Chess Is Not What You Think

The coming of the computer has surely caused interest in chess to shrivel. First, computer games are faster-paced and more fun! Second, an ordinary Mac or PC plays better chess than you do, so what’s the point?

But that’s the standard European/American version of chess. There are many, many other ways to play chess. Some of them are historical or cultural. Both Chinese and Japanese chess are still actively played, for instance. But also, there’s an active underground community of folks on the Internet who delight in imagining new ways to play chess. Some of them hang out on the Chess Variant Pages.

When I was in high school, I tried to come up with a version of chess that could be played by three people. I didn’t end up with a very playable game, but I did go so far as to make a board of hexagons by painting a sheet of plywood; I was serious about it. So I guess I’m one of those people.

I suspect that people who invent chess variants have the same obscure impulse that I had (and still have): They wonder, “What would happen if we changed the rules?”

Ten years ago, I invented a few variants and posted them on my website. (Memo to self: Edit those pages so they have the new look of the site.) But I haven’t pursued my interest much since then. I think what discouraged me, aside from the fact that I’m a lousy chess player, was the fact that most of the newly designed versions of chess will never, ever be played by anybody. The creation itself seems to be the point.

In practical terms, what that means is that the vision of the game designer is entirely divorced from practical considerations. Games that are far too mind-bendingly complex for the human brain to grasp the tactics, games that are so large that players would get bored and stop long before the game ended, games whose rules contain subtle or obvious flaws — you’ll find all of these and more on the Chess Variant Pages.

The most interesting variants, it seems to me, are the ones that are playable. The familiar rules of chess are changed just slightly, so players can concentrate on playing the game, not on remembering the intricacies of the rules. Cylindrical chess, for instance. A standard board and pieces are used, but the left and right edges of the board “wrap around” (conceptually, not actually). Pieces can travel off the left edge and re-enter the board from the right edge, or vice-versa.

In a variant like this, all of the standard chess openings have to be cast aside. They just don’t work. And that’s part of the point: To become a strong player of standard chess, you need to memorize hundreds of openings. With a variant like cylindrical chess, you have to think about strategy and tactics from the very first move, because there isn’t a book of openings.

In case you’re curious — a three-person version of chess doesn’t work well for two reasons.

First, as a game of chess moves forward, the two players trade pieces by capturing and recapturing. Gaining an advantage during a trade (such as losing two pawns while capturing your opponent’s bishop, or trading a bishop for a rook) is an essential part of the game. But in a three-way game, when two players exchange pieces, the third player gains a huge advantage. So there’s a profound disincentive to capturing anything other than a completely unprotected piece.

Second, two of the players can gang up on the third. They can form an alliance. This alliance is not something that happens on the board; it’s a social event. It’s annoying, it’s not fair, and there’s not a darn thing the third player can do about it. If player A threatens your rook while player B threatens your queen, you have only one move with which to respond to the two threats. You’re bound to lose something.

Two-player variants, however, can be quite interesting. Let me tell you about the new three-dimensional variant I’m contemplating….

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