Friday, November 7, 2008

About Blitz/Speed Chess

"You like to think."

"Huh?" was my reply. That comment totally took me by surprise. This was an observation made by Vladmir Smirnov (rated 2309) when we were playing lightning chess socially about 2 months back. His comment still stuck in my mind after all this while. He noticed how I tended to think/calculate slowly in complex middlegame positions. For some reason, my brain is hardwired into playing slow chess instead of fast chess (Shane Burgess will easily attest to this as I've lost to him in countless blitz games OTB).

But what is speed/blitz chess?

Speed/blitz chess is essentially chess played at very fast time controls with 5 minutes being the usual norm at my local chess club.

But what do chess players/professionals think of blitz chess?

"I don't really count winning a couple of blitz games as a major achievement. I also don't consider losing them to be too great a tragedy either. Blitz is basically trash." - GM Nigel Short (in reference to Hikaru Nakamura winning the recent Cap d'Agde)

While Nigel thinks very lowly of blitz chess, what do other chess players/professionals think of blitz chess and their benefits?

Former World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik had an active dislike for blitz chess. In fact, he mentioned, "Yes, I have played a blitz game once. It was on a train, in 1929." When it was suggested to him by Piket that he play blitz chess for fun in his latter years, he gave this stern retort,"Young man, remember this: I never played chess for pleasure." Ouch.

Dennis Monokroussos himself acknowledged that his chess rating suffered (His highest rating was 2434 USCF, but he has now fallen to the low-mid 2300s) due to "too much blitz, too little tournament chess".

Of particular note is that former European Blitz Champion Vladislav Tkachiev revealed an interesting insight into blitz chess in a Chessbase interview. From the interview, it seems like he is thoroughly addicted to this form of high-speed chess. Unfortunately, it also appears that he lacks the discipline and was unable to carry over his talent from blitz chess to classical chess.

Funnily enough, the majority of super Grandmasters have no problems doing it the other way around, as in carrying over classical chess to blitz chess as evident in the case of Ivanchuk, Anand, Kramnik, Carlsen, Radjabov etc.

Why the discrepancy?

There was a study done by psychologist Bruce Burns from Michigan University which was published in the July 2004 issue of the journal Psychological Science. In it, he studied the correlation between pattern recognition and chess skill. He discovered that by constant practice, chess players can improve their chess skills and this skill is no less affected even in blitz chess. You can read the story here.

Should blitz chess then be actively discouraged? Not so, it seems.

"The best blitz players, are the best slow players.... No, in fact it (playing blitz) helps if mixed with slow play - it only hurts when it is done instead of slow play. In other words, only slow play is good; slow + fast chess is OK (and may even be better if that enables you to play more hours); and only fast chess is not so good for your improvement. And yes, you can get into bad habits." - NM Dan Heisman

But IMHO, the best answer comes from none other than renowned chess coach Bruce Pandolfini.

"Indeed, I think it (blitz/speed chess) can have value. It gives you a chance to experience a lot of ideas over a short time. It may sharpen your tactics and technique. It could boost your confidence. It enables openings and pet lines to be practiced. And it can provide enormous pleasure. You can get more out of speed chess if you also stay mindful of its downside. It doesn’t lend itself to reflection or thorough analysis. In fact it promotes superficiality. It could shake your confidence, or give you a false sense of security. It could have a carry-over affect to your tournament play, causing you to be impulsive and prone to blunder. You especially should steer clear of speed chess just prior to serious competitions." - NM Bruce Pandolfini


  1. When i was addicted to blitz (the years i played regulary on FICS) i felt my chess strength drop. I guess the negative things about blitz is that you dislearn to look deeply at a move, your analysis suffers.

    Benefits of blitz is that you play a total game like in the timescramble in long games, when you make an opening mistake, no problem, the next game is only a few minutes (seconds?) away.

    So i kinda agree with Dan Heisman. The overall majority of your games should be slow games a minority (and certainly not played the day before a slow game) may be blitz games.

    Oh, what i am thinking about when playing blitz? I guess patern recognision is one of the big tools in blitz, that and quick calculation (hoping you dont make a stupid mistake or outright blunder. But even then, in blitz games, one has the posibility to crash the opponent thru his time, let his flag fall.

  2. Nice post.

    Funny that you post this. Recently my blitz rating on ICC has gone up into the 1350-1400 range while my OTB rating has dropped from a high of 1560 9 months ago to 1410 today.

    I haven't really blitzed that much lately, but my rating has gone up. I've studied and gone over my games, but my OTB rating is in a free fall.

  3. chesstiger: i'm not sure what benefits blitz has actually for me and i kinda agree with what Bruce Pandolfini in that it promotes superficial play. i'm always slow in recognising deep tactics but 1,2 move tactics is the best i can see usu. looking over my blitz games in FICS suggest that this is always the case. i'm not overtly concern with blitz results but they're good in familiarising yourself with new openings, I have to say.

    dk: thanks!

    wang: lest not you forget, you do have studies and exams to prepare for and it's not unusual to a fall in ratings in your circumstances. :)