Pandolfini's Mailbag: Speed Chess -- The Bad

Pandolfini's Mailbag: Speed Chess -- The Bad

| 52 | Strategy

Topic for June: the endgame

(Please start submitting questions concerning the above topic for the next column.)

The Bad Things About Speed Chess?

(For answers to all other speed chess questions received, please read my replies in the forum.)

In my last column, we discussed the many good aspects of speed chess. Here's the other side of the argument.  

1. It overemphasizes time: This it does to the neglect of ideas and good chess. Let’s face it, in speed chess you can have a hopelessly losing position and often still win on time. While it’s fine that the clock may offer rescue after playing dreadfully, it’s a little unreal. In most traditional circumstances, time will not save you. Play badly and you lose. So if you get accustomed to salvaging games with ridiculous sallies primarily designed to force the opponent to think too long and forfeit on time, that’s got to affect your serious play adversely. In standard chess, the opponent is not likely to be perplexed by frenetic movement and consequently overstep. He or she is probably going to have enough time to tiptoe through your trap-laden minefields. You’ll just lose, plain and simple.


2. It instills superficiality: Since you can’t dilly dally in speed chess, promptitude being integral to success, you don't have time to weigh intricate variations. Nor can you satisfactorily explore speculative lines that may be worthwhile. Accordingly, you might miss opportunities requiring deeper thought. So you don’t win when you should. Another liability of speed chess is the inclination to play refutable variations that simply haven’t been analyzed adequately. So you lose when you shouldn’t. Clearly, to avoid sequences requiring greater calculation, it’s natural in speed chess to play moves that have a veneer of working well but actually don’t. Reactive replies often miss the mark. Rely too much on cursory response (in translation, play more bullet chess than you should), and it can impair your decision-making in slower forms of chess. To be sure, speed chess promotes surface thinking and impetuosity. After all, many of the moves played in speed chess are the first ones the brain gets. But playing on impulse defies the essence of sound chess and its dicta. Have you forgotten Lasker’s maxim? “If you see a good move, look for a better one.” Just try looking for a better move in speed chess, with your clock ticking away. Tick tock.


3. It fosters unsound risk-taking: It all comes back to the overriding parameter of time. Not only must you keep an eye on the clock in speed chess, but to avoid time loss, you might force matters, hoping to win more quickly than correct play justifies. That means the opponent has to play badly for you to succeed. So you throw out uncorroborated shots, hoping to entice mistakes.  You do this even though your hollow threats don’t compel your opponent to do anything. It's unwise to play in such cavalier fashion, even if drawn to coffee-house chess. That’s a style where players move as if they’ve had too much coffee. It's characterized by sacrificing every pawn in the physical universe. Please! Nobody is Frank Marshall, and he didn’t play that way anyway, not against the likes of Capablanca and Lasker. They would have taken his pawns and laughed all the way to the bank. In fact, they did.


4. It reinforces bad habits: Too much speed chess (notice the constant use of the words “too much”) invites playing for traps. Such simplistic lures might work. Or they might not. They tend to work more often in speed chess when opponents speed up. They tend to work less often in serious chess when opponents slow down. And speed chess promotes other bad habits you can't as easily get away with in serious chess. For instance, speed chess hooks you on playing moves you know to be flawed. You play them to make your opponent overstep. That ruse doesn’t work so well in orthodox chess, whenever you try it. It fails nocturnally. And it fails diurnally. I dare you to try all that anti-positional stuff on sober occasions. Say, at breakfast. Another contrivance speed players tend to bank on is sacrificing a piece to make the enemy king move. What did Steinitz say? “The king is a strong piece. Use it!” So why give your opponent a chance to use it? Ceding a knight, merely to make the enemy king move, may draw plaudits in speed chess, but just try that trick in slower forms of chess. See what happens a piece down, even if your opponent can’t castle by hand. You're likely to lose regardless. Stop pretending you’re Adolf Anderssen. Besides, he knew the value of material. He also knew something else. Fast or slow, a bad habit will always be a bad habit.


5. It neglects strategy: We’re not talking speed chess played by grandmasters. Even within the confines of blitz, they play a consistent strategic game. But GMs, too, could play with greater positional wisdom if not hurried by the sands of time. Play too much speed chess and you’re apt to start neglecting strategy in slower chess. One action you can’t do so well in speed chess is ask probing questions. In slower chess, especially on your opponent’s turn, you tend to be more relaxed. So you can explore. Just try to do that in speed chess. Sometimes you can't even take a bite of your sandwich. You can move, but that doesn't mean you have enough time to think and question. Good strategic play, on the other hand, blossoms when you have time to pose fact-finding inquiries. You’d like to know about weaknesses to exploit, soft spots to repair, strong points to occupy, maneuvers to make, targets to attack, and so on, ad infinitum. Overdosing on speed chess isn’t going to inventory any of that. If anything, too much speed chess is likely to frustrate or even impair your strategic development. So go ahead. Play a lot of speed chess. But if you're planning on using speed to become another Karpov or Petrosian, forget it.


6. It can lead to physical problems: Well, that’s what I’ve been told. I haven’t experienced these problems in students myself, and I must admit, hearing about them makes me ponder. Anyhow, it stands to reason that unhappy physical reactions are more likely for those who are prone to stress. There are complaints of numbness in hands and fingers from too much speed chess (like I felt in typing up this monstrosity). Those who play bullet chess are especially susceptible. It’s said that some older citizens have had strokes playing speed chess. (I’ve actually heard it erroneously bruited about that Capablanca died playing speed chess at the Manhattan Chess Club. But this is patently false. Capa was merely watching an offhand game when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage.) Some teachers maintain that kids have developed twitches from playing too much speed chess. Who knows? But I wonder if the twitching can't be better explained by the general anxiety of playing and losing at chess, regardless of speed. What kid wants to incur the wrath of his or her coach or parents? Nevertheless, observers claim excessive blitz is a culprit, that it can on occasion result in physically bad reactions. It’s hard to believe where this is leading. I was going to play some blitz. I think I better have a general checkup first.


7. It can be disturbing to others: Especially at clubs and venues where people are trying to play seriously, speed chess can be clangorous and unsettling. This can be worse if the nearby serious players have just finished a big meal. Think what can happen to that meal, with speed chess in the air, if not in the stomach. There’s probably going to be a lot of clock banging. There may be boisterous talk. Don’t be surprised if there’s coincident banter, particularly from infuriating busybodies observing the festivities. It’s not fair to those seriously minded chess players trying to play strategically viable games of chess, undesirous of coincident banter. Why should they be pestered merely because they occupy the same visiting space? Granted, an occasional wisecrack may be funny. What of it?  That doesn’t assuage much. If only speed players would play speed like non-speed players. Then we'd have something. Think how different the world would be.


8. It is addictive: According to former champ Vishy Anand, “It is very difficult to play a single blitz game! You want to play for a long time. So I tend not to do that anymore.” To be sure, once the Pandora’s box of speed chess is opened it may be impossible to shut. Blitz can mesmerize with false impressions. For example, that one is playing well when one isn't. Indeed, it's speed chess, so you can violate every principle there ever was and still win. Why play for the center when you can play for the corner and get away with it? Now, in all fairness, adults have the right to ruin their lives with speed addiction. In a caring society, however, we have to think of the children. Shouldn’t we protect them from the scourge of this blight? So if we’re going to allow kids to play speed chess (how can you stop them once they’ve seen Magnus Carlsen play it), be mindful to the attendant problems. Surely, most teachers will say it’s okay for kids to blitz away here and there. But don’t let kids play speed chess and five minutes later jump to a serious game. Touch move claims will certainly abound, and don’t be shocked if the so-called serious game ends in less than 10 minutes. What happens after that? More speed chess!


9. It invites poor sportsmanship: Many observers contend that playing too much speed can spawn bad interactions. I’m not referring to not shaking hands. They don't always shake hands in standard chess either. I’m thinking more about other shady courses of action. For instance, some speedsters continue playing out hopeless positions merely because they are ahead on the clock. A queen and two rooks down, they proceed merrily onward. And when they win on time, they laugh it up, acting as if they've crushed their opponents. Then there are other transgressions, usually by some of the same transgressors. They may even try to get away with illegal moves, to steal the point or just to unnerve the opponent. No question about it, speed chess can often lead to ugly disputes. Of course, standard chess produces its own share of poor sportsmen and sportswomen. But at least there's a score sheet and a TD, sometimes. 


10. It is disliked by strong players: Consider what they say. “I play way too much blitz chess. It rots the brain just as surely as alcohol,” according to Nigel Short. Didn’t he just play a speed match with Kasparov? Wait, maybe that was for the fans and the analysts. I’m a fan, so maybe I should analyze those games. But I’m bothered by the words of Rashid Nezmetdinov, and they stop me in my tracks. I find most eloquent, and most stopping, his observation that “He who analyses blitz is stupid,” which brings to mind Vladimir Malakhov and his enlightening statement that "Blitz is simply a waste of time." In the end, I think I prefer Bobby Fischer and his profound encapsulations on the matter, especially “Blitz chess kills your ideas.” If that’s true, why the heck did Fischer play blitz chess so much? Maybe he was onto something, or like a chess player, maybe he wanted us to think one thing when he really thought another.

Finally, here are the answers to last month's specific questions. Scroll down in the forum to see my answers. 

That about does it for this column. Let's turn our attention to next month. The subject is the endgame,  especially concerning how to study it and ways to improve endgame play. Time to quote that gifted chess enthusiast, Bugs Bunny: “That’s all folks!” I’d quote Socrates’s last line from Plato’s “Apology,” but I don’t think I could apologize quite enough. 

(Please start submitting questions concerning the endgame for the next column.)

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