Fresh Chess

This page describes a chess variant I'll call Fresh Chess. It's intended to address what I see as the biggest problems in chess: the frequency of draws, and the importance of preparation: memorizing openings. I'm not the first to identify these as problems, nor to propose changing the rules to solve them.

Why is it a problem that preparation is so important? Well, it isn't ... if you like preparation, or watching prepared openings. But many people feel the game "really starts" when players exhaust their preparation and have to think on their own. For them, the earlier in a game that occurs, the better.

Many people also enjoy the midgame more than the endgame, both as a player and as a spectator. They feel we see too many games in which one player gets a small advantage, say he doubles his opponent's pawn, and then trades down to get an endgame where he may be able to grind out a very technical victory, and if not, it's just a draw. We can admire someone who does that well, but still regret not seeing a different style of play.

The changes I'm proposing are intended to encourage more midgame and less opening and endgame. If that's not what you like, then you won't like them!

Discouraging Draws

Draws currently represent about 55% of all tournament games. Until 1867, they were simply replayed: they didn't count as games. Now the two players share half a victory equally. This makes it much easier for tournament organizers, but penalizes the spectators.

A draw may arise in several different ways:

  1. Stalemate
  2. Threefold repetition
  3. Fifty moves without a capture or pawn move
  4. Insufficient material for a checkmate
  5. Agreement between the players

We'll consider them all.

  1. A stalemate is, in my opinion, the stupidest of draw rules. Usually, one player has won the field, and simply needs to complete his victory without blundering. Stalemate thus offers the loser a way to wriggle out of the loss. Why would we spectators want that?

    Few players know that stalemate was not always considered a draw. The goal of a chess game is not checkmate; it is to kill the enemy king - checkmate is simply the mandatory precursor. Stalemate is the equivalent of capturing the king without killing him, and should also be a victory.

    But we can introduce a more subtle fix: allow players to "pass" - to choose not to move. After all, on a field of battle, you are not obligated to act if that doesn't seem in your best interests - why should you be in chess? Thus, in a stalemate, the losing player must pass - it's his only legal move - and the winning player must continue to the win by delivering check. This rule would also prevent Zugzwang, and some meaningless moves where one player is simply waiting for the other to attack. If the other player also passes, the first cannot pass again - see below.

  2. Threefold repetition arises simply because the players have no better move. OK, so let's oblige them to make a different move! You tried Plan A, your opponent responded well, now try something else! Here's the rule: If you are in a position that you have already been in this game, you can't make the same move as before. Threefold repetition and perpetual check thus become simply impossible, as does passing a third time in a row.

    Although it is theoretically possible to return to a previous position after a long sequence of intervening moves, in practice, it is usually enough to remember the last few moves. Every time a piece is captured or a pawn is advanced, a repetition becomes (almost) impossible.

  3. The fifty-move rule and the insufficient material rule derive from the same problem: Neither player can win with the material remaining on the board. Put that way, the solution is obvious: add more material! The details are less obvious, but here's a proposal.

    At any moment in the game, as his turn, instead of offering a draw, either player may call for reinforcements. He specifies the value (see below) of the reinforcing force that he is willing to accept in exchange for conceding victory to the other player in case of a draw, like in Armageddon.

    His opponent then responds with an offer to accept a weaker reinforcing force, and the two of them alternate bidding less and less until one will not accept any lower value. During the bidding process, each player makes his bid instead of moving, and then punches the clock, allowing the other player to bid. Once the bidding is over, if the player accepting the other's bid is next to move, he then moves and punches the clock; if not, he simply punches the clock to signal his acceptance, and the game continues.

    Over the course of the rest of the game, the player who won the bidding war - who has accepted to lose in a draw in exchange for getting "reinforcements" - may then spend his value, using the piece values below, to bring lost pieces back into the game, one at a time, as a move, by placing them where he likes on his first rank. He's not obligated to place a reinforcement if he'd rather move an existing piece.

  4. Agreeing to a draw can simply be banned: make players play it out. Of course they agree to a draw because they foresee a draw by one of the other avenues, but maybe we don't see it. Or maybe they're short on time, and if forced to continue, they might simply flag out or blunder. Let's see!

    The same thinking applies to resigning: make players play it out!

Flexible Opening Positions

Another problem involves the depth of preparation. In chess, studying opening theory is a huge advantage, and it's not clear how that benefits the spectators. It's to address this problem that Fischerrandom (Chess 960) was invented.

But why not go further? Let each player choose his own opening positions! After all, that's what generals do before a battle: they choose the disposition of their forces.

So before a game of Fresh Chess, each player would secretly record the opening positions of his pieces in the first rank. He can place them anywhere, even with both bishops on the same color (as in Shuffle Chess). The second rank is always a row of pawns.

As a side benefit, we eliminate castling. If you want your king in a corner, start him there!

No Double Move for Pawns

Why do pawns get to move two spaces on their first move? It isn't clear why this rule was added in the 15th century; probably to get the action started a little quicker. But since chess began to be studied, the idea of hurtling heedlessly into combat has become unpopular - openings are more circumspect, more about threat than action. So a little more maneuvering before engaging is not going to be a problem. That's especially true since you can choose your opening position and thus get a jump on development.

As a side benefit, we eliminate the need for capturing en passant. And by eliminating castling and en passant, we eliminate two "rights" that are not evident from the position itself, and thus no longer need to be recorded. But to fully record a game, we still need to record whose turn it is, which turn it is, and (the hard part) which positions would count as repetitions.

Smoothing Time Control

I'm not a big fan of shorter time formats, nor any other means of handicapping the players. I don't want to to make them play while standing on one foot, or while sharing a cage with a hungry tiger. I just want to see good chess ... and I don't watch it live, anyway, so I don't mind if it takes them hours to create a beautiful game. I don't want to look at paintings that have been created in five minutes, either.

In a classical game, the players may have 90 or 120 minutes for the first 40 moves, followed by 30 minutes for the rest of the game, with an addition of 30 seconds per move starting from move one. Because of this rule, players who are running low on time may make silly moves in order to reach time control, when they'll have more time. Why would we want that?

Better would be to have a single increment, for example 3 minutes per move. Each player starts with 3 minutes on the clock, and gets another 3 minutes every time he hits his button on the clock. His time accumulates, so if he only needs 1 minute for his first ten moves, he'll have 29 minutes on his clock after that. There's no longer any motive for silly moves.

Other time formats would have smaller increments: a blitz game may offer only 10 seconds per move.

Optional Extension: Evaluating a Game

In a real war, not all victories are equal. A victory that costs you too much material, or that takes too long, may be Pyrrhic - you win the battle but lose the war. In chess as well, we agree that not all victories are equal. Some are simply boring, or very technical, while others are brilliancies. Most people agree that mating in fewer moves and with more pieces still on the board enhances the victory.

So a radical idea would be to award a variable value for a win based on those criteria. It's easy to measure how many moves were needed. To measure the remaining material, we use a standard metric (with one tweak):

We don't care whether your queen is the original queen, a promoted pawn, or a reinforcement (see above): a queen is a queen, and two of them are worth twice as much.

To calculate the value of the victory, start with the victory prize of 100 cents, then add the total value of the pieces you have left, and subtract the number of moves you made. If you lost 4 pawns and one of each piece (queen, rook, bishop and knight), you still have 15 points of material. If you checkmated the enemy king on move 35, your victory is worth 100 + 15 - 35 = 80 cents.

The loser also gets his game evaluated (if not, he would just sacrifice pieces to reduce the value of his opponent's win), but with a difference: we don't care about the number of moves - we don't want to encourage him to draw out a lost game. And of course he doesn't get a victory prize. So if he still has a rook, a bishop and 3 pawns, his loss is worth 11 cents.

Summary

Here are the changed rules:

  1. Passing is a legal move
  2. If you're in the same position for the second time, you can't make the same move
  3. A player can bring in reinforcements, but then loses in a draw
  4. You may not agree to draw or resign: play it out
  5. Players choose, in secret, their opening positions, and there is no castling
  6. Pawns don't get a double first move, and there's no en passant
  7. There is a single time increment per move for the whole game
  8. Optional: The values of the game to winner and loser are calculated

Notation

The various different notations for chess moves and positions rely on a conventional encoding of the squares on a chess board: a letter a-h for the file, and a number 1-8 for the rank. This is very parsimonious in ink, but not so much in speech. It's also subject to mishearing - the letters b c d e g all rhyme - and it's not international: the letters and numbers have different names in different languages.

So here we introduce a new notation, in which each square is encoded as a simple syllable: a consonant followed by a vowel or diphthong. The consonants are (in order) h s f n m k t p, and the vowels/diphthongs (with English examples) are ī (me) ē (they) ai (my) oi (boy) eu (few) au (thou) ō (know) ū (do) (the macrons are usually omitted).

Each square is then simply named by the syllable combining the consonant with the diphthong. For example, the starting square for the white king is mi. Here is a labeled board:

The spellings are a little odd for English because they are designed to be read in any Roman-alphabet language. In some languages, the h is pronounced with a rasp (e.g. Spanish José) or as a hiatus (e.g. French hibou). The eu diphthong is normally pronounced as written, but in English we pronounce it as the yu sound that distinguishes cue from coo.

The pieces all have one-syllable names, too:

If you need to distinguish black from white, use the prefixes u for black and i for white.

To describe a move using this notation, you may optionally start with the piece, but that's not necessary. Then write the position that the piece is moving from, followed by the position that the piece is moving to. If an enemy piece was captured, add that abbreviation (so that the notation becomes reversible). Finally, if a pawn reaches the last rank, add the abbreviation of the piece it was promoted to. In the case of reinforcements, there is no from square and the piece abbreviation is mandatory.

So for example, an opening move of e4 becomes memoi. If White's queenside knight pawn advances and captures the Black rook - bxa8(q) - you would write (ula)sohubava, a little longer to write but shorter to say.


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