The Chess Variant Pages

Surprise Chess

Also called Crazy Lightning Chess

On the Christmas Chess evening 1998 of the youth group of the Houtense Schaak Vereniging (the chess club of Houten, the Netherlands), the youth members and one parent per youth member were invited for an hour of `Surprise Chess'. What happened is described in the rules below. This is a variant that can be much fun for chess club evenings, although some serious chess players may frown upon it.


A normal chess board and setup is used, with two players, possibly of unequal strength. In addition, there is a `caller' - someone that does not play a game.

The caller has a tin or another object that can make a sound. Players must move when the caller hits the tin. In addition, they may not make a move or touch a piece when the caller does not hit the tin. A piece that is touched when it is not allowed disappears from the board. If you touch your king when it is not allowed - you loose!

Additionally, the caller can give certain commands, like:

Creative callers can invent additional commands. A caller can make a command almost every move, or just a few times per game.

If players of unequal strength play against each other, e.g., children play against parents, then give all weaker players white, and all stronger players black (or vice versa), and make the calls `unfair', e.g., have at different times, several pieces from the stronger player removed from the board.

After some fixed time, the game stops, and for games that are not yet finished, the player that has most pieces still on the board wins the game.

A suggestion by David Moeser

David Moeser wrote the following nice suggestion for this variant:

Take a hundred (or more) 3x5 file cards and cut them in halves or thirds. Then write down a possible command on each card. These commands could be like what you described, based on chess rules or chess knowledge. But they could also be modeled on or stolen from other board games, including ideas not usually associated with chess, like "Lose one turn," "Go back one space" (possibly interpreted as moving a piece back one rank on its file?!), and so on. The sillier the better!

Put all the cards into a big box and mix them around. Then instead of relying on the caller's imagination (which otherwise might dry up in the middle of the game!), the caller would pick a card randomly from the box and read it to the players before each move (or at the specified interval for announcing the special instructions). This method has several advantages: First, the caller can participate in the games. Second, the same cards can be used in future games. (And more cards can be added as more ideas are suggested.) Third, this method eliminates any possible bias or non-objectivity on the part of the caller.

Additional Information from David Regis

The game is also called Crazy Lightning Chess and appear in David Pritchard's Encyclopedia of Chess Variants. Lightning Chess is speed chess played with a regular periodic 'buzzer' - players move at and only at the sound of the buzzer. Crazy Lightning Chess is Lightning Chess, but with the additional rules regarding the 'caller', or umpire, as described above. Also note that rules supercede each other and do not persist for the whole game. According to Pritchard this game is a
perennial favourite at the British Championships (British Chess Magazine Feb 1990).

Here's a game from a major tournament held during carnival time in Germany: 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 d6 6. Be2 e6 7. O-O Be7 8. Be3 O-O 9. Nb3 a6 10. f4 b5 11. f5 Bb7 (The 'General' here announced that the Pawns are Berolina Pawns, that is, Pawns now move diagonally and capture directly forwards) 12. fxf6 Bxf6 13. Qd2 b4 (illegal move?) 14. Nd4 Rc8 15. Rad1 (here the General announced that with each Rook move, an opponent's piece or Pawn could be removed) bxc3 16. Rb1 (xQd8) Rfd8 (xRf1) 17. Ra1 (xRc8) Re8 (xRa1) 18. Qxc3 Rd8 (xQc3) 19. Kf2 Ra8 (xNd4) 20. Ke1 Rb8 (xBe3) (The General now announced that a coin would be tossed at each turn to determine whether moves will be allowed) 21. Bh5 Bxb2 22. Bxf7+ Bc3+ (sic) 23. Bxg8 1-0

The umpire is occasionally called on to rule on interpretations of particular situations, for example, if a change of rules means that a King not on the move is in suddenly in check.

The following Java applet will generate a random list of rules. The rules were devised by David Regis, who also wrote some c code that this applet is based on.

Enter the number of random rules you wish to be generated, then press the "Display Rules" button. Enter 0 (zero) if you wish to generate random rules using the entire list. Each entry in the list is preceded by a random move (as opposed to turn) number. This could be used to time when the rules would be read, instead of leaving it up to the umpire's discretion.

There are currently only 36 rules in the list. If anyone has suggested additions or modifications, please let us know.

WWW page created: December 23, 1998. Last modified: December 14, 1999.
Written by Hans Bodlaender, David Moeser and David Regis. Java applet written by David Howe (his first!).