How To Excel In Blitz Chess: The Magnus Carlsen Way
The handshake between Carlsen and Nakamura at the World Chess Blitz Championships / Photo: Lennart Ootes for FIDE Chess

How To Excel In Blitz Chess: The Magnus Carlsen Way

NM HanSchut

This article will you give some advice on how to excel in blitz.  Blitz specialist GM Maxim Dlugy published an article series in New In Chess Magazine called the Blitz Whisperer and my recommendations are based on his articles, an analysis of the World Blitz Chess Championships in December and my own experiences.

I put this list together for one of my students. He is officially rated 1600. In the subsequent Blitz tournament he performed at 2000 level.

1. Choose openings you know well including the basic development patterns and typical tactics

Time is of the essence, so play what you are familiar with. It is easier to play a position that you have played many times before. So, it is not necessarily playing the best opening, but about playing what you know well. Nakamura often plays in Blitz 1.b3 or 1.Nf3 followed by 2.b3. You do not see this opening often in classical chess but it worked well for Nakamura in Blitz who scored about 70% with it. Often his opponents have difficulty to find their way and end up being 30-60 seconds behind on the clock right out of the opening.

Anish Giri, who is known for his opening knowledge, never got into the game after Magnus Carlsen surprised him in the opening. Giri had to resign after 24 moves. 

Magnus commented after the game: 'There is no better way to start the day then with a win over Giri'.

2. Stay ahead on the clock versus your opponent

Many games are decided by blunders in extreme time pressure. Make sure your opponent is the first one to be under extreme time pressure. If you are under severe time pressure, play on one side of the board if your position allows it. It is easier and faster to play on a limited board.

Mamedyarov was in extreme time trouble against Carlsen which lead to the following blunder:

Note that Carlsen maximized the chances of a blunder by walking with his king towards the centre.

3. Keep your pieces and king protected and continuously improve the activity of your pieces

Do not hurry your attack. Think about it as mirroring the ‘position characteristics’ from my article Knock knock who's there? A tactic in the position!. Instead of looking for these characteristics in your opponents position, avoid them in your own position! Especially avoid unprotected pieces, pieces that lack space and keep your king safe. If you avoid all these position characteristics, then the chance that you are surprised by a tactic is much lower.

When I lose against a grand master in Blitz it often goes like this: They avoid weaknesses and continuously improve the total potential energy of their pieces. I either get into time trouble and blunder or force the position after which they counter attack exploiting the weaknesses I created by forcing the position.

4. Having the initiative and attacking chances is often worth more than material

Defending is difficult and often it takes time to find the right moves. A rule of thumb is that in blitz 3+2, a one minute advantage on the clock equates to one pawn. Have a look at how Carlsen sacrifices a pawn and the exchange for the initiative and time against Lev Aronian.

5. Cool defense

Many players panic when they are under attack. Have you every practiced winning a better position against the computer? If so then you know how difficult and frustrating that can be. The computer continues to find resources and pose challenges. Defend like a computer. Be resilient and resourceful. Look for pieces that can help in the defense and trade attackers.

In his game against Grigoriants, Carlsen made a draw using a stalemate idea.

Zhigalko was up a queen versus a rook against Carlsen. Carlsen was resilient and managed to draw:

6. Endgame Technique

Strong blitz players know how to play the endgame. Have a look at Duda’s defense against World Blitz Champion 2017 Sergey Karjakin and the defense of Vladislav Artemiev against Magnus Carlsen. Amazing what kind of defense they can put up with so little time.

Knowing how to assess and play pawn endgames is a critical skill in Blitz.

The endgame Rook and Bishop versus Rook appeared 7 times on the board in the world chess championship blitz . Only former World Champion Vishy Anand was able to draw it! Six out of the seven games the player with the rook could not hold the draw and lost. Have a look at the critical moments Rook + Bishop versus Rook

7. Avoid going on ‘tilt’ after a lost game

It is quite common for players to lose a streak of blitz games. You do not have a lot of recovery time between rounds and the ‘trauma’ of the previous game can carry through to the next game. Find a way to take a ‘time-out’ after a lost game. It depends on the individual how to do that. Disconnect, reset and then reconnect fresh again. I listen to music in between the games to get back into the zone. Even the best have difficulty shaking off a loss. Magnus Carlsen lost his first game in the rapid on time in a better position. He then also lost the second game in the rapid after starting the game with 1.e4 e5 2.Qh5 Nc6 3.Bc4.  The loss in the first round clearly carried over to his play in the second round.

GM Maxim Dlugy's Blitz Whisperer for New In Chess Magazine