Not Sports

How giant bullet chess accidentally made chess sporty

Checkmate.

Chess.com

Danny Rensch gets sweaty when he plays chess. He gets especially sweaty when he plays a version of the game that has chess’s best and brightest dashing around a giant board, doing push-ups on battleground squares, and leaping over a rogue pawn.

Rensch is a CrossFit enthusiast and international master, one level below grandmaster. (The grandmaster title is held by the likes of Magnus Carlsen, Bobby Fischer, or Garry Kasparov.) He is also the inventor of giant bullet chess, a version of the game where the pieces are as large as fire hydrants and the time constraints are so tight, players have to run.

“At the end of the hour of doing it, you’re sweaty and exhausted,” Rensch tells Inverse. “There are a lot of emotionally very intense games.”

Giant bullet chess is not played by many amateurs — at least, not yet. It’s been around since 2013, the year when Rensch challenged Erik Allebest, the CEO of influential online platform Chess.com, to a rapid-fire game on the beach during a company retreat in the Dominican Republic. Every time a giant piece was captured, the player who took the loss had to do push-ups for the value of the piece (a captured queen would require nine push-ups and a pawn just one).

“It is a game of champions.”

Rensch won the game and enjoyed the idea enough to challenge friends as he traveled covering major chess tournaments. The push-up component is now gone, but each player has only one minute of the total time to complete all the moves in the game. Once one player moves, the other player’s clock starts, forcing players to run across the board in an effort not to waste valuable seconds.

That adaptation has led to a series of challenges against the chess world’s most prolific players. Rensch has both won (and lost) to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who became a grandmaster at just 14. During one especially tough bullet chess round, Vachier-Lagrave, now 30, complained: “I barely can keep up with Danny.” Despite his exhaustion, Vachier-Lagrave won that particular game.

Giant bullet chess is designed to be a spectacle. Rensch is also the chief chess officer of Chess.com and is constantly looking for ways to reinvent the game. However, giant bullet chess isn’t that much of a reinvention at all, he says. It simply highlights elements of the game that are already there. The elements of mental and physical battle, so subtle when grandmasters sit across a table from one another, are more apparent with big pieces and limited time.

“It is a game of champions for sure,” Rensch says. “It’s fun, unpredictable, and balanced in a way that not a lot of mental and physical games are.”

“It’s fun, unpredictable, and balanced.”Chess.com LLC

What makes giant bullet chess a sport — The concept of bullet chess isn’t specific to Rensch’s giant variety. Bullet chess simply means each player has three minutes or less to complete all the moves they’ll make in the game.

The clock stops each time a player completes a move, but it doesn’t allow for much deliberation time. In giant bullet chess, players have even less time.

The “giant” element of bullet chess is what transforms traditional bullet chess into a sport. The pieces are about knee-high, which means that as they begin to take up space on the board, players have to leap over them to reach the time clock. If a player knocks over a piece on accident, they must stop to pick it up.

Divided up, it’s a game that’s about 70 percent mental fortitude and 30 percent physical ability, Rensch says.

“Especially when you have people who are more athletic than you might think as top chess players, as long as they can physically make the move, the Xs and Os are still deciding the result for the most part,” he explains.

The unique strategy of giant bullet chess, then, is to make it as physically hard for your opponent to make that move as possible. That means setting traps that will draw them away from the clock and increasing the time it takes to run back. Rensch has won games using “cheap threats” on the opposite side of the board that serve no purpose other than to make a competitor run.

Any international or grandmaster could usually escape from these threats easily, but because his opponents were so far away from the clock, they paid the cost in energy and time. Losing those seconds, says Rensch, “is devastating.”

It’s strategies like this that make giant bullet chess into a sport rather than a game. Sport strategies from cycling to basketball often rely on forcing an opponent to do something they physically don’t want to do.

A basketball player on defense might force an opponent to dribble with a weaker hand. A team of cyclists will send rider and rider off the front of a peloton to tire out other teams while their star sprinter lies in wait in the back of the group, waiting to outsprint an exhausted field.

Giant bullet chess players will make the grandmasters run, hoping to lure them into a fatigue-induced fatal mistake. Meanwhile, they try to limit the amount of running they have to do themselves.

“That's part of the fun,” says Rensch. “The fact that you would adjust your strategy based on your physical ability to make the move or not.”

“At the end of the hour of doing it, you’re sweaty and exhausted.”Chess.com LLC

The Michael Jordan of giant bullet chess — There’s no way around it: Rensch is the Michael Jordan of giant bullet chess. He’s the sport’s inventor and its most frequent player, though he has lost to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave enough to offer him a world champion title.

A possible rematch is anticipated this summer at the Sinquefield Cup, the final leg of the Grand Chess Tour, in St. Louis, Missouri.

For now, Rensch maintains the Micahel Jordan title. He’s won five of his seven matches, which equates to 12 wins and eight game losses.

“We'll say that Maxime is the world champion, though, and I'm looking for revenge,” he says.

At this point, Rensch still believes the top giant bullet chess players will likely be grandmasters or international masters. But there are some pro-athletes who may one day stand a chance. He points out Dallas Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper, running back Le’Veon Bell, and former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko. While these athletes haven’t played giant bullet chess yet, they might want to consider taking a spin.

All these players have demonstrated chess prowess. Though they might not be international or grandmasters, perhaps they might be able to physically push Rensch to the edge.

“We don’t know what might be coming.”Chess.com LLC

The spirit of giant bullet chess — While 2020 was a bad year for most organized sports, it also proved to be a pop culture banner year for a game that has been around since the sixth century. The Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit was viewed in 62 million households and occupied the number one spot on the platform in 63 countries. The search term “how to play chess” reached a nine-year high on Google as the show went viral.

“We used to joke on set that we were bringing sexy back to chess,” Queen’s Gambit star Anya Taylor-Joy said in a Vanity Fair cover story. “We didn’t really think that’s what people would actually think.”

Meanwhile, users on the Chess.com platform ballooned from 1 million in March 2020 to 4 million in June 2020, a move that Chess.com attributed to the pandemic, streaming on Twitch, and The Queen’s Gambit, Laura Nystrom, a PR representative at Chess.com, tells Inverse. Half the site’s current members joined in the last year, she adds.

The Queen’s Gambit accidentally made chess sexy again, and giant bullet chess could make it sporty.

Rensch is “addicted to CrossFit.” And many of the best chess players in the world treat themselves like professional athletes because they have to.

Chess at the highest levels is extremely grueling. In 1984, a challenge for the world title between then 16-year-old Garry Kasparov and reigning world champion Anatoly Karpov was called off after 48 matches over five months, at which point Karpov had reportedly lost 22 pounds.

In a now-famous ESPN interview with Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky, the professor noted a high-level chess player can burn as many as 6,000 calories per day in competition and have elevated blood pressure levels “in the range found in competitive marathon runners.”

To protect against massive weight loss during tournaments, elite chess players run, lift weights, and carbo-load like runners. Magnus Carlsen, a Norwegian chess grandmaster, even has a personal chef.

“We crave unpredictability.”

In this sense, giant bullet chess simply indulges tendencies already apparent in many chess players’ lives. They spend time on their physical and mental fitness. This is always true — but perhaps more obvious in a game where mistakes are more easily spotted.

But giant bullet chess’s secret sauce, says Rensch, isn’t the physicality. That was always there, bubbling under the surface. What this game provides is chaos.

As players fatigue, the chances of making a blunder (an especially bad move) increase. Eventually, as the tension ratchets up, some players become a lot less delicate with their movements. In one especially grueling giant bullet chess match between Rensch and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in 2016, both players started throwing captured pieces off the board rather than placing them carefully on the sidelines.

This game, which left Rensch gasping for breath at the end, was especially chaotic. Vachier-Lagrave had the fitness to make the best moves on the board, but early mistakes and physical obstacles nearly tipped the game in Rensch’s favor. They tripped over pieces, kicked them away by accident, and intentionally tortured one another by placing far-away pieces under threat.

“Little luck truly exists at the highest levels of chess to the point at which I think we crave unpredictability. It adds drama and keeps us on the edge of our seats. We don’t know what might be coming,” Rensch says.

What makes a sport exciting isn’t merely physical display; you need drama and breathtaking variety. Those elements are harder to spot during the microcosm of a chess game. Giant bullet chess leaves everything on the table without actually involving a table. Checkmate.

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