Crazyhouse: Revitalizing the Romance in Chess
While it’s true in today’s chess climate that high level tournaments exhibit more fighting chess than has been seen in recent decades (and thank goodness for that!), it’s impossible to ignore the larger trend in the postmodern era toward drawish, computerish chess, where, at least at the highest levels and in classical time controls, innovation and creativity are sacrificed at the altar of home-prepared, engine-assisted theory. Watch a broadcast or stream of any major tournament and almost invariably, sooner or later and in some form or another, the discussion will turn to this question: what can be done to reignite in chess its long-dormant élan vital? How do we bring the Romance back to chess?
Even the greats have grappled with this question. No less a seminal figure than Bobby Fischer developed and advocated the Chess960 variant to combat this issue, and the likes of Yasser Seirawan and Capablanca, each a legend of the game in his own right, have proposed their own unique alternatives (Seirawan chess and Capablanca chess, respectively).
Let me make my own suggestion: give Crazyhouse a chance.
What is Crazyhouse?
As the Wikipedia article puts it, crazyhouse is “a chess variant similar to bughouse chess… in which a player can introduce a captured piece back onto the chessboard as his own.” Unlike bughouse, though, crazyhouse is a perfect information system where you have complete control over the board and the clock. It's a richly tactical game with a pronounced emphasis on initiative, structural integrity, and, most critically, creativity; and the fact that pieces can be re-introduced into play means that each piece has vastly increased mobility and potentiality, so games never weakly peter out into lifeless endgames.
Like Fischer Random and unlike most other variants (Atomic, Horde, Racing Kings, etc.) which deviate radically from chess in the most fundamental of ways, crazyhouse, teleologically and functionally speaking, is true to the quintessential spirit of the game. The pieces move the same, the goal of the game is the same. That’s what makes it so viable as a competitive variant. Crazyhouse simply takes chess concepts and heightens them, makes them sharper, and, naturally, crazier.
Then and Now
Crazyhouse has been around for about as long as any of the bastions of internet chess, first truly taking root on FICS, where, while at first naturally attracting only a fraction of the whole corpus of chess players, it found a core of dedicated and competitive enthusiasts. But now that the game has finally gained purchase on today’s leading chess sites, Chess.com foremost among them, it’s begun to burgeon from relative obscurity into something much more robust, fashionable, and respected on a competitive level.
Opening theory, replete with an extensive games database, is being explored and established. (Imagine getting into chess in the days before any lines were systematized, formalized and codified—imagine devising and naming your own lines!) Great players are gaining fandom and prominence, and their games are being analyzed and published. Tournaments are attracting sponsorship. New engines (Sjeng and Sunsetter, for example) are being developed and implemented. High-profile streamers like IM John Bartholomew, NM Chess Network, and Chess.com’s own GM Simon Williams and IM Danny Rensch have played and promoted the game on their respective channels. Blogs, articles, forums, and YouTube channels dedicated exclusively to crazyhouse content are cropping up, including a channel by Atrophied, a top-tier player, and a channel by the peerless JannLee, who is widely considered the strongest player in the world. What’s more, these channels attract more than a modest viewership, both approaching or surpassing 500 subscribers in the few months they’ve been around, and showing no signs of slowing down.
Crazyhouse and Chess Complement Each Other
If chess is boxing, crazyhouse is UFC: gloves off and no holds barred. I’m confident in proposing not only that crazyhouse enhances your understanding of chess weaknesses and how to exploit them, but also that it sharpens your tactical vision, refreshes the creative impulse, and hones your aptitude for the finer points of both absorption and aggression, of both intuition and calculation.
What first attracted many of us to chess, I suspect, and what you will be pleased to rediscover in crazyhouse, is its perfect marriage of the artistic and the mathematical. Like chess, crazyhouse rewards scientific thinking, a certain rigor of logic, and geometric harmony of the board and its pieces. Perhaps the possibility for this geometric harmony is even more pronounced in crazyhouse than in chess, given the unique coordination possible from four knights, perhaps, or four bishops or rooks, or any combination thereof, all of one color and all arrayed in satisfying unity of purpose.
In crazyhouse, the mathematician will be pleased to calculate not only the normal chess variations from any given position, but also the tree of iterations arising from any exchanged piece. But then there’s also an undeniable artistry, some ineffable je-ne-sais-quoi that, if we’re lucky, manifests itself on the chessboard and compels us to call it “beautiful.” It’s this artistry that so draws us to the dramatic flair of any of the great romantic players, whether Morphy or JannLee.
You can even see a distinct divergence of style of play exhibited by today’s top crazyhouse players that mirrors those in chess! There is the dashing, all-out sacrificial attacker like Tal: Xuanet or Twelveteen. There is the tactical mastermind like Kasparov: Chickencrossroad or Gnejs. There is the preparation nut who without fail and with only the rarest deviation plays his pet opening and knows its lines with exquisite precision, like Karjakin: Mathace or Atrophied. There is the passive but precise defender, the system player, who creates an indomitable fortress and absorbs everything thrown at him like a sponge before counterpunching, like Korchnoi: Mariorton or Zeck. There’s the spicy player, the guy who throws knuckleballs and curveballs, who plays unorthodox but challenging stuff to get you out of your comfort zone and make you think, like early Nakamura: Mastertan or Opperwezen. Then there is the spider, the boa constrictor, the chameleon who’s capable of it all, like Carlsen: JannLee. Look out for these names when they come to chess.com!
Let's stop talking in the abstract and look at three games–each exemplifying a different aspect of crazyhouse–from some of the world's best! Unfortunately, crazyhouse FENs and PGNs are not yet supported, so in lieu of a click-through analysis board, for each game I've provided a summary, a representative static image, and comprehensive video analysis from JannLee's YouTube channel.
1. JannLee (2865) vs. Karnivore (2712)
The first of the three games I wish to show exemplifies resourcefulness from both the attacking and defending side. Karnivore, playing with energy and aggression with the black pieces, makes an early speculative sacrifice to discomfiture white's position and draw the king into the open. With his piece stock dwindling and white on the verge of achieving safety, Karnivore yet manages to find some amazing creative resources to keep his attack going and compel white's king to the center of the board, where white seems all but lost. JannLee, however, navigates the minefield with incredible precision, calculating a complex web of variations to the point where, despite his precarious king run, he knows he will finally emerge safe enough to launch a decisive counteroffensive. To see the whole JannLee analysis video, click here.
2. B0N0B0 (2733) vs. JannLee (2937)
The second game represents the counterpunch. After an initially sedate symmetrical d4 opening, B0N0B0 blasts the position open by storming his h-pawn up the board to develop an ostensibly crushing attack. But JannLee, with the black pieces, is able to carefully absorb each blow until white finally runs out of immediate threats; and then, with exquisite timing, he finds a lethal 12-move combination to finish the game. To see the whole JannLee analysis video, click here.
3. IM Opperwezen (2842) vs. Xuanet (2829)
In this third and last game we see an unorthodox but explosive tactical battle, each side mounting and parrying threat after threat. This is crazyhouse at its craziest. To see the whole JannLee analysis video, click here.
Crazyhouse Strategy, Tactical Motifs, and General Tips
So hopefully, if you've made it this far, you've been convinced to give this game a go, and want to learn a bit more about it!
I should start by saying that Crazyhouse strategy is still very much in a process of evolution and flux. The best players are pushing and prodding the limits of the game, heating and reshaping it like play-doh in their hands, finding what forms and shapes it’s willing to take; daring and testing, not knowing; coming to understand, through trial and error, the game’s natural flow and the contours of its battlefield. The game is so very alive and fluid that it’s hard to subject to hard-and-fast rules. But, with that caveat in place, I can try!
- Control the center, develop rapidly, and get your king to safety, just as in chess.
- If black (or white) doesn’t challenge the center, it’s often a good idea to claim it with both e4 and d4 (or e5 and d5).
- Avoid unproductive pawn moves.
- Flank openings should be avoided. Openings like the Bird or Dutch are extremely dubious, as are the English and Sicilian. These openings create weaknesses on f2/f7 and c2/c7, respectively; diagonals (pawns and bishops) can be dropped to exploit the weakened color complex.
- Guard the f2/f7 square from early sacs so your king isn’t drawn out.
- Gambit openings, especially those in which you delay a recapture, are in many cases a bad idea; your opponent can simply accept and then drop the won pawn to stabilize his structure.
- Be careful about early pawn tension and trades in the center. Only accept exchanges if either your position is already quite solid and well-defended from drops, or you have a concrete idea in mind about what you want to do with the pocket pawn or piece.
- Note that getting your king to safety often but not always means castling. Sometimes, if you've built strong control of the center, it’s better to keep your king in the center and fortify the tender points of ingress. Before castling you need to make sure you have a ready response to pawn drops and piece sacs on your kingside.
Following is an example of a standard symmetrical Italian, one of the most common Kings-pawn opening lines in crazyhouse. Common plans for white include exchanging the bishop for the f6 Knight and/or bringing a Knight to d5; dropping the bishop back and enjoying long-term pressure on the pin; attempting to exchange black's active dark-square bishop with Na4; or playing the positional, prophylactic approach with h3 and an eventual c3. Black tries to parry these ideas and to establish control over the h3, f4, and d4 squares with appropriate exchanges and drops.
Common Mating Patterns and Nominal Piece Values
Note that the highlighted piece can be dropped onto the board to create checkmate, and note that the given piece values are not concrete, but merely a guideline.
|P + N||Diagonal + Q||B + R||P Smother||N Smother||Q + N Smother|
|Q + N||Back Rank||P + B + N||Two Diags||N + B||P + R|
|Bishop, Knight, & Rook||2|
General Strategy Pointers
A word on notation: a pawn or piece drop is denoted with the @ symbol. For example, B@d4 means a bishop has been dropped from the pocket onto the d4 square.
- The middlegame is where you should start looking to exchange pieces, break with your pawns, build up pressure on vulnerable squares, or crack open your opponent’s defenses with careful pawn drops or piece sacs.
- Lots of exchanges will take place in the middlegame. When considering the tactical implications of exchanges, remember that, though pieces of course move the same, they become far more mobile and therefore potentially more dangerous once off the board.
- Pieces have more potential when in your pocket. But they’re more active when on the board. Don’t let yourself get mated with a pocket still brimming with pieces.
- On both offense and defense, be aware of positional sacrifices: knights and bishops or even major pieces can often be sacrificed to expose the king in a manner which might be considered unsound in chess but which in z is very powerful. Similarly, a few points of material can be sacrificed to gain a foothold in enemy territory.
- Guard the weak squares by your king. When your king's in the center, this means f2/7; when your king's castled kingside, this means g2/7.
- Scan for weaknesses: holes where pawns can be dropped, pieces vulnerable to a fork, weakly defended kingside squares, overloaded defensive pieces. Identify a weakness and then concentrate all your drops on that weakness.
- If you identify a weakness but your pocket is empty, look to force exchanges. If your own position is weak, avoid exchanges until you're more solid.
- Avoid weakening squares of a certain color complex. Diags (pawns, bishops) can be dropped deep into your territory on your weak color complex. Try to create weaknesses in your opponent's pawn structure where you can infiltrate. Build pawn lattices into enemy territory, preferably near the opponent's king. Expand your space wherever reasonably possible.
- Defend pawn drops on your kingside: know how to react to p@h3/h6. The knight is an excellent defensive piece in this scenario. For example, if you have a knight on f3 and your king is castled, p@h3 can be countered by gxf3, Bxf3, Ng5, Bxf1, Qxf1, with the idea of eventually replacing the g pawn with p@g2. If you have a knight in your pocket, p@h3 can be met with gxf3, Bxf3, N@f4, simultaneously attacking the bishop and defending g2. Again if the rook is captured by the bishop you recapture with your queen and your king remains quite safe.
- If a pawn is dropped on the h3 or h6 before you're castled, Rg1/8 is often an adequate response.
- Defend a piece sac on your g pawn by protecting it with another piece. It's preferable to recapture kingside pawns with a bishop so that you don't leave diagonals undefended. For example, if your opponent sacs Nxg2 on your castled king, if you recapture with a knight you're susceptible to p@h3 (or p@f3 if your e-pawn has advanced), but if you recapture with a bishop those squares remain defended.
- Create batteries on pins. If your bishop already has a pin set up, look to exchange for a bishop elsewhere so you can drop a second bishop behind your first and pile up. Drop pawns and pieces attacking the pinned piece. Distract your opponent's pieces which defend the pinned piece. It's especially helpful to capture multiple times on f6 or f3 when the king is castled if the last defender of the pinned piece is the g pawn.
- Attack aggressively, but not recklessly. Many players fall into the trap of overextending to prosecute an attack which eventually runs out of steam, at which point the opponent, having gobbled up all of the pieces, can launch a well-provisioned counterattack. The tide can change in an instant.
- Similarly, if you're on the defensive, as soon as your opponent gives you a tempo to work with, launch your own attack. If there is no attack to be had, start placing pieces and pawns around your king to defend points your opponent wants to invade.
- Pawns should be dropped to build deep lattices into enemy territory, to pry open your opponent's king, to fortify your own king, or to fork two pieces.
- Bishops should be used to pin, to block pins, or to fortify your kingside.
- Make sure either A. you have open lines for your bishops, or B. your bishop is actively defending your kingside. So long as the rest of your pieces are active, it can be prudent, in certain scenarios where you elect to leave your king uncastled, to leave your kingside bishop where it can guard tricky pawn drops on f3/f6/h3/h6 or sacs on g7/g2. In these situations the bishop can be an active defensive piece even if undeveloped.
- Knights should be kept in hand until you can drop them to attack weak squares around the enemy's king, place extra pressure on a pin, or drop into a fork.
- A knight and a queen is the most powerful complementary attacking combination because they each cover squares the other doesn't. Knights can be used to place un-blockable checks, and queens can be used to drop into mates.
- Knights can be used to smother mate. Smother mates are more common in zh because of the ability to drop a Q or R to force a smothered king combined with the ability to drop the N onto the checking square.
- Knights are often strongest when placed on the fifth rank (as white) or the fourth rank (as black), as from there they observe key squares on the seventh (or second) rank. For example, N@h5 observes the tender g7 square.
- Rooks are often best kept in your pocket until you can exploit the back rank. But if you cannot exploit the back rank, they’re worth getting on the board to pin, to defend your kingside, or to trade for a minor piece.
- Rooks are more or less of comparable value to minor pieces, unless the back rank is weak, in which case they increase in relative importance.
- Don't bring your Queen out until it can be brought into the attack with tempo or with a clear threat. If overly exposed it can become a focal point for your opponent's attack, gaining him tempo. If kept on d1/8 it covers many important squares, especially the c-pawn and the back rank by your king. The Queen is a fantastic defensive piece; keeping it by your king is rarely a bad idea. At the worst case it can be sacrificed for a piece to quell an attack.
- Generally speaking, two pieces are sufficient compensation for a queen.
- A promising attack is usually worth sacking a piece for, even if it looks speculative or unclear. Once you have the initiative, look to exchange pieces as much as possible so that you can launch them into the attack.
- Exchanges favor the attacker.
- Start and maintain the initiative. Offense is the best defense.
- Preserve tempo wherever possible. Placing a piece with check which simultaneously serves another purpose is ideal. Place pieces where they serve multiple functions.
- If the 7th rank is weak and a rook is exposed, place two pawns side-by-side attacking the rook with ideas of Queening. Promoted pieces turn back into pawns when re-captured.
- Sometimes it's not worth saving your queen if it weakens your squares or puts you on the defensive: in such cases it can be okay to just protect it with a bishop or continue your attack.
- Only ever trade queens early if it's advantageous to your position. An early queen trade means you need to be extremely aware of drop attacks moving forward.
- Fill the holes in your defense with pawns.
- When you're castled on the kingside be wary of your opponent's ideas of capturing on d5 where your Queen (or any undefended piece besides a knight) recaptures, as they can place a knight on e2 winning the Queen.
- When you're on the attack, try to place your pieces with an immediate threat so as to save tempo and preserve the initiative.
- When you're defending, try to keep your king on a square where it isn't susceptible to a drop check. If your king is exposed, either retreat it to safety or drop material around it--preferably pawns--as quickly as possible. It's especially important to cover all the squares knights can be dropped to check you, as other drops checks can be blocked.
- Most play will take place in the center and on the kingside. But if kingside play has ground to a standstill, be willing to look to the queenside to break through or win material.
- Emphasize king safety over material gain. Emphasize the initiative over material gain. Only bank material when you can consolidate before getting attacked.
- Play with a sense of urgency. No lazy moves!
- Play quickly and practically! Crazyhouse is often played at fast time controls. 3+0 and 1+0 are by far the most common.
Online Chess is Ready for the Next Big Thing
In my own (admittedly inexpert) opinion, the e-sports market generally and the internet chess climate specifically is positively ripe for the next big thing, should sites like chess.com be bold enough to innovate and experiment. Internet chess is just now truly hitting its stride, just now figuring out where it stands in the broader context of the chess world and just now appreciating precisely what it’s capable of doing. Chess.com in particular is perfectly poised to make an indelible impact on the future of the game, online and otherwise. Having recently surpassed 15 million subscribers—many of whom are talented, titled players and some of whom represent the absolute pinnacle of the game—and boasting an unparalleled breadth of chess content, this is the site where, properly handled and promoted, crazyhouse could hit the prime time… or at the very least welcome a handful of the world-class players that frequent this site into its ranks of ardent aficionados!
Chess.com is no stranger to establishing new precedents in the frontier of online chess. Indeed, I don’t think I’m mistaken in claiming that this site prides itself on consistently expanding the boundaries and setting the benchmark for what online chess can be. Its Titled Tuesdays hosts fierce competition of the world’s elite on a monthly basis; more recently its Blitz Battle Championships has claimed the title of the strongest and most prestigious event in the history of online chess (“ever in the history of the universe,” as Danny might say); and, more salient to the topic at hand, it hasn’t been afraid to introduce new variants into the highest echelons of the game and at the greatest fiscal stakes, including three Fischer Random games in each match of said Blitz Battle Championships. It should be noted that Chess960 seems to have been received well by viewers and competitors alike, yielding some of the most interesting games of the matches. So why not crazyhouse, too?
I’m not going to be so bold as to claim that crazyhouse will be the future of online chess. Only that I do think variants and faster play have their place in the future of chess, especially online chess, and, given a real chance, crazyhouse could and should be a serious part of that future.