Blitz Chess: My Beginning
By Yasser Seirawan for Why Chess
When talking about Blitz chess and its position in the chess world it is impossible really not to start at the beginning so that we can at least try to understand how confused the chess world has become. Today as well as for many decades Blitz chess is the most popular form of chess in the world, and yet the status of a “World Blitz Championship” has existed in a type of twilight zone, flickering sometimes real and oftentimes as illusion. Why? To help answer that question I feel I have to start at the beginning, or rather my own beginning.
I don’t think I’m different from any other chess player. Indeed, quite the opposite, I feel that we all learned chess in almost the exact same way. The story may have many versions, but the core is always the same: “I started to learn chess from a friend/relative. They taught me the moves and we began to play. Learning was difficult but eventually I got the hang of it and stopped making illegal moves. As soon as I was good enough I started to play Blitz…”
Certainly such a quote described my own case. In light of the ages of today’s top players, it is fair to say I started late. It was the summer of 1972 and I was twelve years old. My family had just made the move from Virginia Beach, Virginia, all the way across the country to Seattle, Washington. While waiting for our television and belongings to arrive, I visited the upstairs apartment of David Chapman, who had a television, to watch the Summer Olympics. While waiting for the program to begin we went through his closet full of board games, eventually coming to chess. Chess broke our pattern. David would teach me a new game, we’d play it until I won but once and we’d go on to the next; with chess, I got clobbered.
I think it is fair to say that David was about 1200 strength on our ELO system, which should draw a knowing smirk from our readers, but how soon we forget how incredibly strong such a player truly is. David knew all the legal moves, he knew to control the center, to castle, to develop his pieces and build up his forces for an attack. He knew a few tactics, as well as a decent number of checkmating patterns. Armed with just this knowledge he won ninety percent of the time against players who were not US Chess Federation members. David was a champion at Washington State University.
The above isn’t meant as an excuse as to why I got clobbered; truly I was terrible, no question about that. It is just meant as a gentle reminder to everyone that learning all the rules of chess and playing a legal game happened so long ago we’ve forgotten how difficult it was. Today we take our skills for granted. Playing chess, and particularly playing it well, is a difficult business.
My experience likely coincides with millions of other people’s. In the wake of constant failure, many abandon the game as not their thing. “I didn’t have the mind for chess” is a comment I’ve heard often from those who gave up chess. I know how they felt because I felt exactly the same way.
After being taught the rules by David I was most anxious to play, premiering my new found knowledge. We set up the pieces without a timer and away we went. We both moved rather quickly with pauses of longer than twenty seconds frowned upon. I lost quickly. Being a stubborn competitive sort I soldiered onwards, losing my umpteenth game in a row. Exasperated I broke down and asked David, “How did you get so good?” He explained that in the University District in Seattle there was a coffee-shop, the Last Exit, where a lot of strong chess players hung out and played together.
In no time, I was off to the Last Exit to see if I could learn a pointer or two to take a game from David. It was like entering a new world. In the first place, whereas David and I played with cheap hollow plastic pieces on a red and black checkerboard, the players at the Exit had heavy plastic pieces or even wooden pieces on a roll-up green and white board. They also used chess clocks, which I instantly found fascinating. The idea of “timing” players and “forcing” them to move was completely new to me.
At the Exit the players liked to play “risers.” Essentially, those who lost a Blitz game had to rise up and lose their seats to the person next in line. The Exit players played fast and if I thought David had “game” these guys were awesome. I was forever “rising up” leaving me to watch these “class” players do battle.
Looking back I can laugh at my naiveté. I thought a “class player” was something like how you might describe a restaurant, “That restaurant has class,” for example. I knew nothing about a rating ladder, and some of the players at the Exit were referred to as “experts” as well as “masters.” At the time, I thought the players were just showing an internal respect for one another because of how they fared.
While Blitz chess had entered my life I was pretty sure I would be leaving chess permanently. You see, although David had won all our games, somehow I got it in my mind that in some of them I was “close.” Close to what I didn’t know, only that at times, at least, my moves felt competitive. At the Exit I was sharp enough to realize that the boundary had moved far, far away. I wasn’t close to those class players at all!
Dejected I returned home convinced I’d play, “just one more game,” against David and then give it a rest. I can still recall the pattern of what happened next. I was Black, playing against a White castled Kingside position. I sacrificed my Bishop against the g3-pawn. The Bishop was quickly captured (of course) and I in turn captured the g3-pawn with my Queen. White’s King was in check and thanks to the f1-Rook had to go to the “corner” – we didn’t know there was even a chess notation – and I captured the h3-pawn with check. White’s King returned to the g1-square, I checked on g3 and we went back and forth until we mutually decided there was no escape. I had made my first draw!
Thereafter I frequently returned to the Last Exit, where I’d play Blitz for hours on end. Another favorite past time was to “analyze.” This too was a concept about chess I never considered, “looking in depth at a specific position.” (For what purpose?) As I’d learn, our “analysis sessions” at the Exit were devoted to the Championship match taking place between Soviet World Champion Boris Spassky and America’s Challenger Bobby Fischer.
Here we must take a small break from our story to “understand” the dynamics at hand. The group of chess players congregating at the Exit spent their hours enjoying Blitz chess and the only reason they paused from their favorite past time was to analyze a Classical chess game. Of course, in those days, we didn’t call it “Classical” chess at all. It was just chess.
I take this break to emphasize once more that no one played truly “lengthy” games. We played “five-minute” as well as “three-minute” games, with five minute the usual preference. (The younger guys, like me, preferred three-minute games.) Blitz chess was “our” game and it was only the analysis of a World Championship match game that could pull us away from doing what we enjoyed most.
I should also mention the nomenclature of the time has definitely changed. In 1972, in American chess circles, five-minute chess was most often referred to as “speed-chess.” Or more simply, “wanna play some speed?” Perhaps this was too upsetting for mothers to hear and so we would try to articulate further and state, “five-minute?” Over many years the German word “Blitz” became increasingly popular in American chess circles, and I’m glad to say “speed chess” has dropped away completely in favor of Blitz chess.