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Interview with Ralph Betza

Ralph Betza is probably the most productive inventor of Chess Variants. Many of his variants are published on the Internet, while several got very popular and are described in game books and magazines. High time for an interview with this grand master of chess variant design.

The interview was held by email, November 1997.

Thank you for letting me interview you.

Can you tell something about yourself? (E.g., how old are you, where do you live, what kind of work do you do, etc.)

My birth date is on the net, in the inactive FIDE ratings list, I live in the NY metropolitan area, and I'm basically a computer programmer.

In the interview, I'll use the term `chess variant' for any game that is related to FIDE-chess. You use the term somewhat differently, and use the term `chess' for games, different from FIDE-chess, but with a certain chess-like feeling. Am I right? Can you perhaps explain?

No, I use the term Chess with a capital C.

As I see it, there's a large continuum, ranging from the games that are properly Chess to the really wild games that are at least chesslike but don't feel at all like Chess when you play them; and the extremes of the spectrum will appeal to quite different people.

So, on the one hand you have Shatranj and FIDE-Chess and Almost Chess and Chess With Different Armies, and Paulowich's 8x8 Chancellor Chess; not only are these good games, but you can use them to get chessplayers to try variants. On the other hand, there is Conversion Chess and Taxi Chess and New England Double Bughouse and Alice's Chess and so on; these are also good games, and people who know chess but aren't really "chessplayers" are more likely to want to try these than to want to try the Chesslike ones.

Why did you invent so many chess variants?

Well, golly, I kept getting all these ideas, so what should I have done?

What do you consider your best chess variant inventions, and why?

Chess with Different Armies is of course the best. This is the only chess variant that's Chesslike and is arguably an even better Chess than FIDE Chess.

The best "wild" variant has to be Chess Variants with Different Armies, even though there is no specific game in that category that's properly play-tested for balance.

There are many others that I'm pleased with; variants that were well-designed and which turned out to play exactly as I had planned.

One of your best known games is Avalanche Chess - I found it mentioned in several books. What do you think yourself about that game?

It's not a bad game, especially for correspondence play. At the time I discovered it, I played by mail, and for that form of play it is better to have shorter games -- games that last fewer moves.

However, shorter games must by nature be more tactical than strategical, and I now prefer games with a better balance of strategy and tactics.

Avalanche is over 20 years old, and I wish that people would at least use different armies when they play Avalanche...

What makes a chess variant a good game?

What makes you think I would know? Seriously, my favorites among the games I've invented have never been the most popular, so it's not unreasonable to argue that I really don't know what makes a good one.

I try to design for the length of the game -- adjusting the balance of force and space to produce a shorter, tactical game or a longer, calmer game according to the settings in which I see the game being played. I try to start with an idea that people will find intriguing, so they will want to try the game to see how that idea expresses itself on the board. I try to keep the rules simple, so that people writing about the game don't need to waste too many paragraphs explaining the rules. I try to make sure that the play of the game can unfold in a number of ways, that sometimes you'll get endgames, sometimes slashing attacks from the outset, sometimes complex middlegames -- but I also try to choose for each game one type of play that will be more likely to happen.

Finally, I try to put some predesigned tension into the opening position when possible. For an example of this, see the heading "Why Choose These Pieces, Why Start them There?" in Golden Age Chess On a Really Big Board, where I explain the idea, the type of play, and some of the built-in tensions.

Do you have any advice for people that want to invent a chess variant?

Yes, two things.

First, you should realize that it's easy to invent a chess variant, and it's even easy to invent an interesting one, and even easy (with a bit of luck) to invent a pretty good one. In order to come up with something really new, you have to know what's been done before, and in order to come up with something really good, you have to try -- and then perhaps learn from what you did -- and then try another one.

Second, once you have managed to invent a good new game, do not imagine that it will make you rich and famous, do not mortgage your cat in order to raise money to manufacture and sell sets and boards for your game, and do not expect that everybody in the world will immediately stop playing FIDE Chess and start playing your game instead. (It may happen, but it will take some time.) Above all, do not spam every chess-related newsgroup saying that "Chess is Dead long live my new game" -- it's been done.

Third (so who can count?), you might need an answer you can use when people ask you "if inventing a great new chess variant won't make you rich and famous, why do it?"

The classical answer is "if you have to ask, you'll never understand".

You are also a US chess master. Some questions about this:

And an FM as well.

Do you think playing chess variants helps you to become a better chess player? And vice versa?

Your mileage may vary. What works for one person may not work for another. I believe that variants did improve my play and kept my thoughts fresh and flexible.

As for vice-versa, the general principles of strategic and tactical play continue to work extremely well in all Chesslike chess variants, and therefore better Chess players will usually also be better players of (for example) Dynamo Chess. However, studying the latest variation of the Sveshnikov Sicilian might not help you play Chessgi any better.

At what age did you start to play chess?

Learned the moves at 8, started beating schoolmates at 12 (with my invention 1. e4 e5 2. Qh5), was humbled by the outside world at age 13, won my first tournament at 14 (a regional scholastic tournament), all downhill from there.

Are there particularly memorable moments in your chess life?

Too many. It would take too much space, so I won't even mention playing against Bobby Fischer, nor beating Robert Byrne and being mentioned on the front page of the NY Times, nor beating Bisguier in a blitz game that Horowitz put in his column in the Times, nor meeting and/or playing so many famous chess names from Hans Kmoch to Brother Theodore, nor even the wonderful experiences I've had by making it a point to visit the chess club in every city I go to.

Instead, I'll just mention three:

1. Ed Lasker, at age ninety-plus, uncorked a move against me, a quiet centralizing move in an open position that not only totally defeated me but which had never entered my mind. It made me realize that although he could no longer play well, he still understood more about the game than I could ever hope to, that he had in fact forgotten more about Chess than I would ever know. Not just a figure of speech, forgotten more than I would ever know. Think about it...

2. I travelled from Milano to Geneva for a 5-minute chess tournament, and played all day to qualify for the finals, and played all those tough guys in the final section (they were all at least IMs except me) before I finally got to play Korchnoi. He played 1. d4, and after 1. d4 c5 2. d5 e5 3. e4 a6 4. f4 d6 5. fe5? Qh4+ 6. Kd2, my brain froze up on me. Between the fatigue of the long day and the emotion of having this position against such a great, I couldn't think! I played on reflex. Queens got traded, and he won a piece by advancing his King, then sportsmanlike took the chance of grabbing another. I lost, and at 3:00 in the morning I woke up with a position from the game in my mind, realizing that at one point I could have sacrificed more material to get a perpetual check, and a draw in a 5-minute game that would have been printed in every chess magazine around the world!

3. At Cadaques, Spain, which is Dali's home town, I played a blindfold simultaneous exhibition against an expatriate Texan (who translated) and the mayor, in the town's only bar. They tried to cheat by continually refilling my glass with free sherry.

What other games do you play? (I found your name in the Civilization-FAQ.)

Yes, I've wasted far too much time on games like CIV, Cavewars, Conquest of the New World, HOMM, Master of Orion 1 & 2, and so on.

As a game player, I enjoy figuring out how to win, and as a programmer, I enjoy figuring out how the computer "thinks" (and using that knowledge to win even more easily). The unbreakable attraction seems to be that as I watch things unfold I figure out more of what's really happening; and then when nothing new turns up for a while, why there's always another game to try.

I had a business trip to Japan last year, and made the pilgrimage to the Nihon Ki-in; surprised to find that after 21 years of not playing Go, I was still 3rd dan.

And, of course, I finished second in the Italian national championship of Mastermind(tm) in 1979 -- but that was long ago and I haven't played since.

What do you think about the future of chess? There are people that think that one day, the current version of chess will be replaced by another version, e.g., some variant on a larger board with new pieces. Are they right?

And computers - what will be the impact of those on the game of chess?

What do you think of Deep Blue?

Some people think that chess variants are the answer to computer-chess, but wouldn't that be just postponing the inevitable, as computers also easily get good in chess variants?

Many people run in footraces although automobiles can go faster. I notice that they also run in many different kinds of races, not just marathons, not just sprints. Is chess so different, then?

Chess is not just one game, not just one set of rules. FIDE Chess is only a small part of Chess: it is a relative newcomer, it is perhaps not the most popular, and yet it has probably been played too much.

Have you played Xiangqi or Shogi and what do you think of those games?

I like xiangqi , have played hundreds of games (but didn't like it that much on the internet). Shogi I haven't had the chance to play much, since I've had no japanese coworkers, acquaintances, or friends.

Xiangqi is interesting to the theory of chess variant design -- the board is bigger, the pieces are weaker, but because the king is confined and because the pieces are weaker in defense than in attack, it's usually a much more slashbang game than FIDE Chess. (The only successful defense is to attack the attacking pieces and drive them back; or, you can attack the enemy King and hope to checkmate first.)

What variant(s) of chess that you did not invent yourself do you like best?

FIDE Chess, of course. It has a nice mixture of possibilities, with interesting endgames, tense maneuvering, and slashing attacks. The only problem is that it has been played too much, and there exist too many books full of opening lines for people to memorize.

Racing Kings was fun and taught me a lot, and I always found Alice's Chess intriguing simply because I never could play it well.

Knight Relay was always good, seemed so natural to play. I can't figure out why nobody plays the sure-win openings I devised when I was NOST champion -- maybe they made my openings illegal?

Do you have other hobbies or interests besides board- and computer-games?

I have had; some are in abeyance, most are simply given up for good.

None have brought fortune or fame...

What questions did I not ask, but would you like to have asked? And, what would be your answers to those questions?

If you had asked how I got interested in Chess variants, I might have told you how I used to go into the city (Pittsburgh) every Saturday to sit in the library and read H.J.R. Murray's History of Chess, at the age of 13 or 14 or so. That might have been a good story to tell if my fingers weren't so tired from typing by then.

Questions by Hans Bodlaender; answers by Ralph Betza. Html-page made by Hans Bodlaender.
WWW page created: November 19, 1998.