Advanced Bughouse Concepts

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The ABCs

This blog is designed toward more advanced players, but hopefully it can be helpful for weaker players as well. The concepts discussed will be applicable to all levels, although the execution is more precise at higher levels.

For material aimed at weaker levels whilst still maintaining a high level of quality, I would recommend sorsi, mastertan, chicken’s bughouse guide, and MiniGreat’s work as well as others I am probably forgetting. 

The Time Factor

This is probably the most important thing in bughouse, as time determines the playability of a move. Often there are moves that would be fine to play uptime, but completely lost downtime. Thus it is often important to check the time before making important or risky decisions.

For example in this position, black has sacrificed an army-and-a-half in order to get an attack on the white king. Now it is important to determine if white could go Kg1/Kh1, in which case a knight and pawn would mate white, or Kg3, where a heavy (R@g4) would mate white. If white was uptime, they would probably choose Kh1 or Kg1. But if they were downtime, Kg3 might be more prudent as a rook is less likely to come.

In my opinion there are three main styles in bughouse: Fast Aggressive, Slow Aggressive, and Fast Defensive. Let’s take a look at the decision making that occurs in each of these styles, and how time affects each of them as well as the partner dynamic. Before going on, a brief discussion on why there is no “Slow Defensive” style.

Defending slowly is a quick and easy way to lose. Trying to request your partner to hold pieces while simultaneously being downtime will kill your board as well as the partner board as they are desperately trying to hold pieces. If your king is in trouble, ideally try to move as quickly as possible while requesting sits from your partner if you happen to be uptime. Many times I see players get into some trouble and start thinking about how to deal with it. Unfortunately, unless you are in a sitting situation thinking is a surefire way to lose, as only more pieces can come into the opponent's pocket as time goes on. Please don’t defend slowly.

The final comment regarding time. Time is important in all styles of play, but I would say that playing fast helps a lot more for your partner than it does for your own board. For high level play, all players are relatively the same level and have a good idea what to do. But if the other board is lower rated, getting uptime is especially important so you can control the flow to help the other board, or build a stronger communication (for instance feeding moves).

While often you will see bughouse players say that the diagonal clocks matter a lot, I would say the head to head clocks are equally important. In a perfect game of bughouse, both boards are uptime (or downtime) by the exact same amount of time. Thus, if you play faster than your opponent, your partner will be uptime simply by playing the same speed as his opponent. Even more importantly, your partner can even be slower than his opponent but as a team, you can still be even on time. This helps a lot in augmenting the play of your partner, whether your partner is as strong as you or weaker than you.

Actually in the Fast Defensive style half the reason to play fast is in order to give your partner the possibility to be uptime.

Fast Aggressive style

This style is really strong but very difficult to execute. I think 12teen is the strongest player who encapsulates this style, and he does it really well even with massive partner disadvantage. The main idea is to move extremely fast, playing at times even questionable decisions, but using uptime in order to keep your king safe while just going after the opponent king. 

Players of this type are very difficult to face because they can generate attacks with very few pieces in pocket, trusting that their uptime will eventually allow them to wait for more feed. For strong chess players that are fast and aggressive, it is especially difficult to face since you will be under fire if no trades come, as well as struggling when trades eventually do come.

Black has played extremely quickly, trading many pieces. Let's say black has a pawn and white has nothing in hand. A normal player may play p@g7, defending the holes around the black king. A fast aggressive player might choose p@f3, instead trying to blow open the opponent king and trusting their partner to hold the knight and few diags that would mate them.

The main weakness of this style is that often trades come in large batches, often carelessly. As always, high communication is very important, but it is especially important that the partner of a fast aggressive player is able to survive and defend well. Facing fast aggressive players is easier if you are able to disrupt their natural flow and force them to check their partner board often.

Another pitfall of this style could be going too fast that you often miss the best options for yourself and/or the partner, as going extremely fast makes it difficult to maintain high quality. For instance, I often see players going for the attack when really they should be defending because their attack is less dangerous.

Slow Aggressive style

This style is really strong if you have a partner advantage or your partner can handle themselves. The idea is to maintain a high quality of play while sacrificing a little bit of time to sit for incredibly damaging pieces or find really strong moves. My favorite practitioner of this style is JDBryant, who is just a joy to watch and a nightmare to face due to his moves being incredibly strong.

In the above position, while black is under a lot of pressure, with Bxe6 coming it feels possible to weather the storm. However, in this position with bishop and pawn in hand JDBryant found B@g6!! all but ending the game.

Unfortunately, being downtime can be a hindrance to the overall team performance. Many lower rated players fit into this style, where they will be sitting for pieces for a long time. When I partner these slow/aggressive players, I generally try to trade a lot of pieces (hopefully on their turn) while staying as safe as possible. Ideally, if you play slow/aggressive, you don’t want to be sitting a long time for a piece if it simply isn’t coming. Thus, if you partner such a player you want to be able to give them everything that they need to minimize the amount of time they are sitting.

The obvious downside of this style is on the partner, who may struggle to live especially if you are sacrificing pieces. Furthermore this style may force your partner to sacrifice their position in order to feed you, in which case if you do not give mate you will lose.

It is extremely common to see players of this style say things like “I’m completely destroying my opponent, why can’t you live” and raging at their partners. Please don’t do this! It is extremely common to see mid-level players say stuff like this, without realising that they are the main reason for the team’s defeat. Strong players who are slow/aggressive understand that they are hurting their partner, but that is the sacrifice you often make in order to strengthen your own position.

The second danger is chessing, where the opponent team will abruptly stop the flow of pieces by having one of the boards sit, and hopefully using the material/time advantage to their benefit. 

A really common opening that every player has faced especially at lower levels. This is a prime example of how not to play slow/aggressively, sacrificing randomly and throwing pieces at the opponent king rarely works.

Fast Defensive style

I would characterize myself as having this style, chickencrossroad as well. The main idea is to support your partner, often augmenting their play to the tune of hundreds of points. Many times when my partner is much lower rated than myself I am actually watching their board more than my own, giving them pieces when they need it or feeding them moves. So this section will be the longest as I have the most familiarity with this style :).

Again going back to the above concept of playing faster than your opponent helps your partner stay uptime, I would say this style works extremely well with slow aggressive players. You can count on your partner to win while you feed them and stay alive, and if you are fast enough they will not be downtime so much.

One key idea of this style is communication, more so than other styles of play. More than once I have had to watch helplessly as my partner gave a queen against my wishes, mating me in a few moves. While communication is of course important however you wish to play, if you don’t communicate accurately to your partner when to sit/go, then often you can find yourself in trouble. On the other hand, if you communicate well you can often gain large advantages of time/position by simply shrugging off attacks and taking free material.

While even beginners understand the concept of sitting for pieces, this style often utilizes the idea of sitting to hold pieces. In a sense, one can think of it as anti-sitting, where if no trades come your position will soon become dominant. Often I see players telling their partner to sit way too late when the opponent already has a decent force in their pocket to deal damage. Instead of doing this, try the “anti-sit” in a situation where your opponent has few pieces (or no pieces) in hand, while you have a decent pocket in hand. Take that opportunity to place your pieces on the board, around your king, or go for a counter attack. After you have gained this board advantage then you can tell your partner to go.

Let's say that white has sacrificed a decent chunk of material in order to weaken black's dark squares, and they have no pieces in hand while black as a pawn, knight, and bishop. Often I see players uptime in the above position not tell their partner to sit, instead waiting for the position after something like B@g7 Qf7 and only then telling their partner to not give rook. However, white can already follow up the attack with something like Ng5 making things very unpleasant.

Instead, notice that if black has told sit, they could play Qxh6, N@f5, B@g7, and Rf8 or even try to attack with p@g3. So instead of continuing to be in danger after some p@g5 or B@g7, black could attain a dominant position with a totally safe king.

My opinion regarding attacks in bughouse is that if it requires more than two pieces (which you don’t already have in the pocket) then I simply don’t believe in it. This is where communication comes into play. In a mutual sit situation where your opponent is sitting for some pieces, you can tell your partner to continue playing and possibly improve their position and gain time while the partner opponent is killing themself to feed the opponent. When the first piece comes, you tell your partner to sit, and your opponent will have just one piece shy of being able to sustain the attack. After you beat off the attack both boards will likely have a massive advantage

A pet opening of chickencrossroad, where white is not afraid of a single p@h3 because black will likely be downtime sitting for that pawn. After p@h3 gxh3 Bxh3 Ng5 black will likely have to sit for more pieces or acquiesce to Bxf1 Qxf1 after which white has strong control over the light squares, and trades are actually good for white. So if black starts asking for high trades, but trades only come after Qxf1 they can find themselves in real trouble.

Another defense, slightly more risky, is gxh3 Bxh3 p@g2 Bxg2 Kxg2, which is safe unless black gets a few diags/minors. Then it is much more difficult to face this sort of sustained attack.

In those situations this style really shines, as often the opponents have no idea what caused their loss. The caveat is of course that you have to be extremely precise in communication, which has a major risk of getting muted by chess.com. So choose your style wisely.

The main weakness of this style is simply misunderstanding the danger in a position. Often I see chess players choosing this style trying to move as fast as possible, while completely misevaluating how dangerous some attacks are. You don’t want to be in a situation where a pawn will destroy you unless you are confident that your partner is sitting and you are uptime.

Another related weakness is that sometimes it is difficult to pressure the opponent, as mostly this style is reactionary i.e. you are playing as much chess as possible and dropping pieces after your opponent in order to gain uptime.

Ideally you want to be able to learn all the styles. I would say especially for chess players entering the game who start out as fast defensive players, to learn how to play slow and aggressively. In doing so you can learn which attacks are dangerous and which are difficult to sustain, as well as playing higher quality moves which is important in improving your play. While I mostly stick to one style, chickencrossroad is remarkable in that he plays every style and can switch how he plays, even in the middle of the game. Sometimes, you can see chicken playing lightning fast, and then suddenly sitting for an army of pieces and going on the attack.

At the end of the day, bughouse is a complicated and messy game, and the team aspect is every bit important as the individual aspect. I think every style has its benefits and drawbacks, definitely the explanation is much simpler as the execution.

Hopefully you found this blog instructive :)