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Ten Things You Need to Play Bullet Chess Well

Ten Things You Need to Play Bullet Chess Well

Jul 26, 2010, 9:14 AM 16

It has been well over a dozen years since the meteoric rise in the popularity of one minute ("Bullet") chess over the internet, and I think that at this point it is time to recognize it as more than a simple fad. It is, in fact, a mind bogglingly complex fad. With that in mind, I've decided to write a quick introduction into what you need to be a moderately successful bullet chess player. Bear in mind, however, that I hover around 2200 (2700 on chess.com = 2200 elsewhere) or so on most of the internet chess servers, so I'm hardly an all conquering cyber-juggernaut myself.

First: A Good Mouse

I suppose this one goes without saying, except that it's amazing how quickly we can get used to a crappy mouse and forget the difference.

Second: A Thick Skin

Playing bullet chess on the internet is probably the lowest one can stoop in our present society and yet still have to pay taxes. It therefore comes as little surprise that you will face a lot of less than pleasantly mannered opponents. That, coupled with the fact the game is inherently Hobbsian - nasty, brutish, and short - creates a recipe for discord and strife. The best way to handle all this is simple: swear loudly and vociferously every time you lose. It's therapeutic.

Third: Will to Win

Sadly, this one is probably the most important one of all. Why sadly? Because nobody in their right mind should care much about the result of a one minute chess game. But, rest assured, people do, and you must if you wish to win consistently. So, be prepared to enter a totally unhealthy mental state for the duration of your bullet fest - much like those old arcade games (Defender, Bezerk, Robotron, etc.) that pushed your reflexes and concentration to an unnaturally heightened state of alarm and anxiety.

Fourth: A Solid Yet Shallow Opening Repertoire

Openings are indeed crucial in bullet chess, for obvious reasons, but there are some misconceptions about what constitutes a "good" opening in this medium. In regular chess, one probably wants a detailed appreciation of the inner nuances of superficially similar opening setups. Er, or something like that. I wouldn't know, actually. Anyhow, this is totally useless in bullet, as those sorts of details will go by the wayside in ninety-nine out of a hundred bullet games. What you need instead is a reliable opening tableaux that you can fall back upon regardless of what comes at you, but not so predictable that someone can simply "Rock" your "Paper", as it were, by noticing you on auto-pilot and acting accordingly. An example of this would be when Black, vs an emerging Closed Sicilian by White, decides to just go h5-h4-h3 or a very quick b5-b4.

In other words, you want an opening that allows you to anticipate your next move under most circumstances, but you never want to completely ignore the other player, at least not until under five seconds or so. With this in mind, here are some common and decent bullet opening choices:

  • Kings Indian Attacks w/ 1.e4, Colle Systems w/ 1.d4
  • French/Caro-Kann vs. e4, Dutch vs. d4
  • various noncommital systems, like the English/Reti as White, or the Hippo as Black

and so forth. The main merit of these systems is that either the central pawns form fairly obvious and static structures (so you don't really have to think about them too much) or central conflicts are delayed so one can concentrate on things like completing one's development, castling, generally not hanging stuff everywhere, etc. That said, picking a really chaotic opening can be fun too, although a sensible opponent is likely to react by simply putting his pieces in manageable places whilst yours are flung all over the map and thus harder to mentally group together. In any event, the thing to remember here is that a slight theoretical advantage means nothing in bullet if your position is harder to play in a practical sense.

Fifth: Rhythm

Ideally, bullet chess involves a certain elusive mental rhythm, where ideas are flowing smoothly and naturally. Of course, most bullet chess experiences are not like this. They instead involve an opening that emerges like a jet skier in a whirlpool, a middle game as sensible as the plot to Twilight, and then an endgame that makes your local LAN Party's Quake fest look like a Sunday afternoon book club discussion of "Middlemarch". So, how can we avoid this? The answer is paradoxical. See if you can come up with it before reading below.








The Answer:








THINK. Yes. The one thing you're NEVER to do in a bullet game. But that's the secret - there's one moment in a bullet game where you need to take a quick but deep breath, and calmly try and improvise some sort of game plan or just general idea/conception about the present position. This thought can take anywhere from a few seconds to, really, at most a dozen or so, but it needs to happen, and one should accept this and not panic about it. The more one panics about this moment of thought the harder it will be to actually think during it, and thus the longer the think will likely need to be to be at all useful. That said, much of the art of bullet chess is determining WHEN this thought will occur. Generally speaking, it usually occurs after the opening has been stumbled through and one needs to regain some sort of general bearing. However, sometimes it happens earlier or later. Your intuition will eventually help you find when best to do this think, and for how long, but never expect that you can simply breeze through a bullet game with COMPLETE thoughtlessness, at least not against an even marginally aware opponent.

OK, throughout this rant you might have forgotten that the actual fifth thing I mentioned was rhythm. But that's the point I want to stress the most: if you think for a moment, you can flow afterward. So the rhythm of a bullet game is sort of flow, think, flow, or maybe flow, think, flow, think, flow, if you have two thinks in you. Also, there's mini-thinks as well, which are times you aren't anticipating your next move and obliquely think for like a second at most as a result. Those also help create the sort of frenzied iambic pentameter of a bullet chess game. Get used to this rhythm and strive to maintain it regardless of the chaos around you.

Sixth: Knights

Bullet chess is often about knights. Bishops take care of themselves, rooks just sit around until something opens up for them, and queens usually perch on some square like c2 or e2, eying possible weaknesses like an osprey on the, well, whatever ospreys go on, but knights need to create their own opportunities. Also, the knight's move is an almost impossible pattern for even the most experienced players to anticipate, so they are absolutely brutal in the last ten seconds of a game. Try to keep them around, but bear in mind something important about knights - they are annoying to your opponents, but they are also mentally higher maintenance than a bishop or rook, which can often be developed somewhere and then almost forgot about like some sort of chessic appliance. With this in mind, I recommend this exercise: take a random diagram from any game with knights still on the board, and see how quickly you can imagine a path for them to a useful square. Do this until you just see the path as one big crooked vector of chivalry, as it were. Then check to make sure your new health plan covers psychoanalysis.


Seventh: The Last Ten Seconds

When under ten seconds, there is a tendancy to abandon all strategic concerns and instead just shuffle pieces as quickly as possible. This is, generally speaking, an excellent plan when facing really bad players. When facing even halfway good players, however, it is highly iffy to purely mark time because all it takes is about two seconds to rush a pawn down the board, auto-queen it, and then with that queen all chance of out-loitering your opponent is practically gone - there's too many possible checks to anticipate. Or, even more likely, checkmates. Therefore, the best plan for these ten seconds is have a plan for the previous ten, and that plan should be twofold:

  • Keep Playing Chess

The latter part of this plan really cannot be stressed enough. To illustrate, here's a video of two 2 0 bullet games where White seems hopelessly behind on time, but manages to actually win both games in mutual zeitnot due to his initiative. (In the first game it should be noted that, were not for the hanging of White's queen with five seconds left, the finish would have likely been much less close).

Btw, one more thing along these lines: you've probably heard the chess maxim "the threat is stronger than the execution". Well, in bullet that maxim can be basically multiplied by several million orders of magnitude. The thing is, even in standard chess there's a surprisingly large amount of threats that don't actually mean as much as they seem to when examined closely, and in bullet chess almost NOTHING outside checkmate is necessarily disasterous. Thus, you'll find that a lot of moves you'll instinctively want to make (agressive pawn pushes, forks that "win" an exchange but lose the initiative, checks, etc.) are often best left in the air, ideally to be rattled off in the last dozen seconds when one is otherwise most inclined to run amok like an unfortunate extra in a disaster movie.  Furthmore, and perhaps even more importantly, such threats provide extra mental ballast for your opponent, as part of his/her mind must be occupied by the dangling possibilities your murky feints entail. Well, unless your opponent just ignores everything you're doing, that is, which is a special (if common) case: for such an opponent the main thing is to identify their style as soon as possible. Once you realize your opponent isn't paying any attention to your moves, you can take advantage of that in lots of fun and amusing ways.

Eight: A Second Queen

When you have a simple winning endgame (as in extra pieces, lots of extra pawns, or both), sometimes by the time you queen your first pawn you're down to a frighteningly small amount of time. Often the simplest way to handle this is to just queen another pawn instead of trying to effect a mate with "just" one queen. First off, queening an unstoppably passed pawn from the second rank usually takes less time than one might realize - I've seen people do it (usually against me) in less than a quarter of a second. Second, and most importantly, most of us lag a little, and while you're making instantaneous moves that lag adds up during the queening process and affords you time to peripherally assess the position and how best to checkmate with the extra queen you're about to have. Of course, generally speaking, the best way with two queens is to just check (thus avoiding stalemate) until mate happens - but it's worthwhile to note that this strategy is also exactly the WRONG way to mate with one queen.


Nine: Perspective

While engaged in the herky jerky mental melee of bullet chess, it is easy to forget that your opponent is very likely also not totally enjoying the experience on high artistic level either.  So, when you are most ready to resort to panic, drool, and wimpering, it's sometimes helpful to realize your adversary is probably already there, and that every blunder you've made so far can be, under the right circumstances, instantly transformed into a rather psychologically potent gambit just as soon as you make just one good move.


Ten: Food

The best type of food to eat before playing bullet chess has long been a subject of controversy in the upper echelons of the sport.  Some say Jolt Cola, others suggest crack, and still more radical ones espouse Twinkies or Hot Pockets.  However, there are serious health repercussions from any of these and so I can't in good conscience recommend them to the casual bullet aficionado.  It should be noted that certain otherwise plausible foods have been shown to have deleterious effects in bullet as well.  Here is a list:

  • Chips: easy to prepare and eat, but salt/grease inevitably gets on fingers, mouse
  • Ramen: has many economic benefits but tends to splash on keyboard
  • Broccoli: makes you healthy enough to go outside and play in the sun
  • Monkey Brains: the ideal food in many ways, but, alas, now illegal in most States
  • Cannabis: unavoidably increases chip consumption, causes some to forget to move for a day or two
  • A large block of cheese: tempting, but don't do it, trust me
  • Salad: unknown, never been tried
  • Jägermeister: best combined with Red Bull and a working gastric lavage kit, this approach, though popular, has nevertheless been repeadly shown to yield uneven results - definitely dubious if your local ICU lacks Wi-Fi
  • The flesh and bones of your enemies: while an environmentally excellent choice, this is still classified as a bannable offense on most servers
  • Chicken: save for Warcraft

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