Interview with A Bug Wizard: Kazim Gulamali Print E-mail
By Jennifer Shahade   
June 1, 2012
Although there is no over-the-board bughouse ratings, whenever you ask a bug afficionado about the top players, Kazim Gulamali's name comes up immediately. He even co-hosted a YouTube series on the variant. The Senior Master from Georgia talks to CLO about bug strategy, how it can help your "real game" and other variants.

Kazim Gulamali, Photo Fun Fong
Jennifer Shahade (JS)- What kind of skills does bughouse require that chess doesn’t?
Kazim Gulamali (KG)- Coordination with your partner. You have to see further ahead but also look on both boards. Intuition is a really key part, knowing when to sack and when to defend and when to tell your partner to stop moving so if you’re being attacked you can repair your position.

JS- How do you improve in bughouse?
KG- I got good by playing with the best people. I learned from them and slowly picked things up.

JS- Where do you play bughouse online?
KG- FICS (Free Internet Chess Server) Aronian even plays there. 

JS- Who’s the best bug player you’ve ever played with?
KG- Over the board, I think it was Richard Francisco from Georgia. He is about 2300 USCF. He and I were probably the best team ever. Some other great bug players: Jeremy Keller (Florida), Dan Yeager from PA, Justin Tan from Australia Martin Aronsson from Sweden (it’s really hard to mate him) and of course Levon Aronian. Unfortunately, Lev doesn’t play that often.

JS- Have you seen Naka play bug? Wouldn’t he be really good at it?
KG- I saw him playing online on ICC  few years ago. Obviously he’d be really good at it—the problem with him is he didn’t know the theory. He tried to play his own openings but he was already breaking bug principles. IF I Remember correctly, he was playing 1.e4 e6 2.d4 Ne7. Already this idea of moving the knight to g6 is bad. You can compare this to chess in that a knight on g6 often encourages an h-pawn advance. In bug, White can drop a pawn on h5 or h6 or drop a knight on h5.

JS- So, say we take a GM who’s about 2550 FIDE but has never played bug. How good will he or she be on the first few games?
KG- Better than average, but they will still get beat pretty easily by the best players in the World. Against average but active bughouse players, the bug players would still probably win but I think a GM would win a few games. I saw Lenderman playing bug for the first time at last year’s US Open. Someone asked him and he just started playing. He’d played very little bug before.

JS- And what were your observations?
KG- You could see that he had an idea of what was going on. But with the time, he didn’t have enough time to figure it out. I’ve played about 30000 games of bughouse.  Some other great players have played upwards of 60-70K games. Of course all of these speed games, because there is no classical time control.

JS- What would a classical bughouse game even look like? 25 minutes?
KG- No, we’d all be sleeping. That’s way too slow.

JS- Would it work as a game?
KG- No, it would never work. Because the objective in bug is simple—to attack.  In Chess, it takes a while to get to the king so a very slow time control works well. One of the best things about bughouse is that people have tried to use computers to beat humans, so it hasn’t happened yet. Even more than chess, bughouse rewards intuition over calculation.  

JS- Because there are so many possibilities?
KG- Actually the realm of openings is very narrow. It’s much narrower than chess. For instance, fianchettoing in bughouse is close to losing. Just one move, …g6 or …b6 will probably cost you the game. It’s possible the very best defender could get away with it. You also can’t play c5 because of the c7 square and you can’t play f5 because you open up the king. Moves on the edge of the board don’t work out well.

Kazim teaching
JS- What openings do you like?
1.    e4 e5 is probably the most popular. Bug openings don’t have names though.
JS-I always thought that …e6 was a good move to protect ….f7 right away.
KG- We all start that way, because many new players will attempt to sack on f7 and f2. Eventually you realize that on the first four or five moves your opponent is not supposed to get more than one or two pieces so trying to mate you in f7 is risky- (he may burn too much time waiting for pieces). The factor of time is key—in bug you’re playing vs. the person diagonal from you, not on the board but on the clock. 

JS- So if you played e4 e5 you would let your opponent take on f7?
KG- I don’t normally play ….e5 myself because it’s too volatile…any influx of pieces that comes is going to throw the game into chaos. For instance, let’s take the position after 1. E4 e5 Bc4 Nf6 d3 Nc6 Bc5 00 00. With both sides castled there are natural weaknesses on h3 and h6. Such a symmetrical position means both sides have the same plan in mind. At that point it’s more about speed and how your partner plays than about how you play. Let’s say we get that position and white is up 10 seconds, then White does not have to move. In those ten seconds, if he gets three pieces like a pawn, bishop and knight, things can become dangerous for Black. I’d probably start by putting a pawn on f5 to shut down his diagonal and also generate threats on e6 and g6. 

JS- What do you play as Black?
KG- Black is a bigger disadvantage in bughouse than it is in chess. Fischer Random Chess is right in the middle in that being Black is more dangerous than in classical chess, but not as dangerous as in bughouse. The opening I play with Black depends a lot on my opponent.   Against players who are really good (GMs/IMs) but don’t play bughouse, I’d probably choose 1.e4 Nf6 with the idea of  ….Nd5 against 2.e5. The old theory was ….d5 for Black, which was mentioned in the 318 CLO article on bughouse openings. Actually that position after …d5 is not too bad for Black. HOWEVER, Black will need some key pieces to equalize or get an edge. If he doesn’t get them, he can be suffering.

A young Kazim playing bughouse at the World Open 2003

JS- Can bughouse help your chess?
KG- Yes. It’s a myth that bug hurts your chess.   Bug can help your tactical vision and your intuition a lot. It’s also good for pattern recognition.

JS- Do you think bug should be taken more seriously?
KG- I do! There’s already a National bughouse Championships for Elementary, Junior High & High School Nationals…of course it does seem like kids are mainly the ones that play it. But I think there should be Open championships as well and eventually even a World Championship.

JS- If you’re starting in bug, what should you do to get better at it?
KG- Probably watch the top players if you can. You also have to try to get practice with both colors. Finally, you need to become aware and adept at knowing when to “sit” (or stall.)

KazimGeorgiacover.jpgJS- Can you describe strategic elements of sitting?
KG- The main point of sitting is either to
1. Repair your position if your opponent is sacking into your position. Sometimes all he needs is a diagonal piece-Even one pawn can be devastating. If you tell your partner to sit your opponent can’t checkmate you.   
2. If you can achieve a winning position, for instance via an attack, when your opponent has no pieces to drop and you are ahead on time. In such a case, he has to play chess while you can play bughouse. 

JS- You’re also a fan of Fischer-Random. Are you attracted to variants in general?
KG- In a way, but not every variant interests me. Some are too off the wall. Have you heard of “atomic chess”? If you take a piece, everything around it explodes (disappears from the board). That’s going into something that’s not even in the realm of chess, it becomes too different.

JS- So you feel bughouse retains enough chess elements to make it chess-like?
KG- Yes, chess and bughouse are interconnected enough for me. I love the creative aspect of bughouse and Fischer 960- it gives me a lot of satisfaction to experiment. I can easily play bughouse or Fischer 960 for four or five hours a day.

JS- Why aren’t these games even more popular?
KG- I guess chess has been around forever while Fischer 960 just came into popularity in the past few years with the Mainz events. The 2011 K v Q. event held in Saint Louis was also interesting. I think slowly, with the way computers are taking away some of the creativity out of chess, people will start to play different games. 

Kazim at the 2011 Georgia State Championships
JS- At last year’s Fischer Random/Chess 960 meeting at the US Open, Tony Rich made a good point- how to promote Fischer 960 without dissing chess itself?
KG- I think it’s a good point. I was reading an article in which GM Yasser Seirawan said that eventually Fischer Random turns into a chess position. I remember meeting Yasser when I was 8 or 9 and I asked him to play bughouse. Of course he’s one of the nicest people, he said no but in a very nice way.

JS- What do you think of Seirawan Chess? My brother really likes it.
KG- No, I’d love to try it though. Where do you even get a board and pieces from?

JS- You can actually get them from USCF Sales, either a whole set or an upgrade with the two unique pieces in both colors (elephant and hawk). One thing I like about Seirawan chess and Fischer Random is it gives you a great appreciation for pure power of various pieces. In Chess 960, when commenting on the Kings vs. Queens match, I noticed a lot of instances in  both sides had more extreme positional problems than in chess. For instance, bishops and knights that were very hard to post in good squares. That made me appreciate how perfect the starting position is in chess. 

KG- Yeah, because in chess they go to natural squares very easily. In 960, you have to sort of tweak it. Sometimes it’s hard to get harmony between your pieces. So you have to get a feasible chess like position. I don’t think it makes it a worst game, but it does seem like a less harmonious game. You may just have to play with one bad piece.

What are you goals in chess?
KG- As far as chess itself goes, I want to make GM.

JS- In order to make GM, do you think you may have to limit the amount of variants you play for a while?
KG- A really good question. That’s what all the GMs tell me but I’m sure I’ll always do both. There is one important bughouse tourney that happens every year in Berlin, Germany in July. Even Aronian goes. I want to go one day.