Slow Versus Fast Chess

Since its introduction, Blitz chess has become a topic of heated debate amongst players and teachers, especially children’s chess coaches. When I say “Blitz” chess, I’m talking about games played in fifteen minutes or less. Those that love a slower, more traditional form of the game will tell you that Blitz undermines the quality or integrity of the game while those who love Blitz will tell you it makes the game more dangerous and exciting. Then there’s Bullet chess which has a one minute time control (even with the fast fingers of a seasoned guitar player, I lack the coordination to move pieces that quickly). While both sides of the argument feel their preferred version of chess is better, I think there is room for both. However, playing Blitz can be unhealthy to the young beginner’s chess career which is what we’re going to discuss here!

One of the first bad habits the young beginner has to break is playing too fast. Once, while watching a pair of beginning junior players speed through their game, making blunder after blunder, I decided to ask both players why they moved so quickly. The answer was shocking! Both young players told me that really good chess players can move quickly because they’re so smart. Therefore, when one of the two junior players made a quick move, the other felt compelled to move even faster, proving his superior chess skills. While adults would find this answer ridiculous, we have to remember that the two players in question were eight and ten years old respectively (and new to the game). So where did they get this idea? Film and television came to mind. I started watching as many chess related contemporary movies and television programs as I could find and discovered that many of them portray “brilliant” chess players as individuals who make lightning fast responses to their opponent’s moves, being so fictionally great that no time was required to contemplate a response. All it takes are a few well placed Technicolor examples and children can get the wrong idea.

As a chess teacher and coach working with children, I know all too well that children tend to do everything quickly. They have seemingly unlimited amounts of energy and have not yet developed patience. Patience is a crucial factor in chess. So how do you develop patience in children? You can’t just tell them to slow down! To slow my students down, I have them use the snapshot puzzle system, or SPS.

The snapshot puzzle system (SPS) is an effective way to get children to approach the problem of developing patience without them knowing they’re doing it in the first place. In this system, each move creates a snapshot or photograph of the position. Each snapshot is treated like a puzzle to be solved. However, to solve the puzzle, for which there are multiple solutions, the student must come up with three possible moves. Of course, a student could quickly rattle off the first three moves that come to mind which would defeat the purpose. Therefore, the three possible moves have to use specific principles in order to be considered.

In the opening, for example, the student’s three moves must adhere to at least one of the opening principles. Students keep a sheet of paper and a pencil handy to write down their three moves. To determine which of the three moves is best we assign a scoring system to each move or more specifically, what each move accomplishes. On White’s first move 1.e4, for example, a score of three points would be given: One point for controlling the center with a pawn, one point for opening the diagonal for the King-side Bishop and one point because giving the Bishop access to the board allows for earlier Castling. On White’s second move, 2.Nf3 would score three points: One point for developing a minor piece, one point for active placement and one point for being closer to Castling. To keep things simple, moves are worth either one, two or three points only. By assigning points to moves, students can compare one move to another and see why one move stands above the rest.

At the end of the game, points are tallied up. I make a note in my classroom log book so I can monitor my student’s progress. At the end of semester, the student with the highest score is rewarded. The idea of this exercise is get students to slow down and think about why they’re making a move. The notion that “great chess players are so smart they can move faster than anyone else” fades into obscurity as students start solving snapshot puzzles, knowing the player that scores the most points at the end of the semester is crowned “The Snapshot King.”

There is an added benefit in that students start to learn the art of problem solving. Scoring moves, based on their effectiveness, teaches the student how to use a simple method of comparison to solve problems that on the surface seem extremely difficult. Because my students are trying to make moves that garner the greatest number of snapshot points, they think about those moves with more care. Students slow down and barely notice that a game that once took seven minutes to play now takes thirty to sixty minutes. By slowing down and using a logical system for determining moves, the number of blunders greatly decreases. I’ve also noticed that students who previously ignored our blunder checklist (see previous articles) now have it written out on their SPS scoring sheet. All in all, play improves!

Students still have a fascination with Blitz and cannot realistically be persuaded from ever playing it. I play at least five to ten Blitz (five minute clock time) games daily. However, I know the difference between the two forms of our beloved game. So when is it appropriate to play Blitz? I give prospective Blitz playing students a little test. I set my clock timer to five minutes and the student’s clock timer to ten minutes. In order to be given permission to play one Blitz game (after they’ve played at least one long game) during each classroom session, they have to pass the time management test. The test is simple: The student has to manage their time so that they enter the middle game with five minutes left on their clock. At first, my students fail this test, often reaching the middle game with eight minutes on their clock. However, with some practice they manage their time a bit better.

While I can’t stop my students from playing Blitz at home or outside of their chess class, I can get them to slow down their play. Turning the idea of patiently considering moves into a game within itself can help to slow down would be fast handed youngsters. Of course, when I tell them I prefer correspondence chess, where a single move can take days, they look at me as if I had just lost my mind. However, the great thing about chess is that there’s a game length for all tastes. Here’s a game to enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).