Controlled Chaos: Interview with a Bughouse Master
Discussion of bughouse, chess, and chaos on the board(s).

Controlled Chaos: Interview with a Bughouse Master

JarlCarlander
JarlCarlander
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Jarl Carlander: Could you tell us a little about yourself, and how you found bughouse?  

HelmsKnight: My dad taught me to play chess when I was five years old. He basically introduced me to how the pieces move and got me to play against the computer and online some website chess games against other people. I got the chance to learn different techniques in chess through PC games he got me and got to learn a bunch of tactical ideas there. At age 11 he signed me up to FICS where he gave me the username “helms knight” (him being a big LOTR fan and we watched those movies together). I played some chess games on there but I quickly discovered channel 24, a bughouse channel and of course the game bughouse itself. At first, I was getting checkmated out of the opening until I learnt not to move my “f” and “c” pawns in the opening! At this stage I improved at bughouse mainly out of my pure love for the game, I didn’t care much if I lost or not; I would play for hours on end and enjoy every second of it. One time I think  I stayed up almost 48 hours straight on FICs playing. I fell asleep at my computer chair. By age 13 I had achieved a rating that was in the top 5 players on the server at the time. I eventually took a break from the game during high school and went back into it in University. That’s when I really started trying to improve and I basically told myself “you’re doing everything wrong” and re-learnt the game from the fundamentals up which did wonders for me and brought me to where I am today.

JC: What's the appeal of bughouse? Could you tell us what drew you to the game and made it worth mastering? 

HelmsKnight: For me what was so fascinating about the game was the element of having a teammate and that social aspect of the game. I enjoyed having someone on my side that I could work together with to try and be victorious in our games. As I began to improve at the game by playing thousands and thousands of games I found myself finding a lot of enjoyment in helping my partners achieve new rating bests and trying to break my own. I also love the multi-tasking element of the game. At first bughouse may seem just like chaos to an outsider but I soon realized that I could control this chaos in a beautiful, mathematical, artistic, strategic, etc. way. I find that’s almost what bughouse is at the top level: controlled chaos. Funny way to describe it but the fact that there are so many things to keep track of at once, so many elements to the game, so much to multi-task, and on top of that the extreme time pressure of needing to be faster than your opponents AND know how to play well on your board, keep track of your partner’s board, play for the correct side, and somehow blend yours and your partner’s board together in one harmonious way… well, I could keep going on but you get the point. It’s a LOT! And I LOVE it. It’s like a rollercoaster almost, filled with ups and downs, you just disappear into that world of bughouse and everything else disappears.

JC: Why should chess players try bughouse? What skills are most transferable from bughouse to chess?

HelmsKnight: I think chess players should try bughouse because, well, first off it’s a ton of fun and you get to know so many people and if you enjoy team games then this allows you to incorporate that with chess! I know some players worry that playing bughouse could worsen their chess - to that I say everything in moderation. If you played exclusively bughouse or played it more than chess - well then maybe you’d get a bit rusty at chess. But bughouse is a beautifully tactical game with many ideas that do not come up in chess as much as in bughouse. I believe bughouse improves your tactical abilities and could almost be a tactical training exercise. The patterns you could to be familiar with in bughouse will also translate over to chess - giving you different types of attacking ideas and approaches to situations.

JC: What qualities and/or playing style do you look for in a bughouse partner?

HelmsKnight: When it comes to my personal preference in bughouse partners it mainly comes down to how much practice I’ve had with them. I enjoy partnering up with players that are interested in improving as a team, playing many series together, growing and improving upon our dynamic, communication, and coordination. I enjoy partnering up with players who have an open mind to always learning more and don’t get stuck in “one way” of viewing the game or thinking about it. Players that try to understand each element of the game as a whole rather than just narrowing in on one is great too! I also enjoy partnering up with players who genuinely want to improve at the game.

JC: So when you told yourself you were doing everything wrong, how did you relearn it? Was it more of a general, philosophical relearning, or lots of variations? I think bughouse playing readers would be very interested in this.

HelmsKnight: When I said I had to relearn everything - I meant that I admitted to myself that I was doing something wrong and maybe got stuck in bad habits, in order to get out of that accepting it was the first step. The next was learning the fundamentals of the game: openings, coordinating boards, time management, adjusting, knowing when to attack and defend etc. From there I got advice and pointers from top players and just played and played until I reached where I am now. I gave myself little exercises to do such as play for one week without any sac sitting so that I could focus on ONE area at a time and somewhat master it before moving onto the next exercise.

JC: How can one become a better bughouse partner?

HelmsKnight: One can be a better bughouse partner by having regular partners they partner. Get experience playing with the same partners and playing a long series against one team of opponents. That way you can learn how to adjust your style, technique, strategies as needed with your partner and also to your opponents - and if your opponents adjust then you’ll have to adjust AGAIN so knowing how to do that is extremely important. COMMUNICATION! Is key! Talk, and talk a lot! even suggest moves from time to time, discuss plans during long sit-downs, it also depends on the type of partner you have you have to learn the best way to communicate with each person. Some people prefer constant talking saying “sit” every other second just to slightly improve their position, while other partners may prefer to only communicate during the key important moments in games. One could argue the more communication the better but I think there are exceptions to most rules - it depends. Don’t blame your partner - I know this is a big joke nowadays but it’s also important - don’t get tilted at your partner - being hard on yourself is somewhat normal but don’t be harsh with your partner because that will only cause tension that could throw off your games.

JC: I often see in your high-level matches with top Grandmasters, users will say “What is this game? The pieces appear and reappear!” The game maybe looks bizarre on a first place, but it seems that with the introduction of bughouse to chess.com, we are seeing a continuous influx of new players. What does the future of bughouse look like?

HelmsKnight: I think that bughouse will only continue to grow as more and more people get involved and start playing. With the upcoming tournaments and new features being added to bughouse as well as more people promoting and top chess players getting involved, I think it will really boost bughouse’s popularity.

JC: What are some ways in which people have too narrow a focus? How can a player be more flexible in their thinking about the game?

HelmsKnight: I think being open to always learning more is important, I don’t believe anyone knows everything, there’s always more to learn and being open to that is important. I also believe that taking others opinions and ideas into consideration is important rather than only relying on your own. Lastly, don’t get stuck in strange habits of doing something only one way, there can be multiple approaches to achieve great gameplay and I think exploring different ways/strategies when approaching the game can really help improve one’s strength. It is strong.

JC: Can you talk a bit about the Pinkie opening and what makes it so strong in bughouse?

HelmsKnight: The pinky is just a joke opening I created a few years ago on FICs, it honestly isn’t actually strong but the joke is that if you are a strong player then you can make almost any opening work with the right ideas and strategy, so I enjoyed introducing this opening as a fun way to take away the opening theory from the game and add focus to the other fundamentals and strategies. The pinky specifically involves sacrificing one or two rooks out of the opening and in bughouse often knights, bishops, and pawns are more useful in the opening (depending on what your opponent plays) so sometimes it doesn’t really affect the game too harshly and if your partner trades a lot then you can just replace those pieces anyways, it can be a lot of fun!


HelmsKnight regularly uploads high level bughouse matches to YouTube. She has played a match with Hikaru Nakamura as her teammate, against Justin Tan, the world crazyhouse champion, and Yasser Seirawan. 

HelmsKnight also streams bughouse, crazyhouse, and chess on Twitch. 

https://www.twitch.tv/helmsknight