Monday, 15 August 2011

Heroes of Swashbuckling #1: Brause

Brause = German (noun). To fizz or pop in an effervescent way, like soda.

For this post I’d like to welcome back (after a slightly longer break than originally anticipated!) one of our guest columnists, The Swashbuckler. In his first post he set out his manifesto by sharing with us his Rules of Swashbuckling”. In this second post he starts his very own “Swashbuckler’s Hall of Fame”.

Hello readers. It’s good to be back to continue a series that I hope will become a monthly instalment in future. Today I would like to introduce you to the first of my swashbuckling heroes, Brause. Ok, so none of you have heard of him, if indeed I can call it a him! Readers will have gathered from the quote at the beginning of this post that the name is in fact, a nom de guerre – in this case the name given to a very particular chess engine.

Perhaps I should explain. Years and years ago (we’re talking mid to late ‘90’s here) I was playing chess on the Internet Chess Club when I happened to accept a challenge by a player called “Brause”. We agreed on a game of blitz and, playing with the Black pieces, I was most perturbed when the opening moves went 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3. “Oh dear”, I thought, “this is going to be a dull Four Knights Game. Perhaps I should have ventured the Latvian Gambit.” I paused for a moment’s thought as I tried to figure out how I could enliven proceedings in the next few moves and then played 3…Nf6. To my very great surprise the response was 4.Nxe5!?

Halloween Gambit after 4.Nxe5!?
What on earth was this? I paused again for a few precious seconds and then remembered that I’d seen this played before. It was a known gambit but I couldn’t remember what it was called. All I could remember was that it was supposed to be highly dubious for White.

“Ok,” I thought, “let’s just play natural moves and see what happens”. So I played 4…Nxe5 5.d4 Nc6 6.d5 Nb8 and thought; “This just can’t be enough initiative for the pawn”.

But it turned out I was wrong for Brause absolutely crushed me inside 20 moves! I couldn’t believe it. Ok, his rating was much higher than mine but he’d just played one of the most “swashbuckely” openings I’d ever seen and destroyed me. Wow!

A few days later I bumped into Brause online again. Again we played. Again the same line appeared. Again I lost a violent miniature. Now I was intrigued. Who was this Brause and how did he get away with playing this line? I researched the opening variation and found out that it was called the ”Muller-Schultz Gambit”. Every piece of writing I could find on it condemned it as tripe. Sure White could develop some initiative for his knight but not enough to offer real compensation. The line didn’t even seem to be held in high regard by the types of player who were willing to venture things like the Cochrane Gambit against Petroff’s Defence or the Traxler Variation of the Two Knights Defence. In the end I stopped looking at it. It just didn’t seem viable. Eventually I forgot about the Muller-Schultz Gambit and I forgot about Brause.

But then, this time only a couple of years ago, I stumbled upon an article by Tim Krabbé in which he described having had a similar experience on the ICC. He had faced a player who had taken him to the cleaners with the Muller-Schultz. Krabbé, however, had not taken it lying down. He’d done proper research (not like my half hearted effort) with databases and he stumbled on a gold mine of swashbuckling brilliance. Many of the games (over 300!) he tracked down were from online blitz games and lots of them had been played by, you guessed it, Brause.

But Krabbé went further. His interest piqued, he resolved to track down Brause and he succeeded. In his database he noticed something that I had not. Brause was an engine. Armed with that knowledge he tried his luck with the internet search engines and he got lucky. Arriving at a website he discovered that Brause was the fevered brain-child of one Steffen Jakob. This German is the chess equivalent of one of those guys who “pimps” their car. He’d taken an existing engine called “Crafty” and tweaked it. One of his tweaks was to adjust it’s repertoire so that it favoured lines like the Muller-Schultz. Over the course of two years Brause played the opening many times and, in between blitz sessions, Jakob built up a formidable understanding of an opening that he renamed the Halloween Gambit. In an e-mail to Krabbé, Jakob explained:

“Many players are shocked, the way they would be frightened by a Halloween mask, when they are mentally prepared for a boring Four Knight’s, they are faced with Nxe5.”

Visitors to Jakob’s website can chare the wonder of this crazy line because he has published his variation tree as well as a PGN database of Brause’s games. Jakob is clearly a generous man and I suppose that he is the real hero behind this story. The aspect of it that I find most interesting is that, through skilful and focused programming, Jakob was able to create an engine that played with the swagger and braggadocio of a swashbuckler on steroids! I’ve started to play the Halloween Gambit myself in blitz games – I published one such in my first post for this website. One day I might even try it over the board.

Personally, I think the opening should be renamed again in honour of the labours of Steffan Jakob and his swashbuckling chess engine. I think it should be called “The Brause Gambit”.

Here's one of my favorite games from the treasury in the Brause database.

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