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I Played The Bongcloud Against Nakamura—And Survived (Almost)
When the black rook took Nakamara's queen on my 30th move, was Caissa smiling at me? Image: Stella Artois via Twitter.

I Played The Bongcloud Against Nakamura—And Survived (Almost)

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Would you enter for a chance to go up against GM Hikaru Nakamura as he set out to win the most bullet speedrun games on Chess.com? I did—and I survived (almost).

Bullet Speedrun

On June 1, 2021, Nakamura did what the rest of us wish we could. He won every game in a bullet speedrun, each in convincing fashion, and set a record for victories in just one hour. In none of the 1|0 games was Nakamura ever in trouble—in time or position. How well did I do? It’s a long story, so bear with me as I explain.

Chess.com promotes the bullet speedrun.

You can watch the entire speedrun below as Nakamura beats his old record of 32 wins and collects 52 in 60 minutes. (I was scheduled as opponent number-25 but played slightly earlier because of no-shows.)

Video of entire bullet speedrun (my game starts at 24:32).

Opponents for Nakamura were randomly selected from players who had registered in advance on the website of Stella Artois, the corporate sponsor of the event. On the day before the event, I learned that I was one of more than 60 who had been picked. Although we knew what order we would be playing in, we were told to be ready during the speedrun regardless of what was being broadcast at the moment because the stream was on a delay. We waited in the “Play” area of Chess.com, and our game “popped up” immediately when the previous one ended. I actually started my game against Nakamura before the two previous ones had been broadcast.

Sign-up was on Twitter and websites of Stella Artois.

Playing Against Nakamura

If you were to play against Nakamura, what opening would you choose? For me it had to be the Bongcloud whether I had white or black pieces. My king was going to advance forward on the second move. First, do you know the Bongcloud and how Nakamura has played it in championship games? To stay on focus, I’ll move on and just refer you to my earlier post about this opening if you’re not familiar with it.

Start of bullet speedrun.
At the start, more than 13,000 were watching. The audience grew to more than 22,000 by the time that I was playing. Image: Hikaru Nakamura via Twitch.

Not playing the Bongcloud against Nakamura, if given the chance, would be like going to China and not visiting the Great Wall, going to Holland and not seeing the tulips, going to Brazil and not walking the beaches of Rio, going to India and not visiting the Taj Mahal, going to Peru and not seeing Machu Picchu, going to Belgium and not ordering Stella Artois (again, the corporate sponsor of the event and now my preferred brand).

Second move of Bongcloud Opening.
Without hesitation, I advance my king forward with Ke7. Bring it on!

Surprisingly, I was the only player brazen enough to play the Bongcloud. Even Nakamura didn’t open a game that way. In hindsight, playing the Bongcloud probably helped me survive as long as I did. I lasted 38 moves before I ran out of time. In the speedrun, the shortest game was over in 13 moves; 14 didn’t last 20 moves, and another 13 didn’t last 25. The games ended on average before the 25th move could be taken. Nakamura was that crushing.

Queue of players waiting during the bullet speedrun
When I appeared at the top of the queue, my game was almost over. Image: Hikaru Nakamura via Twitch.

Nakamura’s Accuracy

A bullet game with Nakamura brings his accuracy to the forefront. For the event, he entered with a Chess.com bullet rating of 3381, clearly a drop from his high of 3570 on November 11, 2020. Although in the 2021 Bullet Chess Championship, he was eliminated by GM Alireza Firouzja in the semifinals, Nakamura was the victor in the 2019 and 2020 versions. Inspiring is his win in 2021 versus eventual champion Firouzja in 24 moves (and I lasted 38!)—again, remember the game was played at bullet speeds.

Against me, Nakamura played at an accuracy rate of 97.8 percent, according to Chess.com game analysis. At least I inspired him to achieve high results. That rate was one of his highest during the event. (After the speedrun I looked at his game history and found three games where he was over 98 percent). Throughout the event Nakamura consistently played at 95 percent or better.

Occasionally Nakamura would admit that he had made a poor move such as: “I kind of blundered a pawn here.” But overall he was satisfied with all the games as the speedrun progressed. He ended most games by saying: “Alright, we got another win” or “Another win in the books.”

Alright, we got another win.
—GM Hikaru Nakamura

Nakamura alternated between white and black pieces. I was Black, which tripped me up because I was more familiar with White’s initial moves for Bongcloud. Right or wrong, I initially duplicated most of them as Black. Then I just winged it and tried to keep my time close to his.

Surprisingly, my accuracy rate (80 percent) was better than all but three other opponents—and I’m not a bullet player. Maybe starting with the Bongcloud was helpful. After eight moves, he said: “King’s still on e7 but still not so completely clear.” Did that mean that he couldn’t see a win yet?

After 20 moves, an unbelievable outcome had occurred: Nakamura and I each had a bishop and six pawns.  Unfortunately, my inaccurate play then took over (again). Because I took a bishop incorrectly with a pawn instead of the king on my 20th move, he was able to capture my unprotected rook pawn that gave him not only an extra pawn but a huge positional advantage on the kingside. My fate had already been sealed, but that mistake locked in the win for Nakamura. Here’s our game with the focus set before my 20th move:

By the 30th moves, my kingside was collapsing as his pawns were advancing and I was hurriedly making more poor choices. I had an obviously losing endgame with his two passed pawns and should have resigned to save the time remaining in the speedrun for other games. However, I completely lost track of time—mine and his—the game was going so quickly.

Nakamura’s Speed

That Nakamura can combine his high accuracy with amazing speed is humbling. Even with his high accuracy, he was making premoves without knowing my moves. I couldn’t make any—he was moving that fast.

I averaged a move every 1.58 seconds (not bad for a pazter). However, on average in our game, Nakamura made a move in 0.55 second, about a third of the time that I needed. After move 10, he took just six seconds for his next 15 moves, and I needed 26 seconds for mine.

To make 38 moves in 60 seconds against Nakamura is a noteworthy achievement for me, considering my age (I’m 75). I just don’t move that fast—and never have. For four moves, I needed more than three seconds each. Except for his second move, all but three of his moves were under a second. Many moves were completed in just 0.1 second, evidently the minimum time for a premove. In contrast, my longest time for a move was 4.1 seconds, but I completed 29 in less than two seconds each. In addition, six moves were made in less than one second each and one in 0.4 second.

Nakamura's profile
Among Nakamura’s 38,000 games is one that I’ll never forget. Image: Chess.com.

Premoves (if accurate) obviously are invaluable, and Nakamura’s use is unsurpassed. In our game, I counted at least 18 that he made. His effective use of premoves (even more than his uncanny accuracy) is what makes him the top bullet player.

Blunder Of The Speedrun

However, one premove for Nakamura was costly, and I benefited from one of the worst blunders possible: leaving a queen open to capture. Because the game was so fast, I had missed his queenside castling on move 11. By next moving his knight to check my king, he set up a beautiful tactic: a discovered attack on my queen that was now exposed to his rook on d8. When I captured the knight to end the check, my queen disappeared immediately and was replaced by his rook (another premove!). “I take the juicer, and I go here,” he said nonchalantly as he grabbed my queen.

I take the juicer, and I go here.
—GM Hikaru Nakamura

To contest an open file, I moved my rook to confront his queen—a move Nakamura didn’t anticipate—rather than capture a hanging bishop, also a logical choice. By selecting a premove, he left his queen open to capture. Yes, this moment was when I deliberated about my slowest move that took 4.1 seconds. I couldn’t believe my eyes and had to double-check that imminent danger wasn’t lurking elsewhere.

Nakamura's queen waits to be captured by a rook.
Nakamura's queen tempts my rook to capture it. I took 4.1 seconds to make sure that he wasn't trying to trick me (like moving a king on the second move in a Bongcloud).

When my rook replaced his queen, Nakamura said: “Whoops. I blundered, but I’m still going to win the game. That was actually kind of a costly blunder by me…. I cost myself like 20 seconds by doing that. That was very costly. I’m still going to win the game, but that was very costly.”

Whoops. I blundered, but I'm still going to win the game.
—GM Hikaru Nakamura

At least I can take credit for setting up Nakamura’s worst blunder in the speedrun. Caissa probably awarded it to the only player willing to play the Bongcloud. However, in our game, the blunder was more than offset by my four mistakes, the first one being Ke7 on the second move, of course—but I had to make that move for bragging rights. Who else (at my level) has played the Bongcloud against him? For me, it was like being David facing Goliath but arming myself with a grain of sand, not a pebble.

I wish I had played better, but losing to Nakamura was more than expected. As GM Bobby Fischer once remarked: "If you don't win, it's not a great tragedy; the worse that happens is that you lose a game."

If you don't win, it's not a great tragedy; the worse that happens is that you lose a game.
—GM Bobby Fischer

Taking Nakamura’s queen is the most memorable moment of the game for me—I still can’t believe that I saw it before making another move. It overshadows the outcome of the game: that I could avoid a quick, decisive checkmate or an imminent mate that warranted resignation—the fate of most games. Few were decided by timeout.

“OK, next game,” was all he said when I ran out of time. Oh, well, I had my chance.

End of game
“Good game,” I chatted as Nakamura immediately moved on to his next game. He still had 39 seconds on his clock when my time expired.

Nakamura’s Opponents

Many players were not highly skilled at bullet, although several had bullet ratings just under 2000 and four were titled: IM Eric Rosen (@imrosen), NM Sam Copeland (@SamCopeland), NM Eric Hon (@microbear), and a candidate master (@thechesscorner64). Except for Rosen, whose game lasted 57 moves (the game with the most moves), just three other players survived longer than I did.

“OK, a serious game,” said Nakamura when he realized he was playing Rosen. Otherwise, as each game began, Nakamura would simply comment: “OK, next game,” “Let’s keep rolling,” or “It’s your move, dude.”

Let's keep rolling.
—Hikaru Nakamura

During the games, Nakamura would bobble his head up and down in agreement with his solid play. Solid it was (except for the blunder against me!), but in case I was listening, he kept saying: “I’m still going to win the game.” (Is chess psychological?) However, regardless of a misstep, he was persistently confident and justifiably overconfident as he pointed out the strengths of his position or a weakness in an opponent’s.

For example, in the game with Rosen (playing Black), Nakamura routinely commented on Rosen’s evolving poor position: “It’s looking very bad for Black.… Eric is way down on pawns too.… His knight is kind of stuck.” Nakamura cautioned, “Eric will not resign, however. He’s going to go for a stalemate,” the only time Nakamura alluded to an outcome other than a win. Rosen’s game ended in checkmate like most of the others. “That one took a bit longer,” Nakamura conceded with 29 seconds remaining on his clock.

End of bullet speedrun
As the speedrun clock wins down, Nakamura ends with 52 wins. Image: Hikaru Nakamura via YouTube.

52 Wins, A New Bullet Speedrun Record

The hour went quickly. When the speedrun ended, Nakamura had broken his old record and had amassed 52 wins. If a few more seconds had been available, he would have won his 53rd game that he had started. As the stream ended, Nakamura said: “Thank you to all you guys for participating in this event.”

Chess.com announces the new record.

I had my chance—I took it. “I fought the law, and the law won,” as the song (video below) from more than five decades ago admits. Knowing what I know now, I’m ready to face Nakamura again. For me, no more senior blunder, no more patzer slowness, no more missing out on making a premove. In eight more years, he'll still be less than half my age. Maybe he’ll have slowed down a little by then, and I can take him on one more time. And yes, I’ll open with the Bongcloud again.

Decades ago, the Bobby Fuller Four sang "I Fought the Law" and told what to expect: The law won.