Blitz and rapid chess evolved relatively recently, aided by developments in technology.
Blitz, lightning, rapid. These forms of chess are widely accepted and popular these days, so much so that the World Chess Federation created separate ratings categories for two of them in 2012. There are also now annual official Rapid and Blitz World Championships. The next begin Monday, Dec. 26, in Doha, Qatar, and are open to players rated over 2500 in any of the FIDE rating lists of 2016 (slow or classical, rapid or blitz).
Though fast chess is obviously respected, relative to slower forms that have been around since the game was invented roughly 1,500 years ago, fast chess is a juvenile.
In the 19th century, before there were any formal rules for it, it was usually called “skittles.” In that period, Henry Bird, the English master who was one of the world’s best players, was known to spend whole days playing skittles in clubs and chess cafes. How the times for his games were measured is a mystery, however.
One of the earliest tournaments for chess played at an accelerated pace came at the end of the Victorian era. The tournament was reported in the Oct. 17, 1897 issue of Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, a British newspaper:
LIGHTNING CHESS. Yesterday a new departure in chess was entered upon at the City of London club, entitled an “express” tournament, in order to discourage tedious play, it being necessary that moves should be made at the rate of ten for each five minutes. There were 32 entries, and after some keen contests Messrs. Herbert Jacobs, Harold Jacobs, and Woon divided up the prizes, five rounds being completed in four and a half hours.
By today’s standards, being required to play a move every 30 seconds is hardly that fast (in fact, it would be about the time used on average per move in a typical rapid game), but for the time it was quite a novelty.
One of the problems, and one of the main reasons that faster chess was not really played all that often before 100 years ago, had to do with how to keep time. The earliest chess clocks, invented in the 1880s, were not robust enough to withstand the constant battering inflicted by players engaged in blitz games; it was only well into the twentieth century that clocks of sturdier designs were manufactured.
The local club secretary stood on a chair, watch and bell in hands, and sounded the latter every 10 seconds as a sign that the move was to be made.
Before that, one solution was to have a timekeeper who would signal when moves had to be made. The Hastings and St. Leonards Observer of Hastings, England, reported on Sept. 14, 1901, that the local club planned to hold a tournament where players had to move when “time” was called. The frequency of similar reports in chess columns of the early 1900s showed that such competitions became very popular.
Also at Hastings, on the rest day of the 1904 British Championship, 73 players took part in a lightning tournament for which ten seconds per move was allowed. The local club secretary, Herbert Dobell, “stood on a chair, watch and bell in hands, and sounded the latter every 10 seconds as a sign that the move was to be made.”
Somebody later invented a machine which sounded a loud buzzer every ten seconds. More than once in the 1960s I played in tournaments with such a timer. It was far from an ideal system as it meant that players had the same amount of time to make difficult decisions as to make obvious recaptures and forced moves.
A report in the London newspaper the Globe on Nov. 14, 1914, referred to a different form of fast chess with clocks that was then popular at the Divan in the Strand:
A large number of people get a lot of fun out of the game by playing under the five minutes rule. They play with clock, and whichever player is five minutes behind his opponent loses the game. This peculiar time limit has the effect of making the play almost instantaneous, and correspondingly lively.
By the 1950s, the meaning of “five-minute chess” had changed to what we understand it as today: Each player having five minutes to complete a game. And by the late 1960s, “blitz” (which is the German word for lightning) had entered the English language as a generic term for all forms of very fast chess competition.
Given the growing popularity of fast chess, it was inevitable that there would eventually be organized competitions of elite players. The first elite international was in Herceg Novi, Yugoslavia, on April 8, 1970, a few days after the first “USSR v Rest of the World Match.” The field of 12 featured three former World Champions from the Soviet Union (Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian and Vasily Smyslov), who played a double round-robin (one game with each color against all the other competitors). It is widely considered to have been the first World Blitz Championship, though it was not designated as an official championship by the World Chess Federation, also known as FIDE.
Bobby Fischer demolished the field in the first World Blitz Championship, scoring 19 points out of 22 and losing only one game.
Bobby Fischer, who two years later became “classical” World Champion, demolished the field, scoring 19 points and losing only one game (to Viktor Korchnoi) after he had already clinched first. Tal finished a distant second, with 14.5 points.
While blitz chess and other faster forms of the game continued to grow in popularity, many years passed before anything further was done at the elite level. Then in 1987, a FIDE Congress meeting in Seville, Spain, (during the third title match between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov) decided to create a new official world title for “active chess” — games played at the rate of 30 minutes per player per game.
A tournament for this new title was held the next year in Mazatlán, Mexico, and won by Karpov, but many top grandmasters, notably Kasparov, were not in the field. Indeed, Kasparov protested the creation of the title of “Active World Chess Champion,” asking rhetorically, “What does that make me? The passive World Champion?” A couple of years later, at Kasparov’s instigation, FIDE changed the time control to 25 minutes per player per game and changed the name to rapid chess.
In 1988, a World Blitz Championship was organized in Saint John, Canada, on February 19th and 20th, after the conclusion of the Candidates matches, which had just been held in that city. Whether this event had official FIDE recognition is somewhat doubtful. Thirty-two players contested a five-round knockout tournament with best-of-four mini-matches to decide each pairing (with further games in the event of 2-2 ties).
Both Kasparov and Karpov were in the field, but it was Tal who won the tournament after Karpov was beaten in the second round and a jet-lagged Kasparov fell in the third.
Mikhail Tal won the second World Blitz Championship, which was held in Canada.
Despite the success of the tournament, it would still be a number of years before such competitions became annual or even a regular events.
In 1992, a new milestone was reached: The first organized Blitz and Rapid World Championships for women. They were held in Budapest, Hungary, and, unsurprisingly, Susan Polgar, the oldest of the Polgar sisters, won both titles, ahead of her sisters Judit and Sofia, among others.
Earlier the same year, SWIFT, the company that clears global, financial transactions, sponsored a strong rapid knock-out tournament in Brussels with 32 competitors. Kasparov did not play. The eventual winner was England’s Michael Adams who defeated three of his compatriots (John Nunn, Nigel Short and Jonathan Speelman) before beating Viswanathan Anand, the future Indian World Champion, in the semi-final, and Eric Lobron of Germany in the final.
Later in 1992, the Immopar blitz tournament in Paris attracted a stronger field and much more publicity. This time, Kasparov did play, beating Anand in the final.
Faster chess was clearly becoming more popular, but what was behind the development? No doubt, there were two mutually related factors: The revolution in computers and electronics.
Digital clocks had been invented that enabled more precise timing and increasingly innovative time limits (seconds added after each move, for example). The birth and growth of the internet, where servers allowed people to search out opponents worldwide, had also begun to stimulate interest in faster games.
Viswanathan Anand during the 2015 World Rapid and Blitz Championships in Berlin.
Although rapid tournaments were held from time to time, and rapid-playoffs were increasingly used when tournaments were tied, it was 2003 before FIDE revived the World Rapid Championship idea. The tournament was held at Cap d’Agde in the south of France from Oct. 24-30, and the event attracted eleven of the world’s top twelve players, with only Kasparov being absent.
The time control was 25 minutes for each player, with 10 seconds added after each move. Two round-robin groups of eight players qualified half the field for the knock-out stages. In the semifinals, Vladimir Kramnik of Russia beat his compatriot, Alexander Grischuk, 2-0, while Anand beat Peter Svidler, another Russian. In the Final, Anand beat Kramnik, 1.5-0.5.
There would not be another World Rapid Championship until 2012, but the World Blitz Championship was revived in September 2006 at Rishon-le-Zion, Israel. Grischuk won in a play-off against Svidler.
A year later, shortly after the Tal Memorial tournament in Moscow, the World Blitz Championship was held in the famous GUM department store in Moscow’s Red Square. Twenty players (some of whom had emerged from a two-day qualifier) played a double round-robin marathon of 38 games. Vassily Ivanchuk of Ukraine eventually came out on top.
Both ChessBase and Wikipedia say the next World Blitz Championship (nominally the fourth) was played in Almaty, capital of Kazakhstan, but New In Chess magazine did not report on it and information is sparse. The tournament held in Moscow after the 2008 Tal Memorial was undoubtedly stronger.
The field in Almaty was less than representative because it began on Nov. 8, less than a week before the Dresden Chess Olympiad. As in 2006, it was only a single round-robin for 16 players. Leinier Dominguez Perez of Cuba won with 11.5 points ahead of Ivanchuk (11) and Svidler (10).
Wikipedia says the World Blitz Championship was held in every subsequent year except 2011, but the official status of the 2009 and 2010 events (again played in Moscow) is questionable. The winners were Magnus Carlsen, the current World Champion, and Levon Aronian of Armenia, respectively, but those were probably not FIDE World Championships, and, unfortunately, the FIDE Web site is not clear. Readers wishing to learn more about the issues around those events may consult the Wikipedia article on the subject of fast chess, but I am not convinced that article is altogether reliable.
The World Rapid and Blitz Championships finally became official regular, annual competitions in 2012 with the time limits that continue to this day: 15 minutes per player per game, with 10 seconds added after each move for rapid chess and three minutes per player with two seconds added after each move for blitz.
Wikipedia says that the open 2012 Rapid and Blitz Championships were played in Batumi, Georgia, and the ones restricted to women were held in Astana, Kazakhstan. Actually, it was the other way around (though Wikipedia does get the winners right)!
Alexander Grischuk, left, receiving the gold medal for winning the 2015 World Blitz Championship from Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the president of the World Chess Federation. It was Grischuk's third World Blitz Championship.
The open rapid tournament was in Astana, from July 6-8, and the blitz on the next two days. The rapid, a 16-player, single round-robin, ended in victory for Sergey Karjakin of Russia, with Carlsen second, while Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan shared third. The blitz was a double round-robin won by Grischuk, who scored 20/30, half a point ahead of Carlsen with Karjakin third.
The Women’s Blitz Championship was in Batumi on April 4 and the Women’s Rapid was held there on May 21. The rapid was an 11-round Swiss won by Antoeneta Stefanova of Bulgaria, while Valentina Gunina of Russia won the blitz.
In 2013 the Championships were played in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia. Mamedyarov won the rapid while Vietnamese grandmaster Le Quang Liem became Blitz World Champion.
In 2014, Carlsen won both the Rapid and Blitz Championships in Dubai, so that he held all three world titles simultaneously. In the Women’s Championships, played in Khanty-Mansiysk, Kateryna Lagno (who was born in Ukraine but now plays for Russia) won the Rapid Championship, and Anna Muzychuk of Ukraine won the Blitz Championship.
Last year, in Berlin, Carlsen defended the Rapid Championship, but the Blitz Championship was captured by Grischuk. It was the third time he won the title.
According to the official event site for this year’s championships, there will be 120 competitors in the open events. The field is very strong although a few competitors are low-rated national blitz or rapid champions. One notable absentee is Dmitry Andreikin of Russia, the newly-crowned European Blitz Champion, who is taking a family holiday in Scandinavia.
There are 36 entries in the Women’s Championships. The player to beat may be Valentina Gunina of Russia, the seventh seed, who last week won the London Classic Super-Rapid with 9/10, defeating several strong male grandmasters on the way.
Dr. Timothy Harding, who has a PhD in history from Trinity College Dublin, is a senior international master of correspondence chess who has written many books on the game. His most recent, “Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography,” published by McFarland, has received favorable critical reviews.