Rediscovering the Essence of Chess - The Virtues of Slow Play

Rediscovering the Essence of Chess - The Virtues of Slow Play


Food for Thought:

In today’s fast-paced world, the game of chess has undergone a transformation. With the rise of online platforms, chess enthusiasts are increasingly drawn to the thrill of blitz and rapid games. The chess landscape seems to have evolved into a realm where speed and tricks take center stage, leaving some to wonder: have we lost sight of the true purpose of chess?

I recently watched a YouTube video of Ben Finegold where he explained one of my favorite openings where he then comment on Blitz, Rapid vs slow plays.

His remarkable insights inspired me to delve into this week’s blog topic, The Virtues of Slow Play.

Then I had a chat with my very dear friend Andy and I spontaneously decided to publish this blog earlier than originally planned. Andy, this one’s a special dedication to you.

The Allure of Blitz and Rapid Chess

Blitz and rapid chess are undeniably exciting. They’re readily available, get the adrenaline pumping, and provide quick gratification. But is this what chess is truly about? In these lightning-fast formats, games are often decided by who can execute the cleverest tricks in the shortest amount of time. While there’s no doubt that blitz and rapid chess have their merits, it’s worth asking whether they truly capture the essence of this ancient game.

Today’s players, especially internet denizens, think that 30 minutes is a really long game! Unfortunately, that is a fairly quick speed where it is difficult to either carry lessons forward from one game to the next or to play “Real Chess” on each move. Many get hooked on the convenience and lure of online speed games.

According to Dan Heisman, a player who plays 100 games at G/90 or slower during the year is likely to improve at a much greater rate than one who plays half of that or almost all games at 30 minutes or faster. Dan is an award-winning chess full-time instructor in Wynnewood PA. He is a US Chess Federation National Master (NM) and a FIDE Candidate Master (CM).

The Purpose of Chess: Playing the Perfect Game

At its core, chess is about the pursuit of perfection. It’s about playing the perfect game, where every move is a masterpiece and every strategy flawless. This pursuit of excellence finds its true home in slow chess. In these unhurried games, players have the luxury of time to contemplate their moves deeply. They can immerse themselves in the intricacies of the game, exploring strategies, tactics, and theory in a way that blitz simply doesn’t allow.

Slow Games as a Learning Tool

Slow games are not just about savoring the beauty of chess; they are also powerful learning tools. They encourage critical thinking, strategic planning, and deep calculation. In contrast to blitz, where intuition often reigns supreme, slow games require players to justify their every move with careful reasoning. It’s here that one can truly understand the depths of chess and improve their skills.

Consider the classics of chess history—games like the “Immortal Game” (played in 1851) or the “Evergreen Game”. These games are celebrated not for their speed or clever tricks but for their deep, strategic brilliance. They remind us that chess’s highest artistry is unveiled in unhurried play.

Navigating the Online Chess World

In today’s digital age, you don’t have to abandon online platforms to embrace slow chess. Many online chess websites offer classical time controls that allow you to savor the joys of slow play. Seek out these platforms and experiment with longer games to experience the full breadth of chess.

It can be tempting to stick with blitz and rapid games due to their immediate rewards, but the benefits of slow chess are undeniable. To make the transition, set goals for yourself—commit to playing a certain number of classical games each week and gradually reduce the time spent on faster formats.

Rekindling the Love for Slow Chess

In our modern world, it’s easy to get swept up in the rush of fast-paced living and fast-paced chess. But let’s not forget the heart and soul of this ancient game—the pursuit of perfection through slow, thoughtful play. While blitz and rapid chess have their place, they should complement, not overshadow, the timeless allure and educational value of slow, strategic chess.

As you embark on your chess journey, take a moment to rediscover the joy of playing the perfect game. Slow chess isn’t just a game; it’s a journey of self-improvement, a celebration of the game’s rich history, and a reminder that in this age of speed, some things are worth savoring.

Why You Don’t Improve with Blitz and Rapid

With the stage set and the context above, it becomes clearer why you might not see significant improvement in your chess skills when primarily playing blitz and rapid games online. Here are eight key reasons why relying solely on fast-paced games can hinder your progress:

  1. Lack of Deep Analysis: In blitz and rapid games, there’s little time for in-depth analysis of positions. Players often make moves based on intuition or quick calculations, missing the opportunity to explore the subtleties and nuances of the game.

  2. Limited Opening Repertoire: Fast games often lead to repetitiveness in openings, as players tend to stick with what they know. This can result in a narrow repertoire that doesn’t provide a broad understanding of different openings and their strategic ideas. Additionally, unconventional openings are rarely encountered in the fast-paced world of online chess.

  3. Ignoring Endgames: Blitz and rapid games rarely reach the endgame phase, which is crucial for overall chess improvement. Neglecting endgames means missing out on opportunities to sharpen your technique and convert advantages into wins.

  4. Time Pressure Stifles Creativity: Constant time pressure in fast games can lead to anxiety and impulsive moves. This stifles creativity and prevents you from exploring new ideas and unconventional strategies.

  5. Superficial Learning: In quick games, you may not fully understand the reasons behind your wins or losses. This can result in superficial learning, where you miss out on valuable lessons that slow games provide.

  6. Inconsistent Performance: The fast-paced nature of blitz and rapid chess can lead to erratic performance. Winning or losing streaks may not reflect your true chess skills, making it challenging to gauge your progress accurately.

  7. Pattern Recognition vs. Deep Understanding: Blitz and rapid games often rely on pattern recognition and tactics rather than deep positional understanding. While patterns are essential, they should complement a solid foundation of chess principles.

  8. Memorization Over Understanding: I keep saying this (it’s true, I’m not a fan of chessable) but rapid games can encourage memorization of moves and responses without understanding the underlying concepts. This can hinder your ability to adapt to novel positions.

Incorporating slow games into your chess practice can help address these challenges. They provide the time and space needed for deep analysis, allow you to explore various openings and endgames, reduce time pressure, and encourage a more profound understanding of the game. While blitz and rapid chess have their place, they should be part of a balanced training regimen that includes slow, thoughtful play to foster genuine improvement.

Rating? Rating is a True Reflection

When players first start rated play online, they are often unaware of ratings, but that all quickly changes. Once these new players realize how accurate the rating system is (assuming one plays enough games to obtain an accurate rating), the focus on their chess often shifts from “What can I learn?” to “How can I improve my rating?” This is a common misconception that needs addressing.

Which brings me to one other topic. Yes, you can try to “manipulate” your rating, but that can only go so far. For example, offering draws to higher-rated players in superior positions may seem like a good way to raise your rating, but actually it tends to distort it downward since your fear of their rating likely kept you from winning. And there is more, but I think you got the point.

Therefore it’s essential to remember that your rating simply reflects your playing strength—nothing more, nothing less. If you get stronger, then eventually (probably sooner rather than later), your rating will rise. If you get weaker (say you are as experienced as me, not to say as old as I am!), then, assuming you are still playing, your rating will eventually decline.

To quote Dan Heisman again, here is his take:

  1. Better players make better moves. Plain and simple. So if you don’t know how to analyze to find better moves, your improvement will be greatly hindered, to put it mildly.
  2. You can’t find better moves if you don’t take, or have, time to look. So playing all fast games or playing slow games quickly also greatly hinders any improvement.
  3. Basic tactics and safety underlie all good moves. As GM Shirov wrote about easy tactics in the Foreword to one tactics book, “I have come to believe they are the basis of everything in chess.”
  4. Everyone I know who has become a national master has spent years playing in dozens, if not hundreds, of slow OTB events. With the advent of the internet, it may be possible to become very strong by “simulating” these slow events online, but I don’t know anyone who has done this, and it’s clearly more difficult.
  5. Bobby Fischer went to John Collins’ home every day after school and studied with Collins and his other strong students, such as Bill Lombardy. Almost every other strong player spend a ton of time “in the chess culture” hanging out and analyzing with strong players. So if you think you are going to get to be really good by locking yourself in a closet and just studying chess, well, it’s not impossible, but it’s highly unlikely.

Closing Thoughts:

Becoming a proficient chess player involves a multitude of components—memorization, pattern recognition, technical knowledge, and the elusive “board vision.” These aspects, along with the ability to calculate variations and the often-debated notion of “natural ability,” all contribute to one’s chess prowess. Importantly, none of these elements is mutually exclusive.

However, it’s crucial to recognize that significant improvement doesn’t come solely from playing countless online Blitz and Rapid games. Personally, I stepped away from platforms like a while ago for this very reason. Such platforms can be distracting and may divert your focus from what truly matters.

I’ve chosen to remain on Lichess, not only to support the exceptional free platform it provides but also to experiment and learn. Despite my modest Blitz and Rapid ratings (around 1500), and even in their so-called “slow game” category (30 minutes), where I hover around 1700, my performance takes a different turn in correspondence chess, where I reach a rating of 2000. When I engage in training sessions, I often opt for 30-minute games with my ChessNut Air e-board (yes, I prefer physical boards over screens). However, I’ve noticed a trend where opponents choose Blitz over slowing down, occasionally influencing me to respond hastily and make moves I wouldn’t typically consider. In the realm of correspondence chess, my rating stands at USCF & ICCF 2100, emphasizing a critical point: the slower the game, the better I perform.

The essence of my message is this: embracing slower forms of chess can be a path to substantial improvement and a deeper understanding of the game. I’m eager to hear your thoughts on this subject. Have you ventured into the world of slow chess, and if so, how has it enriched your understanding of this timeless game? Please share your experiences and insights as we continue our exploration of the enduring beauty of chess in all its forms.

Amici Sumus

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