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On Chess: What's The Deal With Bughouse Chess?

Garry Kasparov's first ever bughouse game played with 10-year-old Marc Andria Maurizzi versus Etienne Bacrot and Dana Reizniece-Ozola at the Paris Grand Chess Tour Pro Biz.
Lennart Ootes | St. Louis Chess Club

If you’re tired of playing chess against that same friend over and over again, why not team up with them instead?

Bughouse is a fast-paced variant of chess, following a few of the familiar rules of chess along with an extensive list of new moves and strategic possibilities. Bughouse requires two teams of two players, two chess boards and two clocks. 

The Setup

  • Board one: Player A1 (white) vs. Player B1 (black)
  • Board two: Player A2 (black) vs. Player B2 (black)

Two games start simultaneously, which includes starting the clock at the same time as well. When A1 captures any pawn or piece on his board, he then passes it to his teammate (A2), who can then decide to place it anywhere (legally) on his own board.
So, rather than captured pieces being discarded, they are actually immediately able to use on the adjacent board. This means that it is possible to have eight knights on one board, four queens on the other, or even to have three bishops all on light squares. 

It's important to note you cannot place a pawn on the first or last ranks; you cannot place any pieces when it's not your turn; and the act of placing a piece from your hand counts as your "move." After that, you need to press your clock and end your turn.

The Strategy

Where good bughouse players separate themselves from beginners is the strategy. This means communicating clearly to your partner which pieces are needed and having them do their best to deliver it as soon as possible.

Sometimes in bughouse chess, a player will be very close to checkmate, if only he had a knight. In this variant, provided you are ahead on the clock, you can simply sit there and wait for your partner to try to provide you with that knight. This technique of waiting for pieces while being ahead on the clock is known as “stalling” or “sitting.” This is why it is often just as important to play quickly as it is to try to think and find the best move.

Why Is It So Popular?

Bughouse is a very fun chess variant — and also very inclusive, as it involves four players at a time. You can usually find chess players playing bughouse between tournament games in the analysis room during tournaments, at the local chess club, or on a break.

It is a game that predominantly younger players like to play. Despite this, some of the best bughouse players in the world are actually a bit older. Within the players we consider to be the very best in classical chess, Levon Aronian from Armenia is widely considered to be the best bughouse player.

Another reason why bughouse is so popular is because it is a rare bridge between a 2800 chess player and a 1500 chess player, where they may actually stand on even footing. So if you’ve always wanted to beat the world champion Magnus Carlsen, then bughouse may very well be your best chance.

Aman Hambleton is a Canadian chess grandmaster. He won the Canadian Open Chess Championship in 2017.

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