At the Speed of Thought: How 60-Second Chess Bends the Game — And a New Way to Think About Your Own Life

May 7, 2023

"He who analyses blitz is stupid." – Rashid Nezhmetdinov


One of life’s principal tradeoffs is speed vs. accuracy. More time allows for more thoughtful decisions, less time forces compromise.

But this is just level-one analysis—and it’s easy for anyone to wrap their head around why this tradeoff exists. As time is constrained, it becomes more and more challenging to incorporate multiple dimensions into a given decision. It doesn’t matter if you’re rolling out a new product, running a play in the fourth quarter, or riding a bike. If time pressure increases beyond a certain threshold, the end result is less comprehensive, less organized, and less nuanced. Pressure creates diamonds, sure. It’s also why we write “attached” without the attachment.

When time gets critical, what I find even more interesting than this surface-level, direct relationship is how time bends the rules of the game. The quality of the game is certainly diluted to some degree, but when time exerts serious pressure, its influence creates new variables altogether.

The analogy here is especially relevant to 60-second "bullet" chess. To the chess purists out there who find bullet (60 seconds per side) or blitz (3-5-minutes per side) frustrating or silly, I get it. If you run out of time in any chess format, you simply lose, and losing on time warps into a high-probability event even when both players start with only ~60 seconds on the clock. Even if you’re a move away from checkmate, if the clock runs out, that trumps anything going on over the board. Under these conditions, the long-term, strategic thinking that makes chess what it is becomes supremely challenging to carry out. Tactical combinations play a much larger role, and traditional positional play is harder to come by. The pieces and squares remain, but to some, "it’s no longer really chess."

And that’s exactly the point. All the game’s normal variables are still very important; the stronger player is still the stronger player. But time management and straight up nerves become just as important – and with just a few seconds in a game’s final stages, more important – than if there were 30 minutes left to play. It’s physically impossible to sit and calculate multiple lines to find the “best idea”. Moves are made in milliseconds and players are reduced to pure training and board vision. How many thousands of endgames do you know by heart? How many ways can you guard against the final shot? What are your opponent’s tendencies? What tricks do they have in their arsenal? What do you do when your protocol doesn't cover the scenario in which you find yourself?

An entire new meta-game is introduced. Knowing when to operate within the old game’s dimensions and step outside them is the project of becoming great at time-dependent action. Understanding the stage of the game, how the option set is bent and how to use the new tools at your disposal is essential.

Don’t like the pace? Put off by change? Play three quarters. Try Monopoly.


Game 1:

Now for the good stuff. Here are some applications that combine high-quality chess with high-speed bullet meta-game. This first game took place around a week ago against Indian Grandmaster Rahul Srivatshav Peddi, one of the strongest bullet players in the world (~2850) in a format known as Chess960, which maintains all normal rules of chess but scrambles the back rank pieces. For those looking to develop their chess intuition beyond traditional theory and combine it with accelerated decision trees, there's nothing more challenging. Below is our game (for added advantage, GM Peddi is playing white; ratings are around 450 points deflated from normal bullet given we're in Chess960 format). Moves are in real time:

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vs. GM Peddi

There's no sugar-coating it — that one stung. After winning two pawns, outplaying a grandmaster for the entire game, tricking him and winning a rook in the endgame — he still wins on time. He ended the game with 1.9 seconds remaining when I hit zero. But how did he do it?

And shoudn't I be mad? Didn't I "deserve" to win? No. What makes grandmasters — not to mention those with extraordinarily fast operating systems and mouse speed — so insane to play in bullet formats is that even if you somehow obtain a winning position, you have to do so without exposing yourself on the clock. Your job isn't to "get to a good position", it's to win the game. Surprisingly, I had managed to keep a 3-5-second lead for 80% of the game, but he turned on the jets in the final 5 seconds and was playing moves so quickly even a seasoned bullet player like myself couldn't keep up. He simply had too many checks and a mad dash with the king couldn't alleviate the pressure.

In short, he won because he won the meta-game. Even after I obtained a completely decisive advantage (winning an entire rook on move 56), he busted out 13 more moves in 3.7 seconds. I failed to switch into an effective attacking or defensive plan, and allowed him — with half the material than I had at my disposal — to create the initiative and apply pressure. In those final seconds, he hatched a plan, and I found myself reacting to his plan. An otherwise high-quality game of chess deteriorated under the weight of time into a king-stroll over no-man's land. If you move purely on speed too early, you lose. But he switched his focus to speed at precisely the right moment, and the result was the same as if he'd checkmated me on move 3. An army half the size can win the battle if it's used in the right way. All things equal, the bigger army wins. But the best generals in the world are the most resourceful when their back's against the wall.

Game 2:

Let's take a look at another example, maybe one where I don't have to be haunted for eternity. In this game against Women's International Master Anna Schach, I was nearly toast after 16. Qe4 (threatening mate on g7). But after a few seconds I found the creative Ba4 to hold on (and at least not lose immediately), later returning to exchange her bishop and set up a subtle counter-threat.

Under high time-pressure environments, maintaining board awareness and square coverage is often more important than a pawn or two. Her once-powerful queen soon found herself overextended and trapped by a rook that was previously doing next to nothing. Without her most important piece, I was simply up too much material and exchanged my own queen for her rooks to dissolve into a hopeless endgame. She resigned with 0.4 seconds on her clock to my 15.5:

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vs. WIM Schach

Game 3:

If the above game is about board awareness and the constraining power of time on decision-making, this third example puts even greater emphasis on how time warps move choice. More specifically, in the final seconds, creating total havoc on the board becomes one of the best strategies there is.

For context, National Master Yelfry Torres is a monster in the dark when it comes to speed chess. He's not only one of the best bullet players out there, he's one of the higher-ranking ultra-bullet (30-second chess) players to boot. I'm actually glad I didn't know this before the game because that kind of speed is straight-up intimidating before a single move is even made. In our series together, I managed to win a handful of games, but this one is perhaps the best example of time bending chess into an insane array of tactics and threat-creation in the game's final moments:

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vs. NM Torres

Beautiful board geometry. Pieces flying everywhere. I managed to coil into some kind of double-knight fortress after securing a material advantage. Nine blunders (huge mistakes) per side. No time to analyze any of them. His time ran out as I took his queen with 0.89 seconds on the clock.

The meta-game here was phenomenal, and it's worth breaking down the final three-and-a-half seconds. With 3.6 seconds remaining, I play the insane Nc5 (notice his queen would have just taken that under normal circumstances) — but I played it knowing he (with <1.00 second) physically wouldn't have the time to move his queen to a square he wasn't already planning to move it to. But he had a counter-plan that was forcing (and incidentally the best move on the board). He played the incredibly sneaky Rxa3 (with check):

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Notice that I can't capture with the king since the knight is protecting the rook. The queen also controls the b1 square from a distance, meaning the semi-unnatural bxa3 was my only legal move. To my own credit, I played Nc5 solely as a distraction, somehow seeing this forcing continuation a few moves earlier.

Also recognizing he was playing purely for speed, my mind was homed in on "what are his checks" / "how do I escape." He follows up with Nc3+ (we're not going to talk about how he missed Qc2+, forcing Ka1) because I also missed my fair share of wins this game. His mind was purely on "how can I continually attack the black king and burn out his clock":

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Seeing Nc3+ I was immediately prepared to move and was waiting for what can only be called a "clock move" or "dirty move" — Qd5+.

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The evil Qd5+

Shield your eyes. That queen can be captured by either rook — but that's not what he's playing for. Several moves back, his plan switched from "find strong moves" to "find forcing, hard-to-anticipate moves". He went to check me until my time runs out.

Unlike against GM Peddi, this time around I was waiting for a move like this (and specifically this move), snapping up the queen in 0.3 seconds . If I grabbed the knight in panic, he'd have grabbed mine with Qc5+ and I'd have landed right out in the open for him to give 5 more checks and win the game. If I handn't been watching for his threats and anticipating clock-moves, I'd have lost. All he needed was to buy 0.89 seconds, and in this case, I stopped a high-speed train in its tracks.


Extrapolating and analyzing the governing dynamics of the meta-game is a critical exercise no matter your goals or profession. Shows like House of Cards portray understanding the meta-game as some politically elusive, back-alley mobjob that final-destination-bound simpletons like Zoey Barnes just aren't cut out for.

The real work begins by stepping outside yourself to look at where you're situated within the motivations of others, what levers you have at your disposal, and what degree of power (if any) you have to change your circumstances. On an organizational level, it's understanding everything from raw pricing power to your public perception. On a national level, it's a necessary component of any national security calculation or long-term strategy. It's why the Biden administration is revamping its microchip industry as we speak; and why the only way to effectively handle the Ukraine crisis is by stepping outside what we traditionally consider rational behavior and reconstruct the mind of someone like Vladimir Putin. Specifics aside, the exercise itself can prove productive on the individual, community, national, or global scale.

Within these example chess games, time is the critical variable. It is both an independently powerful variable with the potential to end the game on its own, and one that morphs the weight and relevance of every other variable as the clock ticks down. Time alone changes what moves are eligible, introduces an entirely new slate of tendencies for each oppononent, and stretches one's nerve and game-theoretic capabilities to a completely new level.

When any variable is made overwhelmingly important, it's worth measuring the relative impact of all other variables traditionally in a given equation. Steel is strong, but overwhelming heat can change that. Overwhelming heat is powerful, but restricting oxygen puts out fires. Gradual changes in global temperature masquerading as "small" changes cascade into melting ice caps and pressurized superstorms.

Beyond just any singular variable like time, knowing the shifting balance of the equations that matter in your life and how that balance can be shifted are the raw materials of practical, effective game theory. If raised to the extreme, what can make your life incredible? miserable? have no effect at all? If you change something by 0.2% each day, which variables can systematically change your life equation for the better? How do your equations nest within the equations of others? How can you bend your life to benefit not only yourself, but all those around you? Why not take a few minutes to think it over?