Chess Variants

The king on centre stage

2021 may become a good year for chess variants. ChessTech is dedicating a new category and series to them, starting with a Vladimir Kramnik favourite: No-castling chess. Conrad Schormann and Stefan Löffler report.

Vladimir Kramnik (left) teamed up with DeepMind, led by former chess prodigy Demis Hasabis, to let AlphaZero test variants like no-castling chess
Vladimir Kramnik (left) teamed up with DeepMind, led by former chess prodigy Demis Hasabis, to let AlphaZero test variants like no-castling chess (photo: DeepMind)

While most players and officials now associate chess only with the international variant that consolidated in Europe five centuries ago and is regulated by federations like FIDE and their Laws of Chess, the game is much richer. Dozens of chess versions have flourished, nearly all in Asia. Xiangqi, Shogi or Makruk are still played by millions. You can read all about them in A World of Chess by Jean-Louis Cazaux and Rick Knowlton.

A World of Chess (2017) is the definitive guide on other versions of chess than our international chess.
A World of Chess (2017) is the definitive guide on other versions of chess than our international chess.

There are even more chess variants based on international chess. Most of them were invented to enrich the chess experience and make it more fun. Some are also motivated by the tendency that the higher the level at regular chess, the more games result in draws. This series will present the most interesting chess variants and how to find them online.

If the 48th edition of the Dortmund Chess Days, now also known as Sparkassen Chess Trophy, can take place this year as planned on 13 to 18 July, not only classical chess will be played. No-castling chess will also have its place on centre stage, said event director Carsten Hensel in an interview with the German podcaster Michael Busse. Chess without castling is the favourite chess variant of Vladimir Kramnik who serves as ambassador of the event. The former world champion will probably be among the players whatever format it will be.

No-castling chess can easily be played online by agreement. Actually, one player skipping the right to castle is the easiest handicap available in online chess.

No-castling chess is not really new but has been practiced long ago before castling was introduced. The joint move by king and rook came up after the queen and bishope had become more mobile during the 16th century. Castling rules were not uniform and evolved from an earlier practice that allowed the king to make one jumping move.

No-castling chess can easily be played online by agreement between both contestants. Actually, one player skipping his or her right to castle is the easiest handicap available in online chess, where setting time or material handicaps takes much more effort or isn’t possible at all.

One year ago, before the pandemic struck, Kramnik and Boris Gelfand gave training to Indian youngsters in Chennai. On that occasion ChessBase India director Sagar Shah organised an experimental no-castling blitz k.o.-tournament with 16 participants and reported on it. The average rating was 2457. Out of 27 games only three ended in draws. The 14-year old prodigy Raunak Sadhwani won. Kramnik and Gelfand also gave it a try. Pushing the outside pawns to bring the rooks into the game turned out as a promising alternative to moving the king up, centralizing the rook and then returning the king to the backrank.

Vladimir Kramnik congratulates Raunak Sadhwani on winning the first No-castling chess tournament in Chennai in January 2020.
Vladimir Kramnik congratulates Raunak Sadhwani on winning the first No-castling chess tournament in Chennai in January 2020. (photo: Amruta Mokal / ChessBase India)

Kramnik found the experience so promising that he shared it with Demis Hasabis, the head of Google DeepMind and the team that developed AlphaZero and MuZero. They agreed that it would be interesting to let AlphaZero learn no-castling chess by playing against itself and see what happens. Several other chess variants that differ from the classical game in only one rule were also tested. Last October the results were published in a scientific report called Assessing Game Balance with AlphaZero: Exploring Alternative Rule Sets in Chess. A discussion of it is available for ChessTech 2020 professional ticket holders. Kramnik figured as a coauthor and wrote a lengthy appendix.

Opening theory can emerge quickly. This may convince Chessbase, Chessable or chess24, to help popularize no-castling chess.

The former world champion maintains that chess lovers are so familiar with the regular starting position that no-castling chess is easier to understand and market than Fischer Random (which will be the topic of another article). While the main objective of Fischer Random is to get rid of opening theory and preparation because there are 959 new starting positions, no-castling chess sticks to the one set-up we are all too familiar with. Opening theory can emerge quickly. This may convince publishers like Chessbase, Chessable or chess24, for whom selling courses and videos on openings is a main part of their business, to help popularize no-castling chess.