Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Chess Refreshed

Posted by midiguru on March 28, 2014

There are lots of ways to mess with the rules of chess. You can play it on a board of hexagons, for instance. But you can do quite a lot to freshen up the game without needing any special equipment. Change one or two rules, and you have a whole new game. Here are my top ten suggestions for chess variants that require no special equipment, just a standard board and pieces.

Berolina Pawns. Normal pawns move straight forward and capture by moving diagonally. Berolina pawns are just the opposite — they move along the forward diagonals, and capture by moving straight forward. I like the idea of “Berolina plus” pawns, which add the ability to capture by moving sideways. Like normal pawns, a Berolina pawn can optionally move two squares on its initial move, and is otherwise restricted to moves of a single square. Berolina pawns are a simple idea that completely transforms the opening.

Scorpion Pawns. In addition to the normal pawn movement and capture, scorpion pawns can make a non-capturing move like a knight, but forward-wide only. A pawn on e4, for instance, would have extra moves to c5 and g5. Scorpion pawns are dangerously maneuverable.

Cylindrical Board. The left and right edges of the board are considered to be joined to one another. A rook on a3, for instance, can move to the left and arrive on h3. A cylindrical board has no center — or rather, the entire 4th and 5th ranks are the center. Advancing the rook and knight pawns in the opening, rather than the king, queen, and bishop pawns, becomes sensible, and castling makes little or no sense.

Contagious Knights. Any piece that is protected by a friendly knight gains the extra ability to move and capture like a knight. This variant can be played either with the knights operating like normal pieces, or with knights that can neither capture enemy pieces nor be captured.

Reflecting Bishops. On reaching a square at the edge of the board, a bishop can bounce like a billiard ball, continuing its move on a diagonal at right angles to the start of its move.

Rook Catapults. During its normal move, a rook can “throw” the friendly piece most nearly behind its starting square “over its head,” so that the other piece lands on the far side of the rook’s destination square. Several variations of this idea are feasible. The rook might be required to catapult the piece behind it, or the catapult might be optional. The catapulted piece might land on the square immediately past the rook’s destination square, or it might travel further along an unobstructed rank or file. The rook catapult would probably have little or no effect on the opening of the game, because a rook has to have made one or two moves before it’s in a position to catapult anything.

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Arimaa (Boggle)

Posted by midiguru on March 27, 2014

Discovered a new board game called Arimaa. It’s been around for 12 years. Lots of people are playing it — mostly online, I’m sure, but the inventor is selling a reasonably priced set, which I bought. Being a maniac, I also bought a couple of books on Arimaa strategy and tactics.

Preliminary impressions: It seems to be a very good game. The rules are simple … well, fairly simple. The tactical possibilities are very deep. Arimaa was designed specifically to be easy enough for humans to enjoy, yet too complicated for a computer to play. After reading the introductory book for an hour, my head is spinning. The logical complexities of a given situation on the board pretty much put go to shame, and go is already so complex that computers don’t play it well. One reason for Arimaa’s complexity is that each player gets four moves per turn. In go, you can often do the logic in your head to analyze a position six or eight turns into the future. You can figure out how a given move will play out. With Arimaa, that depth of calculation is just plain not going to happen.

If you want to try playing Arimaa, I would definitely suggest buying the book. Trying to discover basic tactics on your own is likely to be a fairly drawn-out and possibly somewhat frustrating process.

The good news is, you don’t need to buy the commercially available board and pieces. You can use an ordinary chess set, because both the board and the count of pieces (8 of one type, 2 each of three types, and 1 each of the last two types) are identical to chess. But Arimaa isn’t chess.

In fact, using a chess set is probably a smart move. The Arimaa set is not very good. It’s attractive and well manufactured, but the types of pieces are far too difficult to distinguish optically, as are the colors of the opposing pieces. Technically silver and gold, the opposing pieces are actually sort of medium gray and medium brown. In a dim light they’re nowhere near as easy to tell apart as white and black chess pieces.

The Arimaa pieces are called rabbits, cats, dogs, horses, camels, and elephants. Only the elephants are visually distinguished, on account of their extra bulk and curling trunks, but all of the pieces are just animal heads. Okay, the rabbits are a bit smaller and have longer ears, the horses have a ridge that looks like a mane, the dogs have a longer muzzle than the cats, the cats’  ears are flatter than the rabbits’, and the camels have a larger muzzle than the dogs or horses, so technically you can tell them apart. But they’re all much the same size and shape, and when you’re playing a game many of the pieces will be facing away from you, which will reduce the visibility of the distinctions. No, use a chess set.


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Variations on a Theme

Posted by midiguru on March 25, 2014

It’s a bit of a surprise to me how many websites cater to chess players — yet how few of them show any interest in, or even awareness of, chess variants. Other than Chinese and Japanese chess, of course. One reason it’s surprising is because standard chess has been so very thoroughly explored. You’ll never memorize all the opening variations, okay? Plus, your computer can beat you. So why not move outside the box?

One of the best known and most playable chess variants is usually called Capablanca chess, after the grandmaster who championed it in the 1920s. But in fact this variant is far older, dating back to at least the 17th century. Capablanca chess adds two new pieces to each army, and of course the pawns placed in front of them. It’s played on a 10×8 board.

The two new pieces go by various names — marshal and cardinal, equerry and archbishop, whatever. I’ll stick with marshal and cardinal. These pieces are analogs of the queen. The queen combines the moves of the rook and bishop. In the same way, the marshal combines the moves of the rook and knight, and the cardinal combines the moves of bishop and knight. The conceptual symmetry is appealing, and the pieces are easy to understand. Also, they’re powerful.

The main question is where to put them in the starting position.

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Not Exactly Chess

Posted by midiguru on March 24, 2014

I’ve never actually managed to play a game of Ultima all the way through. I have a couple of computer programs that will play it, but I usually bail after only a few moves, because Ultima it pretty confusing. It was invented in 1962 by a fellow named Robert Abbott. It uses a conventional chess board and pieces (although one rook has to be stood on its head). None of the pieces except the king behaves in anything like the expected manner. Even the names have been changed.

Except for the king and the pawns, all of the pieces in Ultima move like a chess queen. The pawns move like rooks. But only the king captures like a chess piece. In place of the queen, you have a withdrawer, which captures by moving away from an adjacent piece. Instead of bishops, you have chameleons, which capture (very confusing, this) in the manner of whatever piece they’re capturing. The knights are transformed into long leapers, which capture pieces by jumping over them. One rook is a coordinator, which captures pieces based on the relative positions of it and its king. The other rook is an immobilizer, which doesn’t capture at all — it freezes enemy pieces. The pawns are still called pawns, but they capture by clamping an enemy piece between two friendly pieces.

That, in a nutshell, is why I’ve tiptoed away from Ultima. But a lot of people do play it.

Not surprisingly, several people have proposed variants of Ultima.

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Posted by midiguru on March 23, 2014

Sometimes I’m excited by musical ideas. I play around until I find a chord progression or a bass line that stimulates me, and a week later I’ve expanded it into a new piece.

Other times my musical ideas bore me. Nothing has any verve. When I hit one of these dead zones, my mind starts drifting off in the direction of chess variants. Don’t ask me why that happens — I don’t know.

Thousands of chess variants have been proposed. (You can find a rich repository of them online.) Many employ exotic pieces. A smaller number change the topology of the board. You can play chess on a board of hexagons, or in a three-dimensional matrix, if you make suitable adjustments to how the pieces move.

Instead of (or in addition to) those changes, you can make an invisible connection between the left side of a conventional 8×8 chess board and the right side. A rook on b3 can travel through a3 and continue to h3 and g3, or vice-versa. This makes the board, topologically speaking, a cylinder. This well-known and quite playable variant is called Cylindrical Chess.

If you also connect the top and bottom edges of the board in the same way, you’ve constructed a three-dimensional surface called a torus. (That’s what mathematicians call a doughnut.) Playing chess on a torus would require some serious readjustments in the initial layout of the pieces, and probably other rule changes as well. If you don’t change anything else, in the initial position the two kings Read the rest of this entry »

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Bank Shot

Posted by midiguru on March 21, 2014

For the past few years, Livermore has had a wonderful local theater, the Bankhead. Our local community orchestra performs there, as do the local opera company and theater company and a wide variety of touring professional artists. It’s a 500-seat hall, smallish (no balcony) with great acoustics.

Barring a miracle, all that will soon be coming to an end. The Bankhead will be boarded up.

I’m not on the inside; I only hear gossip. Some of what I’ve heard may be wrong, distorted, or incomplete. What I’ve heard is this.

The Bankhead has been operated by an organization called LVPAC (Livermore Valley Performing Arts something-or-other). Not satisfied to run the Bankhead, LVPAC has been hell-bent on building a larger “regional theater” in downtown Livermore. Nobody that I have spoken to ever thought the regional theater was a good idea. Traffic downtown is already bad enough, and if you want to see Lady Gaga on tour it’s not that hard to drive down to San Jose. Nonetheless, the land has been cleared, and LVPAC has spent millions on architectural plans.

At some point after that money had been spent, the State of California pulled the plug on its funding for the redevelopment agency. Suddenly, the state money was gone. LVPAC was left holding the bag. They sued the state. They lost.

LVPAC owes millions of dollars to a bank in New York, and there isn’t enough cash coming in to make payments on the loan. The gossip is Read the rest of this entry »

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Bringing It All Back Home

Posted by midiguru on March 21, 2014

Last week in this space I was musing about how the personal life of the detective has invaded the mystery genre. The genre has hybridized with the soap opera. But it’s not just about milk and cookies (though sometimes it is; that’s even worse). Tragedy strikes those around the detective with numbing regularity. I’m reminded of the cliche observation about the old Star Trek series: If an unknown crew member gets into the transporter with Kirk and Spock to beam down to an unknown planet, you know that crew member is going to die.

I’ve read a few more of Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther novels. In one, Gunther picks up the threads of an old, never-solved case, and his memories of the old case flow side by side with memories of his wife dying of cancer during the same six-month period. Then, in another book, a woman Gunther is living with is killed by an insane sniper in the closing pages. Clearly, Joe Gunther has bad luck with women.

What’s worse, this is gratuitous manipulation of the reader’s feelings. The sniper could have missed the woman … but no. Mayor even indulges in two or three pages of pointless, shallow, manipulative suspense by not telling us quite yet which woman died, the current girlfriend or the former girlfriend.

And now I open a novel called Vengeance, by Stuart Kaminsky, an author I’ve never read before, and on the second page this is what I find: “…my wife Read the rest of this entry »

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Facebook Follies

Posted by midiguru on March 19, 2014

I tend to use Facebook as a sort of miniature blog. I might post a two-sentence comment about how my day is going, or a link to a news story that I think is interesting. I might share a home-made cartoon that someone else posted, if I think it’s cute and/or pithy. Discussions and comments are sometimes posted in reply.

My Facebook friends are a heterogeneous lot. Some are people I used to work with at the music magazines. Some are music industry professionals whom I may or may not ever have met. Some are people I went to high school with. One is a second cousin I’ve never met.

Here’s the problem: Some of the cartoons I re-post are aggressive take-downs of religion — and some of my FB friends in the music industry are inclined to be religious. In response to the cartoon and the snarky comments from people who agree with me, these individuals may be offended. They may offer comments of their own in defense of religion.

The surest way to get me to slice you to ribbons is to try to defend religion in my presence. If you try it, I’m not going to give you even an inch of slack. I’m going to explain to you not only the precise manner in which you’re wrong, but just how thoroughly wrong you are, complete with chapter and verse. The chapter and verse might include, for example, Matthew 22, a parable in which Read the rest of this entry »

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More About Mysteries

Posted by midiguru on March 18, 2014

In my ongoing search for new mystery authors, I picked up The Vanished Man, by Jeffery Deaver. It’s a New York police procedural — a bit more gritty than I prefer, but not too gruesome. The chief sleuth, Lincoln Rhyme, is sort of like Nero Wolfe on steroids, or reverse steroids. He never leaves the house because he’s a quadriplegic. That’s weird, but every modern mystery series needs a gimmick, right? A quadriplegic is far preferable to cats.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but as I ponder the plot, it occurs to me that the main bad guy is using a convoluted method that only makes sense because he knows he’s a character in a murder mystery. If his goal were to kill the guy he has been hired to kill, he wouldn’t have engaged in all of the convoluted nonsense (several other murders) that preceded the hit. But if he had just gone ahead and done the job he was hired to do, there would have been no novel.

His motivation doesn’t even rise to the level of the killer’s scheme in Agatha Christie’s ABC Murders. The murderer in that story intended Read the rest of this entry »

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Biblical Scholarship

Posted by midiguru on March 16, 2014

Here’s what I’m trying to understand. Quite a lot of Christians are good, decent people. And yet, when they go to church on Sunday, up at the front of the church is a big fat book with a bunch of really disgusting, nasty stuff in it, and they revere that book.

If you ask them, they’ll tell you that the coming of Jesus sort of cancels out the nasty stuff in the Old Testament. And they sincerely believe that. But this is no more than a pathetic and transparent dodge.

In the first place, if the Old Testament has been rendered irrelevant, why is it still in their holy book? Why haven’t they ripped out those pages? None of them have ever done that. Those nasty old stories are still in every copy of the book, and the book is still in every church. So evidently they still find some value in a text that they claim has been rendered superfluous.

In the second place, they still like some parts of the Old Testament. Some of them like the Ten Commandments. Some of them feel that the story of Adam and Eve is relevant. Some of them even think the story of Noah is literally true. What’s really going on is that they’re ignoring the parts of the Old Testament that are inconvenient (such as the bit where God insists that they wring the necks of pigeons and sprinkle the blood around the altar), while cherishing the bits that they like. Yet even the bits that they’re ignoring, the bits that they will tell you quite sincerely have been rendered null and void by the coming of Jesus, are still right there in the book.

The third problem is more theological, but nonetheless it’s quite perplexing. I’m pretty sure most Christians would tell you that God is perfect and eternal, and that God is a God of love. Undercutting that idea, however, is the unmistakeable fact that the God depicted in the Old Testament Read the rest of this entry »

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