The Chess Variant Pages



Interview with Hans Bodlaender:
Founder of the Chess Variant Pages

In May 2003 Hans Bodlaender stepped down from his position of chief editor of the Chess Variant Pages. In recognition of this event and of Hans' great work on these pages, we (the editors) decided an interview was called for.

Questions from David Howe

DH: First, on behalf of the chess variant community, the contributors and editors, I'd like to thank you for creating the Chess Variant Pages, and for all your tireless work over most of the last decade. And thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.

DH: What have you found to be the most rewarding aspect of working on the Chess Variant Pages?

HB: The many kind reactions to the web site, and the pleasant cooperation with many people.

DH: If you could do the whole thing over again (creating and running the CVP), would you change anything, and if so, what would you change?

HB: There were several small mistakes I made, and I would like to prevent them (thus, probably making a few others). Perhaps writing some emails to people more carefully, and answering emails by others sooner. But in general, I probably would go with the same format.

DH: How would you categorize yourself in relation to Fergus Duniho's description below?

The three personality types in the Enneagram's competency triad are distinguished by how they relate to rules, and this bears on how members of these three types approach Chess variants. The three types in this triad are One, Three, and Five. Type One likes to obey rules. Type Three likes to master rules. And type Five likes to play with rules.

While Ones like to obey rules, they sometimes feel dissatisfied with the rules, seeking to reform them or supplant them. Enneagram author Don Riso calls type One the Reformer. When a One is interested in creating Chess variants, it is usually out of a feeling of dissatisfaction with Chess and other variants. A One typically seeks to create the perfect variant, and he may devote his efforts to perfecting one variant rather than to creating several variants.

Unlike Ones, Threes aren't driven to create the perfect game. A Three is more likely to be driven to be good at a game. I expect that several of the most accomplished players are Threes. Threes generally don't have any inner drive to create new variants, but if a Three perceives a market for a new variant, he may create one, then invest his time and money into promoting it and marketing it. Threes are driven mainly by a desire for success, and for some Threes promoting a new Chess variant may be a means to success.

Fives like to play and tinker with rules. When a Five is interested in Chess variants, he generally likes to play with Chess like it's a box of Legos or Tinker Toys, mixing and matching various rules, pieces, and boards to try out various possibilities. While Fives may employ standards in creating their games, they generally regard the perfect variant as a myth. For them, creating variants is more like playing with a kaleidoscope than it is about seeking perfection. Although Fives may like to see their games manufactured, they generally lack a marketing orientation, and they are usually too busy working on their next variant to spend much time promoting their last one. Fives tend to create several more variants than other types do.

HB: Without any doubt: a Five. I'm certainly not a One. Actually, I believe that chess, while having certain imperfections, is a great game to play, and I'm enjoying my weekly game in the chess club a lot. Many chess variants however, are just as pleasurable games as chess, but I do not believe there is some perfect variant.

In my work as a computer scientist, I'm sometimes trying to invent `algorithms', methods to compute something. A game with rules has something similar to an algorithm -- we have a precise description on how things are supposed to go. The difference is that we have humans with liberty to go within those rules, and the interaction between different humans, but still, a game with rules has some things in common with an algorithm. Thus, my interest in games is often in the rules, and how they work. It may sound crazy, but I am fond of reading rules of board games, and seeing how the rules of a game are, how they interact, etc. I also am interested in reading about the history of board games, a somewhat neglected part of human cultural history.

As a child, I used to try to invent board games, playing them with my brother. I must admit that I'm not very good at it, and that the games I invented were not very good or interesting. I did not invent many chess variants, and of those I invented, none was really good; only one got some recognition, but was more an elementary idea.

But the classification as a Five seems clear. Are there also Zero's, Two's, Four's or Sixes?

Questions from John Lawson

JL: How did you become interested in CV's?

HB: The interest was brought upon me by my father. He discussed chess variants often with me. As a child, I played some chess variants in the chess club, in particular Giveaway chess, Pocket Knight, and Tandem Chess. Later, I learned about the existence of Xiangqi and Shogi. Then, my father bought for me Gollon's book `Chess Variations'. This was for me a great introduction into the area of chess variants.

JL: What inspired you create the CVP?

HB: People are often saying: You can find all kinds of information on the World Wide Web. However, the experience is that when you look for something particular, it may be hard to find or even absent on the web. I had the experience about eight and a half years ago. Learning that there was the World Wide Web, I was looking for information on chess variants, and there was hardly anything. So, I made a few very simple web pages, which contained a few links and the rules of half a dozen chess variants.

JL: What kind of CV's do you like to play?

HB: I like to play chess itself -- it is a great game, and relatively easy to find good opponents to play the game with. I'm not a very good player, but it is a lot of fun. I like a serious 1.30 hour game better than speed play. Apart from that, I like to play the variants I already played as a child: tandem chess, giveaway chess, and pocket knight chess. Xiangqi is also a very nice game.

JL: Do you think FIDE chess will eventually be superseded, and if so, by what?

HB: I do not think so. There are so many chess variants that want to replace FIDE-chess, and I do not believe there is a single one that will replace it. The orthodox chess has one big problem at the moment: the opening theory is so much developed that knowledge of it plays a very big role. But changing the rules of the game is, I think, not the real solution to the problem. For instance, many people expect the variant of random chess proposed by Fischer (Fischer Random Chess) to be a replacement to chess. But many of the random opening setups lead to strange positions, and give a less chess-like feeling. Then, for instance, a variant like Freeling's Grand Chess feels more natural chess-like. But for most players, the fact that there is so much opening theory does not matter or prevent them to enjoy the game, while for strong players, the advanced theory may be considered an advantage.

JL: What do you think the future of CV's might hold?

HB: Variants of FIDE chess will, I believe, blossom more and get more attention. We see that nowadays more and more often, chess masters and grandmasters play tournaments of chess variants. Still, I believe that CV's will not gain a larger following than the main games: chess, Xiangqi, or Shogi. The internet helps CV's a lot: for people interested in chess variants, it is now much easier to find equally minded people.

JL: Do you think the CVP will still exist in 20 years?

HB: Who knows? As long as there are people willing to rum the site, it will exist. The web site will have a problem around that time, as what to do with a contest to design a variant on a board with 64 squares...

Questions from Peter Aronson

PA: When you started what eventually became the CVP, where did you expect it to go?

HB: I didn't expect a lot. I found it fun to do, so made it. At a certain moment, I figured: when one chess variant per week is added to the web site, then in a year, there will be a web site with more than 50 chess variants. That was a thrilling prospect, and hence I spend about one or two evenings per week, making web pages for chess variants.

PA: Were you surprised by the CVP's success?

HB: Indeed. I remember the moment Ralph Betza was sending me a chess variant of his invention for the first time: it was Different Augmented Knights. I had read Ralph's name in a book (Pritchard's Encyclopedia of Chess Variants, or Schmittberger's New Rules for Classic Games), and I was excited by the idea that a new chess variant invention had its premiere at my web site.

After a while, more people found out that the site existed, and were sending me materials for the web site. This became so much work that I was very happy that about six years ago, David Howe offered to help me with the web site. I must stress that without David, the Chess Variant Pages would not exist now, and would not be more than an abandoned set of a few web pages with rules of chess variants at present.

PA: Do you have any advice for anyone starting a hobby-centered web site?

HB: There is a saying: the perfect is an enemy of the good, and this is certainly true for web sites. The nice thing about a web site is that you can improve it while it is already running. So, start with something small, and improve and extend it afterwards. One of the main mistakes people make with web sites is that they put too much emphasis on the layout. Fancy technology or graphics is a lot of work, but I found that the first emphasis should be on providing useful or interesting information. Also, keep an eye out for the copyright issue; that may prevent problems later. I prefer to write pure html - it is not hard, and makes your web pages look decent in about any browser. Keep a backup of your web site on your computer, and on a floppy or CD. And, advertise your web site, e.g., get it listed in the main search engines.

Questions from Tony Quintanilla

TQ: How did you get the idea of starting the Chess Variants Pages?

HB: I've answered this earlier. At the start, the web site was just titled Chess Variants, but at one creative evening fall 1995, I thought up the name The Chess Variant Pages, and make the logo that still is in the left-upper corner of the web pages.

TQ: What is your favorite Chess variant?

HB: Chess. It is a great game, with a lot of rather interesting strategic and tactical possibilities. It is also great to be able to play this game face to face against other people, many who play it better than me, so I learn to become a little better.

TQ: What are your plans for the future?

HB: I plan to spend a little less time behind the computer in the evenings; apart from that, no specific plans.

TQ: Will you keep active in the Chess variants community?

HB: Yes. I plan to work on at least one web page for the CVP monthly, now as editor.

TQ: Did you ever expect that the Chess Variants Pages would be so successful and attract so many contributions?

HB: No. I'm grateful to all the people that helped so much to make this web site to what it became.

TQ: How would you gauge the overall impact of the Chess Variants Pages on the modern development of Chess variants?

HB: The CVP helps the interaction between people inventing and trying chess variants. In the 20th century, there were chess variant inventors like V.R. Parton. He had several great ideas, but had to write booklets with the ideas. People that invent a variant now get immediate feedback. So, we see that many variants are rapidly invented. The danger is that many of the great ideas get too little time to tested out well.

TQ: What is most memorable for you from the last 8 years working on the Chess Variants Pages?

HB: I mentioned a few things in other questions. I am rather grateful to David Howe for all that he did - while many people seem to say and think this is `my' web site, he did in the past eight years more work than I did on the site; editing many submissions by contributors, and making the wonderful database driven system for indexing, feedback, etc.

Also, I am happy with many friendly comments I received. One of these was by a father who wrote that the web site helped him to come closer to his son, by trying out all the variants on the web site.

TQ: What unrealized ideas do you still have in mind for the Chess Variants Pages?

HB: The ideas were mostly about contests. I think it would be great to have a contest to design a tiny chess variant, e.g., one with at most 20 squares. I'm always fond of small chess variants - what does that say about me? Another idea for a contest is the `Invent and Play' format. People would design chess variants, then play these variants against each other, vote for which variants they like, and people get points for votes and for games they won. The overall winner should have a liked variant and have won many of the games. A third idea for a contest is a mousepad design contest. There are firms that print for you a number of mousepads with your own design on it, for just a few euro's (or dollars) a piece. One could ask the participants to design a variant which an irregular board but with otherwise usual pieces, so that the board can be printed on the mousepad, and thus, with the mousepad we have a board for the game with the other equipment readily available. A fourth idea is a photo contest: ask people to send in photo's with the chess variants theme.

A feature still missing in the web site, and one I'm not sure how to realize is a server to real-time play against humans. There are other places at the internet where one can play chess variants on a server in real time, but it would be rather nice to have this feature at the CVP.

TQ: What do you think is the role of the Chess Variants Pages for the education or entertainment of children in Chess?

HB: I'm teaching a group of 12 children of about 10 years old chess. For those who do not know the rules, simple games can help to practice; e.g., I use a simple game where players only move a knight that has to catch a number of immobile pawns, to train knight movement. Giveaway chess is great for training young chess players too: they often have difficulties in seeing `long moves' (like b1 - h7), and with giveaway chess they practice to see those kind of patterns. Also, the children in my group like the variation, and many ask to play giveaway of tandem chess.

TQ: What will you miss most about your past role in the Chess Variants Pages?

HB: I have to find that out yet...

Questions from Glenn Overby II

GO: For our second variant design contest of 2003 (we seem to do two a year most years), instead of some of the themes discussed previously I would be interested in seeing if you would set a theme for a sort of commemorative event. Possibly a type of game you'd like to see the talent on CVP try.

HB: Perhaps the tiny chess variants contest I mentioned above?

GO: I think that you ought to be titled "Chief Editor Emeritus" in recognition of your service. What do you think of this idea?

HB: I would be honored.