The Chess Variant Pages

Comments on Grand Chess

By Alfred Myers

I read with great interest Kevin Scanlon's suggestions for variant rules in Christian Freeling's Grand Chess game. I would hereby like to add my two cents worth, in the interest of possibly improving Mr. Freeling's very promising game to the extent where it can universally be regarded as the next step in the evolution of chess. To take Mr. Scanlon's points in the order in which he raised them:
1.    Stalemates: Let's leave the stalemate rule the way it is in ordinary chess--a draw! Granted that in the medieval forms of chess or Chinese chess with the limited powers for the pieces, stalemates would be relatively common and annoying, but that isn't true in standard chess and presumably would be even less so in Grand Chess with its relatively open board and very powerful pieces. Don't forget the logic of declaring stalemate a draw, that it gives a player with an inferior or losing position the possibility of evading his fate by means of a clever, aesthetically pleasing combination. Remember that the very name "chess" (a corruption of "shah") means "king" and that "checkmate" literally means "the king is dead"! That's the only way a chess game should be won, by the death of the opposing king.
2.    En passant captures: Here again I must disagree with Mr. Scanlon. The pawn's initial double jump option originated with modern chess as a convenience move to improve the tempo of the game, but it soon became apparent that depriving adjacent enemy pawns of their right of capture was a serious strategic flaw that had to be rectified by the en passant rule. Let's admit up front that the en passant capture is the most unnatural move in chess, the one that really looks like cheating! But if it's essential in ordinary chess, it's even more so in Grand Chess, where the pawn only has to advance five ranks instead of six (or with the initial double jump, four moves instead of five) before it can be promoted. This is perhaps an overlooked fact which in my opinion probably contributes as much to the added power of Grand Chess as the two additional pieces. But let's not extend the right of en passant capture to the pieces. That would be totally unnecessary. A piece can always back up and have another go at the pawn if it so desires, but the enemy pawn does not have this option.
3.    Opening array of the pieces: On this point I absolutely agree with Mr. Scanlon that his opening array of N/B/C/Q/K/M/B/N is superior to Mr. Freeling's for several reasons. First, as Mr. Scanlon states, the Queen centralization maintains the symbolism of the orthodox chess array better and continues to allow the board to be divided up conveniently into the Kingside and the Queenside. (In fact, you might even be able to say that the board then has a masculine side, the King and his Marshall, and a feminine, the Queen and her Cardinal.) It should be pointed out that even in Grand Chess the Queen is the most powerful piece on the board and thus deserves to occupy one of the central files.

In this regard I would like to mention that although to date I have only dabbled in Grand Chess and have never even played a game, several years ago I bought one a Grand Chess set and board. The set is basically OK--the designs of the Cardinal and Marshall are quite good--but it does have the drawback that both the new pieces and especially the Marshall are taller than the Queen. The King and Queen should remain the tallest pieces on the board, so that you retain the pleasing slope of the traditional Staunton design array, where each piece's height is roughly proportionate to its power, except for the rooks, of course.


In this regard another suggested variant from Mr. Freeling's array was to post the Cardinal and Marshall at the ends of the formation in order to bring the Knights and Bishops to a more central location which would enable them to be developed more quickly and effectively. While this idea has some merit, I still prefer Mr. Scanlon's array, where the major pieces are centralized. This of course means that, once standard openings evolve for Grand Chess, they will be totally different from those of standard chess.
        A second reason for preferring Mr. Scanlon's array is that the white King starts out on a black square and the Queen starts on a white square, just as they do in standard chess (of course the black pieces also start on squares of familiar color). This would certainly be an encouragement for regular chess players would like to try out Grand Chess. A third reason for preferring Mr. Scanlon's array is that it would distribute the four pieces having the power of the Knight's jump more evenly across that board. I believe this to be more aesthetically and strategically pleasing that Mr. Freeling's array, and I don't believe that the pawns in front of the King need to be especially well-protected for the reason I will go into below.
Having completed my comments on Mr. Scanlon's suggestions, I would now like to contribute one of my own:
4.    Permit Castling in Grand Chess: Here I must do battle with Mr. Freeling himself. He states that since the Rooks are already connected in Grand Chess, Castling, which is an unnatural move anyway, is not necessary and should be abolished. But rook connection is only one objective of castling; others being King safety, active participation of the King in defense of his pawn wall, and centralization of one of the Rooks. At least two of these reasons, King safety and pawn defense, are even more important in Grand Chess than they are in the regular game. Again, let's not forget that enemy pawns can be promoted as soon as they hit the original pawn wall, which would make its defense all the more vital. Remember that castling only developed in response to the increased powers of modern chess as compared to the medieval game, and several variants were tried before the modern castling move was settled upon. Perhaps medieval chess can be compared to World War I, where the outcome is decided only after a wholesale slaughter of the opposing armies and the modern game to World War II, where there is still plenty of trench warfare but also bombs flying overhead. With Grand Chess we are definitely in the 21st. Century, and to deprive the King of his one flight move is like tethering him to an ox-cart during a missile attack. I don't claim to be an expert in non-standard varieties of chess, but I have played over a few games of Shogi, in which the pieces have largely medieval powers (we can for the purposes of this discussion pass over the sadistic rule which allows you to incorporate a captured piece into your army). In the opening phases of these games, the players seem to spend quite a number of tedious moves to tuck their kings in the corner before embarking on offensive action anyway. Therefore, to answer Mr. Freeling's question, "Why should the King be safe?", I would reply that castling would greatly expand the strategic variety of Grand Chess games, just as it does in standard chess.
    If Grand Chess would allow a castling move, what would it be? I would suggest a move that is as similar as possible to that in the standard game. Either kingside or queenside, the King would be permitted to move three spaces instead of two (to compensate for the extra width of the board of course), and the corresponding rook would move to his side but remain on the first rank. Thus in a kingside castling move, the King would wind up on square i2 and the King's Rook on h1. Going queenside, the King would wind up on c2 and the Queen's Rook on d1. Either move would be slightly more artificial and less coherent than the castling move in standard chess, but so be it. It should also be noted that in the suggested queenside castling move in Grand Chess, it would not be necessary for the Queen's Knight to have moved off its original square because it wouldn't be blocking the passage of the Rook. These slight anomalies and imperfections of the suggested castling move would in my opinion be greatly outweighed by the advantages of having the option to castle.
5.     One last suggestion for a minor rule clarification: One of the glories of Grand Chess is the requirement that a pawn can only be promoted to a piece that has previously been removed from the board. This not only increases the tactical variety of the game, but it makes a new type of piece sacrifice feasible, that of the absolutely poison piece which, if captured, could be immediately be used in a devastating promotion. But it leaves one question open in the admittedly potentially very rare instance of under-promotion of a Bishop. This move is of course essentially nonexistent in regular chess. I have played over thousands of master games but have only encountered bishop under-promotions in composed problems. Presumably they would be almost as rare or nonexistent in Grand Chess. But as the Bishop is the only piece on the board which is limited to squares of one color, I believe it should be stated that no player can have two Bishops traveling on the same color. In other words, if a player still has his white-squared Bishop on the board, he could only promote a pawn to Bishop on a black square.
In conclusion, I would like to reinforce the consensus that Grand Chess is a game with tremendous potential. I would be interested in any comments on my suggestions.