Chess 960

One of 960 possible starting positions

“On Chess 960, Classic, and Computing”

by Michael Sutton

Chess 960 is also known as Fischer Random Chess, after Robert James Fischer, its inventor. Bobby felt that chess was rapidly evolving towards over-analysis.

I remember in the early 1970s attending a Canadian Open with Lawrence Day, with his dark, dark hair. Back in those times, we had proper adjournments, sealed moves, and resumption with new time controls.

What happened? Turns out, over-analysis by chess programs, like Fritz, Shredder and so forth, turned adjournments into pointlessness. If the purists are so insistent that chess 960 is not “real chess”, why did we let computers rule the analysis of classic chess? When did that become acceptable?

I find it ironic that the solution we adopted to no adjournments was to use incremental clocks. This was another invention of Robert James Fischer. He was originally laughed at. I have often said that the only institution more radical than Chess is the Catholic Church. Change comes slowly, and grudgingly to our game.

But change we must if our game is to stay fresh, and remain as a true head-to-head test of human skill. Chess 960 is a great way to achieve that.

During the recent world championship, Vishwanathan Anand had a bank of six grandmasters. Veselin Topalov relied on a 128-node CPU for analyzing opening positions. It often seemed that the player to lose was the first one to go off book analysis. This to my mind is not chess.

Chess should be the best move over the board at the given time, a test of skills in evaluating subtle differences in positions. Not raw brute, ply hammering by multi-threaded algorithms.

Chess 960 itself does not lend itself easily to opening analysis, since the analysis of starting positional factors is usually too subtle to lend itself to simple algorithms.

Based on this, most computer programs rely on opening books. In classic chess, those opening books were developed by human players over hundreds of years of play. Take way that opening book, and the computers have a much harder time. So most classic chess programs are essentially cheating, since they are looking at a book but the human player is not.

I had a long talk with IM Zvonko Vranesic at the Canadian Open. He had been honoured for his historical contribution to chess in Canada. I had beaten him in a simultaneous at Hart House over 35 years ago, and it was a good opening gambit to talk about chess and computing. Zvonko decided on a career as a computer scientist at U of T, rather than push on to the GM Title. He did not regret that, since he was able to teach at the top level as a professor for many years. Many of the current techniques in computer chess algorithms came from his program at the U of T. However, he still feels that the brute-force ply analysis shown by most programs has not captured the true human reasoning process in chess. He agreed with my analysis of chess programs vs. human play. He lamented that chess programs are dominating, but that we are no closer to emulating human intelligence.

About the Game

First of all, the game is not as random as players think. You are only positioning five pieces randomly on the back rank, with two major constraints:
a) the two bishops always go on opposite colour squares
b) the king is always placed between the two rooks, since castling in chess 960 is allowed

I designed a special set of polyhedral dice (see attached .pdf) for the 2010 Canadian Open for placing the first five pieces, with the king and rooks taking up the last three open squares:
a) a white d4 (4-sided die) for placing the white-squared bishop
b) a grey d4 for placing the black-squared bishop
c) a red d6 for placing the first knight on open squares
d) a green d5 for placing the second knight on open squares
e) a gold d4 for placing the queen on open squares

These permutations generate 959 other positions outside classic chess, which in itself is a 960 position. So think of classic as a subset of 960. (It’s true!)

We successfully used the dice in Alexander Shabalov’s first 960 simultaneous. He went +10=3-0. He said he had never worked harder in a simultaneous, but also he said it was the most fun as a GM he had ever experienced.

There are chess clocks now that can compute 960 positions. However, as a bit of chess throwback I would rather roll the dice than have a microchip tell me where to go. It is a matter of taste I suppose.


Nothing changes in chess 960 from classic chess. All pieces move normally, things like en passant and pawn promotion work as usual. You rely less on opening traps, and more on sound development principles, i.e.,
a) pawn control of the central squares
b) king safety – i.e., castling
c) good open lines for major pieces
d) getting misplaced pieces to the centre of the board – i.e., knights out of the corners, bishops onto good diagonals

My experience is in some 960 positions you will get weak pawns and poorly placed pieces, but both players are working under the same constraints. Good opening moves to cover these weaknesses are important.

I find the game will strengthen your middle-game tactics, and usually you get satisfying middle-games with both players competiting tactically as equals. It takes a few games to stop hanging pawns and finding out which squares aren’t suddenly covered, but your mind rapidly adapts. I find playing 960 becomes quite addictive!

Most chess 960 games after 10-15 moves, will look like a classical chess position. You won’t be able to easily determine how the game originated.


A final note on castling, since it is the most misunderstood part of chess 960.

960 essentially reinforces the castling rules in the classic game; i.e.,
a) the king cannot castle while in check, through check or into check
b) the king cannot have moved prior to castling, nor the rook the king is castling with
c) the way between the king’s move, and the rook’s move must be clear, outside of the king and rook themselves
d) in some 960 castling positions, the king and rook may simply exchange places, only the rook may move, or only the king
e) if you castle either queenside O-O-O or kingside O-O the pieces must end up in the classic final position, i.e., Kc1-Rd1 or Kg1-Rf1

Final Thoughts

Enjoy the variant. It is getting better coverage in the chess world. Nakamura is the current World Champion; Svidler had a good run before that. I’m told Nakamura is undefeated in online play. The Championship has been played by top grandmasters since 2001.

It’s sad that Bobby gets recognition for his clocks, but not for 960, which I feel is his greater contribution to chess. No one should apologize for his later apparent madness and eccentricity. You need to look past that and see what gifts he gave to this great game of ours.

Don’t be afraid to ask me questions, or explain any of the rules of play or positioning. I’m glad to help any club member explore this great extension to chess.

This lecture was given by Michael Sutton on November 29, 2010 at the Annex Chess Club

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Steve Fairbairn wins Fall Active

Steve Fairbairn continued his domination at the Annex Chess Club with a 3-0 sweep of the top section in the Fall Active. Dan Wiebe won the second section, with a similarly perfect 3-0.

Final Results – Top Section:

# Name Active Rating New Rating Rd 1 Rd 2 Rd 3 Total
1 Stephen Fairbairn 2050 2067 W3 W4 W2 3.0
2 Hugh Siddeley 1933 1933 W4 W3 L1 2.0
3 Qiyu Zhou unr. 0 L1 L2 W4 1.0
4 Joseph Bellissimo 1572 1557 L2 L1 L3 0.0

Final Results – Second Section:

# Name Active Rating New Rating Rd 1 Rd 2 Rd 3 Total
1 Daniel Wiebe unr. 0 W2 W3 W4 3.0
2 Marcus Wilker 1386 1389 L1 W4 W3 2.0
3 Shabnam Abbarin unr. 1933 W4 L1 L2 1.0
4 Milan Zvetkovic unr. 1557 L3 L2 L1 0.0
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Children’s Chess at the Annex Chess Club

Georgia Drummond wins the Children’s Fall Open

Children's chess at the Annex Chess Club

A growing group of young chess players has been meeting at the Annex Chess Club on Monday nights to work with Ian Mahoney and Canadian chess Olympian, Liza Orlova.

On November 22, we started our first children’s tournament – one round each Monday night, starting at 6:30 pm sharp. The CFC-rated event ran to December 20.

After four rounds, Georgia Drummond finished on top, with 3.5/4. See the crosstable for complete results

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ACC Fall Swiss – Final Results

Final Results:

# Name Rating New Rd 1 Rd 2 Rd 3 Rd 4 Rd 5 Total
1 Steve Fairbairn 1995 2013 H— W7 W3 D2 D4 3.5
2 Alex Ferreira 2066 2045 L11 W18 W6 D1 W9 3.5
3 Hugh Siddeley 2044 2037 W18 H— L1 W15 W6 3.5
4 Joseph Bellissimo 1890 1902 H— H— W13 D5 D1 3.0
5 Arkadiy Ugodnikov 1866 1876 H— H— H— D4 W13 3.0
6 Daniel Wiebe 1869 1858 W8 H— L2 W16 L3 2.5
7 Lawrence Garcia 1478 1504 W14 L1 H— L9 W15 2.5
8 Yakos Spiliotopoulos 1429 1499 L6 W14 H— L12 W18 2.5
9 Zhanna Sametova 1509 1522 H— H— H— W7 L2 2.5
10 Erik Malmsten 1865 1861 H— D13 W17 H— U— 2.5
11 Ian Mahoney 1710 1740 W2 H— H— H— U— 2.5
12 Qiyu Zhou unr. 0 H— H— H— W8 U— 2.5
13 Daniel Zotkin 1708 1708 H— D10 L4 W18 L5 2.0
14 Marcus Wilker 1875 1793 L7 L8 L18 B— W16 2.0
15 Joey Comeau unr. 0 H— H— H— L3 L7 1.5
16 Jan-Lukas Wolf unr. 0 H— H— H— L6 L14 1.5
17 Michael Vermont unr. 0 H— H— L10 H— U— 1.5
18 Shabnam Abbarin 1581 1571 L3 L2 W14 L13 L8 1.0

Check out the latest games from the tournament.

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Steve Fairbairn wins the Fall Swiss!

ACC Fall Swiss – Round 5

With another draw, this time against Joseph Bellissimo, Steve Fairbairn finished the Fall Swiss in a three-way tie for first place. On the tie break, Steve took first, Alex Ferreira took second, and Hugh Siddeley took third. Congratulations, Steve Fairbairn!

Lawrence Garcia, with a last-round win over Joey Comeau, was the top under-1700 player.

See the cross-table for full results.

Here are the games of the week – also available as a text file.

White: Daniel Wiebe (1869)
Black: Hugh Siddeley (2044)

B32 Sicillian: Kalashnikov

White: Lawrence Garcia (1478)
Black: Joey Comeau (UNR)

D05 Colle-Zukertort

ACC Fall Swiss – Round 4

Five new players joined the tournament this week:  welcome to Zhanna Sametova, Qiyu Zhou, Arkadiy Ugodnikov, Joey Comeau, and Jan-Lukas Wolf!

The children’s class moved downstairs, and the hall was much quieter.  Thanks to all the players for your cooperation.

With a draw against Expert Alex Ferreira, Steve Fairbairn is holding onto clear first going into the last round.  Steve has already faced the two highest-rated players in the tournament, and he’ll have white last round.  If Steve fails to win (probably against Joseph Bellissimo), it’ll come down to a tie-break to decide the winner!

Here is the game of the week:

White: Joey Comeau (UNR)
Black: Hugh Siddeley (2044)

A34 English: Asymmetrical

ACC Fall Swiss – Round 3

Welcome to Joseph Bellissimo and Michael Vermont, who joined the ACC Fall Swiss this week! Steve Fairbairn, after miniaturing Expert Hugh Siddeley with the Pirc, has now taken clear first – 2.5/3.

With new casual players joining, and a growing group of children being coached by Liza Orlova and Ian Mahoney, it was a lively Monday night of chess. (Next week, the rated games will be played in a separate room to ensure a silent playing hall for the tournament.)

Here are the games from round three – also available as a text file.

White: Hugh Siddeley (2044)
Black: Steve Fairbairn (1995)

B09 Pirc: Austrian Attack

White: Erik Malmsten (1865)
Black: Michael Vermont (UNR)

A01 Nimzovich-Larsen Attack

White: Shabnam Abbarin (1581)
Black: Marcus Wilker (1875)

B01 Scandinavian Defence

ACC Fall Swiss – Round 2

The ACC is pleased to welcome three new players to the Fall Swiss: Daniel Zotkin, Erik Malmsten, and Steve Fairbairn. Steve Fairbairn has now joined the four-way tie for the lead with 1.5/2. Upset of the week goes to Yakos Spiliotopoulos for his win over Marcus Wilker with the Benko Gambit.

Here are the games from round two – also available as a text file.

White: Marcus Wilker (1875)
Black: Yakos Spiliotopoulos (1429)

A26 Benko Gambit

White: Daniel Zotkin (1708)
Black: Erik Malmsten (1865)

B06 Modern

White: Alex Ferreira (2066)
Black: Shabnam Abbarin (1581)

C68 Ruy Lopez

ACC Fall Swiss – Round 1

The 2010 ACC Fall Swiss saw two big upsets in round-one play.  Ian Mahoney defeated Expert, Alex Ferreira; and Lawrence Garcia knocked off A-class player, Marcus Wilker.

Here are the games from round one – also available as a text file.

White: Ian Mahoney (1710)
Black: Alex Ferreira (2066)

C65 Ruy Lopez

White: Hugh Siddeley (2044)
Black: Shabnam Abbarin (1581)

C70 Ruy Lopez

White: Lawrence Garcia (1478)
Black: Marcus Wilker (1875)

A47 Queen’s Indian

White: Yakos Spiliotopoulos (1429)
Black: Daniel Wiebe (1869)

B90 Sicillian Najdorf

Continue reading Steve Fairbairn wins the Fall Swiss!

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Chess for everyone