Upgrade to Chess.com Premium!

A History of Blitz

  • batgirl
  • | Jul 12, 2012
  • | 9930 views
  • | 22 comments

 

     Today, possibly 90% of chess is played on the internet and possibly 90% of the chess games on the internet are played at fast time controls.  Classical chess is still the Gold Standard, but fast games seem to be coin of the realm.

     Blitz, Lightning, Rapid Transit, Speed Chess, Quick Chess - all terms that refer to chess played at faster time controls. These terms had been used in different times, and even during the same time, to mean different things.  I took an interest in trying to determine how there terms came to be, and how the idea of fast play took hold.

      Blitz and Lightning chess (the actual play, not the terms) didn't seems to come about until the last quarter of the 19th century.  No game scores exist for this type of chess before the turn of the century and even the mentions of such games or tournaments are scarce.

     The Oxford Companion to Chess informs us, "An early reference to lightning chess was in 1897, when a London club organized a tournament in which players were allowed 30 seconds a move, " without naming the reference. The reference, however was the British Chess Magazine, March 1897:
                    What may not unfittingly be called "lightning chess" has been
                    introduced at the Sydenham and Forrest Hill Club. Tournaments
                    are organised on the principle of rapid play, 30 seconds per move
                    being allowed, and half-an-hour for the entire game. Much
                    interest is being evoked by this novel mode of play.

     Interesting to note is that the term "lightning,"  was used, but so was the term "rapid transit," in an even earlier edition.   Back in Feb. 1897, the same magazine reports on rapid transit played in New York:
                    The Rapid Transit Tournaments each week are continued. A team
                    match of 14 players with the Franklin Club, Philadelphia; and one
                    of 12 players with the Boston Club are now being arranged. We are
                    indebted for these particulars to Col Morse, chairman of the match
                    and tournament committee.

     Then in Nov., The BCM wrote:
                    On the 23rd, a Rapid Transit Tournament was played. In this
                    tournament the time-limit was 30 seconds a move. The winning
                    team won 9 games out of a possible 13. The team was as follows:
                    Herbert L. Jacobs, J. A. Symmons, J. H. Eastwood, C. Simon, and
                    J. Charlesworth, the latter winning all his games.

     The term "rapid transit,"  in fact, seems to pre-date the term "lightning chess" by at least 6 years.  The January, 1891 issue of the "International Chess Magazine"  states plainly:
                    —The Brooklyn Chess Club at the first reception of the month
                    entertained its members with a rapid-transit tourney which was
                    played under a time limit of one move per minute. There were
                    sixteen contestants. The winners in the first round were Messrs.
                    Oily, Barrett, Elwell, Colwell, Barnes, Fowler, Spowers and Park.
                    In the second round the winners were Spowers, Park, Olley and
                    Barrett. The third round was won by Olly and Barrett, and in the
                    play-off Barrett defeated Oily and won the tournament.

     Since Steinitz didn't go to any pains to explain the term, it seems reasonable to assume that the term wasn't new, even in the beginning of 1891.

     The October 1891 issue of that same magazine stated:
                    —A rapid transit tournament was played on December 12 at the
                    rooms of the Albany Chess Club, under the following rules.
                    Time limit. 30 moves in 25 minutes: unfinished games to be
                    adjudicated at the end of 50 minutes ; losers of two games to
                    withdraw from the contest. There were twelve contestants, and
                    the Secretary, Mr. Leake, was the winner of the prize.
                    Professor
Rogers officiated as time-keeper and umpire.

     This is very unusual in accordance with later type rapid-transit games in that the game, not the individual moves were timed.  This would be a feature of modern "lightning" or blitz, but not of "rapid transit."

     In his great book, "Chess in Philadelpia," Gustavus C. Reichhelm lists the "rapid transit tourneys" played at the Franklin Club up until 1898 (with Geo. Washington's birthday and Thanksgiving Day as popular days for some reason) :  Feb. 22, 1894; Thanksgiving Day 1894; Feb. 22, 1895;  Feb. 22, 1896;  Nov. 27, 1897.  Team matches on Jan 8, 1898 and Feb. 6,1898.

     Cheshire's book on the Hastings Tournament of 1895 relates that, "Bird and Janowski enlivened us with a little lightning chess."  

      What was called lightning chess before the turn of the century seems to have been identical to what was being called rapid transit, that is, a move had to be made within a certain fixed time.  What we call lightning chess today is just a faster version of blitz in which all moves must be made within a fixed time.


     The "Oxford Companion to Chess" tells us that "rapid transit chess, a term used in the USA for LIGHTNING CHESS, named after the New York city transport system."  But this explanation is a bit off-kilter. While it does seem likely that the chess term "rapid transit" does owe its existence to the general term of the same name, there was no New York transport system called "rapid transit," per se.  I'm not sure what Hooper and Whylde were referring to, unless, perhaps the NY Subway system which was often just referred to as Rapid Transit.  If that's the case, since the subway wasn't built until after the turn-of-the-century, and the term "rapid-transit" was a chess term a dozen years earlier and clearly wasn't based on the subway system, the OCC is mistaken.  My own theory is that during that last quarter of the 19th century efficient mass transit was a serious necessity in big cities. New York had built elevated trains in the 1870s that partially dealt with that need but that system had major drawbacks. from the 1880s on mass transit, or "rapid transit," as it was more commonly called became a buzzword. Rapid Transit Companies were formed and discussions about a possible subway system was in all the papers.  Rapid Transit was a concept, not an entity, and city people, already imbued with the idea of rapid transit,  readily applied that concept of moving things quickly to Chess.


     Generally speaking, Blitz with it's faster cousin Lightning and its slower cousin Rapidplay, is played with a fixed time in which all moves must be made. Rapid Transit, however, is usually played with a (short) fixed time per move.  At the end of the 19th century, both Lightning and Rapid Transit generally, though not always, meant a fixed time per move.  One reason for this was the limitations that early clocks presented.

 


Fattorini & Sons "tumbling" clock c. 1890

      London 1883 was the first tournament to use the double-faced mechanical tumbling clock invented by Thomas Bright Wilson - A Fattorini model is shown above.  It was a pair of clocks that sat on a see-saw type platform. When one clock was pushed down the other's pendulum was activated.  It looks pretty expensive and delicate. I'm not sure it could stand up to blitz play.  I'm not even sure of how precise they might have been - blitz measures in seconds, not minutes and, according to the 1899 BCM, they were still having trouble making the passing of a hour sufficiently noticable to the players at that time.  In the London tournament time wasn't enforced by winning on time but by fines for exceeding the time limit. Even much, much later, players were hesitant to demand a win due to time alone.

     Fattorini & Sons was a fascinating company  (I say "was," but it still exists in spirit under the name Thomas Fattorini.  There had been two 19th century companies - Thom. Fattorini and Fattorini & Sons -  that merged 18 years ago.).  They were jewelers, watch and clock makers, silversmiths, trophy and medal designers and creators.   Antonio Fattorini, the founder of Fattorini & Sons, was an athlete and very active in both Rugby and chess belonging to the Manningham Rugby Club, the Bradford City Football Club and the Yorkshire County Chess Club, holding the position of secretary.

      At any rate, these clocks were expensive, delicate and unsuited to the rigors of blitz or lightning chess as we use clocks today. It was more practical to have each move timed with a bell, buzzer or voice signaling when a move must be made.


Jacques Congress Chess Clock  c.1905
     This lovely clock is the earliest one I could find that resembles ones that were used throughout the 20th century.  The use of clocks, it should be noted, was a very reluctant innovation, though universally agreed to be a necessity.  The purpose of clocks was not initially intended to add another glitch or layer to the game, but simply to equalize the game and prevent the common, and often real, complaint that opponents were using time simply to wear down the competition (by out-sitting them). 

 

    Lightning Chess in the beginning did not mean, time-control-wise, what it generaly means today. The only seemingly  known recorded evidence of what was referred to as "ligntning" in the 19th century puts the time at 30 sec. per move with 30 mins. for the entire game and as "rapid" chess at 60 sec. per move.   The 10 sec./move came sometime in the 20th century.  The earilest mention of 10 sec./move that I could find through a search was a mention of a game between Charles Curt vs. Hermann Helms in Brooklyn, 1909 with no information supplied of how the time was monitored or controlled.  That time control became very popular in the first half of the 20th century.

     Here are some examples of medai coverage of Rapid-Transit  in the early years:

     The season at the City of London Chess Club was opened on October 20th with a Rapid Transit contest, in which the club provided twenty-four opponents for twenty-four representatives of the Ladies' Chess Club. The chief prize, a handsome opera bag, was won by Miss E. Edwards, who is only fifteen years of age. The club championship tourney has attracted eighteen strong players, and the other events have been well patronised. -"BCM," Nov. 1906

     Another "Marathon" Rapid Transit Handicap Tournament was held at the Rice Chess Club, Cafe Boulevard, Second Avenue and Ninth Street, Manhattan, on Wednesday, April 7th, twenty contestants participated. Nineteen rounds were played. Entire time consumed for pairing, scoring and playing was 2 hours and 38 minutes. This breaks the former record by 1 hour and 2 minutes. Mr. Louis Hein who conducted the former tournament also managed this one.
J. R. Capablanca won first prize with 18 won and 1 lost.
J. R. Rosenthal won second prize with 16.5 won and 2.5 lost.
L. R. Eisenberg won third prize with 14 won and 5 lost.
A. Marder, H. Helms and H. Rosenfeld, tied for fourth prize with 12.5 won and 6.5 lost.
Mr. Capablanca also won a Rapid Transit match from A. Marder by a score of 5 to 2 and 2 draws.  -"Chess Weekly," April 17, 1909


     Last week, at the Rice Chess Club a rapid transit match of five games up, was played between Jose R. Capablanca and Chas. Jaffee. Mr. Jaffee, having the reputation of being the champion rapid transit player of the East Side, was expected to make a close score against the Cuban, but Capablanca's play was irresistible and he won the match by a score of five straight games. It is pretty piain by now that if Capablanca has his equals "at quick chess they at any rate do not live in the neighborhood of New York. -"Chess Weekly," May 1, 1909

 . . . and the "American Chess Bulletin" in 1919 announced the creation of a Rapid Transit Chess Association:
STUYVESANT RAPID TRANSIT CHESS ASSOCIATION.
     To the strains of that familiar chessic symphony known wherever lightning chess play is indulged in "Ready, Move," the Stuyvesant Rapid Transit Chess Association, having no affiliation with the Interborough System nor being a subsidiary of the B. R. T., was launched under most favorable auspices on December 11 at Jacob Bernstein's restaurant, 201 Second avenue, New York, following a ten-second-a-move tourney between nine well-known experts in the metropolis. Hartwig Cassel, the veteran organizer and chess scribe, who was responsible for the gathering of the clans, was elected chairman of the new association, with R. G. Wahrburg as secretary and treasurer. Funds were raised on the spot for the next meeting and tournament, which are to be held at intervals of a month.
     Joseph Liebergall, president of the I. L. Rice Progressive Chess Club, was present and made a brief address, as did Ensign William S. Jones, N. R. F., of Rochester; Julius Finn and H. Helms, among others. These proceedings took place in the course of a banquet served by Mr., Mrs. and Miss Bernstein, after the players had finished the hardfought contest, which will go down in history as the initial tournament of the association.
     Boris Kostich, Western champion, and Charles Jaffe, erstwhile Rice Chess Club champion, carried off the chief honors by tying for the first and second prizes with scores of 6½ to 1½ each. Jaffe enjoyed the distinction of winning from the Serbian, who went through the recent international tournament without the loss of a game, but he lost to J. Rosenthal, winner of the third prize, with a score of 5½ to 2½. The drawn games ot the leaders were Kostich vs. Wahrburg and Jaffe vs. Kupchik.
     Rosenthal's losses were to Kostich and Helms, while his draw was with Kupchik Two also tied for fourth and fifth prizes, namely, H. Helms and A. Kupchik, of whom the latter had taken a lightning game from Capablanca two days earlier. Helms lost to Kostich, Jaffe and Schroeder, winning the rest, while Kupchik lost to Kostich and Helms and drew against Rosenthal and Jaffe. The complete score follows:
                                    Jaffe  6½ - 1½   
                                    Kostich  6½ - 1½ 
                                    Rosenthal  5½ - 2½ 
                                    Helms  5 -  3
                                    Kupchik  5 - 3
                                    Black  3 - 5
                                    Schroeder  3 - 5
                                    Liebenstein  1 - 7
                                    Wahrburg  ½ - 7½
     Among those who partook of the banquet and had a hand in organizing the Stuyvesant Rapid Transit Chess Association were Hartwig Cassel, Joseph Liebergall, Ensign William S. Jones, N. R. F.; Dr. Oscar I. Lamberger, Julius Finn, Dr. Samuel Gold, R. G. Wahrburg, R. T. Black, Alfred Schroeder, Boris Kostich, A. Kupchik, H. Helms, I. Gisher. J. Rosenthal, Charles Jaffe, H. Liebenstein and R. Cuno.
     Another impromptu tourney was arranged later in the evening with eight entries This ended in a triple tie between Jaffe, Kostich and Kupchik, each of them scoring 4½ - 2½. Schroeder, with 4-3, was placed fourth.

 

 


     Possibly the greatest practioner of that time control (at which Capablanca had been the first true dominating force) was Rueben Fine who combined 10 sec./move with both blindfold and simultaneous play. I'm not sure anything he accomplished in that area has even been duplicated or even approached. Fine who retired from professional competitve chess at the onset of WWII (1939) to earn his doctorate  in psychology from the University of Southern California (1941) and who between the years 1942-45 was the U.S. Speed Chess Champion with a 95% win rate, gives a recounting of his exploits in this area in his book, "Great Moments in Modern Chess:"
      Fine learned chess at 8, played his first blindfold game at 14 and gave his first blindfold simul (6 boards, winning them all.) at 16. 

     - In Aug. 30, 1944, Fine played 10 blindfold games (consecutively, not simultaneously) at 10 sec./move at the Washington Chess Divan.  Fine won 9, lost one to Donald Mugridge. One of the losers was 15 year old Hans Berliner who would later become the world correspondence chess champion.
     -In March of 1945, Fine played 10 consecutive (not simultaneous) 10 sec./move games at the Marshall Club. Among his opponents was 73 year old Herman Helms. Fine won all 10 games.
     -In April 1945, Fine played 5 consecutive pairs of 10 sec/move games,  playing White and Black in each pair at the same time . Fine won 8, lost 1 and drew 1.  His only loss was on time.
     -After the conclusion of the USA-USSR Radio Match in Sept. 1945, Fine played blindfolded 4 games simultaneously at 10 sec./move (Fine had 10 sec./move/board). The opponents only had to have moved by the time Fine reached their board, essentially giving each opponent up to 30 sec/move. Robert Byrne, then only 17 but a recognized master, was one of his opponents. Fine won all four games.
     -In August 1949, Reuben Fine played a 10 games rapid transit match against Herman Pilnik (who had just tied with Najdorf at Mar del Plata the year before) at 10 sec./move.  Fine played blindfolded.  Fine won 3, drew 1 and lost 6. One of Fine's losses was due to a misuderstanding in an announced move. ("Blindfold Chess" by Eliot Hearst, John Knott)


     I tried to find where the term Blitz originated.  My working hypothesis was that it came into fashion after WWII and derived directly from "Blitzkreig."   To narrow things down quickly, I searched books and periodials on Google before 1937 for the word "Blitz." I came up with almost no English pages, so I searched that same timeframe for German publications containing the words "Blitz" and "Schach." I found just a few, but nothing with anything like "Blitz-schach."  Only one result came close with the term "Blitz-turniers."  Next I searched publications after 1945 with the term "Blitz" and found thousands of English pages.  A search for "Blitz" and "chess" came up with a few results in the 1950s, some in the 1960s, some in the 1970s - all with very conflicting definitions. In the 1980s, computers start being mentioned in conjuction with blitz and in the 1990s I stated seeing more official interest in the game. In 1993, for instance, the USCF saying, "Blitz Chess, also known as five-minute chess, the time limit being G/5. As each game takes no longer than ten minutes, it has long been popular for fun games when time is limited."  

     The term Blitz has been used to mean just about anything and everything over the years.

     One of the earliest, and most interesting, mentions of Blitz as a chess term was in the 1953 non-chess book, "My Uncle, Joseph Stalin," which notes, "Molotov was sitting in a corner, playing blitz chess with Marshal Chapochnikov, a master of the game himself. ... 'If you continue to think over each move for ten minutes, it isn't blitz chess any more,' Chapochnikov said."

     But Chess Review in 1945, immediately after WWII, contained this use of the term:
"Blitz Chess Spectators often wonder how Sammy Reshevsky can survive the horrendous time pressure in which he so frequently finds himself"  This seems to indicate the term came into use sometime during the war.

     In the latter part of the 1950s though the entire 1960s and into the 1970s, the term took a turn for the quicker:

    "1000 Best Short Games of Chess"  by Irving Chernev, 1955: 
"But this was Blitz chess, and at five seconds a move"

     Newsweek, 1958:
"Fischer studied Reshevsky's board hard, but on the side played practice "blitz" games (each player moves immediately)."

     "Treasury of Chess Lore" by Fred Reinfeld, 1959:
""Blitz" is a game in which both players must move without a moment's hesitation."

     "The Psychology of the Chess Player" by Reuben Fine 1967:
"Masters sometimes even play "blitz" chess, in which they are obliged to move instantaneously, in less than one second."

     "Chess review" Dec. 7, 1968:
Playing "Blitz" is a special sort of chess performance."

     "Saturday Review" 1969:
"Blitz" or lightning chess is about the fastest. Here each player must reply immediately after his opponent moves, as in volleying back and forth in tennis.

     "Grandmasters of Chess" by Harold Schonberg 1973:
"He also has his five-finger exercises - rapid transit, at ten a move, or blitz, where the moves must be made immediately, or, most popular of all, clock chess at five or seven minutes fro the entire game."

After this Blitz slows down and relaxes a bit -

     "12 Great Chess Players and Their Games," by Irving Chernev, 1976:
"Fischer is the greatest living chess master. ln tournament and match play he has no equal, and in blitz (five-minute chess) he stands head and shoulders above the competition. "

     "New York Magazine" June 11, 1984:
[Israel] Zilber is one of the best in the country at speed, or "blitz," chess — games that range anywhere from 2 to 30 minutes.

     "Science Digest" 1986:
"250 or so players in the world), except at blitz chess, in which each side has five minutes for the entire game."

     "PC World," 1985:
""Blitz" chess is played at 15 seconds a move, and a match played at world-class time standards averages 40 moves in 2 hours."

     "New Yorker," 1989:
"They were playing "blitz": rapid-fire, ten- minute games, which perfectly suit Mink's style of play"

     "The Economist," 1995:
"Blitz games are the most popular form of chess by wire. Each player has five minutes for their moves."

     "101 Questions on How to Play Chess" by Fred Wilson, 1995:
"Another very popular form of chess with clocks is called "blitz" or "five-minute" chess. In this type of chess each player has only five minutes in which to make all his moves."

     "Chess Openings," by Tim Harding, 1998:
"A good idea is to play semi- blitz games (15-20 minutes per player) against an opponent of equal strength"

     "Mammoth Book of Chess "by Graham Burgess and John Nunn, 1997:
defines Blitz as "five minutes for each player for all his moves."  and "20, 30 or 40 minutes for all the moves" as Rapidplay.

     "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Chess," by Patrick Wolff,  1988:
"I love five-minute chess, also known as Blitz of Speed Chess."

     "How Life Imitates Chess:  by Garry Kasparov, 2008:
"blitz chess - Games with little time given to each player, usually 5 minutes." and "Rapid chess - Games with a short amount of clock time for each player, between blitz chess and classical chess. Typically around thirty minutes."

 

     Even current official policies differ.
     compare this:

FIDE
B. Blitz
B.1 : A ‘blitz’ game’ is one where all the moves must be made in a fixed time of less than 15 minutes for each player; or the allotted time + 60 times any increment is less than 15 minutes.


to this:
USCF

Blitz Rules
1). Each player must make all his moves in the time specified for the game.
1a) Standard time control (TC) or blitz is G/5 with no delay.
1b1b) Non-standard time controls, including the use of delay or increment, may be used at the discretion of the organizer provided that they are stated in any advance publicity, announced and posted at the site.
TD Tip: Non standard time controls should be set keeping in mind the spirit and intent of Blitz Chess (Rapid play, quick, fun chess). Total game time should not exceed 10 minutes per player per game.


     It seems safe to say that timed fast play has been around for about 120 years.  The time controls and method of timing these games graduated from time/move to time/game as clocks improved. 10 sec./move, the most common time fast-ches control in the first half of the 20th century, roughly equates with a 4 or 5 minute game, the major difference being that each side has unlimited moves and the game could, in fact, go on a long time, and that time-management isn't very important outside of each individual move.  This type play was typically called "lightning, " but corresponds more closely to today's "blitz"  than to today's "lightning."

     However, even today, blitz, lightning and bullet aren't clearly, officially defined and can, since not even are the parameters defined,  for the most part, be whatever the venue or players decide upon.

     So blitz remains as nebulous as it has been historically.


Comments


  • 7 months ago

    hop-along

    I'm a little late to this party but a friend of mine has taken up lightning chess and I can't find much instruction for transitioning from a correspondence style to a 1 minute game. Did you run across anything like that in your research? I did see Bill Wall's article.

    I've only been playing for about a year (250 games). I've been focused on analysis but am nowhere near having an "instinct" for position. Tactics Trainer goes way too fast for me.

  • 16 months ago

    SebLeb0210

    thats cool

  • 17 months ago

    Catch23

    This chess history articles .... are very very nice!

    THX

  • 20 months ago

    TonyChestnut

    Great job !!

  • 22 months ago

    batgirl

    Your welcome.

  • 22 months ago

    onthehouse

    Interesting. Thanks Batgirl.

  • 2 years ago

    Crosshaven

    (applauds)
    Well done batgirl.

  • 2 years ago

    batgirl

    Bill Wall gives a really great review on the subject of speed chess in his White Knight Review.

  • 2 years ago

    dashkee94

    I only played in one rapid-transit tournament in my life.  The difference from blitz was intense; having to wait 10 seconds to move, than moving in that 3-second time frame, it required a functional patience I did not (do not) have.  I was playing a rival rated over 2100 USCF, and I found a forced mate.  As he moved to the death square, I immediately reached over and played mate--and lost because I did not wait for the bell to signal that it was my turn to move.  You can't really appreciate the differences between blitz and r-t until you have exposed yourself to them.

  • 2 years ago

    NM GreenLaser

    I'll try to comment in 10 seconds. The trouble with rapid transit with a bell every ten seconds, was that it required honorable play. One IM at the Marshall CC in the sixties would lift his arm at the bell, move it over the board at the second bell, and move on the third bell. there was no enforcement or witness unless the opponent could getting away with claiming the game. With 5 minute chess, when the flag is down it is not to be denied.

  • 2 years ago

    NimzoRoy

    Great article! BTW did you know that the IRS almost forced USCF into bankruptcy over chess clocks many years ago?

  • 2 years ago

    Harubanda

    great research!

  • 2 years ago

    harp396

    Congratulations for your job!

  • 2 years ago

    Musikamole

    Wow! One of the best articles of the year.

  • 2 years ago

    peterjoac

    Great post!

  • 2 years ago

    Estragon

    Excellent article and research, thanks again!

    I am sure you are correct that the delicate construction of the older clocks was a big factor in not playing speed chess on them the way we do today, but another factor was their rarity.  Very few players owned clocks of their own until the '60s, when cheaper mass-produced German models like the BHB came on the market.

    But our city club had an old clock - which was still used in tournament play at the time (60s-70s), similar to the Jacques clock you picture.  On the back was a switch which would enable a bell that rang every ten seconds.   The oldtimers said it was for "rapid transit" - there would be the one clock for the whole tournament (usually an evening at the club), everyone had to move immediately when the bell rang or their game was forfeit.

    "Blitz" as in instant-move chess was still common when I was coming up in the '60s, for the same reason - nobody had chess clocks, and the few who did wouldn't let them be abused!  So you played instantly, any hesitation could be called by the opponent just as if your flag fell today.

  • 2 years ago

    Caliphigia

    I remember reading in chess memoirs that after the WWII, because there were no clocks, time was measured by the referee who gave the signal when to play by hitting a bell, or in most cases, a drum.

    I know that in some countries German word ZUG (meaning 'move') was used to describe 5 minutes chess, and such tournaments are called "Zugers". 

  • 2 years ago

    ShaPelayo

    Good job! Congrats on your deep research!

  • 2 years ago

    erik

    whoah...

Back to Top

Post your reply: