Highlights from the Ultimate Blitz Challenge

It’s time for blitz to step out of the sidelines and become just as popular and respected as “classical chess”. The blitz event we saw this past week in St. Louis showed what an incredible spectacle a well organized blitz tournament can become.

You can see how little attention is paid to blitz by looking at the so called “World Championship”. The World Championship is a 21 round Swiss that lasts two days? This is not a real championship, this is a weekend Swiss.

While Kasparov definitely had some part in it, the blitz tournament was the most popular event in the history of St. Louis. This event got the most unique viewers online in the history of all events St. Louis has organized, and this is despite running the Sinquefield Cup and U.S. Championships for many years.

I have already thought of many great formats for serious top level blitz tournaments, but for now I’d like to talk about something else that’s important: The quality of the chess.

Watching someone play blitz is like peering through a window into their soul. Their raw chess instincts are on full display and you get to see which moves are the first ones to pop into a top player’s head. I was consistently impressed by the decisions they made under intense pressure. You get to recognize Kasparov’s unbridled aggression. You get to see Nakamura’s extremely cool defense under pressure.

We also got to see a game that is one of the most talked about games in years. I’m of course referring to the incredible “immortal blitz game” by Wesley So against Garry Kasparov.

What we are going to do in this blog piece, is find one key moment from every single round. In each of these moments you’ll be asked to come up with a move or find a plan. What I hope to demonstrate is that even in such fast time controls, the players come up with great moves and great ideas. Meanwhile there are also moments where they miss things that should be instinctual to them. I hope that these 18 moments will be helpful learning examples for you, and will also help you to respect the beauty and skill that goes into a speed chess game:

 

Round 1 (Nakamura vs Caruana) – Black to move

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In such positions there is always a clear plan, and this plan should be instinctual. Black’s idea should be to blockade the passed pawn with the king, so that the queen can roam free. Someone of Caruana’s level should be able to process this even with just seconds on the clock (he was down to about 5 seconds with the delay), but unfortunately his nerves were too great, he failed to realize this plan (instead playing …Kc6), and even ended up losing the game.

Black’s simplest way to win is 1…Kc7, with the idea of checking the white king and then placing the king on d8. If white plays 2. Kd2, black can continue with simply 2…h4 and eventually the white king will have to allow a check.

Round 2: (Caruana vs So) – White to Move

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How should white continue here? A standard idea would be to simply move the d2 knight, then develop the c1 bishop. This type of idea is totally fine. However the plan that Caruana chose is one of those “window into the soul” moments.

Caruana realizes his bishop on g2 no longer has such a great future. He decided that he wasn’t 100% sure which direction his knight wants to go. For instance, if the b5 pawn ever moves, the knight has an incredible home on the c4 square.

Therefore Fabiano decided to activate his bishop via 1. h4, with the idea of 2. Bh3. Top players are always looking for ways to activate their pieces, and this is a very typical idea. With an extensive chess education, such ideas can come easier. For example here is a bonus puzzle for you, and one that I have come across multiple times in my career. I bet Fabiano has also:

Bonus Puzzle: Korchnoi vs Penrose – White to Move

korchnoipenrose

White clearly has a good position, but how to make progress? Well the bishop on g2 isn’t doing that much, so Korchnoi found the strong idea of 1. h4 followed by 2. Bh3, putting unbearable pressure on the black position. This should have been very easy for you after seeing Fabiano’s move!

A strong knowledge of classical puzzles such as this one (it’s in one of the Dvoretsky books and I think it’s also in an Aagaard book), will result in the ability to play such ideas even in a very fast game.

Round 3 (Wesley So vs Hikaru Nakamura) – White to play

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In such positions there are many well known plans, however Wesley played the most common one.

Wesley played the move 1. h4. It’s important to notice that this pawn can be captured by black’s bishop. This is a very important thematic idea in this opening. Typically 1…Bxh4 fails to 2. d5, but in this instance it turns out that 2…exd5 3. Bh6 black can simply sac the exchange with 3…Bf6 and retain excellent compensation (in more standard lines like this, Bxh4 is a horrible move due to the d5 idea because the moves Bh6 and Re8 are already thrown in). Instead Wesley turned it into a pure pawn sacrifice after 1…Bxh4 2. Nxh4 Qxh4 3. Re3, retained excellent compensation, and won black’s queen after a nasty little trap

Another idea here is to play 1. Bh6 first and only after 1…Re8 play 2. h4. In this case 2…Bxh4 3. d5 is more annoying since if black captures they lose a whole piece.

Other typical ideas are to reposition the c2 bishop as it’s now hitting a wall on g6. For example 1. Bh6 Re8 2. Ba4, pinning the c6 knight, can be annoying for black.

I’m sure that Wesley knew about all these options and chose the one that he felt was best at the time. The main point is it’s important to know about all of these typical plans.

4. (Wesley So vs Garry Kasparov) – White to Move

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White is down a pawn and unless he does something serious, he’s just going to have a worse position. Unfortunately for Wesley, his instincts let him down here.

Wesley played the move 1. Qe2 but after 1…Nc7, black now had the advantage. What should Wesley play instead? It’s clear that Wesley should be playing for some kind of attacking formation. Two reasonable ideas would be 1. Qf4 or 1. Ng5 with the idea of a king side attack.

What’s the main lesson here? In positions where you have sacrificed a pawn, you need to play in the spirit of the position, otherwise you will simply find yourself down a pawn for nothing. Black’s king is clearly a bit compromised and I can guarantee you that Kasparov would have never retreated with Qe2 as Wesley did, as his feel for such positions is too strong.

Time and time again during the tournament, Garry Kasparov would find ways to “move forward” in such positions and maintain the initiative. The great players can process this stuff extremely quickly (and even Yasser Seirawan in the commentary booth was baffled by So’s Qe2 decision).

Round 5 (Kasparov vs Nakamura) – White to Move

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It is in this position that we get to see the “always moving forward” side of Garry Kasparov.

When you take a look at this position, it’s clear that the d5 square and d6 pawns are weak, and therefore white has an advantage. I don’t think I would hesitate long before playing the natural 1. Nc3, controlling d5, and simply maintaining my advantage. This move was also expected by GM Yasser Seirawan, and it’s certainly a fine move.

Garry Kasparov however doesn’t simply play the normal looking moves. He seems to find ways to go about things in a somewhat more aggressive fashion. He played the strong move 1. Ng5 with the idea of invading on e6. This definitely moves the knight further away from the key d5 point, but it still causes serious problems in black’s camp. After 1…Qf6 2. Rxe8 Rxe8 3. Re1 Rxe1 4. Qxe1 it now became a pure queen+knight vs queen+ knight position in which white had a clear advantage. Kasparov’s slightly more aggressive knight sortie helped him to simplify things into a position that’s very easy to play in blitz, and he ended up winning the game.

Is 1. Ng5 much stronger than 1. Nc3? I’m not sure it’s that big of a difference, but I did appreciate the fact that Kasparov didn’t just settle for the more natural looking move. Although perhaps to him, Ng5 is more natural than Nc3.

Round 6: (Caruana vs Kasparov) – Black to Move

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It’s positions like this where you really get to see the essence of how Garry Kasparov plays. White has just attacked the pawn on c6, but Garry doesn’t even consider the possibility of passively defending his queenside.

Instead Garry instantly lashed out with 1…Bd3 2. Qa4 f4, with the idea of a kingside attack. After this strong practical decision the game became complex and Garry achieved a winning position with his attack.

What is the point? The idea is that with very low time on the clock, these players have to skill to recognize when it is the right moment to attack, and when it’s the right idea to sit back and defend. Garry is especially good at finding the right times to counter with an attack.

Round 7: (Kasparov vs So) White to Move

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I found this to be one of the most incredible moments of the tournament, and one of the most instructive as well.

White has some very dangerous ideas involving 1. Nxf6. In fact, according to computer analysis, they turn out quite well for white.

Garry spent a long time thinking here, well over a minute, and the entire world expected that maybe he was thinking about this sacrifice. Eventually he played the move 1. Rd1, and it looked like he had decided against the sac. Black quickly replied with 1…a5 and almost immediately Kasparov responded with 2. Nf6!

What the heck happened here? Why did Garry think forever, ignore the sacrifice, and then play it almost instantly a move later? It all comes down to very important chess concepts.

Garry knows that Nf6 might be good, but aside from sacrificing his pieces for the attack, he also has other strong urges. What is that other strong urge? It’s to get all your pieces into the game before mounting your attack.

It was obvious that Garry was calculating these lines, and figured they might be good, but let’s develop the rook first to increase the power of the move Nf6. Every single variation is going to be much stronger when your rook is on d1 than a1.

Garry had to quickly weigh the importance of rushing with the attacking move or first completing his development, and in a blitz game, and being the legendary classical player that he is, he decided to bring his last piece into the game first. In my opinion this is an extremely refined decision and one that all chess players should internalize. When the clock is running, the great Garry completes his development first of all.

Round 8: (Nakamura vs Kasparov) – Black to Move

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Kasparov made this decision quite quickly as well. White is planning the move 1. f4, causing problems for the e5 knight. There are quite a few ways to fight against this plan, but true to his style, Garry chose most aggressive and combative move.

With very little hesitation, Garry played 1….Nc5, sacrificing a pawn. After 2. Bxc5 dxc5 3. Qxc5, black’s dark squared bishop now has no opponent, and black has adequate compensation for his pawn.

After engine analysis, all moves aside from 1…Nc5 leave to a miserable and passive position for black. Kasparov doesn’t need an engine for this type of stuff though, he just feels it, even in a blitz game.

Round 9: (So vs Nakamura) – White to Move

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The best players in the world are good at many things. One of those things is they are great at piece harmonization. By this I mean that they are very skilled at putting their pieces on the most effective squares.

A few things are obvious here:

  1. The black king is somewhat weak
  2. The bishop on g2 is not very active in it’s current position

These factors made it easy for Wesley to come up with the bishop manuever 1. Bf1. The idea behind this fine move is simply to play Bd3, Qd1 and mount a kingside attack.

Round 10: (So vs Kasparov) – White to Move

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This is the immortal blitz game that the entire world is talking about. When you look at the position you see that white is down a pawn, but in return black’s pieces are a little funny. The knight on c8 is a bit awkward, and black is still two moves away from castling.

What does this mean? It means that we must act quickly, there is no time to waste or the black king will get to safety. Wesley found the incredible move 1. b4! The idea is to simply open lines at all costs. After 1…cxb4 2. Rc1, Garry was already in trouble and was shaking his head in frustration. After 2…Nge7 3. Qb3 the black king cannot castle and is stuck in the center. Wesley went on to win in incredible style. I highly recommend taking a look at IM John Bartholomew’s video analysis of the game.

Round 11: (Kasparov vs Nakamura) – White to Move

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How would you play for white here? There are lots of different ideas, most of them involving the bishop on g4. For example we could play 1. Re4 Bh5 2. g4 Bf7 and continue from there.

However Garry shows his class again. One thing that top players do is they don’t rush when they have an edge, and this remains true even in blitz games.

We saw Garry do this a few rounds ago in an aggressive position against So, and in this case he started with the calm, but very useful move, 1. a4. Such moves are automatic for strong players, but the idea is to simply secure the knight on c4 by stopping any kind of ….b5 ideas. Now that our position is more secure, we will begin our more aggressive play on the following move.

If your urge was to immediately try something like Re4, or h3, I believe that there’s a lot to be learned from the initial 1. a4 played by Garry.

Round 12: (Caruana vs Kasparov) – Black to Move

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There’s a little talked about concept that top players are very good at. I like to call it “keeping the tension”.

I believe that the move Garry played here is unlikely to be one of the first instincts for most players. Most people would just play 1…Bxh3 and continue from there. However top GM’s are much better than lower ranked players at not automatically leaning towards captures, and instead playing moves that maintain the tension.

Garry played the move 1….Be6! His idea is that if white wants to capture on e6, it will be on Garry’s terms and the f7 pawn will capture towards the center of the board. It’s not so obvious that this move is superior to 1…Bxh3, but it’s important to stop and recognize how the top players think and how their instincts work. If you don’t consider such moves easily, it’s something to work on, now that you’ve seen Kasparov play this move in a blitz game.

In my opinion 1…Be6 is the best practical move, and Garry ended up winning this game in crushing style.

Round 13: (Kasparov vs So) – Black to Move

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Even in blitz, these guys can make quick and important calculations.

The position looks very dangerous after 1…Rxe5 2. Nxe5 Qxe5 3. Rfe1, with the idea of doubling both rooks on the 8th rank. However Wesley had already calculated the key zwischenzug of 3…Bf5, after which black was able to simplify into an even endgame and the players drew shortly thereafter.

It’s one thing to accurately calculate this in a tournament game, but it takes much more skill to do so under time pressure.

Round 14: (Nakamura vs Kasparov) – Black to Move

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Once again Garry shows us why he is the legend. A normal looking move would be to simply castle and get on with things, but it actually turns out that the move 1…0-0 2. g4 is quite annoying for black.

When your pieces are backed up on the 1st rank, Garry doesn’t like to let you breathe. Garry lashed out with 1….f5!, which led to a vicious attack for black.

When I saw the move I was like “wow cool move, but was that really necessary?”. Turns out it’s by far the engine’s number 1 choice!FullSizeRender

Garry’s instincts are simply incredible.

Round 15: (So vs Nakamura) – White to Move

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Wesley So has to be careful here, as the black pieces are invading white’s position. The simplest move is just to play 1. Ra1 with the idea of some massive trading operation, and the position should be relatively equal.

Instead Wesley made a serious positional misjudgement by playing the move 1. Nxe4. As I mentioned before, top players are great at keeping the tension and not making mindless trades, but in this case Wesley wasn’t up to task.

What’s wrong with this move? It simply gives the d7 knight, which currently has no great place to live, a permanent home on the key d5 square. After this black had an advantage and Nakamura took advantage of Wesley’s first misstep:

Bonus Puzzle: (So vs Nakamura) – Black to Move

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Nakamura doesn’t miss many tactics, and he was up to the task again here as he found the crushing 1…Nxb4! White can’t play 2. Nxb4 due to Qd1# and if 2. Qxb4 Qxc2 and black should win.

Round 16: (Caruana vs Nakamura) – White to Play

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Caruana was having a really rough day and it showed in this game. There is only one important thing that white should care about here: Queening the pawn. White was very low on time and played the horrific blunder 1. Be4 in this position. This allowed 1…Ke5 gaining a tempo on the bishop, and shortly thereafter the black king went to d6 and was now in range of the pawn.

Of course white had to play something like Bh1 and the position should be a draw due to the fast a-pawn, as in this case the king is still too far away to catch it. Caruana was having such a rough day that it likely really affected his ability to think clearly under pressure. When things are going badly, it’s almost as if the brain finds ways to lose.

Round 17: (Kasparov vs Nakamura) White to Move

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Once again Garry demonstrates his incredible attacking feel. There is some tension in the center and the black king is still uncastled. Until that king gets castled, white can consider very ambitious moves.

Garry found the ultra strong 1. Qd2! The idea is that black can capture on e4 with both the pawn or the queen. However if 1…Qxe4 2. f3 is strong, and if 1…dxe4 2. d5 is powerful. Meanwhile white also threatens to simply capture on d5. This is not an easy move to find, especially in a blitz game, but Garry is able to do so due to his tremendous feel for how to play against an uncastled king. (EDIT – The following was pointed out to me by Yasser Seirawan: “You failed to mention a third choice by Naka in the 17th diagram.  He should have played …Bf3, Bg3 Bxe4, Nc3, when white has compensation for the pawn but would be hard pressed to show an advantage.  Naka’s Bishop sac was just bad.“)

Nakamura should be given huge credit for how he defended this game down a piece, even though he eventually lost. Of anyone in this tournament, Nakamura plays with the most “computer-like” style. His defense in bad positions is so tenacious, and it’s probably what helped him to eventually win this tournament.

Round 18: (Caruana vs Kasparov) – Black to Move

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Once again we see Garry Kasparov with an attack. How should he improve his position?

One of the keys that I mentioned earlier, is how good top players are at harmonizing their pieces. Garry knew that in order for the attack to succeed, he needed to bring more pieces into play. Therefore he played the move 1…Nh7! with the idea of 2…Ng5. The pressure was too much for Caruana and he lashed out with 2. g4.

In his true ultra aggressive style, Kasparov immediately sacrificed his bishop with 2….Bxg4 and gained an overwhelming attack.

What a fantastic way for Kasparov to end his tournament, but it’s important to notice that it all begins with moves like 1…Nh7.

I hope that you enjoyed the highlights from this tournament. It should demonstrate to you that yes, there are some blunders and serious mistakes, but there are also some very important ideas being played. The ideas that are so instinctual to top players that they appear in blitz games, these are actually the ideas that are most important for lower ranked players to assimilate. I feel quite strongly that positions like this are actually more instructive to 99% of the chess community, than some of the unbelievably complex and long calculations that occur during classical chess.

I hope that the popularity and wild success of this tournament leads to more events like this in the future. In my opinion the blitz World Championship should be a week long affair with at least 50-100 games being played by each of the top players in the world.

 

3 thoughts on “Highlights from the Ultimate Blitz Challenge

  1. Pingback: Ultimate Blitz Challenge Tactics - US Chess

    • I don’t consider this at all a serious event. It’s two days long. No serious tournament is two days long. Each mini match takes no more than 20-25 minutes as opposed to a 4-5 hr game.

      It’s simply a fun exhibition, just as all blitz tournaments are set up to be. Until this changes no one will take them very seriously.

      Like

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