Interview with a Top Bughouse Player: TheSeventhCinnabon

Interview with a Top Bughouse Player: TheSeventhCinnabon

JarlCarlander
JarlCarlander
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I recently had the opportunity to interview a top bughouse player. We talked over Skype, and I have transcribed the conversation, paraphrasing only a little. Before our interview begins, TheSeventhCinnabon takes a moment to chastise me for certain factual mistakes I made in a previous post. (On The Nature of Chess Variants, also featured on this blog). He has not been playing bughouse on FICS for thirty years—but forty. Nor does his rating sometimes hover around 2500, but it is in fact closer to 2700. I mollify him and promise him to correct these points, and also to add that he was the first to achieve 2900 on FICS, in May 1997. (The actual facts of the matter are unclear. Bughouse players are often eccentric, egotistic, and prone to exaggeration. But TheSeventhCinnabon is interesting and insightful enough. And in any case, he is the only top bughouse player who I could get to talk to me.)


Jarl Carlander: So you’ve been playing bughouse for over forty years. What brought you to the game?

The SeventhCinnabon: I actually discovered bughouse independently. I had two childhood friends, and we would always play chess. I used to play simuls with them, taking White on one board and taking Black on the other. Then one day, I was struck with a realization: why not just place the captured pieces on one board and put them on the other? The rest followed logically and inescapably.

JC: What’s the main attraction of the game? What made it worth continuing to play, and worth mastering?

TSC: Well bughouse has many virtues. It’s necessarily social; you have to communicate with your partner. In some positions, you don’t need to say anything. It might be obvious that your partner needs you to sit and hold pieces, or that he wants you to trade pawns so you can place a pawn on the h3 square against a castled King. So in principle, you might think that communication would be unnecessary between perfect players. But you’d be wrong: sometimes you have to choose between two equally good plans, and if the partners don’t agree on the plan and act with uniformity, a won game may be lost.

JC: For instance, if you’re my partner, and I want you to sacrifice your Queen for a Knight so I can deliver mate, but you want me to sacrifice my Queen for a Rook, so you can mate. If we both sacrifice our queens for the other, no-one will mate. If neither of us sacrifice, no-one mates.

TSC: Exactly. Something like that. You’re not as hopeless as you often seem. Even though you told your readers that my rating is usually around 2500 when it’s in fact around 2700.

JC:…

TSC: Did you tell your readers how many times I won the Berlin Bughouse Gathering?

JC: How many times did you win?

TSC: Many times! And I usually was the one carrying the team.

JC: So that leads me to my next question: how does over the board bughouse differ from playing online?
TSC: Well there are some obvious points. Online, your communications with your partner, or ‘p-tells’ are secret. Premove battles in the time scramble are more chaotic, because the random pieces delivering spite checks around your king appear out of nowhere, so to speak. Over the board, this doesn’t happen so much.

JC: What are some less obvious points?

TSC: You can’t sit as much for material. This tends to favor the normalhouse (or chess players, if you will!) specialists.

JC: Like Grandmasters and such?

TSC: Hmmm. Yeah I guess.

JC: So...why should chess players—or normalhouse specialists—want to play bughouse? Not just play it but study it and get good?

TSC: There are many good reasons to want to be a strong bughouse player. I don’t wish to disparage normalhouse, but in most chess tournaments it is impermissible to eat snacks during a game. This is why I didn’t get my 3rd grandmaster norm back in 1991. Chess players mostly look skinny, emaciated even. Because they are half starved. Fortunately, bughouse players are able to eat whatever they want. Of course, bughouse players are always trying to come up with usernames which will distract their opponents by making them hungry.

JC: This certainly explains the dominance of CheesyBread.

TSC: And ChickenCrossRoad. I don’t know if he’d have crossed the 3000 elo mark so easily if his opponents had not been distracted by thinking about chicken sandwiches.

JC: So a name based on food will give you a rating boost?

TSC: Yes, probably around 300 points. And I’m sure you can gather what my favorite snack is.

JC: Toast?

TSC: No.

JC: Calimari?

TSC:...no.

JC: Slightly stale provolone cheese with crackers?

TSC: Cinnabons! It’s right there in my name!

JC: Ahh yes. That certainly makes sense. How many cinnabons do you typically eat during a bughouse game?

TSC: ...Let me continue with my answer to your question. With bughouse, you have to think not only locally, as in chess, but globally. If you capture a Queen with a pawn, this might be good locally, but globally, it might be a terrible mistake—you could have just mated your partner. In this respect bughouse is similar to the Chinese game Go. 

There is also beauty in the collaborative efforts that go into bughouse. For your readers, I would suggest watching JannLee’s streams with ChickenCrossRoad. When the clocks are paused, everything is thoroughly and meticulously calculated—the recycling of the pieces back and forth across the boards. It’s quite fascinating.

JC: And how they will hunt down pieces for one another.

TSC: Yes, exactly. You’re playing and then suddenly getting your partner a Knight wins the game. So getting the Knight is effectively checkmate. That means that the Knight is the King in that moment. Everything in bughouse fluctuates, and that’s part of the beauty of it.

It’s interesting to see what people can do when they put their heads together, as opposed to the rather rugged individualism of classical chess. How many years did we spend trying to fight Deep Fritz and other engines when it was clear that the game was up? Correspondence players now are stronger than either human beings or machines alone, because in some sense they are talking to the machines; probing them and trying to understand from them.

JC: Do you think that machines will ever beat humans at bughouse?

TSC: None can touch me as of yet. But I think due to their speed and calculating ability, a machine could be developed. Computers are so powerful now, and even intuitive in their thinking, so that there being two boards shouldn’t matter. It’s just that there isn’t currently the interest in it because bughouse is not so well known as chess or Go.

JC: It seems that this is changing, and that bughouse is starting to have a professional class, just like chess.

TSC: Yes, that’s true. When I failed to make my third grandmaster norm in 1991, I decided to give up normalhouse and focus on bughouse, which I used to support myself. Now I have a lot of money—several hundred dollars to my name. Now I don’t want your readers to be moved by materialistic motives, but there is a lot of money in bughouse. Although I do wish the bar for bughouse journalism was a bit higher.

JC: My final question: what qualities or playing style do you look for in a partner?

TSC: Some players like high flow, which means a lot of trades. Others like fewer trades, or more gradual trades. I will in general, try to trade whichever way suits my partner’s playing style. And all they have to do is let me know what kinds of trades they want so I know what to get for them. Apart from that, I like it when my partners bring cinnabons to the game. I find bringing cinnabons to be a most admirable quality.

JC: Thanks for answering my questions.

Since TheSeventhCinnabon mentioned the JannLee+ChickenCrossRoad streams, I have linked a particularly instructive one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sucAd0UBojs&t=6115s