Prompted by a throw-away remark by Artistic Bernard a couple of weeks back, last Thursday night I encouraged those attending the KCC Online Club Night to try some of the new chess variants/deviants that have been investigated/championed by Vladimir Kramnik and tested by AlphaZero.
For those not familiar with these new beasts, you could do worse than check them out in this extensive Chess24 article. Four of these variants, together with several of the more familiar and long standing ones such as 3 Check, King of the Hill and Horde (visually the most striking!), are now available at chess.com. Plenty of glitches in the system still (these are mainly BETA versions), but full marks to chess.com for making these options available online for the curious to investigate. Shame about the lag, though!
I tried out three of the Kramnik-inspired variations - giving "No-Castling Chess" a miss, since it sounded as though it would be too similar to "Normal Chess". (Which, quaintly, is sometimes referred to as simply "Chess"!). But in fact that is also a criticism which can be levelled at some of those I did try - especially when the protagonists forget the rule variations which they are playing! So "Torpedo Chess", in which pawns can move two squares on any move, not just their first, was a bit of a damp squib, since unless you get into a pawn storm attack, or a pawn race ending, the desirability of using the option seldom arises. Now that certainly shouldn't be the case in "Capture Anything Chess", where you can capture your own pieces/pawns as well as your opponents - especially useful in opposite bishop endings where it becomes virtually impossible to stop pawns queening! However, I just couldn't get my brain to think creatively in such terms and I sadly never got to capture any of my own pieces. Not so Joshua, who seemed to take to the new rules much more readily than anyone else, and who totally surprised me by playing R on f1 takes his own pawn on f2 to generate a crushing attack against my King. And when he had, inevitably, gone wrong and blown a completely winning position, he did it again by temporarily staving off my "forced mate" by playing K on g2 takes his own rook on f1 to run away!
The most intriguing new variant, in some ways, has to be "Sideways Pawns Chess", which does exactly what it says on the tin. You can move your pawns (but not capture) one square sideways as well as in their normal forwards direction. This is a very useful device, indeed, for repairing your pawn formation or for surprisingly attacking enemy pieces. And, of course, in the end game it can make a mockery of normal play - think opposite bishops again for a start. I was lucky that against Josh it was a R v R&P ending, and although he shifted his pawn from the h file to a central one to increase his winning chances, he then went and left in en prise to ensure a draw anyway. Some things just don't change!
And then I somehow got inveigled into a non-Kramnik variant called "Fog of War", in which you can only see your opponents pieces when you can capture them, and where the aim of the game is to capture the opposing king, not checkmate it. This did my brain in, and I don't think I will be trying it again. I didn't have a clue what was going on for the whole game, but thankfully I was playing Capitalist Bernard, so that didn't affect the outcome of the game. At least now I understand where the expression, "I haven't got the foggiest" came from.
Well, you may like to try some of these in the privacy of your own home, but I think I will be giving them a pretty wide berth from now on. One evening of deviant behaviour was quite enough for me - no matter what my criminal record might say - and I'll be back at Lichess this Thursday playing the good old fashioned "Normal" variety. At our level, "Chess" is still plenty complicated enough, without tinkering with the rules. Judging by the number of decisive games at the Norway Chess tournament currently going on, even at Super-GM level it is still very easy to lose.
As a bit of harmless fun, these variants do have some interest and amusement value, but if I see a proposal at the next LDCL AGM to convert the League to "Sideways Pawns Chess" - or any other deviant form of our beloved game - I shall be casting the KCC votes against!