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What Can A Grandmaster Do With 60 Seconds?

What Can A Grandmaster Do With 60 Seconds?

NM_Vanessa
| 52 | Amazing Games

While commentating in 2021, GM Vladimir Kramnik shared his candid opinion of bullet chess:

Why do you use a chessboard? There is no point, just put the clock and push the clock, and the first one who wins on time wins. There's no point to have a chessboard because it's not chess anyway!

There's no point to have a chessboard because it's not chess anyway!

―Vladimir Kramnik

Many share Kramnik’s perspective. Bullet is often viewed as a mindless race to run out the opponent's clock, full of dirty flags and swindles that violate the laws of chess decency.

What then draws top grandmasters to play it so frequently? 

A peak at the Bullet Leaderboard shows many GMs with thousands of games under their belt. During the 2022 Candidates, GM Alireza Firouzja infamously blew off steam in the middle of the night with a 250+ game bullet spree vs. GM Daniel Naroditsky. Naroditsky himself has declared hyperbullet to be his favorite format compared to all other time controls. The finalists of the 2023 Bullet Chess Championships (BCC) were also the two highest-rated classical players at the time, GMs Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura

Could there be a bit more to it? What happens in a grandmaster’s brain when they make such quick moves?

At the close of the 2023 Bullet Champs, Carlsen shared his perspective on what differentiated him and Nakamura from the rest of the field:

My main strength, which is also his main strength, is we’re simply better at chess than the others, and so we can make good moves more quickly while they need to spend time.

We can make good moves more quickly while they need to spend time.

―Magnus Carlsen

What Carlsen is talking about―the ability to make good moves without taking time to think―is intuition. In Secrets of Creative Thinking, IM Mark Dvoretsky defined chess intuition as “the ability easily and quickly―and sometimes immediately―to grasp the essence of the position.”

Chess intuition is the ability easily and quickly―and sometimes immediately―to grasp the essence of the position.

―Mark Dvoretsky

Bullet's lightning-fast time control offers players the opportunity to play by intuition alone. With no time for slower, analytical thought, the strongest bullet players tap into their "feel for the position" to choose moves.

Sure, there are blunders, brutal time scrambles, and bewildering examples of bishop and wrong-color rook pawn as perhaps actually theoretically winning―at least in Nakamura's games during the 2023 championship. 

Yet, there are also moments of gold: unbelievable tactics, imaginative counterstrikes, and displays of impeccable endgame technique. How do they do it? GM Garry Kasparov explores the roots of intuition in his book, How Life Imitates Chess:

Intuition is where it all comes together: it is the indispensable product of our experience, our knowledge, and our will to know and do more... Even the vaguest hunches are based on something tangible—some knowledge, even though it may be buried deep below our conscious mind.

Even the vaguest hunches are based on some knowledge... buried deep below our conscious mind.

―Garry Kasparov

For grandmasters who have spent their lives studying and competing, there’s a wealth of subconscious knowledge they can draw from in an instant. This makes bullet a fascinating way to peek under the hood at a player’s intuitive understanding of the game.

Through the feats of the strongest bullet players in the world, let's explore five valuable types of intuition.

  1. Andrew Tang: Sensing The Knockout Blow
  2. Daniel Naroditsky: Psychological Intuition
  3. Alireza Firouzja: An Eye For Unbelieveable Combinations
  4. Magnus Carlsen: Endgame Intuition
  5. Hikaru Nakamura: Finding Hidden Resources

1. Andrew Tang: Sensing the Knockout Blow

Making regular bullet look like a leisurely stroll, Tang specializes in ultrabullet (15 seconds per player). Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

As the reigning hyperbullet champion, GM Andrew Tang excels at finding the knockout blow, an essential element of tactical intuition. No matter how good your position appears, in bullet you have mere seconds to figure out how to crack your opponent's defenses. Watch Tang find one brilliant move after another in his kingside attack vs. GM Eric Hansen in the 2023 Bullet Chess Championship. 

In the 2022 Grand Final vs. Nakamura, Tang had his fearsome foe on the ropes when Nakamura found a stunning rebuttal. Sensing a decisive blow in the air, Tang invested seven seconds into his next move, which caused the eventual champion to resign on the spot. 

Tang's quick-wittedness in decisive moments fuels his prowess at the fastest time controls. As he shared with the Perpetual Chess Podcast

In time scrambles, I don’t think anyone can combine being as fast and as precise as me. There will be people who are faster, but if I can win material while playing almost as fast then I will probably be able to outplay them in the end anyways. It does require a combination always.

In time scrambles, I don’t think anyone can combine being as fast and as precise as me. 

―Andrew Tang

2. Daniel Naroditsky: Psychological Intuition 

Ranked number three on Chess.com's bullet leaderboard, Naroditsky has scored nearly 50,000 victories. Photo: Benjamin Robson/Chess.com.

Naroditsky delights in tricking his opponents, and he's capable of creative swindles even against the very best. You can see the effect―ranging from shock to awe to amusement―on their faces when he succeeds. Naroditsky shares his approach in his instructive video on the topic, How to Be Lucky in Chess: The Swindle:

When you land in a position where you are objectively lost from a psychological standpoint, you cannot lose hope… even in endgames, even in positions with very limited material where it seems like all hope is lost, my experience has convinced me that there’s almost always some way to create chances.

My experience has convinced me that there’s almost always some way to create chances.

―Daniel Naroditsky

In a dead-lost position vs. Carlsen, Naroditsky hilariously sets up an auto-queen stalemate trap for the world number one.

Another aspect of psychological intuition that Naroditsky discusses is changing the momentum of the game: 

When things are going wrong like this, you want to find a way as some chess authors call it to change the course of the game or change the trend of the game... It's a lot more uncomfortable for your opponent if you do something that changes the landscape because it forces him to adapt.

It's a lot more uncomfortable for your opponent if you do something that changes the landscape because it forces him to adapt.

―Daniel Naroditsky

In a losing position vs. Nakamura, Naroditsky senses a trick in the position and leaves his queen hanging to set it up. The position requires a calm defending move from Nakamura before continuing his attack. When the three-time champion doesn't adjust, he's in for a surprise. Even Nakamura joins Naroditsky in laughter at the end. 

One cannot forget the sheer shock on GM Minh Le’s face when Naroditsky steals not just victory but the entire match in their last game in 2022. Le is lulled into a false sense of security by his dominant position when the American trickster springs a rare mating combination. 

Naroditsky’s inventive bamboozles bring out the human element of chess―the mental game between players beyond the 64 squares. 

3. Alireza Firouzja: An Eye For Unbelieveable Combinations

Firouzja at Norway Chess 2024. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Firouzja is the only player other than Nakamura to have won the Bullet Chess Championship, clinching the title in 2021. He thrives on bending reality on the chess board. He'll toss an impossible-looking move on the board as the eval bar springs up in his favor. 

In a 2023 BCC match vs. Carlsen, Firouzja plays 30.e6!!, dropping the pawn within striking range of many black pieces. Due to a blend of tactical ideas, the pawn is untouchable. Firouzja discovered the move with three seconds of thought―and the commentators declared it the move of the day. 

On the next day as he dueled Nakamura in the Winners Final, Firouzja blazed another spectacular combination on the board. 

Firouzja’s intuition allows him to infuse even bullet games with tactical magic. When asked what he did differently to win the 2021 bullet championship, he shared:  "I think I just got better at chess because I just win on positions."

I think I just got better at chess.

―Alireza Firouzja

4. Magnus Carlsen: Endgame Intuition 

Magnus Carlsen at the 2023 World Rapid and Blitz Championships. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

On his debut to the bullet champs in 2023, Carlsen knocked out everyone in the Loser's Bracket to advance to the Grand Final and eventually finish as the runner-up. He often attributes his play to intuition: “It’s hard to explain. Sometimes a move just feels right.” 

It’s hard to explain. Sometimes a move just feels right.

―Magnus Carlsen

In the endgame, he has the ability to grasp where his pieces belong in the position in seconds.

In a notoriously drawish opposite-color bishop ending vs. Le, Carlsen faced a problem: his passers were immobilized by his opponent's king and bishop. How can he make progess? Yet, while spending a total of two seconds for 10 moves, he figures out the winning setup. Soon, his passed pawns march freely towards promotion. 

His intuition shows when he defends in the endgame too. In a losing position―with Firouzja's passed pawn one step from queening―Carlsen's pulls off an amazing save.

Carlsen’s depth of understanding is what gives him an unparalleled feel for the endgame. In a book about Norwegian peak performers, Carlsen shared:

[My intuition] partly comes from my early experiences as a child when I put in all those hours with myself on the chessboard and tried out things. It meant that I eventually got a feel for chess, an understanding of the game. 

5. Hikaru Nakamura: Finding Hidden Resources

Nakamura at the 2024 Candidates. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Nakamura has won every bullet championship except when Firouzja won in 2021. Whether he's winning, behind, or fleeing his king for dear life across the board, Nakamura excels at finding hidden resources in any position. One minute his opponent's position will look powerful or even winning. In the next, all of Nakamura's pieces will be flying at every weak point.

In a double-edged fight, it began to look like Firouzja was taking over the game. Nakamura's king was halfway up the kingside, and Firouzja's queen was staring bullets at it, dreaming of discovered attack possibilities. In the nick of time, Nakamura spotted a startling tactic that changed the course of the game. 

In his video on the art of swindling, Naroditsky describes a game where he's up a queen and hunting down Nakamura's king: "I expected Nakamura to resign at this point. I'm up a queen, and it seems I have a mating attack." Yet, Nakamura finds the resources not just to survive, but to take the full point. 

When giving tips for bullet himself, Nakamura shares his mindset:

Never resign. Another way of putting it: have no shame. Unlike in normal chess, anything can happen, even if there’s a mate in two or one, of if you’re down a queen. Never resign.

Never resign. 

―Hikaru Nakamura

Through the remarkable comebacks by the three-time champion, we see that bullet chess isn't about perfection. It’s what a player’s chess looks like when they face twists and turns as the clock races to zero. It’s a form of the game much like the notorious quote attributed to GM Mikhail Tal, known to be one of the most intuitive players in history: "You must take your opponent into a deep, dark forest where 2+2=5, and the path leading out is only wide enough for one."

You must take your opponent into a deep, dark forest where 2+2=5, and the path leading out is only wide enough for one.

―Mikhail Tal

In stark contrast to the deep analytical ability we see when a grandmaster plays a classical tournament after months of preparation, bullet shows us what emerges when they play with their raw intuition. 

Nakamura, Firouzja, Naroditsky, and Tang will be competing in the upcoming 2024 Bullet Chess Championship, starting on June 10. 

What's your favorite type of intuition? Let us know in the comments.


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NM_Vanessa
NM Vanessa West

Vanessa West is a National Master, a chess teacher, and a writer for Chess.com. In 2017, they won the Chess Journalist of the Year award.

You can follow them on X: Vanessa__West

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