By Grandmaster Maxim Dlugy
Just over three years ago I started a new career – as a chess teacher! I stopped playing chess professionally in 1991, but since then I’ve coached and been a sparring partner for such chess greats as Garry Kasparov, Victor Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov. Having worked with super grandmasters, I had never really thought about the best way to transfer my knowledge and improve the performance of beginner-level players until I was actually teaching kids and adults on a full-time basis.
I discuss some of the methods and practices that I’ve found to be effective in my recent book, Grandmaster Insides (Maxim Dlugy, 2017) . As I thought back to the times when I felt I had really made breakthroughs with my own game, I realized that I was able to isolate one form of practice in particular – playing blitz (or speed chess).
Considering how many well-meaning chess parents have told me that either their child is not interested in playing blitz, or that their coaches have told them not to play it, I have decided to write an article that explains how playing blitz can improve your chess skills. I also want to dispel the myth that it can lead to problems in regular tournament play.
In fact, let’s start with that. I think the most compelling argument given for not playing blitz is that playing blitz will lead to fast and therefore superficial play during tournaments.
So imagine this scenario: a seven-year-old competes in a nine-round blitz tournament on Tuesday. On Saturday he has a G/45 Quad that he has to play in. He goes in and instead of using his time, simply blitzes out his moves, blunders and loses all his pieces, as his opponent is taking about a minute per move to refute his knee jerk reactions.
Is that really what is going to happen? Or would it be fairer to imagine that the new-found ability of the child to condense his thinking time when needed would mean that he would play at a reasonable but likely faster pace than the child who has been banned from playing in blitz tournaments?
What will happen when the 45 minutes start ticking away and both players are left with five minutes or so for their remaining moves? Which of the two players is the favorite? Surely not the one told not to play blitz – as this is exactly what he will have to do now.
At the Chess Max Academy, the Manhattan-based chess school that I founded, I run blitz tournaments on Tuesdays and plan to have up to two blitz events per week during the summer. Click here to check our next blitz tournament. I have seen significant improvement in players of all ages in over-the-board play after they started regularly playing blitz. Since I am a relative newcomer to the chess coaching scene, I decided to conduct an informal survey to see whether I might be giving blitz (because of my own attachment to it) more credit than was due.
I asked Laszlo Polgar, the father of the amazing Polgar sisters, for his opinion. He was unequivocal – “For more than thirty years, I have been saying that blitz is one of the key elements for improvement at chess”, he told me. Hmm. Interesting – so I’m not alone. I asked Henrik Carlsen, the father of the world chess champion, Magnus Carlsen. “Blitz is very good for chess”, he said. No wonder – as Magnus regularly plays not only blitz, but also bullet (one minute per game blitz), to hone his reaction times.
The list goes on as Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So, Hikaru Nakamura, Maxim Vachier-Lagrave, Vishy Anand, Levon Aronian and many others confirmed to me that blitz helped them improve their chess game
Let’s look at the positive effects of blitz:
1. Blitz helps you learn to make decisions more quickly
With practice come the results – the more times you force yourself to find a good move fast, the stronger those moves will eventually become. Practicing will also help you make your moves physically faster by improving your hand motions. When making judgment calls in real life your analytical skills will be honed to make those decisions more quickly as well.
2. Blitz helps you learn how to make use of your time
As the seconds on your clock tick away, you need to adjust the time you spend on each move, while also paying close attention to the time left for your opponent, as the only way not to lose on time is to play faster than your opponent.
3. Blitz allows you to try out new openings and ideas without fearing the result
As blitz is still considered “not that serious” (although I am trying to change that), you can try new openings in blitz tournaments and online without risking them first in regular “important” tournaments.
4. Blitz helps you enjoy chess, which will make you want to learn it more.
The enjoyment kids get from playing in a blitz tournament is unparalleled with even a regular event. There is so much excitement from the fast-paced action that the kids become much more “addicted” to chess than they were before trying blitz. Isn’t it good to get addicted to thinking fast?
5. Blitz helps boost confidence as you have more chances of beating tougher opponents
I find this to be one of the most positive aspects of blitz. When a 500-700 points upset occurs in one of my blitz tournaments – the winner is so enthused that just that momentum will carry them another 50 rating points up in the next tournament.
6. Blitz helps you learn to focus as positions change rapidly and opportunities come up every few seconds. The need to focus and understand positions quickly trains tactical vision, which is very important in regular play. Focus is a key learning problem for youngsters, and training it early will improve your child’s overall performance in school.
7. Blitz allows you to test out your knowledge in a short period of time, as you can play a full blitz tournament in two to three hours.
After a month studying a new middle game tool such as prophylaxis, or maneuvering, you can try it out on real people in a blitz tournament and see which positions give you trouble and whether your work on these issues is helping your play. This is a good way to check that all your systems are ready before a major tournament.
8. Blitz allows you to practice lots of chess without going to a serious tournament.
Practice is very important, as any athlete well tell you. If you practice online, you can play as many as 50 games in a day, which means you can test out all your prepared ideas and strategies in a short time.
9. Blitz helps you play more slowly!
For many, this will be the most unexpected benefit of all. But if you are a good blitz player and are confident in your abilities to play a superior position in a short period of time, you are going to be ready, when needed, to invest the time to get that position, without being afraid of running too short on time. Just look at the results of famous blitz players like six-time U.S Champion Walter Browne, and three times World Blitz Champion and a former number two in the world, Alexander Grischuk. The ability not to panic because you are short on time can only be trained by playing blitz.
If you are still not convinced of the benefits of blitz, consider this:
You child is moving from elementary school to middle school. More homework, more sports, more everything. Teenagers simply don’t have the time to play in two and three-day tournaments, if they haven’t decided to become U.S. Champions by the time they are 13. Suddenly, blitz comes to the rescue! In two hours they can play in a nine-round blitz tournament and revisit all that they’ve learned – playing new openings, beautiful combinations and tricky endgames.
The effect? A good feeling about chess, lots of time for homework, sports and other activities while chess still lingers nicely on in their minds. Every couple of months or so they may have a day or two to play in a regular tournament, but thanks to the blitz practice online and over-the-board they aren’t rusty and won’t be getting upset about bad results.
Despite the overwhelmingly strong argument in its favor, there are still many chess parents who won’t allow their kids to play blitz. One mom, whose seven-year-old son is among the top 20 in his age group in the country, explained that her coach had told them not to play blitz, as it would be very bad for his chess. Other parents say that their child is not good at blitz so it doesn’t make sense for them to play. One mom simply said she was not worried that her son wasn’t playing blitz, as he was only seven. All I ask is that you please reread this article and have a real discussion with your coach (who may simply be scared that his student will improve too rapidly with the introduction of blitz, leaving him looking for another blitz-less sap!)
In conclusion, I have to pay special tribute to blitz, as it is only thanks to it that I have remained in the chess scene. From 1991 until about three years ago, I left professional chess for finance, only having time to play in blitz tournaments or online in the 20 plus years away from it. Without the ability to practice and the joy of winning dozens of blitz tournaments in those years, I would have lost my interest in the game and what a shame that would have been!
Maxim Dlugy is a former US Junior Champion, World Junior Champion, 2 times National Open Champion, 2 times World Open Champion, and a Former President of the US Chess Federation. He is the founder of the Chess Max Academy in New York City. During the summer, Maxim runs weekly camps. This summer, he is conducting one of the camps with World Champion Anatoly Karpov.