A History of Blitz
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.
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:
Then in Nov., The BCM wrote:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:"
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:
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:
"Treasury of Chess Lore" by Fred Reinfeld, 1959:
"The Psychology of the Chess Player" by Reuben Fine 1967:
"Saturday Review" 1969:
"Grandmasters of Chess" by Harold Schonberg 1973:
After this Blitz slows down and relaxes a bit -
"12 Great Chess Players and Their Games," by Irving Chernev, 1976:
"New York Magazine" June 11, 1984:
"Science Digest" 1986:
"PC World," 1985:
"New Yorker," 1989:
"101 Questions on How to Play Chess" by Fred Wilson, 1995:
"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.
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.