Girls Play Chess


Hi, I’m R. My wife created the Geeks and Lollipops blog to talk about home schooling and raising our daughters who self identify as geeks and girly girls. Fortunately, since they are home schooled no one has told them yet that robots and dinosaurs aren’t girly. (Seriously, gender assigning science fiction is moronic, but I digress.)

So one day I asked, “Hey, you want me to contribute some stuff about games and the kids?” While we all play games I do tend to be the ringleader. She said, “sure.” There was great enthusiasm. She was whooping and hollering with joy. On the inside. Quietly. But I know it was there.

Anyway…. great plans were made. Then I did nothing for three weeks. Then International Women’s Day happened and I said to myself “hey, we’re raising women here, I should do this!” And so here we are with my first gaming blog entry.

As a homeschooling parent I’m an educator who uses games to teach. I’m a librarian too and have done public events with games. And finally I’m a geeky dad who is raising geeks. So, I spend a lot of time thinking about games – history of games, theory of games, the playing of games and the value of the experience both educational and entertainment.

Normally we will talk about more contemporary games but I thought I would start with a well-known classic – Chess. When I used to work in a public library I was always amazed at our chess events – they were almost all boys. I have girls at home who learned chess from me and they enjoyed it. Was it only being taught to boys? Were they the only ones being invited? I don’t know but in my experience girls enjoy chess just as much as boys but there are things about teaching chess I don’t like; more on that shortly.

I’m going to assume that everyone knows what chess is and most of you probably know the rules. If you don’t they are readily available with a quick Google search. Chess is well known for good reason. There are chess clubs, professional organizations, books and software galore. Perhaps no other game has the cultural weight and respect of chess in the western world. Unfortunately that level of exposure has also led to it being analyzed to death and having a reputation as a bit stodgy and unwelcoming.

It isn’t that the game is hard to come by. You can buy the cheapest plastic set, a travel set with magnets or free phone apps to play against another person and they are as good as thousand dollar sets. You can even make your own for pennies with a pen, ruler, some paper and scissors. It is the game play that has both good and bad.

The good of chess is that it has great tactical depth due to the significance of your choices and lack of randomness. It’s also completely open with no hidden information, which makes it great for teaching even if you’re playing with the student. The lack of randomness has disadvantages too though. Because the board starts in a static position there are a reasonably few variants on the first few turns. Indeed, memorizing is a major part of the game, which is not fun but does quickly separate experience levels.

And if you want to play chess like this that’s great and it is a great game. There are legions of resources to help you play it like this from theory tutorials to patterns to memorize to problems to solve. But it’s also not the only way to play it…

A standard 8x8 chess board with pieces on the side.

A standard 8×8 chess board with pieces on the side.

There are thousands of chess variants. I am only going to talk about a few you can play with a standard chess board and pieces or some things you can add from your local crafts store for a couple of bucks.   Nor am I going to talk about variants that use random resolution between pieces. To me that changes the spirit of the game. The shared thread of these variants is that they shake up the experience and show ways to make chess more welcoming to new players. Seasoned players have less of an advantage due to memorized patterns and gambits but gain a more novel experience that can bring fun back to the game.

First – Who Watches the Watchmen?

A standard chess setup showing the added Watchmen pieces.

Answer: your rooks. and pawns. and bishops. anyway, you get the idea.

This first variant uses so called Fairy Pieces. This term is used for chess variants that add new pieces to the board. This version was initially inspired by a version I read in a Piers Anthony novel when I was a teenager. I’ve since discovered I completely misremembered what was in the book and like my version more.

To represent the pieces I’m using two pawns from another plastic set and these are the Watchmen. Watchmen rules are defined as follows: they can move any direction like a king but one or two spaces at a time. They cannot take another piece nor be taken. Therefore, they are spoilers that block lanes and create problems. This simple change makes a huge change to the game.

This variant has put only two, one per player, on the board but you could easily vary the number (make it two per), change where they are and change the number of squares they move.

Next up: Chess960

While I wouldn’t ask anyone to listen to Bobby Fischer’s political or social stances he is

Setting up the Bishops in a Chess960 setups.

Setting up the Bishops in a Chess960 setups.

worth listening to about chess and he has long been concerned about the same issues I’ve mentioned. He did not create the idea of randomizing pieces but he did experiment for the best way to do it in a form that would preserve critical game elements while introducing randomness to the setup. It’s now alternatively called Fischer Random Chess or Chess960 (for the 960 possible starting board positions).

Here you can see me doing a random setup by the rules, using some six-sided dice to assist in the random selection.

Determining the position of the rooks in a Chess960 setup.

Determining the position of the rooks in a Chess960 setup.

Rule 1) Bishops must be placed on opposite-color squares. Since there are four of each I roll two six sided dice and re-roll anything above a four or if the numbers come up the same. Going from left to right, that gives me the squares to put them in.

Rule 2) The king must be placed on a square between the rooks. With six places

Moving black pieces to mirror white randomized setup.

Moving black pieces to mirror white randomized setup.

left I roll to see where the rooks go. In this case I ended up with only one spot between them, if I had more than one I would have rolled for where the king ended up.

Then I rolled to determine all other locations. After setting up white I put black down in parallel locations.

If you want you could even combine this with the Watchmen or other fairy pieces and make the game even more different.

Next: Hordes Chess

No, this doesn’t have anything to do with World of Warcraft. Also called Dunsany Chess this create uneven sides for a very different play experience. One side is a standard board and the other has 32 pawns. At one time I might have had 32 pawns between sets but one set was mostly lost thanks to little children. I know, games losing pieces with kids, it’s unimaginable isn’t it? It was a cheap plastic set and they were learning so it’s not so bad. But, anyway, since I’m short I’m instead substituting some beads from a crafts store.

Just imagine each of those pawns is an orc and get to work.

Just imagine each of those pawns is an orc and get to work.

I’ve cheated a bit here, as in Dunsany chess the pawns should be white but if you’re making the rules when you play variants! Also, only the normal side gets two squares to move on the first turn with pawns.  One nice thing about this variant is that is allowed me to let my daughters play the pawns which have simpler rules while I played the side with more rules so that they could learn the movements while I played with them them.  Time learning while playing is always better than just listening to your mom or dad explain stuff!

So, there you go, three ways to play chess variants and involve your biological spawn … er, children, and encourage them to play games. Enjoy!



About Rogan

Librarian, Geek, Parent, Gamer
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