Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Zeitgeist of Time

Competitive quickplay chess in Northern Ireland goes back to at least 1950, though until the late 1970s it was an occasional divertissement rather than a regular part of chess life. Those events were what today we would group under the title "Blitz".

Then three annual open quickplay tournaments - all organised by clubs rather than the Ulster Chess Union - started in three successive years: Newtownards in 1979, Bangor in 1980 and Newcastle in 1981. While the other two events had relatively short shelf-lives, the Bangor one-day Congress continued on until the early yeas of the new millennium.

I used the more generic "quickplay" to describe these one-day tournaments but these events were at a slower rate than their blitz precursors, typically played with half-an-hour on the clock for each player. Today we would call these "Rapidplays".

By the late 1980s the UCU had caught on to this trend and started to organise regular rapidplay events throughout the year. During those years they were often described as "Active" tournaments.

In the 1989-1990 UCU Yearbook, its Honorary Secretary Alex Beckett had this to say in an article entitled "The Year of the Active":
Chess is thought to be a sedentary game although one would not think so with the number of competitors walking about the tournament room. Some would allege this is partly for psychological reasons. I feel this is uncharitable as the walkers just like to get away from the board and to watch the other boards while keeping their own games under remote scrutiny in case their opponent punches the clock. 'Punching' the clock is an illuminating phrase, the opponent generally replies by counter-punching just to show he is not being intimidated. It is the poor clock which is suffering and it is rumoured that clock abuse is going to be investigated. Guess who is going to be chairman?

What has this got to do with Active Chess Tournaments? When you see Active Tournaments have been renamed Rapid Play Tournaments which is a pity for Active had a much healthier ring to it and got away from the sedentary image of chess and that's where we came in.
Nowadays, players more used to shorter time limits don't tend to do too much "walking about" in an Active/Rapid. Time is at a premium. Of course, in Blitz there is definitely no time to waste getting up from your board. However punching the clock is still with us.

By the beginning of the 21st century the number of rapidplays had begun to decline but competitive blitz, now including events played with a time handicap based on rating differential, was making a comeback. In 2011 the UCU started an annual Ulster Blitz Championship in the Christmas holiday slot previously reserved for the Ulster Rapidplay Championship and before that the Ulster Championship itself. At Christmas the pace of chess life was definitely quickening.

In the present day, Northern Ireland players have access to a range of competitive chess tournaments at varying time limits. Into this scene entered a new twist to the quickplay model - the 2017 Belfast Blitz and Bullet Championships, played on Saturday 4th March. Played over a mammoth 16 rounds with a time limit of 3 minutes plus 2 seconds increment per player, the main event was the Open Blitz Championship . However when the Blitz had completed its course and after about 30 minutes of respite, the Bullet Championship began at 4.00 pm.
The first round of the first-ever Bullet Tournament in NI getting underway
So what exactly is bullet chess? Perhaps the most famous exponent of this form of the game is American GM Hikaru Nakamura and in his book "Bullet Chess: One Minute to Mate" (Russell Enterprises, 2009) he used the term "bullet" interchangeably with "one-minute chess". However Nakamura points out that anything less than 3 minutes per player is regarded as bullet. In the Belfast Bullet Championship play was the "pure" form of the game - just 60 seconds to play all your moves.

In Chapter 1 of his book, Nakamura sets out a brief Q&A about bullet, including this exchange:
Isn't one-minute fast?
Yes, it is.
Is bullet still chess?
Of course not!
This is the fundamental truth about bullet chess that many players fail to understand. Bullet is certainly a form of chess and much of what you have learned about chess applies to bullet, but bullet should never be confused with conventional chess itself!
When non-bullet players scoff "it's not chess!" the correct response from a bullet player is "who said it was?"
Then why play bullet?
Because it's fun.
Belfast Bullet Championship trophy, medals and certificates

Some of the players in the Blitz decided not to enter the Bullet. Perhaps some had trains to catch but others may have thought that this one-minute chess would be just a bit too frantic for them. After eight rounds of bullet I think that the vast majority of the Belfast Bullet Championship players would have agreed with Nakamura. To paraphrase Mr Spock in Star Trek "It's chess, but not as we know it."

Daniil Zelenchuk, Belfast Bullet Championship
winner with organiser Brendan Jamison

1 comment:

  1. Did Nakamura miss it because he had to get a bullet train? Lol.