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Chess variants: Meet chess’ offspring

The game’s widespread popularity has resulted in the emergence of a plethora of versions, which have arisen organically in clubs or willingly by innovative players. These iterations have emerged to meet two expectations: on one hand, to appeal to different qualities, such as quick thinking (as opposed to long term strategy), and on the other hand, to make the game less predictable and therefore more entertaining, by introducing for example new pieces.

Let’s have a quick overview of these chess variants.

The most popular chess variants

Blitz game (or fast game)

A chess clock being used in a game of blitz chess

Blitz (from the German word “lightning”), or lightning play, consists of limiting the amount of time each player can think to 10 minutes or less, and as such requires a chess clock.

In some cases, the player who has just made a move benefits from a time increment that can go from 1 to 10 seconds, depending on what was agreed.

If the game does not end otherwise, the player who exceeds the allotted time has lost (unless it is impossible for the opponent to win, for example because of insufficient material; the game is then drawn).

Blitz is the most popular variant for online play and among young players, and the 10-minutes format is the most played.

Some experts dislike fast play because it favors traps and simple tactics over strategy, with the outcome of the game often depending on a gross tactical error rather than an elaborate strategic plan.

Bughouse chess

Two teams facing each other in a Bughouse chess game

Bughouse chess is a popular chess variant also known by many other names in English (Exchange chessSiamese chess, etc.).

It consists of two teams of two players each playing on two boards, with the team members having opposite colors. The usual rules of the game are applied, with the special feature that each opponent’s piece captured by a player is passed on to his teammate, who can choose to place it for his benefit on his board rather than make a move.

This popular variant is available on online chess servers such as chess.com, and championships are held each year.

Consultation game

A consultation game is to chess what doubles is to tennis: one team plays against another. On the same chessboard, team A plays with white against team B which controls black. And, as the name implies, the team members consult each other before making their next move. Except that in tennis, only two players can make up a doubles pair, whereas in chess, teams can consist of two, three, or ten players. There is no real limit. 

King of the hill

If the king reaches the center of the board, the player wins

In King of the Hill, sometimes known as “KOTH”, the goal is to get your king to the center of the board, or “top of the hill.” Checkmate, stalemate, and time-out can all still be used to terminate a game. When a player takes their king to one of the four center squares, the game ends.

Extra variants

In addition to the most common variants, extra iterations of the game have been imagined. They consist of modifying the characteristics of the chessboard or adding new pieces in order to renew interest in the game by limiting the importance of knowledge in the openings in favor of creativity. These types of variants are sometimes referred to as fairy chess, because they involve either new pieces or additional conditions.

Capablanca chess

Chessboard with two extra rows and pieces representing the empress and the princess

Capablanca chess, named after former world champion José Raúl Capablanca, is a variant of chess, played on a 10×8 board. In addition to the standard pieces, each player has two “fairy” pieces, namely:

  • an Empress (or Chancellor), which combines the movements of the knight and the rook
  • a Princess (or Centaur), which combines the movements of the knight and the bishop

These new pieces make the game a little more complex. For example, a Princess can checkmate a King on her own if the King is in a corner. Capablanca thought that adding these pieces would reduce the probability of a draw, as well as make the games more interesting.

Fisher random chess

One of the 960 possible initial positions

Fischer Random Chess (or Chess 960), created by former iconic chess world champion Bobby Fischer, is a variant of chess in which the initial location of the pieces in the first and last rows is drawn at random, and identical for both sides.

According to Fischer, randomly drawing the initial position of the pieces has the advantage of preventing pre-arranged games and encourages chess creativity and skill rather than memorization and analysis of multiple opening variants.

4 Player Chess

A four player chessboard

One chessboard, four players, four colors, 160 squares. Here are the ingredients you need to play 4 player chess. The two most popular game modes are Free-for-All and Teams.

In Free-for-all, each of the four players is pitted against the other three. The red pieces start the game, followed by the player on his left in a clockwise order. It is not allowed to join forces with any of the players. Pawns promote on the 8th rank.

Whoever gets the most points at the end of the game wins the match. You can get points by:

  • checkmating an opponent (+20);
  • stalemating oneself (+20);
  • stalemating an opponent (+10 for each player still in the game);
  • checking more than one king simultaneously with a queen (+1 for two kings, +5 for three);
  • checking more than one king simultaneously with a piece other than a queen (+5 for two kings, +20 for three);
  • capturing active pieces (+1 for a pawn or promoted queen, +3 for a knight, +5 for a bishop, +5 for a rook, and +9 for a queen).

In Teams, each player forms a team with the person on the opposite side. Team members are allowed to communicate with each other but cannot capture their own teammate’s pieces. Pawns promote on the 11th rank.

The match ends when a team member is checkmated or stalemated. But this only happens once it is that player’s turn to play, which means that, in the meantime, his teammate can still save him/her by capturing the opponent’s piece that is causing the checkmate.

What about chess’ cousins?

Note that cousin games such as chaturanga, chatrang, xiangqi, makruk, shatar, and shōgi are not variants of chess but original games, all older than modern chess.