Psychology of lightning chess
My article was inspired by excellent paper written by Russianbear (this is his FICS handle) which you may find at http://gilly.homeip.net/~rb/
. He covered all major tactical plots there and gave useful advices on time pressure hints. Unlike him I would like to focus on psychological factors of lightning game. This is not only because I'm going about psychology in my scientific research, but mainly because I believe improving your psychics and self-confidence plays key role on your way to the lightning mastery.
I used to be rated ca. 1800 at FICS (Please note! The article was written in 2003. I have given up FICS forever meanwhile; at playchess.com my rating swings down from 2000 up to 2400; it is some 2200 on average. ) player and I made quick progress right after I started to follow set of simple psychological principles quickly. I broke magic 2000 barrier and reached PB of 2040. My average rating varies now from 1930 up to 1960. So I believe that thorough examination of my issues may bring you immediate benefit as big as 100-200 points depending on your actual skill as well as your mental attitude. If you adopt my rules I guarantee you will be able to find some extra power in your mind and some extra speed in your hands. The rest depends on yourself. Let's formulate then the basic and only rule dominating anytime, anywhere:
YOU ARE AS GOOD AS YOU THINK YOU ARE
Not to be groundless I have put a couple of examples in my journal. I will refer to them from time to time so it is recommended that you follow them when necessary. Now let's start out analyses covering major 1 0 psychological issues.
Lightning (or bullet) game is a 1 0 game in its classical form (what means that every player has 1 minute of time on the clock and no increment is used). Time controls like 0 1, 1 1 or even 0 4 are also considered to be lightning games but this sounds like profanation for true lightning-addict to play something different than 1 0. Longer time controls like 2 0 or increment games do fall under different rules than those described below suitable only for 1 0.
WHO MAY PLAY SUCCESSFULLY?
Who is prepared to play lightning chess with most successes? This is very hard question. Poorly skilled players can rarely be decent lightning players. This is because you have no time to think. One has less than a second per move on average. While this one and only second passes, you have to see what your partner's move was, take a glance at the position, scan the board looking for basic tactical and strategical motives and finally find best move. Do not forget about the time necessary to move your mouse and make the move. Without strict concentration and some experience you will simply forfeit on time quickly.
Another important factor is your age. Teenagers are very quick and brave players, but they are lacking experience. Once you reach the age of 20 your speed shall decrease considerably. However, like in all other sports, training makes masters. Practice a lot and your speed will recover.
OPTIMAL CONDITIONS OF PLAY
First of all use your favourite interface that you are familiar with. Personally I use Jin which is fairly good for 1 0 games, but most popular interfaces are WinBoard, CClient and Thief. Surprisingly there is no clear correlation between your 1 0 performance and your fatigue. Sometimes after very tiring day one does quite well and sometimes well-rested player cannot find good shape. But there is one very clear rule: never play when you are hungry. And never try to play after drinking alcohol. You may have impression that you are relaxed but this is mere illusion. In fact every dose of alcohol slows down your play noticeably. Never play under any pressure. As soon as your dog wants to go for a walk, a child starts crying or your wife wants you to wash the dishes stop the game immediately. Every tiny violation of your concentration will ruin your chances. In order to play as good as you can you need to be relaxed.
Perhaps this is most important part of the text. I think that proper mental preparation is key to progress. You not only need to be relaxed and concentrated, but also find yourself in a very specific mental mood:
- Be prepared how many games you will play against your current partner. Some ICS users call "winquitters" those who decline rematch offer after they have just won the single game. I think this is fake accusation. Personally I prefer to look for new partner after each game but I always agree for a single revenge game if I am offered one. On the other hand someone must stop series of games with the same player one day. There must be someone who lost the very last game and someone who has won the last one. So at least one player must be sort of "winquitter". My proposal for you is simple: try to negotiate how many games you would like to play BEFORE you start the match. This will sound amply polite for most of people and you will not be bombed by unwanted rematch offers. [Please note! Winquitting is not possible on playchess.com ]
- Be courageous, not to say bravado. Remember that it is only 1 0 game. Winning a piece, a decisive advantage in standard game, means nothing in lightning game. So you should hardly ever resign. The only case when giving up makes sense is hopeless position with plenty of time (+20s) on your partner's clock. Sometimes it is better to get rid of hopeless game rather than suffer fruitless struggle. But this is very rare case. Judging on many games that I have played and seen in my life I may estimate that 1 up to 2% of all games end up in stalemate. For a classical example see game 3 from my journal. So there is always a chance at least for a draw. Never resign in your mind. Always be in brave mood. Your partner will feel if you put up resistance or not. Once he notices you are far from giving up his hands may start to shake and his time may be flying away quickly. See game 2 of my journal to see the practical example of how one may recover bravely from a dead-lost position even without serious time pressure on partner's clock.
- Attack. Play dubious variants and rare gambits (not recommended when you play much stronger opponent). Most players have very superficial knowledge of the opening lines. Learn some opening traps by heart. No one will be able to find proper defence in 1 0 game unless he knows the theoretical line as well. My favourite (I wonder if I should put all of my cards on the table after all? ;)) opening is 1. e4 e5 2. Sf3 d5!? which is very, very risky line in standard game, but almost surely leads to open and equal position in any 1 0 game. Besides it has been proven that defence takes away more thinking time than attack what brings crucial advantage in 1 0. It does happen very often that your attack finally fizzles out and your partner preserved huge material advantage but defence has cost him too much time and shattered his plans. Game 5 is excellent example how wrong but aggressive sacrifice may turn out into demolishing win over strong player.
- Be self-confident. Without self-confidence you will be defeated very quickly. Do not exaggerate, but do know your value. Your partner is only a human being (or isn't he?) and may blunder or lose on time in any minute.
- Control both the chessboard and the clock. Most common mistake of 1 0 beginners is that they forget to control both of these. So right after they lost on time they focus on the clock itself forgetting about the game completely. Try to take quick glance at the clock after every move.
- Find your optimal pace, feel your rhythm. Do not be too quick and do not be too slow. You should make each move in moderate pace rather than fall into deep meditations once every 5th move. Decent 1 0 players should not exceed an average of 0.7 up to 0.9 s. taken by a single move.
- Know what is your goal today. Specify if it is reaching certain rating level or winning the tournament or the match or just training. But be aware where do you come to.
TYPICAL MENTAL HANDICAPS
Here are some common mistakes that 1 0 player is prone to make. This is because we all fall under same weaknesses as we are all just humans. So read them, be aware that they exist and try to get rid of them gradually. They will happen to you always but your point is to reduce them as much as possible.
- Improper pacing. Sometimes you are in thinking mood. Very well, but there is no time to think in 1 0. Never mind how good you feel falling into really deep thought it is simple and quick way to disaster. On the other hand sometimes you may feel that thinking hurts. Wrong! Being too superficial is not recommended even in 1 0 games. Try to find something halfway both above.
- Lack of confidence. Your only goal is not to lose too quickly. Wrong! Your partner will immediately learn you are frightened and will get reasonable psychological advantage. Lightning chess resembles struggle for leadership in a flock a bit. When younger males feel that the older leader grows weaker they immediately start to undermine his position looking for his exposed position of the major male of the flock. So let your partner be frightened because of you.
- Hazardous attitude. Hazardous casino player may easily waste hist last money in one moment. Hazardous ICS player wants immediate rematch after every lost game and seeks for another win right after he has won the last game. The night has passed, the dawn comes with first sunbeams reflecting from the monitor but the addict plays one game by another.... One more! And again! This is common and dangerous phenomenon. It not only almost certainly lower your rating reasonably but also has fatal consequences for your nerves. What you may do best in such situation is to close your computer and go for a walk. Remember that ICS produce many true addicts.
- Anxiety. When you do badly (everyone does from time to time - believe me) you get anxious with yourself and start to play without enough concentration. Don't waste your rating points and - even more important - your morale. Turn ICS connection down immediately and go to play with your dog or whatever. Just relax. No one has ever recovered playing with demoralising anxiety. Lightning games need to be played with self-confidence and concentration.
- Incomprehension of what your body says. Some days are exceptionally unfriendly for playing 1 0. I don't know why but it is true observation. Don't try to prove yourself that your body is wrong. Simply don't play 1 0, you will only lose rating points and get angry with yourself. This is not blame. This happens to everyone. Think of 2400 players who fall down to 2250 on a bad day. Different numbers but same mistake!
- Lack of concentration. Very common but easy to avoid. Simply don't play if you got tired or you feel you cannot concentrate as necessary. Without concentration you will immediately fall into time trouble and lose inevitably. Idle mood is no good for 1 0 games.
- Reactivity. Every human tends to react to what is happening to him finding simplest defence against it. But you can't let your instincts to trash you around from one edge to another. If you lost on time in one game you can't concentrate exclusively on the clock in the revenge as you will lose on the board. When you play badly with lots of blunders you can't analyse thoroughly each move that you play as you will run out of time immediately. Be neutral.
MAKING ADVANTAGE OF YOUR PARTNER'S HANDICAPS
Major mental weaknesses were already discussed above. So simply be aware of them and try to avoid them and make advantage of them. Here are some of my hints:
- Watch your partner's pacing. If you notice he is too slow than avoid trades and try to block your position. When you get reasonable time advantage open up the position if possible and he will have serious trouble because of his clock. If you are aware that he is blundering too often use your tactics and demoralise him. Let him feel he can't avoid lethal threat from your side. Even if this is fake menace I will work, believe me.
- Humiliate him. Show him how reactive he is and how transparent his psychics is for you. If he premoves a lot then wait patiently and lay a sly trap (for lot's of examples on those see Russianbear's tutorial) when the right time comes. When he stops premoving soon thereafter let him find himself in time trouble. Always be prepared to X-ray his morale and try to anticipate his thoughts. Try to feel what he feels.
- Play even more risky when you feel he is afraid of you. He won't dare to prove you played vague line. He will most likely try to retreat to avoid immediate loss. Pester him. Let him fall into panic.
- In case you are winning and he wants revenge play him then as long as he likes. Let him deliver you his rating points and let him fall into inferiority complex. Have no mercy.
- When you feel he is nervous about his play try to choose complicated lines. Perhaps he hasn't got enough mental energy to cope with those difficulties.
- When his play is too superficial and he does many blunders then start playing in patzer-like mode. Just look after major tactical and strategical motives. Nothing subtle. You will be fast and sooner or later he will blunder something.
- Play positions that he doesn't want to be played. If he prefers to play open positions try to block his pieces. Open the position every time you play against any Mr. Blockadator, on the other hand. Play variants he doesn't like. Play wild, rare opening lines if you notice that his theoretical background is poor. Do not let him to play his favourite lines.
- Take a look at his rating. Players close to their all-time peaks tend to be very passive and frightened (partly because they feel responsibility for their score and partly because they play their best and are likely to worsen soon).
PLAYING UNDER TIME PRESSURE
Virtually every 1 0 game ends up in immense time pressure on both sides. You must be aware you will have to cope with for huge zeitnot (time pressure) many times. If your clock seems to be ticking faster than your partner's one start desperate attack then. Do premove as often as you can, check often, do unexpected moves. In general: do not care for defence too much because it takes time and doesn't create any threat for your rival so that you can't ruin his morale. Furious attack gives you certain counterchances and he may easily start to panic. Let me repeat it another time: be altruistic, share your fear with your opponent.
When you have more time that your partner does than you need to be very calm. Yes, checks and attack are always effective but solid defence is of major importance in this case. Your partner will be desperately looking for any counterchances and you mustn't give him any hope. Before making your move check basic tactical motives (mate threats, piece defence, free pawns). Sacrifice your pieces if you can, preferably giving a check. Taking a piece ALWAYS means little deconcentration and costs time. Of course usually this causes very small delay but still long enough to take the sacrifice motive into consideration.
Most important question of endgame play is to decide when you should drop board-oriented mode in favour of clock-oriented mode. This should happen immediately after you have learned that you must go on to a win on time. But your partner may learn the same quicker than you and this will bring him considerable advantage. Remember though that if you enter clock-oriented mode too early you may lose the game very quickly. In clock-oriented mode nothing matters but the clock. You move as soon as you can never mind your pieces and your position. When you definitely enter clock-oriented mode then you should try to premove all the time and your main problem should be anticipating your partner's future checks in order to avoid them before they are played. Nothing throws a player off the balance as much as failed check try. Always trust in your speed. Any player that feels his partner dominates the board is a natural-born loser and in a few seconds this will surely be proven on the board.
Finally, do not forget to get familiar with many of useful endgame tricks like checks, premove-killers and near checks (very effective but hard to find in no time) described widely in Russianbear's text.
SAVING LOST POSITIONS
No position is lost as long as you believe it is not lost. Never forget that your partner may finally give you a stalemate. Always (have you seen my journal game 3
?)! And the rule is, the bigger the rating difference is, the bigger chance for stalemate appears. This is because of common psychological phenomenon. When your partner is 400 or 500 points weaker than you and he is down on material with no time problems on your side you inevitably lose at least part of your concentration. And concentration is key to ANY success in lightning games. I estimate that my winning ratio from positions which are deadly lost from the point of view of standard chess (like -5.00 or something) is no less than 30%. Think of it, I'm no kidding. So:
- Play for stalemate. See above.
- Take over psychological domination. He must defend his advantage and you may freely attack him furiously as long as you like. He is the one who has to look after all of his valuable pieces. Give him many occasions to worry about them.
- Remember that when the time will go down under 10 seconds your mental advantage increases. This is because he starts to panic. He was in clear lead and suddenly he is close to disaster. Be malicious, repeat moves, prolong the game as much as you can.
- Always look for any counterchances. Sacrifice even more pieces simply in order to complicate the position. This is his problem what to play. You have nothing to lose!
- Avoid trades. Trades simplify the position favouring stronger side.
- Set primitive mate traps. They are often lethal because many people tend not to look at their opponent's moves.
- Play fast. The longer you think the bigger the chance that he will play his move fast. Don't let him think when your clock is running. Don't be afraid of a blunder, it will not change the score.
- Do not get rid of your knights. Knights are very unpredictable pieces and confuse your partner.
- Control the clock patiently. Remember than if you enter clock-oriented mode material doesn't matter any more. Make use of the following hint: every player who has had decisive material advantage for a long time tends to enter clock-oriented mode too late because he still thinks he should win on the board. But if he overlooks the right moment to forget about the board than it is your chance to avoid mate and win on time.
FINISHING WON POSITIONS
If you read last paragraph then you will know what you should be afraid of. No position is won as long as your partner believes it is not lost for him :(. But you may easily win following couple of simple rules:
- Do not lose your concentration. This is major danger. The right moment to deconcentrate is immediately after your partner resigns, gets mated or forfeits on time but not a single second earlier.
- Think of defence. Watch out for possible mate threats or other dangerous manoeuvres. Let your partner know he has no counterchances.
- Trade as much pieces as you can, especially queens and knights.
- Play open positions that give stronger side bigger advantage than blocked and closed structures.
- Never let your partner know you are afraid of him. Keep your usual pacing. Do not start to think longer and longer.
- Do not forget the clock. Looking at won position is nice, but time matters.
PLAYING VS STRONGER OPPOSITION
Many people are afraid of matching stronger players and avoid playing them. This is very bad habit. First of all you simply lose a chance to practice and get familiar with stronger players than you. Besides you may profit if you manage to do sufficiently well and earn some rating points. Remember than you only need to win 1 out of 12 games against a player 400 points stronger than you so there is no need to panic. Game 4
is classical example of successful tactics against stronger player.
- Usually stronger player is faster than you. Do not care. Play many games with him if you can. Try to find optimal pacing. Never try to force yourself to be as fast as he is. This will always end up in series of blunders and useless loss. Be very disciplined and keep your pacing as strict as you can. You cannot afford losing time. Don't be reactive. You can be sure that rash premoving in the opening section will inevitably cost you at least a piece.
- Another basic reason that makes your partner better than you are pure chess skills. But they do not matter so much in 1 0 games. Just try to play in simple, solid way. Avoid risky lines because he is likely to prove you they are wrong. Play your favourite and thoroughly tested openings. Trade pieces. Be fairly defensive but without exaggerating. Be confident. Remember his time is very limited as well and he will blunder from time to time. So do not believe in what he is playing too much.
- Try to forget about his rating. Do not even look at it. Try to imagine you are equal partner for him. Go on for a win but be careful. Try to catch every chance. I guarantee you that every 1 0 game brings plenty of chances and you only need to make use of them.
- Be concentrated, but also relaxed. It often happens that weaker players want to show how fast and aggressive players they are and this usually looks like a comedy and drama in one. Do not try to prove you can match with much stronger player than you, because you can't. But you can play relaxed and concentrated and sooner or later you will win.
- Never be afraid of "advantage2win" stage of the game. Let HIM bother how to recover. Keep your pacing and domination all over the board. Once he feels you are afraid of him despite of a lead in material he will crush you quickly. The only way to turn out advantage into a win is to be even more self-confident are more pushy than usual.
- If your partner's advantage in rating is moderate (less than 100 points) than try to treat him as true partner rather then a mentor. This is hard but it works if you manage to put yourself in truly truculent mood.
- Try to find psychological advantage. Some players will be very uncomfortable partners for you and some will not. I hold 8-4 record against certain player who is usually rated about 100 points higher than I am and on the contrary I hold poor 7-7 record against a player who is some 200 points below my average.
PLAYING VS WEAKER OPPOSITION
Weaker players should not be disregarded. They also can play chess. Also note that your lightning form is very much prone to vary day by day. A 2000 player may easily play like a 1800 or less on a bad day. Again, concentration is key to success.
- Never lose concentration. It is hard to keep all day long, but concentration is a must in the 1 0 world.
- Play risky and aggressively. Your partner will be frightened unless he knows the lines that are played what is highly unlikely.
- Make use of your advantages. If first of all you are faster than your partner is then try to carry out long manoeuvres, avoid trades and look after complications. This will consume his precious time and he will be likely not to cope with all the challenges. If you are better chess player but play slower then head toward fast, mating attack or force quick endgames.
- Fasten your play when you are losing. His subconsciousness will have a lethal dilemma then: to go on for a win at a cost of decent risk or rather play safe. He will lose part of his firmness and will play slower.
- Be dangerous. Do not let your partner know what you are afraid of. Let your rating shout to him: FEAR! As you must have ever learned, fear is the power. And fear paralyses.
- Ask for rematch immediately after you have lost a game. Let him know you consider your lose to be pure coincidence and you are sure for the result of the next game.
- Hesitate after receiving rematch offer if you are winning game by game. Let him know you wonder if such a patzer like him deserves playing with you.
Don't believe those who say they play for fun not for ratings. Everyone cares about rating more or less. Personally I subscribe to the following rule: I play for fun that comes from good games and high rating! But please remember three facts. First, never forget prof. Elo's quote that your rating measures your past performance rather than playing strength. In other words, rating doesn't measure your strength but your scores. Second, your skills change insignificantly but your current form may jump sharply up and down. Third, your rating is a derivative of your skills not vice versa. So key to hoisting your rating is training and making true progress. The progress cannot come from pure rating boost itself but really MAY come into reality if you follow above instructions. And please note that higher rating brings you extra benefit due to some psychological advantage over other players. However it is not rating but human being that plays and wins so let your rating fall down and grow up when it feels like it. Every growth will finally be lost and every slump will be wiped away some day.
- Eeking. It is a term used to describe playing series of games against much weaker opposition in order to squeeze out some extra rating points. Eek whenever you like, this is fair. If eeking would be cheat, then everyone would be rated +3000 and AFAIK rating average remains stable. So what's the point? A single game win may provide some 2 or 3 extra rating points while a loss may costs a few dozens. So, in order to eek effectively you must win series of games without slipping up. This is rarely possible.
- Premoving. Surprisingly many players believe that premoveing is a cheat. I totally disagree. First of all premove is a serious risk as you can't see your oppponent's move, and he may choose other option from that anticipated by yourself. Second, anyone is free to premove. Finally, in many endgames premoving is a must (see game 1 from the journal where black did not use premove and lost despite of huge lead in material).
- Rematch. Some players believe their holy right to rematch and some don't. I'm always ready for one rematch game; more only when I feel like it.
- Takebacks. No takebacks in 1 0. Mouse slips are important part of the game.
- Cheating. 1 0 is too fast to cheat so there seems to be no problem. Computer account pretending to be human would be too easy to expose so it would be useless cheat as well.
- Lag. No lagger should play 1 0. There is no place for laggers in 1 0 world. If you play 1 0 and lag, then kindly ask for abort or preferrably resign. If your partner lags then claim a win or ask to abort the game.
DECALOGUE OF SUCCESSFUL LIGHTNING PLAYER
1. Keep concentration. Concentration is key to success.
2. Keep proper pacing. Do not rush, do not sleep.
3. Be self-confident. If you can't believe in yourself then who can?
4. Know your partner. Make use of his handicaps.
5. Be pushy. Let him know you have advantage over him. Let him fear.
6. Fight. You will see how often you will recover from dead-lost positions.
7. Attack. Let your partner run out of time thinking of defence.
8. Watch the clock. Choose optimal moment to enter clock-oriented mode.
9. Be relaxed. Stress worsens your play. This is just faint fun.
10. Always be fair. It is only a game after all.
That's it, I think. Good luck then and let the chess pieces follow obediently your orders! Feel free to send me comments to the paper and suggestion of its possible improvements.
Wojtek Bartelski, Warsaw, September 2003