Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Zeitgeist of Time

Competitive quickplay chess in Northern Ireland goes back to at least 1950, though until the late 1970s it was an occasional divertissement rather than a regular part of chess life. Those events were what today we would group under the title "Blitz".

Then three annual open quickplay tournaments - all organised by clubs rather than the Ulster Chess Union - started in three successive years: Newtownards in 1979, Bangor in 1980 and Newcastle in 1981. While the other two events had relatively short shelf-lives, the Bangor one-day Congress continued on until the early yeas of the new millennium.

I used the more generic "quickplay" to describe these one-day tournaments but these events were at a slower rate than their blitz precursors, typically played with half-an-hour on the clock for each player. Today we would call these "Rapidplays".

By the late 1980s the UCU had caught on to this trend and started to organise regular rapidplay events throughout the year. During those years they were often described as "Active" tournaments.

In the 1989-1990 UCU Yearbook, its Honorary Secretary Alex Beckett had this to say in an article entitled "The Year of the Active":
Chess is thought to be a sedentary game although one would not think so with the number of competitors walking about the tournament room. Some would allege this is partly for psychological reasons. I feel this is uncharitable as the walkers just like to get away from the board and to watch the other boards while keeping their own games under remote scrutiny in case their opponent punches the clock. 'Punching' the clock is an illuminating phrase, the opponent generally replies by counter-punching just to show he is not being intimidated. It is the poor clock which is suffering and it is rumoured that clock abuse is going to be investigated. Guess who is going to be chairman?

What has this got to do with Active Chess Tournaments? When you see Active Tournaments have been renamed Rapid Play Tournaments which is a pity for Active had a much healthier ring to it and got away from the sedentary image of chess and that's where we came in.
Nowadays, players more used to shorter time limits don't tend to do too much "walking about" in an Active/Rapid. Time is at a premium. Of course, in Blitz there is definitely no time to waste getting up from your board. However punching the clock is still with us.

By the beginning of the 21st century the number of rapidplays had begun to decline but competitive blitz, now including events played with a time handicap based on rating differential, was making a comeback. In 2011 the UCU started an annual Ulster Blitz Championship in the Christmas holiday slot previously reserved for the Ulster Rapidplay Championship and before that the Ulster Championship itself. At Christmas the pace of chess life was definitely quickening.

In the present day, Northern Ireland players have access to a range of competitive chess tournaments at varying time limits. Into this scene entered a new twist to the quickplay model - the 2017 Belfast Blitz and Bullet Championships, played on Saturday 4th March. Played over a mammoth 16 rounds with a time limit of 3 minutes plus 2 seconds increment per player, the main event was the Open Blitz Championship . However when the Blitz had completed its course and after about 30 minutes of respite, the Bullet Championship began at 4.00 pm.
The first round of the first-ever Bullet Tournament in NI getting underway
So what exactly is bullet chess? Perhaps the most famous exponent of this form of the game is American GM Hikaru Nakamura and in his book "Bullet Chess: One Minute to Mate" (Russell Enterprises, 2009) he used the term "bullet" interchangeably with "one-minute chess". However Nakamura points out that anything less than 3 minutes per player is regarded as bullet. In the Belfast Bullet Championship play was the "pure" form of the game - just 60 seconds to play all your moves.

In Chapter 1 of his book, Nakamura sets out a brief Q&A about bullet, including this exchange:
Isn't one-minute fast?
Yes, it is.
Is bullet still chess?
Of course not!
This is the fundamental truth about bullet chess that many players fail to understand. Bullet is certainly a form of chess and much of what you have learned about chess applies to bullet, but bullet should never be confused with conventional chess itself!
When non-bullet players scoff "it's not chess!" the correct response from a bullet player is "who said it was?"
Then why play bullet?
Because it's fun.
Belfast Bullet Championship trophy, medals and certificates

Some of the players in the Blitz decided not to enter the Bullet. Perhaps some had trains to catch but others may have thought that this one-minute chess would be just a bit too frantic for them. After eight rounds of bullet I think that the vast majority of the Belfast Bullet Championship players would have agreed with Nakamura. To paraphrase Mr Spock in Star Trek "It's chess, but not as we know it."

Daniil Zelenchuk, Belfast Bullet Championship
winner with organiser Brendan Jamison

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Synchronicity in Belfast

On Thursday 16th February 2017 English GM Mark Hebden, en route to the super-weekender at Bunratty in County Clare, provided the opposition for 31 Ulster players at the now well-established annual grandmaster simultaneous exhibition at Belfast Inst in College Square East.

One of Hebden's three losses was to Mikhail Pavlov and Brendan Jamison was on hand to capture the precise moment that the GM realised he was in trouble. If you enlarge the picture you can see the mixture of surprise and consternation as Hebden sees his Bishop attacked by a pawn and with nowhere safe to go.

The circumstances that the modern GM simul-giver found himself in reminded me of a game played nearly a hundred years earlier in another simultaneous exhibition. Less than a year and a half before he became World Champion, Cuban superstar José Raúl Capablanca was in Belfast, facing 39 amateur players in simultaneous play at the Clarence Place Hall, May Street.

[Event "simul x 39"] [Site "Belfast"] [Date "1919.12.10"] [Round "?"] [White "Capablanca, Jose Raul"] [Black "Allen, William John"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A53"] [PlyCount "107"] [EventDate "1919.12.10"] [EventType "simul"] [EventCountry "IRL"] [SourceTitle "Ulster Archive"] [Source "David McAlister"] [SourceDate "2008.03.19"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 d6 3. Nc3 Nbd7 4. e3 e5 5. Bd3 g6 6. f4 Bg7 7. Nge2 O-O 8. O-O Qe7 9. Qc2 (9. f5 {is the usual move, which Black now prevents by threatening to advance the e-pawn.}) 9... Re8 10. fxe5 dxe5 11. d5 {White evidently did not want to allow exd4, and overlooked for the moment the Bishop's danger.} e4 12. Nd4 exd3 13. Qxd3 Ne5 14. Qe2 Bg4 15. Nf3 Rad8 16. e4 {Giving up an other pawn for the sake of getting the Queen's Bishop into play.} Qc5+ 17. Be3 Qxc4 18. Qf2 Qa6 ({A weak move, which loses the exchange. Black was considering} 18... Nxe4 {but had not satisfied himself about its soundness when Capablanca returned to his board.It would probably have turned out well, for if then} 19. Nxe5 Rxe5 20. Qxf7+ Kh8 {with the possibility of Rf8 to follow.}) (18... Nd3 { was also available.}) 19. Nxe5 Rxe5 20. Bd4 Rde8 21. h3 Bd7 22. Bxe5 Rxe5 23. Qf4 Qd6 24. Rac1 Qe7 25. b3 c6 26. Kh1 Qe8 27. Qf2 a6 28. Qb6 Qc8 29. Qf2 Bxh3 {The sacrifice is hardly good enough. Black should have played to win one of the centre pawns instead.} 30. gxh3 Qxh3+ 31. Qh2 Qxh2+ 32. Kxh2 Rh5+ 33. Kg2 cxd5 34. exd5 Nxd5 35. Nxd5 Rxd5 36. Rc7 Rd2+ 37. Kh1 Rh2+ (37... f5 {followed by Rxa2 would have lost very quickly.}) 38. Kxh2 Be5+ 39. Kg2 Bxc7 40. Rd1 Be5 41. Rd7 b6 42. Kf3 Kg7 (42... a5 {seems best here.}) 43. Ke4 Bh2 ({And this is fatal.} 43... Bg3 {was necessary if Black was to hold his Queen side pawns.}) 44. b4 Bg3 45. Ra7 Bf2 46. Rxa6 f5+ 47. Kf3 Bd4 48. a4 g5 49. a5 bxa5 50. bxa5 h5 51. Rd6 {The Bishop is now forced to leave the diagonal, and White ultimately Queens his pawn.} Be5 52. Rd5 g4+ 53. Kg2 Kf6 54. Rxe5 {and White won.} 1-0
The game and annotations were sourced from the Belfast News-Letter chess column for 18th December 1919. W.J. Allen was the editor of the column, so it is highly likely that these are his own notes to the game.

A full report on Capablanca's visit to Belfast can be found in our 1919 page.

Sunday, 19 February 2017


At the beginning of the new millennium, I started a website called the Ulster Chess Chronicle. It was a mix of chess results, news, articles and history. More recently I hived off the news into another blog, NI Chess News.

I've now decided to reboot the history part here. Like any re-imaging, it will look and feel a bit different from the original. The main change is the Chronology section, which will be a year-by-year account of over 100 years of Ulster chess up to the end of the 20th Century,

My present intention is to incorporate all the old material here. However my research into these topics is continuing and the material will often appear in a revised form and dealt with in greater depth. Also I will take the opportunity to present brand new material on the history of Ulster chess.