Top Hundred Player

or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

5-min read

Atomic is a chess variant where standard rules apply, but a piece capture results in the death of its closest surrounding pieces. Imagine the most fire collab between Minesweeper and Chess — and the result is this ugly child. The name was derived from the ‘explosive’ ability of the captor, and in hindsight, probably doesn’t leave the best taste in one’s mouth.

Only close friends could understand the destructive appeal for someone of my stature.

This variant is much more popular online compared to playing OTB because it is difficult to predict which pieces are to be removed once captured. Many times I’ve been in winning positions where I forgot my king was in check and ended up moving another piece — instantly losing on the spot after performing an illegal move. Touch-move is another pet peeve since I’m fidgety by nature. Competing online removes these hurdles, but mouse slips abound.

Other variants might shine brighter and have a gradual learning curve. 960 (or Fischer Random Chess) was recently played at the highest level between Super GMs Carlsen and Nakamura in an online tournament. Or Crazyhouse, a common drinking game at New York University, where you can revive your opponent’s captured pieces for one’s own. Both have their charm, but I always end up going back to basics.

Checks, Captures, Threats

The basis of any game can be distilled into a series of checks, captures, or threats. In a tactical position, your principal goal should be to make forcing moves to rustle the king's castle. Exposing him should be of paramount importance. Now, it might not be possible to put the king under check in the starting moves or outright capture a piece in the middle game, but these step-by-step instructions direct a player to prioritize and triage when they’re in an unfamiliar position. And trust me, there are many unfamiliar positions in chess. A friend jokes that the game has been solved (with the advent of supercomputers and chess engines), but the truth is we haven’t fully explored all possible moves, and probably never will.

The number easily exceeds the amount of atoms in the known universe.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Reaching the top of any website is pretty difficult, and I realized I needed a niche to define myself. Practicing endgames and theory for an alternative form of chess is challenging because of the dearth of learning material posted online. But the flip side is you’re not competing with a lot of people.

There are only five titled players ranked higher than me on the leaderboard, varying in skill and ability. Grandmasters really don’t care about Atomic, which is hurtfully telling.

As the highest-rated players usually do, defining a tablebase of best moves is crucial in ceding control of one’s actions to muscle memory and pure instinct.

Chess, the prototypical game of thinking and reflection, turns out to be largely a game of memory among those who are very skilled. Some researchers estimate that the best chess players have between 10,000 and 300,000 chess-piece chunks in memory (Gobet and Simon, 2000).¹

I suspect that few among us would be willing to say that chess is just a memory game, which challenges our devotion to the game. Which is why these variants stand out. A series of checks, captures, and threats don’t fit into the narrative of Atomic, which is why you need to either:

  1. Watch the professionals and rote-learn from them (through videos or games),

  2. or Explore the board and permutations and combinations by yourself.

With access to an engine to keep you ‘in check’, you can greatly increase your chances of success. After following my advice, and a string of easy wins later, crossing the 2000 ELO mark for me was as mentally challenging as hitting the runner’s wall. How could I combat this? I switched to Zen Mode on Lichess, which removes all distractions and simplifies the interface. Gone are the ratings, the player titles, and chatbox. One doesn’t realize that chess is as much as a mind game as it as a mind game. Intimidation is a veritable tool in your rival’s arsenal and when wielded can alter the entire position for their benefit.

The board and time are all you need to see, and in effect, all you need to win.

To prove this hypothesis, I played a game against a rated player in relatively slower time control and ended up pinning the queen on the 15th move. With a +9.1 score post-analysis, one can only imagine the next crushing moves that would be administered.

Sorry to call you out like this Bhavesh-S_2007.

I say relatively slower time control because I prefer faster time controls. And by faster, I mean mostly bullet. My play-style is aggressive, which works since a constant attacking pace can result in a quick win. I can also safely say I am outrageously quick online, with premoves composing the bulk of my preparation.

When you’re better than 96.9% of Bullet players, you know something is wrong. Bullet is where you have an absolute maximum of two minutes per side (with a minimum of one), and if you run out of time, you’re lost.

Premoves are a way of predicting your adversary’s move before they play them. You can bust out a ton of moves if you have a general idea of what your foe might play, whether this is during the beginning — when you’re going through your usual opening theory — or in the final moments, when there is a forced mate over the board. Now, this all sounds well and good but can backfire hard. For example, if you’re playing as black and your regular repertoire is the Queens Pawn Game, you can end up losing an entire queen with the following set of moves:

1. d4 d5 2. Bg5 e5(??) 3. Bxd8

The funny thing is we’ve figured how to resolve this by going full circle.

Prophylaxis // προφυλαξις

When your enemy knows you’re running low on time, the next best way for them to win is to either time you out by complicating the position, forcing you to think. And running your clock down. From Wikipedia, prophylaxis is defined as:

a move that stops the opponent from taking action in a certain area for fear of some type of reprisal. Prophylactic moves are aimed at not just improving one's position, but preventing the opponent from improving their own.

By using this tactic, one can stop a desperate premove in its tracks. Picture this: you’re blitzing out your last few moves and there are mere seconds on the clock. There is a forced mate — only a handful of moves stand in the way of you and victory. The board:

If you don’t play the correct sequence — which is to guide the king along with the past pawn — and end up premoving your pawn to the end of the board, the black king can very easily enter and pick up the potential queen resulting in a drawn game.

It’s similar to zugzwang, but the opposite: a laughable situation in which street smarts and a situational awareness outweighs base knowledge.

CS Stuff, mais bien sûr!

I also wanted to see how many titled players I’d defeated over the years, but unfortunately, Lichess didn’t have this feature yet. Why not add it in? The site was open-source anyway. Unacquainted with Scala, I perused the codebase to see how they were passing data through to familiarize myself and send a pull request.

tl;dr: 40 titled players, two women grandmasters, and a handful of national masters.

¹ An exploration

  1. The quote was directly taken from Fernand Gobet and Herbert A. Simon’s ‘Five Seconds or Sixty? Presentation Time in Expert Memory.’

  2. Bruce D. Burns from Michigan State University explores the ‘The Effects of Speed on Skilled Chess Performance.’

  3. For his Ph.D. thesis, Andrew Cook has an in-depth look at ‘Computational Chunking in Chess.’

I hope these resources provide more direction.