Bullet Chess by Hikaru Nakamura

Manny and I are about to provide the live and online commentary for the Geneva Chess Masters. We will get to meet some of our heroes, including Kramnik, Nakamura and Judith Polgar. One way or another it seemed like time to get out my review of this which I wrote a while ago, long before Naka had a result in the 2013 Tal Memorial which has the potential to shake the theory of this review just a little…

Bullet Chess or How Nakamura Made My Life Better

My ex-ex-ex-defacto-sister-in-law is a paediatric cardiologist. But in truth there is only one teensy bit of it – about 2 mm long – in which she is interested, so if you ask her about ‘the heart’, as likely as not she’ll say ‘not my area’. If pressed she might wave a hand dismissively and say ‘it beats while you are alive and then it stops.’ Ah, the joys of living in the age of specialisation. Her lack of interest isn’t only limited to the heart, but to life generally. Mostly if she can’t relate it to that 2mm bit of heart, her eyes glaze over. HOWEVER – and this is a very big however – her ability to interdisciplinarise everything is pretty impressive. Whether you talk to her about doing the laundry, an unlucky hand you had at bridge last night, or the political situation in Botswana, she will do her level best to apply the information proferred to her ‘thing’. Chess players take note. Chess players for whom ‘quick chess is not chess’ take note.

‘So Bullet’s like ER’ Bo said. ‘And slow chess is like elective surgery.’ We were discussing the role of mistakes in the various types of chess and Bo had just been talking to a colleague in ER. Faced with a patient who was technically dead after being bitten by a jellyfish, the only chance of reviving him was to inject something into a vein. When the doctor unfortunately picked an artery that meant, although the patient was saved, it was at the expense of a limb which needed to be amputated. ‘In elective surgery,’ Bo continued, ‘this would be unforgiveable. But in ER, in a time-critical situation it was no more than an unavoidable mistake. Not only was time critical, but it isn’t possible in a dead person to distinguish an artery from a vein the way it is in a living person.’ He was a highly experienced doctor, but nonetheless, in ER, the Bullet chess player might say, ‘the mistakes are all there waiting to be made.’

After this story, lesson one should be easier to digest. You play a game of Bullet and you move on. There is only one important aspect of mistake making in Bullet to analyse: how long did it take you to make it. All things being equal, ten seconds is worth about a piece. To make a bad move quickly is neither here nor there. To make it slowly is unforgiveable. Not that it is this simple. Nakamura looks at when you have time to burn and should think but don’t. This is much much harder to deal with – how do you recognise that THIS is that moment when you take stock. But basically, it is this straightforward, you play a game, you make mistakes, he makes mistakes, you move on. You aren’t a doctor. Your mistake hasn’t just cost somebody limb or life. It cost you a rating point. Get over the whole idea of being a drama queen about losing. If doctors can plough on, you can too.

Yes, Bullet is different from tournament chess, as different as ER is from elective surgery. But that doesn’t mean it is to be dismissed any more than a doctor would turn his nose up at an emergency. ‘Save that man by cutting open his throat with that pocket knife and – I’m sorry, I can’t do that, it just isn’t surgery.’ What skills does Nakamura lend to his tournament chess by playing bullet?

(1) Simply playing a lot of games, the more games he plays, the more he can have the right attitude to any one game that it is everything and nothing.

(2) Bullet is about winning, not drawing. Not ‘not losing’. He is used to having to try to win every game.

(3) When something goes wrong, what the hell? That’s something that happens to him every day of the week. Lots of times every day of the week. Remember Anand-Nakamura in the 2011 London Classic? We could attribute the result of that game to bullet.

(4) As he discusses towards the end of his book, chess, like tennis and football, is being decided by quickplay methods when the slow form of the game does not produce a result. The higher your ambitions in chess, the more necessary it is to accept that being able to play quickly is vital. The ‘it’s not chess’ attitude no longer holds. The capacity to play quickly has always been necessary but never more than now, in the time controls/lack of adjournments and in sudden-death playoffs. One might ask if playing quickly makes one intrinsically superior. The answer to that is ‘obviously’. If we are to argue that ‘x is just as good as y, he just needs more time’ – well, take that to its obvious conclusion and I could be number one in the world too. Just give me more time. Lots and lots more time. Equally, if player x can only match player y with preparation, familiarity, being in his comfort zone, then that is a sign of inferiority too. I guess this comes to the conclusion that all things being equal, a player who can play fast is a better chess player than one who cannot. Having said that, we set some sort of limit on this conclusion. Being mentally alert is one thing. Having the physical ability to follow through on that is another matter that has nothing much to do with chess. If that’s your edge you might as well be doing any sort of internet gaming out there based on speed. We do not, therefore, give bullet the credence we would lend to slightly slower versions of quick chess but they are all connected. Taking in the important lessons of this book will make you better at 3 minute chess and 5 minute chess and 20 minute chess and tournament chess.

Why is this? Partly because it isn’t just a book about chess. Nakamura joins you as your therapist as well as your chess advisor. He tells you how you should behave, when he talks about the etiquette of bullet chess he is talking about living with the consequences of losing and winning from the point of view of your own psyche, not just manners.

To demonstrate this, let me put on my ‘chess-player’s girlfriend’ hat.

The girlfriend’s impressions. I swear to you, as I reflect upon the transformation of RegGuy from this – weedy, pale-chested, knock-kneed boy on ICC beaches, hoping to be picked by manly opponents, only to find his face ground into the sand – into boy wonder, that Nakamura is the Charles Atlas of Bullet chess. RegGuy’s aura is now ‘mess with me, buddy? I’d like to see you try.’

Manny at work
Manny at work

Maybe auras don’t count for much when you are playing somebody a million miles away over an internet connection, but I see it. There is a transformation of how he understands the use of his clock, a transformation not only in practice, but in observation. The stories of his bullet games now are the stories of the clock and the psychology and the tactics that go with it. In the 1950s, you would have seen a picture of RegGuy, sweet little weed in one photo, muscle-wielding dynamo in the other and a testimony as to how much more sex he is getting now. Well, I can’t help it. He’s so sexy when he is winning.

RegGuy's ratings performance leading up to the writing of this review.
RegGuy’s ratings performance leading up to the writing of this review.

Nor is this the only big change. The sex is better as well. I can imagine the girls out there in the audience looking at that last sentence warily. Who wants Bullet Sex? But this book isn’t about doing things quickly per se. It is about time management, which is pretty much all sex is, right? More to the point, there hasn’t been one of those ‘late into the night I’m determined to lose a couple of hundred points here whatever I do’ sessions. The ones where after he has lost he tries to convince himself and you that it wasn’t about losing, it was about winning. I don’t need to tell anybody that sex – well, yes, life – is better without those. If only he hadn’t invented that chant: Woo Hoo, Hikaru! It’s all very well in the middle of kibitzing a tournament, or winning another game of blitz, but in BED???!

If I may apologetically point out that while I’m a chess patzer, I’ve spent a lot of time playing games seriously, including high stakes rubber bridge for years, as a consequence of which there are types of people I recognise. I started wondering after watching RegGuy’s routine of playing short sessions when he was winning and long ones when he was losing, if he was simply a compulsive gambler, ie loser, who needed the whole pattern of addictive behaviour that goes with that, the angst and suffering. When I pointed out that this is what losers do, play when they are losing and stop when they are winning he cottoned onto the idea and modestly changed his habits. But nothing like he did after reading Nakamura. The consequence is that he no longer has a damaging emotional involvement with his losses. There isn’t enough data to say what impact reading this book has had on his tournament chess, but simply from the way he talks, his more confident, sensible – practical – attitudes, I’m sure it will be good for it too.

Permit me another hat. The copyeditor’s and writer’s impressions. I’m sorry to say, that much as the copyeditor of this book comes in for high praise in the acknowledgements of this book, it nonetheless has errors which would make Horton (of King Pin) howl with rage. If copyediting had bullet ratings, this book’s copyeditor’s would be about 600. I find the errors so unlikely, it is almost like they have been added to sabotage her work after she looked at the proofs. That bad. To begin with I was seriously irritated by the fact that RegGuy said over and over ‘this is the sort of thing you say, but he puts it better.’ Did I say he was getting more sex? I can’t believe it. But to be fair this book is ill-served by the first chapter. It is so light-weight and badly written it would put anybody off who picked it up and judged it there. Saying ‘bullet chess is fun’ – no, I’m sorry, ‘bullet chess is fun!’ because the exclamation point is the main source of punctuation (groan away, Horton) – over and over is neither enlightening nor encouraging. As the book warms up, illuminating content and an improved style do lead the reader naturally to that conclusion. Not only that it is fun but that it has much wisdom to impart to any chess player, tournament or otherwise.

Moreover, Nakamura makes a good case for bullet chess now being the only real chess, the only form of the game where chess talent and chess understanding really count any more.

He never actually says bullet is good for your tournament chess, but why wouldn’t it be? Leave aside all the arguments about bad habits, they aren’t relevant. You can develop bad habits at any form and you can develop bad practise habits irrespective of how much time is on the clock. You play a lot of chess and in the process you learn a lot about how human beings work. That has to come in handy. Look at Nakamura, bullet chess supremo and number 5 in the world as I write. One can see the positive bullet impacts on his game. Not only that, but because he is dynamic and exciting, he is the player we all want to watch at that level. While the others are having their dreary computer-prepared draws, he is playing chess and even though he opines that playing at tournament level is not about playing chess any more, he has forced the idea that it can still be upon the chess-playing world.

Woo Hoo, Hikaru!

3 thoughts on “Bullet Chess by Hikaru Nakamura

  1. I would like to stress that the person in this article is only a composite chessplayer loosely based on me. I hope no one was fooled.

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