Slow Chess - Is it Too Slow?

Slow Chess - Is it Too Slow?

Nov 7, 2015, 12:57 PM |

“Variety is the spice of life.” – William Cowper

Yet again, another online post by a chess master has got the chess town talking once again. IM Greg Shahade posted on his blog an article called “Slow Chess should die a fast death”, where he sounded his opinions about slow chess tournaments and how long they take (primarily in American tournaments). Long story short, he said that slow chess takes too long, and if chess had been invented last week, there wouldn’t be any slow games, just rapid and blitz paced games.

He said that if chess was invented last week, “…there is absolutely zero percent chance that the world of excited chess enthusiasts would band together and say “Let’s make sure every single chess game lasts anywhere from 4-6 hours”. Just like every other new and popular game/esport that’s emerged, a typical chess game would not last longer than 30-40 minutes”.

And there’s a good chance that is true; if we didn’t have classical chess before now, then maybe it wouldn’t be thought up of in today’s world where time is money and ultimately, money is king.

But chess wasn’t invented last week!

This statement is pretty obvious, but part of chess’ appeal to some players is the fact that chess is a game that has been played for many centuries, with very little changes to the rules. Games that were played 200-300 years ago, maybe from even further past, can be re-played now in all their glory. Almost every undisputed world champion has won his title in a match at classical time controls, and this tradition has been going for 129 years (with brief interruptions now and again).

Greg Shahade, photo from

The majority of professional, top-level chess is classical, with a few rapid tournaments here and there and sometimes a blitz tournament to decide lots. And despite the rising popularity of fast paced chess, many of the amateur chess tournaments are played at classical time controls (often 5-7 round weekend swisses).

But there have been many more rapid and blitz tournaments that have been introduced in the past few years, including at the amateur level. However, Garry Kasparov had this to say when asked about the marketability of classical chess during an interview with Maurice Ashley during the 2015 Sinquefield Cup:

“Even the popularity of certain kinds of music doesn't threaten opera.”

Wise words from the 13th World Chess Champion, who himself was a class rapid and blitz player (and still is, as we saw when he demolished Nigel Short 8½-1½ in an exhibition match at the CCSCSL). He is pretty sure that even though rapid and blitz are rising in popularity, classical chess will still hold it’s own. And I think he is right.

Slow chess is known as ‘classical’ for a reason. It’s the way that everyone played it before now, from kings to the world’s top players from the 1500’s to the present day. And let’s not forget that IM Shahade earned his title through playing in classical tournaments (the IM requires 3 norms, like the GM title). So to me, it is unusual that someone of his strength would say of a hatred for slow chess.

Kasparov on his way to crushing Short, photo from CCSCSL

But there is one thing which I am pretty sure about: Rapid chess is the future of promoting chess.

If chess is to become more popular, and be more marketable (which seems to be one of the points Shahade is putting forward), then it must embrace this form of chess much more; and this includes organising more top-level rapid tournaments. While serious chess players are often engrossed in super tournaments where games last 6 hours or more, the casual player most likely will not be as interested. If chess is to get more televised coverage like it has in Norway, then I do not think long games are the way to go (well not initially, anyway).

With many casual players that don’t use a clock with their games (I’m talking mainly about non-club players that may play the odd game with a friend), the game only usually goes on from 30-60 minutes. That is the same length of time as a rapid game played with clocks, so maybe more casual players would be interested in professional chess if the games were the same length as their own?

The organisers of the Zurich Chess Challenge seem to have a similar opinion to Shahade. Next year, Zurich will be trying out a new format. Previously, they had a blitz event to decide pairing lots, then a classical round robin, but on the final day, there was an another rapid round robin with 5 games all played on the same day. The classical counted for double (2-1-0) while Rapid was scored normally (1-½-0).

The Zurich Chess Challenge 2015 rapid section in full swing, photo from 

However, in 2016, they will be doing a blitz tournament to decide lots, then a rapid round robin across 3 days at a time control of G/40’+10”, with a final blitz tournament in the evening to finish things off, with rapid counting double and blitz counted as normal.

The organiser, Oleg Skvortsov, had this to say: "We think that in the future classical chess could pass to one hour control for each player. We have come to the conclusion that the game needs to become faster."

I personally am not sure if this format will work, and I am sure there will be some people that will be complaining that the rapid format will leave too much to chance. But the organisers in Zurich have come up with innovative formats in the past (the split classical and rapid system being one of them), and I for one will be following it closely to see if it works well. Certainly, changing the format from one that has been previously received extremely well, to one that has never been seen before (as far as I know) is a very bold move indeed, and I personally wish them the best of luck with it.

Maybe this is the start of making rapid chess much more mainstream than it is now, and this could be the start of the new revolution, where rapid takes a much bigger stage in chess than it has ever done before, but still alongside the classical form of chess. We shouldn’t be viewing rapid and blitz as a threat to classical chess, but as a platform to allow casual players and players who have never seen professional chess before to get a view into this wide chess world we are all part of.

After all, variety really is the spice of life.