[Retros] Messigny 2013 results

Andrew Buchanan andrew at anselan.com
Fri Jul 5 15:23:32 EDT 2013

Dear friends,

(This is long...)

The original collectible card game, Magic the Gathering, which some of you
might sneer at, Noam :-), is going from strength to strength at 20 years
old. Since it's a kind of fairy chess with about 12,000 different pieces, to
me it's the evidence which shows that it would be theoretically possible to
organize the conventions for orthodox & fairy chess problems properly.

The game started in 1993 with intuitive top-down rules, which didn't quite
work. But people loved the game so much that it didn't matter. For example,
the sequencing mechanism for sequences of spells and the layering of static
effects were two notorious areas of inconsistency. For face-to-face games,
exceptional situations were reached only occasionally, and adjudication was
possible. The Pro Tour wasn't so serious at that stage so there wasn't so
much at stake. But the publishers (Wizards of the Coast) wanted to produce
an online version of the game, and they failed multiple times despite
employing some top computer game designers (Sid Meier of Civilization fame,
for example). The problem was that the rules did not make sense.

The only option was to simplify without losing the spirit of the game, and
with the 6th Edition around 1998 this was done. It was really a triumph. The
single best idea was the introduction of the notion of a stack for
resolution of complex sequences of spells. Many players were initially
aghast, because people don't like change. They felt that the soul of the
game must have been destroyed. But although a few players left, many more
stayed and many more joined. The computer version of the game could now be
produced, but also the face-to-face paper version of the game prospered
because the rules were now definitive. It's perfectly possible to play the
game without being aware of all the intricacies, but at any tournament it's
possible to call on one of the highly disciplined cadre of judges who are
able to resolve any difficulties. And the soul of the game did indeed

The rules have undergone continual simplification since that time, but it
was 6th Edition that was the key to putting the worms back in the can. A
tournament a couple of weeks ago in Las Vegas attracted around 4500 players.
And more would have come except attendance was capped. I can't help but
compare that with our own chess problem events.

The reason why WotC was able to succeed of course is they are a private
corporation (or rather part of Hasbro - the founders shared US$325 million
at the time of the acquisition), so they make the rules. Benign despotism is
a good control model for rules changes, it turns out.

On the other hand, our own beloved chess composition world is populated by
"free spirits", but I suspect many of those spirits would not be blithe if
other free spirits insisted on changing the rules. People would complain
perhaps that older compositions would be "rendered unsound" by any
substantial changes to the rules. My own feeling has long been that the past
can take care of itself, if properly ring-fenced. We need to acknowledge
that the rules and the conventions must change over time, and as long as we
have the foresight to properly timestamp changes to rules and conventions,
the older conventions remain sound in their own time period, but we can move
forward to a new world of consistency for newer rules.

The elephant in the room of chess problem composition is that we are a tiny
community of mainly old and middle-aged men, and we are not getting any
younger. Our priority if we want to keep this hobby alive must be the
recruitment of new talent at the grass roots. Money should not be spent
promoting tourneys for the elite. Instead we should be figuring out what to
do to popularize chess problems for the young. If we do not do this, then
eventually the elephant will be the only one left in the room.

WotC also made the mistake of concentrating money on the elite professional
players of Magic at one stage. However they realized their mistake
eventually, and understood that they needed to protect the little card shops
which exist in malls of big cities round the world, and also nurture the
online community. The Pro Tour players were initially incensed by this, but
an elite will emerge automatically, as long as you look after the new

Obviously, the chess problem world will remain much humbler than that of
Magic, but we live in an age of puzzles, and Internet, and we can see the
evidence in chess problem history about how widespread chess problems used
to be around the end of the 19th century. Every newspaper and periodical
seemed to have its own chess problem column. We live in the age of Sudoko
and Candy Crash Saga, and there's no reason why retro & fairy problems
should not be much more popular than they are currently, if marketed and
presented properly. (I do have ideas about how to take this further, but I
have not had the time to pursue them. Maybe I should make the time?)

There are too many barriers to entry for the world of chess problems,
including our beloved retro & proof games. We don't explain enough, we don't
help enough. Because words would "spoil" the problems. So many Magic players
were incensed because WotC insisted on having italic text beside the keyword
"Flying" to say ("This means the creature can only be blocked by other
creatures with "Flying"). What a waste of space! How ugly the cards became!
But the lesson of history is that people like playing the game when they
understand the rules. Similarly, I was repelled by chess problems for 20
years because they just said things like "h#2" and I didn't have a clue.

If we wanted to clear up the mess, then we should form a sub-group to drive
out a proper set of fairy conventions - folk like Nicolas Dupont, Joost de
Heer, Kevin Begley & others have a clear vision of what needs to be done.
They should be allowed to formulate that vision, which can be presented to
the community for review & approval.

I think there is a similar piece of work that should be done for the
Conventions. These were a great first draft, but unfortunately got ossified
too soon, and evolve too slowly. In particular, they fail completely to
acknowledge that rules and conventions must evolve. This is the greatest
mistake, because it locks us into the past. Recent improvements have come
from Werner Keym, but I think that there is a grander simplification
possible which respects his work. The orthodox rules and conventions must be
understood, and must be made as simple as possible, so that the fairy rules
& conventions can smoothly extend the orthodox whenever possible. Again, a
small sub-group should be tasked to work on this, and report back to the
rest of us.

Will it happen? I don't know. Some heroes could seize the moment!

Comments welcome.

All the best,


From: retros-bounces at janko.at [mailto:retros-bounces at janko.at] On Behalf Of
Kevin Begley
Sent: 05 July 2013 16:55
To: joost at sanguis.xs4all.nl; The Retrograde Analysis Mailing List
Subject: Re: [Retros] Messigny 2013 results


"I'm starting to agree more and more with Kevin's 'fairy chess == mess'


Everybody should agree that fairy chess is a monster train wreck (which,
remarkably, is still accelerating).

The problem is, it's so bad, nobody can agree where to begin cleaning up
this mess.

I gave up trying.

I'm looking for a new track.

On Fri, Jul 5, 2013 at 12:29 AM, Joost de Heer <joost at sanguis.xs4all.nl>

(Apologies, I know that the retro list probably isn't the best place to
discuss fairy mess......)

> Nicolas Dupont later showed me a Monochrome Chess definition that

> explicitly mentions queen side castling (most others apparently don't

> mention it). This definition says that queen side castling is illegal, so

> I now think that it should be illegal,

Just because one definition says it's illegal doesn't make it illegal.

- In (Hyper)volage, the rook will not change colour after queenside castling
- In monochrome, queenside castling is forbidden because the rook changes
square colour

So in one case it matters that the square colour changes, in the other it

- In Einstein, the rook will become a bishop after castling
- In Antiandernach, the rook will not change colour after castling.
- In Haan, castling leaves two holes

So in some cases aftereffects are applied to the rook, in others they

I'm starting to agree more and more with Kevin's 'fairy chess == mess'


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