by Steve Lopez

I recently read an Internet discussion about developing a handicapping system for chess. Other games and sports (such as golf) have a handicap system whereby two players of widely different skill levels can still play a competitive game against each other despite the gap between their abilities. Some folks on the Net were discussing why chess doesn't have such a system.

Ironically, there has been such a system in use for over a hundred years. It's called "giving of odds" or playing an "odds game". In an odds game, the stronger player removes some of his material before the game's start, thereby handicapping himself and giving the weaker player a chance to win (or at least play competitively).

The giving of odds was a pretty common practice in the 19th century. Many of Paul Morphy's games were played at odds. Depending on the skill (or lack thereof) of his opponents Morphy was willing to give odds as low as pawn and move (meaning that Morphy took the Black pieces and started the game with one of his pawns removed) or as high as Rook, pawn, and move (in which Morphy played Black after removing one of his own pawns and a Rook!).

Here's a very short example of a Morphy odds game. He's playing at Rook odds as White against Le Carpentier in a game played in New Orleans in 1849. Remove White's a1-Rook before starting the game.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4 Bb4+ 5.c3 dxc3 6.0-0 cxb2 7.Bxb2 Bf8 8.e5 d6 9.Re1 dxe5 10.Nxe5 Qxd1 11.Bxf7+ Ke7 12.Ng6+ Kxf7 13.Nxh8#

A nice miniature! In a sort of Danish Gambit position, Morphy dismembered his opponent with ridiculous ease. Of course, he did have a little help from Le Carpentier: 7...Bf8 was just a wasted tempo (Black should have continued his development with 7...Nf6), and Black just walked into mate by grabbing the Bishop on f7 instead of moving his King out of the danger zone. But this is exactly the reason why Morphy gave odds to his opponent; Le Carpentier was obviously a weak player who needed the extra material given at the start to stand a chance against Morphy. Too bad he squandered his chances. (It's interesting to note that Morphy never even missed the a1-Rook's presence; neither the b1-Knight nor the a2-pawn ever moved, so Morphy could have had the Rook on the board without affecting the outcome. Morphy also resisted the temptation to abandon the discovered attack on the Black King just to capture the Black Queen -- consequently leaving mate in one open on the board for Black after 11.Bxf7+ had Morphy failed to play a forcing move on either move 12 or 13).

These days the only time we ever see odds given in a game is when an adult is playing a child or when an experienced chess player is teaching a novice to play. I usually give odds to my kids when I play them or when I'm teaching a complete beginner the moves.

Why has the giving of odds died out as a common practice? I've noticed that many players find it insulting when an opponent offers odds to them, even in the spirit of friendship. I've taught more than one player the ropes and found that they won't play unless I start the game with a full compliment of pieces and pawns. The sad fact is that most of these players become discouraged after a couple of losses and refuse to play any more; had they accepted the odds I offered, they'd have stood a better chance and perhaps not become so easily put off by the game.

Despite this resistance, odds games do survive as a teaching tool. I've found that a good method for teaching children to play is to give Queen oods until they demonstrate that they can win repeatedly with this handicap. Then I move them down to Rook odds, Bishop odds, Knight odds, and finally pawn odds until we eventually wind up playing on a even footing.

I'm frequently asked by chess teachers the method of entering odds games into ChessBase or Fritz so that they can be saved into a personal database. It's pretty simple to accomplish this.

First click on "Setup position" (located in the Game menu in ChessBase and in the Board menu in Fritz). You'll see the "setup position" window appear with a full compliment of pieces on the board. To remove a piece from the board, just click on it with both mouse buttons simultaneously. If you wind up with a White King on the square, just do the simultaneous click a second time. The square will become blank. Then click on the "OK" button and you'll get the "Enter new game" window in ChessBase or be returned to the main board in Fritz. You can then enter the moves normally and save the game into a database when you're through. You'll notice the letter "P" in the right-hand column of the game list; this signifies that the game begins with a position different from the normal starting position. This is a good way to find odds games from the 1800's in a database. If you see a Morphy game with a "P" in the right-hand column, there's a good chance that it was an odds game (although there are also quite a few Morphy fragments in which the opening moves have been lost -- the database's game will begin with a middlegame position in these cases).

A lot of parents ask me how to handicap Fritz so that it will play at a weaker level for young children who are just learning to play. Aside from using the "Handicap and fun" mode and/or loading a weaker engine, odds games are a good way to give kids a fighting chance against the computer. Just use "Setup position" to remove the Black Queen (or other pieces/pawns) from the board, give the child the White pieces, and let 'er rip.

You may, however, run into the same difficulty I've faced with my own kids. Sometimes they just don't want to play odds games; they feel like they're being patronized and want to play a "real" game. I used to wonder what to do about this in games I played with my sons. Don Maddox gave me the answer and it's deceptively simple (one of those "Doh! Why didn't I think of that?" solutions). Start with all of your pieces and then hang your Queen at the earliest opportunity. In effect, it's still an odds game with the handicap given later in the game instead of at the start.

Here's a big secret that I'll reveal to you: this is exactly how Fritz' "Friend" mode works. When you start "Friend" mode, a small window appears that presents you with a numerical handicap. This is the amount of material (in 1/100ths of a pawn) that Fritz will "throw" to you once you've left the opening book. For example, if your handicap is 300, Fritz will attempt to pitch the equivalent of three pawns or a minor piece overboard before it starts to play at a normal level. I discovered this quite by accident. I played a few "Friend" mode games in which I noticed that Fritz would dump material early, but play the late middlegame and endgame like a wildcat. It eventually dawned on me that the program was tossing material in the early going but playing tougher as the game went on as a direct function of the handicap.

Now let's return to the problem of the reluctant kid who doesn't want to be patronized. To give the child a fighting chance without having him feel coddled or having him become discouraged, first go to the Setup menu and click "Username and info". Change the user name to that of the child (this is done so that your handicap score in "Friend" mode won't be affected). Then change the level to "Friend" mode and set up the handicap (you can easily type a new value in the box to change it). Remember that the score is given in 1/100ths of a pawn. So, for example, if you want Fritz to toss its Queen (or another material equivalent) early in the game, use 900 as the handicap value. The program will thereafter itself adjust the handicap up and down from game to game depending on the young player's success (or lack of it).

Thus the tradition of giving odds does live on but in a disguised form, sparing the feelings of chessplayers who might need a bit of an edge occasionally but are too proud to ask for it.

Until next week, have fun!

You can e-mail me with your comments, suggestions, and analysis for Electronic T-Notes. If you love gambits, stop by the Chess Kamikaze Home Page and the Yahoo Chess Kamikazes Club.