another free move.
In that sense this Chess960 opening theory is basically the same as Standard Chess SP518 except that because the pieces are non-optimally organized, there can be that third free pawn move that makes all the difference as well as intermediate barter, money and gifted pawn moves.

Here are more examples of the pawn move types: 

Enjoy 960.

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