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The Art of Chess Variants
Interview with Jean-Louis Cazaux

March 2001, an interview by email was held with Jean-Louis Cazaux, author of two books on chess variants. You read the interview below.

Thank you very much for letting me have this interview with you.

You’re welcome.

Can you tell something about yourself? (E.g., where do you live, what is your current profession, etc.?)

I’m 40 years old. I was born in Tarbes, France in 1960. I live with Anne in Toulouse, capital of aeronautics, in the South-West of France. I have a daughter, 12 and a son, 10. I' now working with ALCATEL SPACE, a company which makes satellites. There, I’m working in the field of microwave electronics. I’m involved in several expertises outside my company which allow me to travel around. French is my mother tongue, I also speak English and Spanish and can read some Italian. I miss German a lot, I wish someday I learn it.

You wrote two books on chess variants. Can you tell something about these books?

Your second book has a rather different flavor from your first book. Can you tell what are the different perspectives taken by these books?

First is "Guide des échecs exotiques et insolites" (Guide of exotic and unorthodox chess) published by Chiron in March 2000. This book presents about 60 selected chess variants, sorted by families, giving the full rules, an illustration of the array and few historic or cultural elements.

The second one is "L’Univers des échecs" (The world of chess) written with Pascal Reysset and published by Bornemann in November 2000. It aims at being an introduction and a complete survey of the world of chess. Then, origin and history of the game and its pieces are addressed as well as some specific issues like chess and computers, chess and social sciences (sociology, psychology), chess and literature, Xiangqi and Shogi have their own detailed chapters as they merit. Other variants having a strong historical interest like Timur’s chess, Courier chess, or geographical like Makruk, Sittuyin, Shatar, have their place as well. Finally there is a full chapter on variants which can be played with the regular material (Popular Chess Variants as D.B. Pritchard says); it was often complained that such a chapter was missing (due to size limitation) on my first book.

More information can be found on my home page:

How did you become interested in chess variants?

I think that I’ve always been interested on things off-the-road. As many CV enthusiast, I’m very interested in constructed languages like Esperanto, Ido, and others.

Concerning games, let me tell you this. Once, I went to Geneva (Switzerland) and bought 2 card packs, one with French suits, and one with Swiss suits. Then, I invented a game with 8 suits rather than 4. Also, I invented a Mahjong game for 2 players were the Flowers and Seasons are not stupidly used as lottery, but rather participate into the combinations you have to do with the tiles.

Chess of course attracted me with its rich potential of variants. It started for me in 1978 when I bought a book from Pierre Berloquin (100 jeux de société) (100 social games). It had a full chapter dedicated to chess with Xiangqi, Shogi, Akenhead, 4-handed Chaturanga, Capablanca, several "faeries" (taken from Boyer’s book) and above all: Tamerlane’s Chess. Soon, I built my first board and chess set (see figure). Quickly, I came unhappy with the slow moves, and I made my own rules. Then, in 1981, I went to Oviedo, Spain, and there on a street market, I found the Gabriel Maura’s book. (G. Maura, from Puerto Rico was the inventor of Modern Chess, 9x9 with a Minister=Bishop+Knight). It was the first history of CV I had ever read and I discovered this huge world. I made a 9x9 board and drawn a 11x11 on the other side. This is how I started to design Tamerlane 2. In 1987, I went to Ann Arbor, Michigan for my studies and there I found Gollon’s book. I was caught.

Why do you think chess variants are interesting?

Chess represents the summit of intellectual, intelligence, memory for most of us on this world. Looking for something better is amazing for many people. I can see that around me, my family, my friends, also the journalists I met for newspaper or TV shows are completely charmed when you start talking about different chess in China, or bigger chess on the web!

But this is not why I thing CV are interesting. First, it is not true that they are better : the best CV I dream to invent is ... FIDE chess ! So why, spending energy on that past-time ? I think it is a kind of an artistic expression. The contest you hold are the best examples. The inventors are just artists who have a wonderful matter to create with. Your work is not something stable as a painting or a sculpture. It moves, changes, depending on who plays. It can be bright or poor, you never know. As, CV tries to get away from preceding routes, yes, it’s art.

Look for instance it’s interesting to see that very few of us play the games invented by others: we look at the rules, as a musician reads a partition, sometimes we just try a few zillions-parties and that’s it : we have our opinion whether is good or poor. We had some good few minutes, and we are back to our favorite occupation: designing a new one.

Why did you write these books?

I love books and CV, now you know. I had books in English and Spanish. I was always looking for a book in French in bookstores. (Boyer’s books are impossible to find, you know that). It happens that I bought a computer, so I wondered : why not writing that book myself ? It looked foolish at the beginning, but I think that this came at a moment where I needed a long-term project like that in my life. I have not got 1 penny yet, and I wonder if I will one day, but I have no regret. It has been a fantastic experience.

How did you write these books? How was for the second book the cooperation with your coauthor?

I write at home or during vacations. My family was kind to let me spend all this time on this work and I thank them a lot for their support which never failed.

I wrote the 1st book in 3 full years. 2 for writing and 1 for finding an editor. The first interested editor wanted to change several things and was afraid by the cost for making all diagrams. Later on, Chiron, expressed his interest in my book: no change were requested and they asked me to make a ready-to-print manuscript, then the cost issue was solved. I just had to reduce the number of pages a bit (I had wrote 50% more than what is in the 1st book). This is how my book went to Chiron. Chiron as a long tradition of game book editing in the past (mahjong, go, awele) but had been silent for few years. They were re-starting with my book.

During this process, Bornemann told me that they were interested by my collaboration on a general book on Chess. Bornemann is the most active editor in France for games books. A general title upon Chess was missing on their collection. Pascal Reysset, one of the two co-directors of the game collection, had already defined the articulation of the book and wrote few pages. I spent one more year completing, writing new chapters (especially on history and on variants). I was sending texts to Pascal and he was correcting, making suggestions, Pascal is the author of 7 other books on games, go, awele, mahjong, abalone, often in collaboration. There is a third person who is not credited as author but did a huge work: Thierry Depaulis. He is the second director of the collection. Historian of games, he is well known for his contributions especially in card games where he wrote several books. He is also at the editor board on Board Games Review, an excellent magazine. Thierry made a lot of corrections on the historical aspects and took the charge of making all illustrations and the final layout.

In your first book, you give a large number of different variants. How did you make the selection for the variants?

Basically, I went through all variants listed in DB.Pritchard’s ECV and I made big tables with main characters, then, I sorted them in families, which form more or less the chapters of my book. The selection was then very subjective: I tried to keep the most known, the most original, the most influencing. Also, I tried to balance the weight of the different categories. I have tried also to avoid the temptation of putting too many variants from my own. Then, I only put Shako in full length, I preferred Renaissance Chess rather than my Perfect 12, even though this is one is among my variants, my preferred one !

It is not an easy process and I’m sure that I have rejected very good variants from other people. I have one in mind, Centenial Chess from my friend J.W. Brown because it was competing with many historic variants in this category, but I swear to place it if I make a Guide n°2.

What chess variants do you think do you like most and why?

I love Xiangqi and Shogi, Shoudouqi (Jungle game), but is that really a chess variant? More chess-like, I like variants on larger boards, with more pieces. However, I prefer pieces whose move/capture are not two far away from the principles we find in chess or in xiangqi. Centenial Chess, as I said is a good one. Also, I was impressed by Wildebeest C from Schmittberger for its simplicity and its logic. Another very impressive is Grand Chess from Ch. Freeling because he succeeded for making an excellent game with Marshall (R+N) and Cardinal (B+N). One could have think that everything was said on this topic since Carrera, Bird, Capablanca, and all the others which reinvent this game up to nowadays.

Of course, I like my own creations that are displayed on my pages as well as on Perfect 12, Shako, Rollerball are my favorites. I'm preparing a new one, Gigachess, which is almost ready!

What makes a chess variant a good one?

A good one, it depends really on your taste. Again, it’s art. The views I expressed just above are not shared by most of CV amateurs. I noticed that those people are more attracted to games using new principles. The games which won the different contests on your site are very fresh, very good in that sense. (I loved Crazy 38).

Now, if good means successful, it’s a different story. For instance, look at Omega Chess and Shako. Both games are very similar, but I think there were no mutual influence at all. In Omega, there is 2 new pieces which are combinations of old pieces. (Champion = Alfil+Wazir+Dabbaba, Wizard = Camel+Fers). In Shako, we have the Elephant (Alfil+Fers), and the Canon from Xiangqi which is (at least for me) a more interesting piece than an improved Camel for it bridges with xiangqi. In Shako the board is readily available (in Europe, draughts are played on 10x10) whereas in Omega the board is specific. That could have been a drawback for Omega, however I guess that it was, contrarily, a clever idea: you can protect (patent ?) the board. Then, not only the rules make a successful CV. There is also the talent, the business aptitude of the inventors and promoters. The quality will come after, to make the success longer. (Don't misunderstood,I wish long life to Omega Chess).

The same thing could be said about Grand Chess and Gothic Chess. I said all the good I think about the former. The latter is very successful with tournaments, however its structure looks less innovative for who knows all the similar attempts made in the history. I have nothing against the Gothic Chess promoters, they do a good job and are not saving their efforts to encourage their passion. I just regret, from a CV amateur point of view, that these efforts could not have merged with those of Freeling to promote a unique Grand Chess.

What do you think will be the future of chess? Will people continue to play along the FIDE rules, or will significant changes be made to these rules in the future? Will chess variants (or a chess variant) play a role?

I really think that "FIDE" Chess is a wonderful game. It is true that they have problems. A championship nowadays is simply boring. People need more than a 2/15 draw games to place some attention on a event. Since Fischer era, chess interested people (I mean non-players of course) mainly for scandals, political issues. The game Kasparov-Kramnik got some audience only because Kasparov was the last to emerge from that dark period, when he was representing the new Russia against the old USSR (Karpov). Since then, the chess world was completely in the shade. What happened in this shade in the meantime, both for men and women, was just shameful. On the other side, the official match between Anand and Shirov was almost uncovered, which is merited because the FIDE has transformed this respectable institution into a mere knock-out tournament !

All this is unfair for chess which is the king of the games ! So Chess world needs to do something. I would modestly think : 1) clean the institutions, unify the circuit, maybe by a Kramnik-Anand match, 2) change something in order to have less draws: maybe their trend to reduce the time allowed is part of the solution. It will be difficult to have a new rules on the endings without changing the spirit of the game.

I do think that CV could bring some "fresh blood". If I don’t believe in a CV replacing the standard chess, I imagine 1 or 2 CV coming around as different specialties like in Olympics we have 100m, 200m, 110 hurdles, etc. In that direction, a Grand Chess or a 12x12 or something else, could attract some audience (new is beautiful) and open new directions of thinking.

What do you think will be the role of computers with respect to chess and chess variants?

Humans have made computers, so I’m sure that they will control them. (Asimov’s laws). Computers are already stronger than most humans. So what ? We can have competitions between them to honor the best program, we can organize competitions between humans with no computers allowed.

Computers are very useful to study the game. I don't think that this is a serious thread for chess, it could be a wonderful tool. This is true for regular chess of course, as well as for CV. They are also very useful to develop new variants, on, we all know the success of zillions-of-games. This software is really wonderful, it has opened a whole world since it is now possible to playtest his invention. I just wish that in future, the AI will become even better and sharper and that the language will simplify. After hours of programming in zillions, with a scientific-but-not-computer background, I just can feel and can’t understand how instructions like "to", "from" work !

Do you play often chess? Other games?

I do not play any game at a good level. I play Chess, Xiangqi, Draughts, Awele, Backgammon, Tarot, Hare and Tortoise, ... with Anne and my kids mainly. I like to resolve chess problems in newspapers.

Do you have other hobbies and interests?

I have too many ! I have a large Amazonian fish tank, I listen to a lot of music, I collect stamps, I read everything I find on history, on languages and linguistics, I don’t have enough room at home to store my books ! In addition, I write, and look for tons of document for that ; I program with zillions and maintain my web site.

I like sports also, rugby is my favorite (my region is the place were rugby is king in France) to watch and follow, I do running and squash every week. Born in the Pyrénées, I am a skier, snow-boarder and in Toulouse, I love to roller skate.

Do you have a plan for another book? Can you tell already something about it?

Well, I’m working on a book upon the history of main board games. The more I go on and the more I’m frightened : it is a very large domain, I wonder whether is not too big for me ? Also, I would like to work with a game editor to market a concept around chess variant, but I can’t tell more on that here.

Are there specific questions you would like me to have asked you but I didn't?

Yes: "What do you think about ?".

It is my preferred site on the web. Really, I never found something so rich, so well organized on the Internet. I owe you, and all the people who have contributed, a lot and would like to express my deepest thanks here.

Thank you very much for this interview.

You’re welcome. It was a pleasure, and I hope my strange English will be forgiven.

Jean-Louis CAZAUX

Questions by Hans Bodlaender, answers by Jean-Louis Cazaux.
WWW page created: March 22, 2001.