Friday, July 8, 2011

Chess960: The start position number - when it should be displayed

It is great news for Chess that thankfully it looks very much like the Chess960 clock timer debate is settled after a long effort to promote it. At the latest look on YouTube at what ChessCube are doing with Chess960, it looks like the chess clock begins ticking on white's first move now. Also we have other new live Chess960 sites such as the innovative E-Chess960 that has implemented the chess clock correctly as well.

Now moving onto I pray that they will one day finish the code for live Chess960. If they implement the chess clock so that white's time is stationary on the first move, I think we now have enough strength of popularity to conclude that the implementation of the clock would be a bug that needs to be fixed.....

Ok moving on from the chess clock finally! The next issue is that as yet no Chess960 site on the planet (that I yet know of) display the start position number along with the chess start position at the beginning of the game. Why is this wrong?

Top Reasons why the Chess960 start position number should be displayed at the start of a game:
  1. It is dignified to give human players an additional memory cue for the position. In traditional chess (SP518), a player has at least a couple of memory cues. They have the position itself and a long tradition of naming each and everyone of the opening variations. We may not realise it, but the name of the variation acts as a memory retrieval cue for the position. In Chess960, we have no such additional memory cue! Players are left staring at the board with virtually no additional hooks to fall back on to trigger the retrieval of memories that can aid them.
  2. A three digit SP number from 000-959 acts as a memory retrieval cue. In this modern age, we are all familiar with pin numbers, credit card numbers, phone numbers and the like. A simple three digit number that represents the start position on the board is a huge memory retrieval bonus to help players to gain confidence in the position. At the moment, this generation of chess players have not studied Chess960 and so they have no memories of the start positions. However that will not always be the case! In future generations, players will have studied the Chess960 positions and will have memorized a small subset of hyper-critical openings that simply must be committed to memory. An example is SP941.
  3. Humans recall memories by having as many retrieval cues as possible. Basically we humans have a huge long term memory store. However that memory store is neurally networked and retrieval is non-linear. Memories are retrieved most efficiently, when there are multiple pointers to a memory store in that neural network. For example I remember where my car is in the car-park, because I remember the rough position of my car in the car-park visually, as well as the number of the car-park lot itself. The more retrieval cues the better.
  4. There will be a small set of Chess960 positions that have to be committed to memory. Some Chess960 positions are so critical in terms of tactical complications, that the basic responses will have to be memorized particularly for the black player. From an ongoing systematic study of these critical positions, it probably only a few dozen such positions.
  5. In Chess960, memorization is laterally spread rather than longitudinally deep. Because there are small subsets of critical start positions that need to be memorized in Chess960, players will memorize variations laterally across a subset of positions rather than longitudinally deep in one position as we do in traditional chess. Therefore the overall memory burden is no greater than traditional chess. In fact I can predict already that in future generations of Chess960 players, the total quantity of memorization that we now see in traditional Chess (SP518) will be exactly mirrored in Chess960. There will be great benefits in memorizing certain start positions. However, this practice of memorizing openings will never be at the expense of general creative over-the-board opening play as we see today in traditional chess, because the memory task in Chess960 is so monumental that conceptual thinking in the opening will always be the dominant mode of thinking.
  6. Chess960 encourages both types of human memory: declarative and procedural memory. In this generation of traditional chess, we have wrongly come to the conclusion that in Chess960 there is no role for memory. This is totally incorrect. In this generation we are over-burdened with declarative memory where we rote memorize the chess opening tree and so can declare what the next best move is simply by retrieving it from memory. In Chess960 however, we have newly found emphasis on procedural memory. This type of memory assists creative thinking because conceptual chunks of information on how to play the opening are memorized, rather than specific declarative moves. So Chess960 is for all types of players. It is good for those who like to memorize and for those who like to focus on creativity. It is simply that at this early stage in Chess960's history, we need more players playing it and thus more analysing of it so that the theory gets written, and the players that like to memorize have something to memorize....
So here is my plea to Chess sites like E-Chess960, ChessCube and, please include the SP number with the start position at the beginning of a Chess960 game. It is the dignified thing to do for us human players, but as yet hardly anyone is doing it. My own memory is about as good as a bucket with a hole in it, however I can tell you this for sure, if I ever have to face SP941, I will know by rote memory the critical opening variations! If I were only to see SP941 as a chess position on the board without the number, my ability to recall these critical facts would be greatly reduced.


PS) as a starting point for the standard numbering scheme in Chess960, see:
How Chess960 numbering works


  1. Re 'three digit SP number from 001-960', note that the SPs are numbered 0-959. - Mark

  2. Also note that the word you are spelling "queue" is actually spelled "cue". :) (Queues are lines of people waiting to get into something, or an analogous process with other items; cues are events that trigger activity or memory. As the cue ball in billiards is the one you hit in order to trigger the motion of other balls on the table..)

  3. Thanks! Changed. Well spotted.