Worldchess’s columnist looks at whether quality necessarily has to suffer if games are speeded up.

Blitz chess – which traditionally was five minutes per player, but now is played at many speeds – has always been popular, but mainly as a recreational activity. It had the same relationship to slow chess – otherwise known as “real” chess – that junk food has to a healthy diet: it’s fun and acceptable in moderation, but inferior in quality and not the basis for achieving excellence (in chess or in health).

In recent years, blitz chess – like poor eating habits that cause obesity – has become more prominent. The overwhelming majority of online games are played at blitz speeds or even at “bullet” time controls of one minute per side for the entire game. The internet and the acceleration of the pace at which we live have certainly played a role. But it’s likely that there would still be a sharper distinction between blitz and slow chess, were it not for the growth of “rapid” chess.

Rapid chess, which usually has a time control between 15 and 60 minutes for the entire game (not including time increments added to each player’s time), didn’t really exist until around 30 years ago. In 1987, when Garry Kasparov, who was then World Champion, and Nigel Short played a rapid match, it was widely viewed as a wacky, one-off experiment for publicity. It was fine for popularizing the game, but it was not “serious” chess and it was not an idea that should be promoted any further.

The critics were wrong, of course. It took a little while, but rapid chess began to grow in popularity in the mid-90s. Today, pure rapid events are still less common than classical, slow ones, but many events are hybrids. Faster time controls are commonly used in tiebreak situations (even for World Championships) and, at least in the United States, players can choose to play faster games in the early rounds of tournaments so that they have to play fewer days. (A tournament scheduled for one round on Friday night and two each on Saturday and Sunday might allow a two-day option with two faster games played on Saturday morning before everyone merges on Saturday night. There are more extreme versions of this as well.) 

Up to now, there has been a mostly amicable coexistence between classical, rapid and blitz. Early predictions that rapid chess would cause the sky to fall have proved overblown, and it is still classical chess that enjoys the greatest prestige.

But there are signs that the barbarians are at the gate.

Alexander Grischuk, a member of the world’s elite, who recently won his third World Blitz Championship, has long expressed his desire that classical chess be replaced by shorter time controls, but he was only a player. Now an organizer is taking up the cause. Oleg Skvortsov, the main sponsor of the Zurich Chess Challenge, which will be held in February 2016, has instituted a time control of 40 minutes for the entire game, with a 10 second increment after every move.

There is something attractive about faster time controls. Tournaments would be faster and there would be more time to relax between rounds. Chess would also likely be more marketable to a broader audience.

The main question is what this will do to the quality of the game.

Many moves can be played almost without thinking, but sometimes a player has to really concentrate and try to work things out. Maybe that can be done once or twice in a game that lasts 40 minutes or more, but some richly complicated games will likely be spoiled by errors because of the shorter time limits.

As a player, one of the things I value most about slower games is that I have time to find deep ideas that make a particular game memorable. I’ve played rapid and blitz games I’m happy with, but when it comes to feeling like I’ve really pushed myself and come up with something special, that has primarily, perhaps only, occurred in games with a slower time control.

That is likely true across the board. Among the greatest games ever played, very few were with a fast time control. (And some that were are marred by serious errors caused by the shorter time limit.) Very few, but not none.

The following game, widely considered one of the greatest of modern times, was played at a rapid time control (game in 60 minutes for each player). It was in the playoff of the quarterfinal candidates’ match between Artur Yusupov of Russia and Vassily Ivanchuk of Ukraine. Yusupov won the match, and this was his masterpiece.

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Dennis Monokroussos is a FIDE master who has written about chess on his blog, “The Chess Mind,” since 2005. He has been teaching chess for almost 20 years and for the last 10 years has been making instructional chess videos, which can be found at ChessLecture.com. Between 1995 and 2006, he taught philosophy, including a four-year stint at the University of Notre Dame.