How to balance the game for uneven players

I want to play chess with my wife, but we have different ranks (I am approximately 1900, and she is ~1500 (probably less based on comments)). Normally, our games are boring for me.

I tried to balance the game by playing without the queen, but I still win the game. I am looking for some tactics to balance the game based on ranking difference?

• You could give her more pieces, or if you play with a clock, a time advantage. BTW I'm surprised that a queen is not enough to make up for 400 rating points. Even without a handicap she should score 0.1 on average.
– itub
Sep 19, 2017 at 21:06
• Indeed, a 400 rating difference should not translate to more than a queen. So likely your wife is not 1500 strength, or (what you should tell her) you're actually even stronger than 1900 ;)
– TMM
Sep 19, 2017 at 22:05
• @tmm I would say that other factor such as psychology might be important. If she believes she will lose because her husband is much better that might be enough for her to lose regardless of their actual rating.
– DRF
Sep 20, 2017 at 2:52
• 1500 what rating? Come on, 1500 FIDE player being a queen up should beat any1! Sep 20, 2017 at 8:26
• Where I live there's chess variant called "alco-chess". Pieces are filled with vodka and when player captures opponent's piece, they have to drink alcohol from that piece. The game is perfectly balancing itself - the more pieces you capture, the more intoxicated you are and thus less and less advantage:) Sep 20, 2017 at 8:48

In addition to other suggestions, you could consider a chess variant that may even the playing field.

Chess960 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chess960) [previously called Fischer Random, but renamed to avoid potential conflict/discussion over Bobby Fischer who invented it], for example is a variant that randomizes the positioning of the back-rank pieces. Unlike other randomization variants, this one strongly attempts to keep everything else about the game the same. The rules of piece placement are:

-The two sides are mirrored, as in regular chess.

-The king must be between the two rooks [this allows for castleing, which involves moving the king to the 'traditional' kingside or queenside castleing positions].

-The two bishops must be on opposite colours.

This leaves 960 possible positions, which can be chosen at random through various means (check the wikepedia page for details).

The benefit of chess960 in this case, is that it eliminates some of the advantage inherent in opening position theory.

By the midgame, a typical Chess960 game looks like a regular chess game (except perhaps for some oddly placed pieces here or there). Ultimately it opens up like a regular chess game, but you can't memorize any opening lines. For a 1500-1900 match-up, opening theory likely makes a significant edge between the two of you. Of course, there is some small learning curve to starting to play chess960, but as you are both learning it for the first time, you will both have that curve together. Of course, a skill difference would still exist, so even with Chess960 it may be required to still give your wife a rook/ minor piece for the full handicap.

A particular copyrighted variant that creates an even greater randomization aspect, is "Knightmare Chess" http://www.sjgames.com/knightmare/. This game introduces cards with various impacts on the game ("This turn your pawn can move twice, etc."). The random element decreases the net impact of a skill differential somewhat, as luck plays a fairly large element.

• Good to see you on chess.se. I like reading your posts on finance.
– user1108
Sep 20, 2017 at 15:14
• I think the idea of combining chess with some random factors would definitely help as it breaks my pre-defined strategies. Thank you. Sep 20, 2017 at 16:10
• @Arashsoft If you're at all curious about trying Knightmare Chess, I can say I give it my whole-hearted endorsement. I am not affiliated with them in any way, just a very happy customer. Sep 20, 2017 at 17:15
• Personally I like a variant I saw at one point where the back-rank pieces all look identical when viewed by the opposing player, and players are allowed to place them in whatever order they like at the start of the game. You can either reveal them on their first move, or keep them shrouded throughout the game so your opponent has to remember what's where depending on how difficult you want the game to be. Sep 20, 2017 at 19:27
• @Perkins As someone who loves variants, that sounds great, but I think that might actually increase the skill differential problem experienced by the OP and his partner (because it further increases the benefits of being better at chess, both in memorization ability and strategy right out of the opening). Sep 20, 2017 at 19:37

(Disclaimer: this is my first post on this network, and in all honesty both you and your wife could probably beat me at a game. But I do have years of experience of finding handicaps to make chess games more even and enjoyable.)

• Time advantage: this probably depends on your situation. Some people are great at untimed and terrible at rapid, but tinkering about with time differences until you find a healthy compromise has the positive of being very flexible as it can be fine-tuned very precisely. I find the pressure is greatest on the stronger player when you use a time per move system rather than a time per game - and the weaker player can play untimed.
• Further piece advantages: I've never needed to go much beyond a queen handicap, but I imagine two rooks or a queen and minor piece would be the next step.
• Blindfold chess: you could try playing without being able to look at the board (while your wife can), if you've ever done blindfold chess before or feel you have enough experience/memory to try. A somewhat easier version might be to only allow you to look at the board while it's your turn, which only makes sense if you're using time controls.
• Help her to improve: it may be that the two of you playing against each other doesn't make sense with such a large difference in skill. How about you play practice matches where you offer her tips and guidance, allow her to undo any blunders and teach her until she is at a similar skill level?
• Great suggestions, but I would advise to never play with "piece advantages" as that changes the game to the point where you could be developing very bad habits and openings that will cripple you later. Time advantage and blindfold are excellent suggestions that keep the core game intact. Helping improve gives similar same satisfaction as playing and is cooperative - while keeping the core game intact.
– Paul
Sep 20, 2017 at 14:34

For several years I organized an odds-giving tournament for my club during the summer months with a sliding scale from pawn-and-move to queen based on rating difference. For good measure we added a time handicap as well. I do think that if you can beat your wife at Queen odds then the difference in your ratings must be much more than you say.

Equalizing the chances under those conditions, in a way that is fun for both of you, calls for extreme measures. Have you tried giving her the right to retract her move a certain number of times in each game?

• I agree. I find that a rook is often enough to equalize a 1300-1800 game. I have a hard time believing a true 1500 couldn't be competitive against a true 1900 with a Queen handicap. Sep 20, 2017 at 1:48

I don't believe chess really lends itself to such handicapping. She could have a time advantage but it probably wouldn't help since beginners lack ability, not time. More time spent analyzing inefficiently will not substantively help.

I would recommend you switch games, frankly. Shogi, a cousin of chess has a tried-and-true handicapping system. It's a great game, too.

Pieces in Shogi are weaker on the whole, somewhat more numerous, and never really leave the game - they switch sides. Thus a handicap of a piece in Shogi is less severe than a similar handicap in chess, and with more pieces, there is more freedom in the handicapping.

As you can see in these links, this isn't ad hoc. They're serious about both players having a challenging game.

A solution I have employed with my girlfriend, who is interested in improving at chess, is to begin with the endgame.

Setting up a winning late-game position such as a rook, bishop and three pawns vs a knight and two pawns provides a learning experience for the weaker player on how to leverage existing advantages and close out the game. More pieces can gradually be introduced to dilute the impact of the advantage.

For the stronger player, the goal is surviving as long as possible or attempting to get to a drawn position.

• Unlike may piece-handicap variations, this could be helpful for developing the skills and enjoyment level of the weaker player, since many novices will manage to lose endgames they enter with (what should be) a winning advantage, and get frustrated by such losses. Many situations will often occur in the middle game where a novice could force a transition to the endgame with a winning advantage except that they wouldn't know how to capitalize on it. Endgame practice could help improve novices' play in such situations. Sep 21, 2017 at 15:30

You can try switching sides every 5 moves or so - a good workout for you too: to try and improve a poor position.

The way I have always done this is with time.

Start with 5 minutes each on the clocks, no increments. Then the winner gets one minute less and loser one minute more for each subsequent game until equilibrium is reached (players start to alternate wins). If it gets down to 9 v 1 and 9 still wins then the loser gets 9 min 30 seconds and the winner 30 seconds. I've never had it go beyond that.

EDIT: I just got back from the Isle of Man prize giving and after tournament party. IM Lawrence Trent (~2400) was playing blitz / bullet with Caruana with 3 minutes to Caruana's 1 minute and losing in a proportion of about 2 to 1. He then took on Nakamura with 5 minutes to Nakamura's 45 seconds with similar results. So, this is the normal way of handicapping even at the highest levels.

Chess doesn't seem to handicap as well as other games. This is why my wife and I don't play chess together (even though we both play chess). We play other games instead, where we are much more even (my greater rating in chess comes from years of being coached, not so much from natural ability).

If your wife is interested in learning, you can give her problems from a book, or play through endings (at her level, not yours), but both of these tend to leave the thinking on her end, while you are waiting patiently. I currently just put a problem up on the demo board in our house for my wife and kids to solve, and field questions about it, and play online if I want a game.

Let your wife make two moves for every move you get to make. The big rule is that the weaker player can't move the same piece more than once in one turn. It's extremely frustrating for the higher ranked player, but it is playable and you can still win the game so over all it is a lot more balanced. It also gets the weaker player to plan more, but weaker players do seem to get more sloppy with this rule set. It's an interesting way to even out the playing field, but it's probably not the best way for a new player to improve. Essentially this method is a way for a far weaker player to be able to give a more experienced player a hard game. You can also tweak these rules if you want; I'm not your bossperson do whatever you want. Just make sure that the stronger player isn't having too easy of a time. The stronger person is supposed to have it hard here.

You might want to check out chess 2 as well. it's chess, but with different special rules based on what team/country/base choose, and an easier win condition. The tactics are all different so it's a lot harder for a more experienced player to play.

• It might be "fun" once, but giving someone an extra move entirely changes the game and isn't "chess" anymore. Sep 20, 2017 at 22:47
• `It's as chess as chess960 is.` No, chess960 just sets a particular position without changing the rules any further. With your rule, the mechanics would be entirely different. Just think about a knight fork where your opponent has the chance to move both pieces to safety since they can move twice. This way, they might never learn about the danger that a knight fork actually poses. Sep 20, 2017 at 23:30
• @Steve: Normal chess tactical concepts will be meaningless while the double-move rules are in effect, but allowing one player to become much more developed will offer a pretty big advantage which should last even when the double-move effect cases to be in effect. A somewhat weaker version of the concept would simply be to have the stronger player agree not to make any double pawn moves. That would leave all other rules in effect, but offer the player without the limitation a pretty big advantage in development. Sep 21, 2017 at 21:19
• @Steve: How do you define the concepts of check and moving into check for each player? E.g. given black king at b1 and rook at b2; white king at g1, knight at f1, and rook at h1, would White be allowed to move king to g2,g3 since Black would have no turn to capture it? Would Black be allowed to move to c2 even though White could capture at that square by moving the Rook to h2,c2? What limits White's powers? Sep 21, 2017 at 22:34
• This may not be the chess that we all know and love, but what is the OP trying to achieve? If the ambition is to bring his wife to 1800 level so that they can play even, that may prove unrealistic. Perhaps the objective is that his wife comes to appreciate the game (so understands the urge to disappear at weekends?) or can relate to chess experiences. In which case all of these suggestions are temporary expedients and it does not matter whether they are "real" Sep 22, 2017 at 22:54