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Some Comments on Chess

Here, I have made two comments on matters relating to the game of Chess, and now add four additional ones.

Explaining the Rules of Chess

When I was first instructed in the rules of Chess at the age of 10, one thing about them was confusing. Since it was so strongly emphasized that the King cannot be captured, I didn't think there was any problem with moving the King into check!

One modern textbook of Chess today has gone to the other extreme, and flatly stated that the objective of Chess is to capture the opponent's King. Of course, that isn't true. But if a qualification were added to that statement, it could be changed to match the truth, and be a more understandable form of the truth.

Here is how I would explain the objective of Chess:

The move where the King is captured does not actually occur in a chess game, since it would happen two moves (one for each player) after the move that decides the winner. Although this means that the capture of the King is not actually played as a move, it is still effectively the object of the game. However, this has one important qualification. A position in which the next move cannot prevent the King being captured on the move after can be a win, or it can be a draw, depending on whether the position is checkmate or stalemate. For checkmate, the King also has to be in check at the start of the move; that is, if neither the King nor any other piece of the losing player moved on his turn, the King could still be captured on the next move.

In practice, the stalemate rule is intended to make Chess a more demanding game of skill, requiring care to win even by the player who has developed a lead. But the rule can be made easier to remember by thinking of it in symbolic terms. If Chess is a game of war, then when victory is inevitable, if the enemy King is not under the watchful eye of one of your soldiers, perhaps by committing suicide, or by destroying papers, or a symbol of his office, he can still cheat you of your victory.

If we keep firmly in mind that the object is still, in effect, to capture the King, then it is clear that a move into check, or a move leaving the King in check, would lose the game; then it can be added that such moves are forbidden in order that a game will not be decided by a single lapse.

Another way in which the usual way the rules of Chess are explained is potentially confusing is illustrated by this diagram:

Of course, in this position, Black should resign. This is an example of a simple and obvious mate, in which Black's King is to be driven into the corner, and then mated by the Rook, through a sequence like:

R-N4    K-R7     Rg4   Kh2
R-N3    K-R8     Rg3   Kh1
K-B3    K-R7     Kf3   Kh2
K-B2    K-R8     Kf2   Kh1
R-KR3++          Rh3++

But a question might be asked.

In the diagram, why can't White, to move, simply mate in one, by moving his King to g3?

After all, the White King is surely not in check on that square, since the Black King can't capture it, as it would be liable to capture from the White Rook!

If one thinks of the object of the game as capturing the King instead, modified by the stalemate rule, it is obvious why that can't be done: when the Black King captures the White King, the game is over, so the ability of the White Rook to capture the Black King afterwards is irrelevant.

The official rules for Chess do deal with this point; a King is in check when under attack, not when liable to capture, with the distinction between the two highlighted here only being present in the case of attack by the enemy King, since any other piece may be sacrificed to win the game.

Another somewhat confusing part of Chess are its special rules, the two-space first move of Pawns and the associated possibility of en passant capture, and castling, and the rule that the King cannot, when castling, move across a square that is attacked.

A famous Grandmaster (one from the Soviet Union who wrote a book on endgames) once forgot that the Rook could move across a square that is attacked during the castling move.

But there is a way to make this particular rule easier to remember as well.

There are only two kinds of chess pieces that move only one step at a time. One is the lowly Pawn, the other the King. Both are allowed to move two steps for their first move, but in different ways.

A pawn can move two steps forwards for its first move. But this is intended only to allow it to move faster, not to skip past a point where it may be captured. Thus, if, when it moved two steps forwards, it could have been captured by an enemy Pawn had it made a regular one-step move, then that Pawn can still capture it by advancing diagonally into the square it would have been in had it made that regular one-step move.

Castling is also always a two-step move for the King, and it must be the King's first move. Thus, the reason why the King cannot move across a threatened square is now obvious: doing so, it would be moving into check. Because it would be liable to the form of en passant capture applicable to Kings; since a King can move in any direction, not just forwards, it can be taken en passant by any piece, not just by a Pawn or another King.

Some History of the Special Rules

Today, the rules of Chess are well-known and well-defined, as they are set by FIDE (the Fédération Internationale des Échecs) and also by the chess federations of individual countries, but in conformity with those set internationally.

At one time, the situation was much less tidy.

Thus, in 1843, Jaenisch, in his Analyse Nouvelle des Ouvertures du Jeu des Échecs notes the following about three aspects of the rules of Chess:

En Passant Capture

Other sources note that at about the same time as the moves of the Queen and Bishop changed, the Pawn gained the power of moving two steps on its first move as well.

According to Jaenisch, there was, at least for a short time, some question about whether or not the Pawn should be subject to en passant capture, and, as well, one possibility that was considered was that any piece that might capture the Pawn, had it advanced by only one square, should be allowed to capture that Pawn en passant.

The modern rule was supported by most amateur Chess players, and by some noted players in Spain and Portugal, he says, and this led to it being adopted in his time in every country but one: Italy, in which the Pawn may advance two squares on its first move, and is not subject to en passant capture.


Other sources note that the older version of Castling, where the King is allowed to jump two squares as his first move, so that the same position as is obtained through Castling can be obtained by first moving the Rook next to the King, and then, on the next or a later move, jumping over the Rook with the King, existed prior to the changes to the movement of the Bishop and the Queen. This special move of the King was called the King's Leap.

Here, Jaenisch notes that again it is Italy that is different. The King's Leap was gone in his day, but in Italy, free Castling is practiced, in which the King may leap over the Rook to any square beyond, up to the edge of the board. This is noted as being first described by Alessandro Salvio. Greco advocated the form of Castling we use today, identifying it as the Calabrese style of Castling.

Pawn Promotion

Here, the rule we are familiar with today, that a Pawn must be promoted immediately upon reaching the back rank, and it may be promoted to a Queen, Rook, Knight or Bishop (of the same color!) at the player's option, no matter how many of these pieces are on the board, was the general practice only in Britain and France: and even there, only in the serious Chess clubs.

Elsewhere, both in other countries and in most people's casual play even in Britain and France themselves, the rule that a Pawn can only promote to a piece that had already been captured, with the Pawn sitting idly on the last rank waiting to promote if its owner had not suffered any captured, was followed. This is referred to by Jaenisch as the German rule for promotion.

I know that even in my own youth I personally encountered people playing Chess by this alternate rule for Pawn promotion, and so I can attest that the current official rule for Pawn promotion took a long time to become well established and generally known.

Also, at one point, Staunton drafted a set of rules for Chess in which the obvious qualification that one can't promote a Pawn of one's own to a piece of the opponent's color was omitted - which prompted several chess problem composers to compose problems in which doing exactly that was required to win! The obvious way this could be the case is where it seems that the position must inevitably lead to a stalemate.

Styles of Chessmen

The following old illustration:

is from an advertisement in 1899 for a set of wooden chess pieces sold by the American Chess Magazine. In addition to being an image of good quality, its design seems very typical of many chess sets; while inspired by the original Staunton design, the stems are definitely thinner.

For comparison, here are the original Staunton chessmen

as illustrated in another old advertisement, from 1891.

And, taken from an illustration in an old French book,

here is the old Régence style of chess pieces as used in France.

For comparison, from the 1889-1890 Milton Bradley Game and Toy catalog, here is a drawing of an inexpensive set of chessmen, designed to be recognizable enough to be usable for play by someone accustomed to the Staunton pattern, and yet not requiring difficult hand carving to make:

The Maltese cross above the King is no longer present, and the Queen does not have her crown either, but the two pieces are clearly the tallest, and differentiated in shape as well as height.

The outstanding simplification is that the horse's head of the Knight is but a flat piece of wood inserted into the base. While we may be inclined to laugh at that nowadays, how else could a truly inexpensive chess set be made if neither molding it cheaply from plastic, or having it carved by cheap labor in some distant overseas land, were options?

Actually, though, that question does have a better answer, and it's one that some people had also tried, although I don't have any examples or illustratiions handy. Just mold the Knight's head cheaply... from a mixture of sawdust and glue.

On the right of this page, a diagram illustrates the Staunton pattern of chessmen, along with a few others. Both the original Staunton pieces, and an inexpensive modern plastic set from the 1950s and 1960s somewhat different in appearance, and yet also made generally according to the Staunton pattern, are illustrated, the original Staunton pieces being above the modern plastic set.

The particular style of plastic set on which I based my illustration was originated by Kingsway Plastics in the United States. It was available from other suppliers elsewhere in the world as well; in Britain, from Spears' Games, in Canada from Copp Clark, and in Australia from John Sands. Also, chess sets with this style of piece were made by W. I. C. in Hong Kong.

Above them is the French Régence pattern, the pieces of which, to those of us used to the Staunton pattern, are hard to tell apart.

Below them are three patterns used in England, the St. George pattern, the Barleycorn pattern, and the Edinburgh Upright pattern.

There were variations within these patterns; not all sets had the luxury of a horse's head for the Knight; some English pattern sets had a St. George's cross atop the King just as is found in the Staunton pattern.

The Edinburgh Upright pattern, also known as the Northern Upright pattern, is sometimes noted (along with the Dublin pattern, not shown) as a predecessor of the Staunton pattern. While that is true to a limited extent, since it shares with the Staunton pattern having an unadorned, and hence less distracting, stem, as is clear from the diagram, this pattern, which did precede the Staunton pattern, cannot be used as a basis for failing to fully recognize the originality of the Staunton pattern.

The distinguishing features by which the different Chessmen were told apart one from another were basically identical between the St. George pattern, the much criticized Barleycorn pattern, and the Northern Upright pattern. And since the great strength of the Staunton pattern is that the different Chessmen are easily distinguished in it, it really doesn't owe all that much to the Northern Upright pattern.

However, the Barleycorn and St. George patterns as well as the Northern Upright pattern are an improvement on the Régence pattern, since in them the Bishop is now easy to distinguish; and then the Staunton pattern is an improvement on all of those three, equally, including the (rare and valuable) Northern Upright pattern, by making the Queen easy to distinguish as well. Still, in fairness, making the stems unadorned was taking an additional, if small, step in the direction of the Staunton pattern.

Since I made this comment about the Edinburgh Upright pattern not anticipating the Staunton pattern to as great an extent as was claimed for it by some, I have learned, through the chessspy.com web site, that the Staunton pattern was indeed anticipated by yet another style of chessmen.

The same firm, Jacques of London, that introduced the Staunton pattern of chessmen to the public on September 29, 1849, had, as far back as 1828, made chess pieces in a special pattern for one of the famous Chess clubs of London, Simpson's on the Strand. As they were made for use in that club's Grand Cigar Divan, that was the name attached to the pattern.

It didn't include the cross on the King's crown, but as noted above, that had already appeared in some sets of the St. George and related pattern. It did anticipate, however, the major improvement of the Staunton pattern in making the pieces recognizable through giving the Queen a coronet or open crown.

Incidentally, the noted expert in antique chess sets Frank Camaratta has advanced the hypothesis that the Staunton chess set was actually designed by John Jacques rather than by Nathaniel Cooke, to whom the design was credited. I presume the reason for this would be because Nathaniel Cooke, at the Illustrated London News, was Staunton's editor (as is believed, but not definitely known). The fact that Jaques brought out a design with at least one key element of the Staunton pattern well prior to 1849 would be supporting evidence for this hypothesis.

A much earlier attempt, in the previous century, was made by Philidor to promote a style of chess pieces which were simpler in form and easier to distinguish. While it may not have been the equal of the Staunton pattern, at least it did make the Queen distinguishable from both the Bishop and the Pawn. Unfortunately, though, while the Queen was no longer a taller Bishop or a taller Pawn, it was a shorter King in that set, and so the ideal of having every piece clearly distinctive in shape was not reached.

Later, in 1850, George Merrifield brought out a design he named after Philidor which incorporated the distinguishing features from the Staunton set but which was somewhat plain and unattractive in appearance. The diagram on the right includes the earlier Philidor set from the mid-17th Century.

The illustration at left shows this later Philidor set; it is an advertisement for them which appeared in The Chess Player's Chronicle for 1850.

I've come across a web site from which I have learned that my opinion of George Merrifield's chess set design was, apparently, widely shared: it was only in production for the short period of six months, and that therefore only three original sets of that type still survive!

Also, I vaguely remembered that I had seen some Barleycorn style chess sets which had additional features for distinguishing the pieces. Thus, I thought it worthwhile to attempt a search for such a thing, and in that search I came across a Barleycorn set that incorporated all the basic distinctions between the pieces from the Staunton set! However, that set was designed by Charles Hastilow, and thus likely dates from a time after the Staunton set was released (another set by him was dated as around 1860).

This, of course, should hardly be surprising; even after the Staunton set was released, not everyone would be ready to give up the style of chess set that they might be used to, but they might still see the obvious benefits of the Staunton pattern as well, and thus desire to have them within the context of their favored traditional pattern. Also, the Staunton design was protected by a patent.

Speaking of that, on the patent, Nathaniel Cooke's name was misspelled as Nathaniel Cook, and his name appears in that form still in many books about chess. As it happens, from around that period, some books on Chess were written by one William Cook, a potential source of even more confusion.

A Pet Peeve About Chess Pieces

While very cheap small plastic chess pieces these days still don't have this characteristic, I've noted that the inexpensive sets of tournament-size plastic pieces, quite unaccountably from my point of view, have Knights that appear to have been modeled after inexpensive wooden chess sets.

Since something made of plastic can be molded into any shape one likes, as the original has to be sculpted but once, in my opinion there is no excuse for a plastic chess set to have a Knight that looks like less than a proper sculpture of a horse's head. Unless, of course, like some very early Bakelite chess pieces, the plastic pieces are themselves individually hand-carved rather than molded.

The following photograph illustrates what I mean:

The chess piece on the left is from a cheap toy chess set, but the Knight is molded in the shape of a finely-made sculpture of a horse's head. The chess piece on the right came with a vinyl roll-up chess board, and is in the same style as tournament-size chess pieces sold that way, but although such chess pieces are intended for serious players, the Knight was apparently modeled on the Knight in an inexpensive wooden chess set.

Certainly, for wooden chess sets that are individually hand carved, I can understand that the Knight can't be a detailed sculpture unless the set is expensive. But plastic isn't wood!

Some Further Reminisences

Although I was only familiar with the example shown above of a modern version of the Staunton pattern in the form of chess pieces of a relatively small size, Kingsway Plastics originally made these chessmen in two sizes; the Varsity chess set, with a 5" King, and the Staunton chess set, with a 2 3/4" King.

A 5" size King is larger than the maximum 4 1/2" size accepted by the USCF for tournament use. The original Staunton pieces apparently had a King height of 4 3/8", which is acceptable under the USCF standards, but which is too large for FIDE (4 3/8" is just over 111.1 mm, and FIDE recommends a King height of 95 mm, allowing a 10% variation either way, so the maximum would be 104.5 mm, more than 4 1/16", but less than 4 1/8", and the minimum, 85.5 mm, is just slightly less than 3 3/8"). However, Jacques made the original Staunton set in a variety of sizes; the largest was club size, in which the King had a 2" base, but there was also a small club size in which the King had a 1 7/8" base. The other two possible sizes were 1 3/4" and 1 3/8" for the base.

An article by Frank Camaratta for the November 2008 issue of Chess Life gives the four possible King heights as 11 cm, 10 cm, 8.9 cm, and 7.3 cm; in that article, the four sizes are given the names Full Club, Small Club, Standard, and Library. On the web site of Alan Fersht, the four possible King heights are referred to as 4.4", 4", 3.5", and 2.9".

From this, I had concluded that the King heights of the original Staunton pieces were 4 3/8", 4", 3 1/2", and 2 7/8". However, while the King heights weren't given in the advertisements for the Staunton chessmen that I had seen before, I have since come across an advertisement giving the King heights claimed by John Jacques & Son for the various sizes of the Staunton Chessmen, at the end of the book Chess Exemplified In One Hundred and Thirty-Two Games of the Most Celebrated Players by William J. Greenwell, and the advertised King heights were 4 1/4", 3 7/8", 3 1/2", and 2 7/8".

I have been informed, however, that the club size pieces were initially introduced with the 1 7/8" size base later assigned to the small club size; this is something I would never have imagined. Both 3 1/2" and 4" are acceptable sizes for tournament use today.

Subsequently, I did see an early advertisement from Jaques from when they only had two sizes of Staunton chessmen offered; the widths of the bases were not given, but the two sizes were referred to as the "Large Size for Clubs" and the Ordinary size. Originally, I was only familiar with later advertisements in which the two largest of the four sizes were referred to as the Club size and the "Small Size for Clubs"; the smallest size is not named, but the third-largest size is apparently once referred to as the "large size".

That same article also makes reference to some claims that there was a style of chess pieces similar to the Staunton chessmen designed in 1835, for which Mr. Camaratta could find no evidence. A quick search of the web on my part didn't allow me to locate any claims of the kind I had understood him to be referring to when I read that (pieces similar to the Stauntons, but designed by someone other than William Cook, John Jaques, or even Howard Staunton), but I did see claims that William Cook had actually designed the Staunton pieces in 1835 - but without any pointers to evidence for those claims... so I probably misunderstood what he wrote.

He has also noted that while some have claimed that Howard Staunton was the real designer of the Staunton pattern, this claim can be dismissed, because in that case he would not have missed the opportunity to claim the credit. That is a conclusive argument; while a statement to that effect appears in no less an authority than H. J. R. Murray's A History of Chess, it appeared to me to have simply been made in passing, no doubt based on the name of those chessmen in the absence of any familiarity with their actual history. If Philidor designed the style of chessmen he tried to introduce in the previous century, that could have led Murray to assume Staunton might have felt the same need and had taken a similar initiative.

Of course, many toy and game makers made their own styles of plastic chess pieces. In general, they were, like the one style from Kingsway Plastics pictured here, basically made according to the Staunton pattern, but with relatively narrow stems.

One American firm, however, stands out as having made quality plastic sets. Drueke made its own American style set which was notable for being octagonal rather than round; it also made the Player's Choice set, which was very similar to the classic Staunton, except for different decorative ridges near the top, and avoiding the distinctive wide opening in the Bishop's mitre.

One thing that made the latter set notable was that Robert J. (Bobby) Fischer had used the Drueke Player's Choice set on occasion.

I learned from the web site of Chess Antiques, which is part of the American firm House of Staunton, that the common terms "Single Weighted", "Double Weighted", and "Triple Weighted" were originated by Drueke. As used by them, they didn't designate a specific weight, but literally that one, two, or three metal disks to give extra weight, respectively, would be in each piece.

It makes sense that a larger-sized chess set would be heavier. It does seem, though, from looking at some sites where both the weight of the set and this type of designation are given, that for a set with a 3 3/4" King, each level of weighting adds about half a pound to the weight of the set, which, unweighted, is perhaps a bit above half a pound in weight.

The Chess Board

Not being involved in the world of formal rated Chess play, the first I heard of there being dissatisfaction, presumably for reasons of eyestrain, with the traditional style of checkerboard which might have Snakes and Ladders on the other side as a board for playing Chess was on the occasion of the 1973 World Championship match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer, where news reports mentioned that Fischer requested a board with green and white squares.

Today, not only official Chess tournaments, but also official Checkers tournaments, demand boards that are white or ivory in color for the light squares, and green or buff for the dark squares.

The old and new styles of chessboard are compared below:

and other possible boards one might have encountered in the old days are shown in the lower part of the diagram.

Thus, on the top, we see a decorated old-style red and black board with a yellow border between the squares on the left, and, on the right, the modern style of Chess board.

On the bottom, on the left, we see a plainer red and black checkerboard, with the black squares numbered in the fashion used for notating the moves of Checkers.

Of course, it is rather common to find Chess boards with the letters and numbers of algebraic notation indicated along the borders of the board.

But at least one maker made a Chess set where the squares had their names in descriptive notation printed on them; the dark squares were green, and the light squares a pinkish orange, if I remember correctly, for some reason - as illustrated on the lower right. The board also included the numbering of the squares for Checkers.

Some Chess and Checker boards let you play Backgammon on the other side. This one, instead, had a layout for Michigan Rummy on the other side.

I don't know when the current standards for chess boards and pieces in tournament play were adopted.

The first Staunton chess sets, sold starting in 1849, came in various sizes, of which the two largest were referred to as the "Club" and "Small Club" sizes. The latter, rather than the former, appears to correspond to what is typically called for in formal events today.

A catalog of Chess books and equipment published in 1890 offered several sizes and styles of chessboard, and quite unabashedly offered some with red and black squares, although it was aimed at serious chessplayers and was not a general toy and game catalog.

Even in 1953, standards for equipment did not quite have their modern form. Thus, in Chess Review for that year, one manufacturer was offering tournament size chessmen with a 5" King, higher than current standards allow, and chess boards which, while they were not red and black, still had dark squares that were black, although the light squares were buff.

Man-Sized Chess Pieces

Since noting above that 5" chess pieces were advertised as "tournament size" in 1953, I have learned of a Drueke catalog from 1978 which listed a set of chess pieces with a 5" King height. They weren't specifically mentioned as being tournament or club size, but the next smaller size of chess pieces had a 3 1/2" King height; none with a 3 3/4" King height, or a 4" King height, which are what we would now normally think of as tournament size, were listed in it.

Thus, this has led me to surmise that apparently a 5" King height was considered appropriate for tournament use in Chess until quite recently.

One possible reason for this change is the increased participation of women in chess, including the participation of highly-rated women in regular chess events rather than women's chess events.

However, the difference between 5" and 3 3/4" is fairly large, and women aren't that much shorter than men.

In addition to women being shorter than men in height, their arms are shorter as well, but in proportion to their height. So, although the size of the board is normally in proportion to the King height of the pieces, it would seem to be only equally significant. Except...

There is a reason why the acceptable size of a game board for an adult woman would be smaller than for an adult male. The range over which her arms would reach is not only limited at the far end by the length of her arms, but also at the near end... since women, unlike men, are not always flat-chested.

However, before jumping to that conclusion, one other thing needs to be checked.

The appropriate size of a chess board is in proportion to the height of the King because the base of the King is in proportion to its height. The Kingsway Plastics set of chessmen under the Varsity name, with a 5" King height, was criticized for having bases that weren't as wide as they should be.

Ensuring that chessmen are properly proportioned, with adequately wide bases, has become more important recently with the greater popularity of blitz chess. So could this be the real reason that standards for tournament play now exclude chessmen with a 5" King height?

Let's go back to the original Staunton chessmen:

King height    Width of King's base    Description

  4 1/4"             2"                   Club
  3 7/8"             1 7/8"               Small Club
  3 1/2"             1 3/4"
  2 7/8"             1 3/8"

In the 1978 Drueke catalog, the chess men with a 5" King height are also noted as having a 2 1/4" diameter base for the King.

In an issue of Chess Review from 1939, an advertisement gives the King heights and base diameters for a series of chessmen; they were offered for order through the magazine, and the manufacturer was not specified, although the same advertisement featured chess boards from Drueke:

King height    Width of King's base   Type    Description
  4 1/2"             2"                WF       Club
  3 7/8"             1 3/4"            WF       Senior
  3 7/8"             1 5/8"            F
  3 3/4"             1 1/2"            F
  3 9/16"            1 5/8"            WF       Home
  3 1/2"             1 7/16"           F
  3 1/2"             1 1/2"            P
  3 5/16"            1 1/2"            WF       Junior
  3 1/4"             1 3/8"            F,P
  3                  1 1/4"            F,P
  2 3/4"             1 1/8"            P

Three lines of chess sets were described, one weighted and felted, one just felted, and one plain; it is possible that the different lines were not all from the same manufacturer, as the chessmen are pictured and are different in style, one of the styles appearing to be that of the Drueke Players' Choice pieces.

And for the line of chessmen offered by Gallant Knight, we have the following proportions:

King height       Width of King's base        Description
  4 7/8"               2"                       Tournament (large)
  3 1/4"               1 7/16"                  Tournament (small)
  2 3/4"               1 5/16"                  Standard
  2 3/8"               1 3/16"                  Student 

It appears, then, that the larger chess pieces formerly billed as tournament or club size did have large enough bases to need a chessboard with at least 2 1/2" squares, even though their proportions were also somewhat narrower at the base compared to the height as is common today.

Thus, both the popularity of faster time controls and the increased presence of women in the sport could have been contributing explanations.

For comparison, here are the King heights and King base diameters of two recent tournament-size sets, and one smaller tournament-style set:

King height       Width of King's base
  3 7/8"               1 5/8"
  3 3/4"               1 1/2"
  3 1/8"               1 1/4"

All this information may be easier to understand in the form of a graph:

The various combinations of King height and base diameter are shown as points on the graph on the left. Red dots are used for the four sizes of the original Staunton chessmen, and blue dots are used for the three recent sets of chess pieces I measured from my own personal collection.

On the right, I have drawn lines by eye indicating what seems to be the general trend in the ratio between King height and King base diameter. The line on the middle was drawn to show an average for all the points; since the red dots for the Staunton chessmen are all to the right of that, meaning they all had wider bases than that ratio would call for, I then drew a second line showing the ratio for just those chessmen.

Thus, it looked to me from the graph that the general ratio of base width to height for Chess kings was 4:9, but for the Staunton chessmen it was a more generous 14:29.

Not only has there been a decline in width to height since the Staunton chessmen, but I see that the recent pieces I have are all on the left of the general line, so the tendency of late has been towards narrower bases than in the more recent past.

Thus, I drew a third line, the one on the left, showing the ratio for those pieces, which seems to be about 5:12.

As it is also specified that the width of the base of the King should be from 40% to 50% of the height of the King, I then added the third graph, in which two bounding lines were added showing those limits, from which it can be seen that the points on the graph basically fill the area between them.

USCF rules specify that the size of the squares of a chessboard for events under their auspices is to be from 2" to 2 1/2". FIDE rules, specified in metric, give a slightly broader range.

Also, USCF rules are specific as to what size of board is suitable for what size of pieces: the King's base diameter is to be no more than 78% of the side of the square, and the square may not be more than 1/8" larger than the minimum size that the preceding criterion requires.

It is reasonable that a gennerous allotment of space for the pieces is required at serious events, as it is vital for players to be able to move any piece without touching any other piece on the board.

This leads to the following relationship between piece size and board size:

Square size     King base diameter         King height

  2 1/2"         1 7/8" to 1 15/16"       3 7/8" - 4 3/4"
  2 3/8"               1 13/16"           3 3/4" - 4 7/16"
  2 1/4"         1 11/16" to 1 3/4"       3 3/8" - 4 1/4"
  2 1/8"         1 9/16" to 1 5/8"        3 1/4" - 4"
  2"                    1 1/2"            3 1/8" - 3 3/4"  

While the range of King base diameters is narrow, that of King heights is broad, because of the way the ratio of King height to King base diameter varies.

The same ad from 1939 that gave information on the heights and base diameters for chessmen available at that time also listed some chess boards available from Drueke. These had squares that varied from 2" to 2 1/2", the same as the range suitable for tournament use today. That would imply that it is the popularity of blitz chess, requiring pieces with wider bases in proportion to their height, and not the presence of women in chess, that has limited the height of chessmen, since the size of chess boards has not shrunk.

However, the 1978 Drueke catalog that lists a chess set with a 5" King height and a 2 1/4" diameter base for the King also recommends for use with it a solid wood board, or a chess table, with 2 3/4" squares, indicating that in the past not only taller chessmen, but also larger chess boards, were a possibility.

I have continued to look into the matter, and I have now narrowed things down a bit further. A 1975 edition of the USCF chess rules already limited the maximum acceptable King height to 4 1/2". On the other hand, the Second Piatigorsky Cup, held in Santa Monica in 1966, was played with a chess set having a 5" King height, so the change happened at some time between those two years. Interestingly enough, Fischer and Spassky faced each other at this tournament; when they met again in 1972 in Reykjavik, the set they used had a 3 1/2" King height, at the low end of what is accepted for use in official events.

Incidentally, I have also learned, from a news article about the first game of the 1972 match, that the board used had 2 1/4" squares. (It was also noted that a board with 2 5/8" squares was rejected as too large.) From the table above, it can be seen that such a board does not correspond to chessmen with a 3 1/2" King height by current official standards, and thus it is not surprising that reproduction Fischer-Spassky chess sets are often offered with a 3 3/4" King height instead, even if that is inauthentic.

I remembered that the board was marble with green and white squares, but I had forgotten, until I looked up information again, that it had been treated with acid to give it a matte finish.

Also, it was noted that it was insisted on a genuine Jacques and Company chess set in the Staunton pattern. However, it was noted that the set was of the kind currently being sold by the company, which is why reproduction "Fischer-Spassky 1972" chess sets are different from reproduction "Jacques Staunton 1849" chess sets.

However, visiting the web site of Alan Fersht, with extensive coverage of pre-war Staunton chess sets from Jacques, it is possible to see that both the distinctive design of the crenellations of the Rooks, and the cross atop the King, associated with "Fischer-Spassky" chess sets can be found in the version of the Jacques set from 1938 to 1940.

Changing the Game of Chess

Three problems with Chess have often been noted as interfering with its popularity, particularly in the sense of its popularity as a spectator sport. There is a fourth problem, less often discussed, but more fundamental, that I don't think anything can solve: one can enjoy a game of football without being as strong as a quarterback, just as one can enjoy ballet or gymnastics without being capable of the feats one is watching. But to enjoy watching a game of chess, one has to be able to understand what is going on, what threats and possibilities are present in the chessboard as it stands before the players. The fact that one doesn't have to be quite as smart as the players themselves to enjoy the game, since of course the point of the grandmaster's move is often only obvious after he makes it, as with many discoveries and inventions, or the deductions of Sherlock Holmes, ameliorates this, but only partly.

The third problem, although often recognized as a problem, is also difficult to solve; it is closely related to the second problem noted below, and also somewhat related to the fourth problem noted above.

That is the increasing prevalence, ever since the Modern era of Chess was inaugurated by Steinitz, of defensive and positional play, in contrast to the exciting tactical fireworks found in games like La Bourdonnais - McDonnell or Anderssen - Kieseritzky. Solutions to the first and second problems noted below are often hoped to address this issue at least partially,

However, I categorize this as a difficult problem to solve because it is fundamentally the result of a deeper and more profound understanding of the game being achieved. One cannot expect players, even with an awareness of the larger problems affecting the game in general, to which an individual game may slightly contribute, to play in a way other than that which, to the best of their knowledge and understanding, is best suited to produce the most favorable likely result of the game they are playing.

But the two problems that people keep trying to solve are these:

Among the solutions proposed for these problems are making the board bigger by one or two squares, either just horizontally or in both directions, so that some new pieces can be added, or having the arrangement of pieces on the first row selected at random for each game.

But while such solutions have led to the invention of many interesting variations of Chess, they have not caught on. Replacing Chess with another, although similar, game is just too drastic.

Later on, in the section on Random Variant Chess, I suggest my own variation of Chess to address the first problem. Rather than spoiling the symmetry of the chessboard by arranging the pieces randomly, or expecting one enlarged version of chess to do more than temporarily delay the emergence of a new body of opening theory, I take a modestly enlarged chess board, and by selecting chess pieces from a set of pieces with different powers, I create a family of thousands of variants of Chess, one of which is chosen at random for a pair of games between two players. The mechanics of this are envisaged to be similar to the choice of a predetermined opening at random in Checkers through the three-move restriction or the earlier two-move restriction.

Of course, an enlarged chess board, and a set of many possible pieces, involves considerable additional equipment. Perhaps another possiblity would be to randomize Chess slightly. In the early days of Chess, players rolled a die each turn to decide which piece they would be allowed to move. No one would want to return to that. But perhaps players could roll a die, and it would give them the option of making one special move in addition to the regular moves. For example:

1) Pawn may capture by moving one square forwards.
2) Bishop may move one space orthogonally.
3) Knight may move one space diagonally.
4) Rook may move one space diagonally.
5) Queen may make a Knight's move.
6) King may make a Knight's move.

Presumably, the option of making such moves, coming at unpredictable times, would be enough to prevent the use of fixed openings. By advancing the die along the side of the board, one could limit its use to the first eight moves of the game. Rules limiting the use of a bonus move to give check or to escape from mate would also be needed.

Another possibility would be to roll the die once every three moves (two moves for one player, with one move for the other player in between). That would balance out the advance knowledge of what special move is available, and yet reduce the frequency of dice rolls. Again, advancing the die between uses against the edge of the chessboard would limit its use to the first 24 moves, twelve for each player.

In that case, a fair rule for the use of the special move during its lifetime might be:

In the first turn, the special move is novel, and too much would hinge on chance; in the second turn, the move is known, and part of the game; in the third turn, the defender will not have the use of the special move in the next turn to escape from a check given in that turn. But such a rule, doubtless, is just too complicated.

I would like to suggest a solution to the second of these problems which involves, in my opinion, only a very slight change to Chess.

I propose that, in addition to scoring a Chess competition so that, when a game is won, the winner recieves 1 point, and the loser recieves 0 points, and when a game is drawn, each player recieves 1/2 of a point, that a player who can force stalemate should recieve 3/5 of a point, with the other player recieving only 2/5 of a point.

In this way, a result that gives a benefit to one player can be obtained even when play has led to a smaller advantage to one player than can lead to checkmate. Yet, that result is significantly less valuable than that given by checkmate:

Checkmate      1      0       1
Stalemate      0.6    0.4     0.2
Draw           0.5    0.5     0

a checkmate is worth five stalemates by that rule.

Thus, opening theory is not altered at all. The play of the middle game is not changed.

The endgame is altered, but even here, nothing in existing endgame theory becomes obsolete. The large difference in the value of a checkmate and a stalemate means that it remains just about as important as ever for the winning player to ensure a potential checkmate is not reduced to a stalemate.

The change, then, is only that endgame theory is augmented, because now it is enriched with the science of forcing stalemates in positions that before were merely abandoned as drawn.

It is possible that this won't be an unmixed blessing: the ability to put smaller advantages on the scoreboard might make players even more cautious than they already are. This could mean that draws would be still almost as common as they are now, after even less eventful play. Or, even worse, perhaps the advantage that White has by virtue of the first move might allow the player with the white pieces to force stalemate, in game after game. Even without these unfortunate results, Chess is already a grueling game at high levels: this rule might force players to work harder, playing many more moves, in order to win a victory that is only worth 1/5th as much as a real won game, and thus this innovation may be resisted for that reason.

But I think that it is quite likely to have beneficial results in making Chess matches more exciting, rather than the possible negative results that I've noted.

Since the first move gives the player with the white pieces an advantage, and since a change in the game which allows smaller advantages to count might increase the importance of that, I should note a possible rule change to reduce this.

In Chess, since turns alternate, half the time White has moved his pieces one more time than Black, and the other half of the time, White and Black have moved their pieces an equal number of times.

If White were to make one move on his first turn, and for each turn thereafter, each player made two moves, then half the time White would have made one extra move, and the other half Black would have made one extra move. But allowing two moves in each turn would be a major change to Chess, transforming it into something completely different.

But the same result could be obtained if each player made one move per turn, except that the very first move in the game, always made by the player with the white pieces were only half a move. This could be roughly approximated by not allowing White to make a two-step Pawn move as his first move.

This, unlike the change previously proposed, would radically change opening theory, by eliminating many of the openings considered strongest for White. It might make the openings where White begins with a Knight move considerably more popular, as they might be seen as the strongest of those remaining.

A more radical proposal for a modification of Chess, which gives a larger partial credit for stalemate, and which also allows partial wins to be obtained through bare king and even perpetual check, is now described on a subsequent page.

In one USENET post, instead of giving something like Chancellor Chess or Capablanca Chess, or the version of Hexagonal Chess invented by Wladyslaw Glinski, as possibilities when I wanted to give examples of how the rules of Chess might change in the distant future, I gave simpler examples based on changes that had already taken place in board games. Since Chess had changed from Shatranj by making existing pieces more powerful, one example was that the Queen might be replaced by an Amazon, which has the move of the Knight in addition to the existing Queen's move. Another example I gave was analogous to the change from the jeu plaisant to the jeu forcé in Checkers, that a rule might be adopted making it compulsory to capture if a Pawn capture is available.

These two examples were noted as illustrations of how history could repeat itself, with a regional variant of Chess eventually being recognized as an improvement, and supplanting the previous game. I noted, however, that the chance of such a development seemed extremely remote.

The Crisis in Chess

As I write these words in May of 2008, the United States Chess Federation is considering whether or not to make its flagship publication, Chess Life, optionally available to members by means of a web based subscription instead of on paper, allowing them to save money on their membership dues if they choose.

This is controversial, for two reasons.

If this were simply a conservation measure, proposed to save America's declining forests, that would be one thing. When it is an economy measure to respond to a declining membership, then concern becomes more intense.

Radio, television, video games, and the Internet have given people many new options for spending their spare time. But this hasn't made it hard to find a chess set in stores.

What, then, is the problem?

I think that one can speak of a crisis existing if we recognize that it is the organizational face of Chess that we are talking about. How many people take Chess seriously enough to join a Chess club? How much coverage do daily newspapers give to Chess tournaments and matches? This can vary, even if Chess as a pastime for individuals remains as popular as ever.

Also, in order to say that the situation, as it exists now, falls short of expectations, it is necessary to have a baseline of comparison.

When Wilhelm Steinitz switched from tactical play to positional play, and starting at the Vienna tournament of 1873 showed that this was a more effective way to play Chess, the crisis began.

A superior understanding of the factors which determine why one attack is successful, and another is not, is in itself a good thing; if Chess players aren't open to learning more about the game, and they refuse to play as well as they can, then they would be less likely to be taken seriously. But the increased understanding of Chess that Steinitz gave us had the unfortunate result that because Chess players understood what they had to do in order to mount a winning tactical assault, they played in a less flamboyant fashion, and, thus, chess games between higher-level players became less exciting on a surface level.

Individual players, such as Capablanca, Tal, Petrosian, or Fischer, by their ability and style of play, did still manage to squeeze out some room for exciting play at the higher reaches of Chess. The institutional support given to Chess under Communism in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, while it led to a discouragingly lop-sided Chess world, contributed to the continued institutional visibility of the game.

If we compare the visible world of Chess among experts, masters, and Grandmasters today, after Steinitz, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the game's popularity in the days of Labourdonnais and McDonnell, Anderssen and Kieseritzky, that we may be disappointed should not come as a surprise.

Given that the Soviet Union is not something we would wish to resurrect, and given that there is no way to put the knowledge of positional play revealed by Steinitz back in the bottle, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that using a baseline of comparison which excludes these two major and irreversible factors is unrealistic.

Despite this, there are still two ways to respond. One can work through conventional measures, such as public education and outreach, to achieve realistic goals for maintaining and increasing the popularity of Chess. One can also view the past glories of Chess as showing the existence of an opportunity; if there were a way to reverse the impact of the transition from the Romantic Era to the Modern Era of Chess, then a large potential for growth would be unleashed.

It is this latter dream that has prompted so much effort being made in hopes that something such as the widespread adoption of Capablanca Chess, or Randomized Chess, particularly in the form developed by Fischer, or Seirawan Chess, a development of Pocket Knight Chess where the additional pocketed pieces are instead the extra pieces of Capablanca Chess might achieve this result.

While I think that there are sound practical reasons for fearing that this hope is illusory, it has not stopped inventors from proposing new chess variations. I have tried to take a hard look at the question, and with Dynamic Scoring and Random Variant Chess, I have tried to investigate if alternatives could be found that were at least slightly superior to previous proposals.

I have now heard some encouraging news that suggests the solution may indeed have been found. A proposal by the grandmaster Vladimir Kramnik to modify the rules of Chess by abolishing Castling, was tested out on Google's AlphaZero computer system, and it was found that optimal play of that variant leads to just the sort of exciting play that is being sought for!

But on further reflection, while this seems to be cause for optimism, something else must be considered. There's an old joke about Chess which goes something like this:

Two men were playing Chess one day. After one of them played [a certain move] in response to [the previous moves of the opening], the other one said, "Bobby Fischer always plays [this different move] in this position, so why didn't you?", to which the first one responded, "Bobby Fischer knows what to play after he plays [that move] in that position: I don't!".

Similarly, while Alpha Zero would have the capability of playing an exciting tactical game in Chess without castling, and winning against players who, instead, still tried to play a cautious positional game along the lines set forth by Steinitz, it does not follow from this that human players would be able to execute bold tactical play well enough to win against such a player.

The fact that a certain strategy at Chess is theoretically optimal does not mean that it is the best strategy for a player whose Chess-playing capacity is limited.

The Replacement for Dynamic Scoring

Even after attempting to simplify my original attempt to introduce something like komidashi for Chess, the result has been too complicated.

But now I think I have finally seen how a reasonably simple implementation of the principle I seek to use is possible:

Let us set the game of Chess at 100 points instead of 1 point, so that a win is 100-0 instead of 1-0, and a draw is 50-50 instead of 1/2-1/2.

Then, I propose that three other outcomes be added:

Stalemate, instead of being a draw, would count as 60-40 in favor of the player who forced stalemate. As noted above, that still makes it worth only 1/5 as much as a checkmate, so endgame theory isn't negated; it's still important not to blunder a checkmate into a mere stalemate.

In addition, Bare King would be available as a victory. It has to be claimed, because a player who has taken all of an opponent's pieces may still be able to checkmate or stalemate. But it would only count as 52-48 in favor of the winning player.

Finally, even perpetual check would count as a victory, 51-49 in favor of the winning player. Or, rather, the game's score would be 49-51, since only Black is to be allowed to claim a victory by perpetual check.

The reasoning behind this is that White has a slight advantage over Black in Chess. So, as a victory by perpetual check is the easiest of the four to achieve, having it won frequently by White wouldn't really be useful. But taking notice of the times when Black, despite being disadvantaged, can score this victory does record something worthwhile for choosing the better player in a chess match.

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