Be Like Nakamura: Know When To Play The Bongcloud In Chess
GM Hikaru Nakamura. Photo: Chess.com.

Be Like Nakamura: Know When To Play The Bongcloud In Chess

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Are you ready to play the Bongcloud Opening in a blitz or bullet game? The opening keeps surfacing in noteworthy games even with its significant drawbacks. After 1.e4, White's second move pushes the king off the back rank. How foolhardy is this idea?

Bongcloud Opening
Is this opening too risky for White?

In the just concluded 2019 Chess.com Speed Chess Championship, which GM Hikaru Nakamura won, he brought the Bongcloud to renewed notoriety when he played it in a bullet game against GM Wesley So—and won (after So had blundered into a fork that lost a rook)!

In the bullet segment of the championship, Nakamura outscored So by four points. With Nakamura’s power and confidence as the world’s fastest player, it’s not surprising that he played the Bongcloud in a championship final, which ended with 30 minutes of 1+1 bullet. However, when Nakamura opened with the Bongcloud as this segment was winding down, his lead over So was a comfortable five points.

In the broadcast of the match, IM Danny Rensch (@danny) interpreted Nakamura’s thoughts this way: “’Time to get silly,’ he [Nakamura] says. Five minutes left. I’m up five games. I got this. Can I give the fans what they’ve come for?”

“Getting silly” might be the best way to describe the Bongcloud. By playing 2.Ke2, White foregoes the opportunity to castle, blocks the queen and the light-squared bishop (that are otherwise free to move in a King’s Pawn Opening), delays important development and, yes, jeopardizes the king’s safety. Those four drawbacks have always convinced me to pass on playing the Bongcloud against a known and talented opponent. That Nakamura would play it against a player with the stature of So is remarkable.

This king has a big problem.
—GM Hiraku Nakamura

Watch as Nakamura analyzes this three-minute blitz game as he plays the Bongcloud in 2017 and claims: “I don’t think I’ve ever lost with the Bongcloud.” Yes, he wins:

He maintained his record of no losses with the Bongcloud until the first season of the Speed Chess Championship in 2018 when he played it against GM Levon Aronian in three games—and lost two. But let’s focus on the entertaining wins!

In the following three-minute game in 2017 on Chess.com, Nakamura proclaims after playing 2.Ke2 that his opponent “is now all confused.” When Nakamura makes a few self-proclaimed “lucky” moves, he adds: “If I could get this position in every game, maybe I should start playing the Bongcloud (more).”

In a game vs. IM Andrew Tang in 2018 on Chess.com, Nakamura announces at the start of the three-minute blitz: “For you guys, one time, the Bongcloud. Let’s see if I can make it work.” After making several moves that he likes, he says: “This actually is looking surprisingly reasonable.” Then he admits the obvious: “This king has a big problem” as he works toward stability on the kingside:

One day against a regular sparring partner, I may pull the Bongcloud out of my bag of tricks. Can you imagine the reaction of an opponent who is seeing it for the first time? Particularly someone whom you play regularly?

  • Caution: Don’t try the Bongcloud unless like Nakamura you’ve already won the match. 
  • Warning: Save it for a fast game when you know you can safely play much faster than your opponent and really want to send shockwaves across the board.

Thanks for reading! What are your thoughts? Have you tried the Bongcloud? Are you ready now to shock an opponent?