Fischer makes an unprecedented move

After 500 years, the greatest of the grandmasters has changed the rules of chess, says William Hartston
For only the second time in a millennium, something is about to happen that promises to improve the quality of the leisure activities of tens of millions of people.

This afternoon, in La Plata, Argentina, Bobby Fischer will change the rules of chess. The last time the rules were altered significantly was in the 1490s, when the scope of the queen and bishop were considerably enhanced and modern chess was born out of a more tedious version that had then been around for 900 years.

Bobby Fischer, 53, who won the world chess championship in 1972, has decided that while the rules were adequate for half a millennium, they now need a little tinkering with. His proposal, to be launched today as a new game called "Fischerandom Chess" is to dispense with the conventional placing of the pieces at the beginning of a game, instead shuffling the kings, queens and rooks at random among the squares they usually occupy.

After 500 years of intense study, the conventional starting position has been over-analysed, he believes. The Fischer version would place an emphasis back on genuine skill and creativity rather than knowledge of opening variations.

The idea may have come to Fischer when he was preparing for his comeback match against Boris Spassky in 1992. After 20 years away from competitive chess, Fischer played some magnificently impressive games, but still seemed a little out of touch with modern theory. In his best years, he was always six months ahead of other grandmasters in his analysis of the most complex opening variations. When shaking off two decades of rust, however, he simply avoided anything fashionable in his openings.

There is no reason for the new game to catch on. "Improved" versions of chess are launched every few years - three-dimensional, hexagonal, or 100-square among others - but they have never succeeded in weaning the world's players away from their familiar territory. Yet the backing of Bobby Fischer could make all the difference.

For 20 years after winning the world championship, Fischer never pushed a pawn in competition. Indeed, his only known creative achievement was a pamphlet entitled I was tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse - an account of his arrest on (totally unfounded) suspicion of a bank robbery. Yet the charisma of the name of Bobby Fischer is still highly potent. His match with Spassky in 1992 attracted a $5m purse - roughly three times the amount that the current champions, Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, can command.

Walking out of tournaments, demanding larger pawns (or smaller squares) on his chessboards, even having his lavatory seats lowered to meet his demanding specifications, all Fischer's perfectionist traits helped to build his unique reputation. It also helped to have been the strongest player who ever lived. And when he began his comeback match in 1992 by spitting on a letter from the US Internal Revenue Service, the legend of Bobby Fischer as modern American folk hero was perfected. The only trouble is that he can only return to America on penalty of arrest and a huge fine for "trading with the enemy" for his sanctions-busting crime of defying the IRS by competing in Yugoslavia.

Having beaten the Russians and confounded the Americans, Fischer is now taking up his most difficult challenge: the game of chess itself. And anyone doubting that the reclusive American can change the rules should take a look at the fortunes of US Patent Number 4,884,255; inventor Robert J Fischer: the Bobby Fischer Chess Clock. The clock helps a player allocate his time sensibly and has been a runaway hit on the back of the Fischer name. Perhaps in another few years, we will all be doing the Bobby Fischer shuffle with our pieces at the start of each game too.