When my brain is idling, it sometimes drifts off in the direction of chess. I’m a lousy chess player, probably because I’ve never spent any time studying the intricacies of the game. Studying chess is a cumbersome process, because you have to memorize hundreds of variations on dozens of commonly used openings.

Over the past 200 years, many fine chess players have explored just about every conceivable series of opening moves to great depth. The real game-play begins only after eight or ten moves by each player, when you’ve plodded out past the end of the dock and dropped into the water. Assuming you know where the dock is; if you don’t, you may find yourself plunged into the water early on — not a good thing.

Another reason chess is less than captivating for me is because the computer can always beat me. The computer can beat almost everybody, a fact that’s bound to be at least mildly discouraging if you’re looking for an absorbing pastime.

Chess is not a single game; it’s a huge family of games. Chinese and Japanese chess have long traditions of their own. The original game seems to have been invented in India, from where it spread both eastward and westward. In addition, dozens of modern versions have achieved some degree of popularity. (Thousands more have been invented but have attracted no interest at all.) A signal advantage of playing one of the modern chess variants is that there is no book of established openings. From the very first move, you’re on your own.

Designing new chess variants is an amusing pastime in its own right. Lots of people have done it. I’ve designed a few myself. You can play chess on a board of hexagons, in a three-dimensional matrix, or with bizarre rules. The tricky bit is finding an opponent to play your new chess variant and help you refine your new rules so as to make a playable game.

Chess variants can be arbitrarily complex. You can toss in new kinds of pieces and new board topologies until the cows come home. The most likely result is that your game will be unplayable. Nobody will be able to remember all of the rules, much less master their tactical implications. I’ve come to feel that the best variants are probably those that are as similar as possible to the familiar version of chess, with only a few changes. Such games are more likely to be playable.

Berolina Chess, for instance, uses the familiar board and pieces. The only change is that the pawns move diagonally and capture by moving forward, instead of the other way around. (Seems to me they ought to be able to capture by moving one square to the left or right as well; that would be an interesting Berolina variant.) Berolina pawns change the whole game in a way that would require detailed study to comprehend.

One of the best variants, I’m guessing, is Embassy Chess. Played on a 10×8 board, Embassy gives each player two new pieces — a marshall and a cardinal. In the same way that the queen combines the moves of the rook and bishop, the marshall combines the moves of the rook and knight and the cardinal combines the moves of bishop and knight. This set of pieces has been known since the 19th century, and was recommended by Capablanca as an alternative to conventional chess. Embassy differs from Capablanca’s version in the placement of the pieces at the start of the game, and is, it seems to me, an improvement. In the Embassy layout, all of the pawns are protected by pieces in the starting position; in Capablanca’s layout, the king-side knight’s pawn is unprotected.

Embassy with Berolina pawns? See, I just invented a whole new game.

If you’re curious about chess variants, you can find lots of information on the Chess Variant Pages. This site seems to be less active than it was a few years ago, but stuff is still happening. Also worth checking out: M. Winther’s variants, which can be reached via http://hem.passagen.se/melki9/.

If you can’t find an opponent for a variant that you’d like to play, a good option is Zillions of Games. This $25 Windows software will play just about any chess variant. Dozens of Zillions .zrf files are available for free download, and if you can’t find a few that you like, you can write your own using the Zillions scripting language. The reference docs on this language are rather abstract, but studying other people’s code is a good way to learn.

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4 thoughts on “Diversionary Tactics

  1. Chess is way to complex for a pastime. And computer chess is for intellectual masochists. I prefer Computer Sudoku as a brain stimulator. I can always (eventually) win. The challenge though is in how short a time and without mistakes. Also fits on the phone and it can be a mindless time occupier when waiting for an airplane, the doctor, a commercial break to end, or a wife.

    1. I’m not sure chess is much more complex than sudoku. One important difference is that the outcome is uncertain. In sudoku there’s always a right answer — you just have to find it. The situation in chess is a great deal more fluid.

    2. Chess is a quite enjoyable pastime for me, if I don’t care too much if I win,and if I play human opponents. I’ve never much liked playing the computer.

      The site I play on, lichess, has one variant — chess 960 (AKA Fischer’s variation I believe). It’d be cool if it had more.

      1. I found a site called brainking.com that has a fair list of variants and what appears to be an active community of players. I signed up for a game of Embassy to try out the site, but my opponent flaked, so I “won” after only four moves. NOST is defunct,. The Game Courier on the Chess Variant Pages may be viable — haven’t tried it yet.

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