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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
Bullet Chess: One Minute to Mate - Hikaru Nakamura, Bruce Harper
To see the World in a Grain of Sand
Or Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand
And Eternity in a Game of Bullet Chess
This is a flawed but remarkably interesting piece of work - one of the most original chess books I have ever read. Hikaru Nakamura, currently World #7 and the undisputed king of Bullet Chess, opens up and tells you what it's all about. Can you really play a game of chess when each player only has a single minute to make all his moves? And is it a worthwhile thing to do? The answers, I am now convinced, are yes and yes. By compressing the schedule to this apparently insane point, the player is forced to confront fundamental truths he might otherwise prefer to ignore. And by the way, forgive me for using the masculine pronoun - for some reason, the game seems to be heavily male-dominated.

But going back to those fundamental truths. Chess players like to imagine that they can play perfectly if they only take the time to think carefully about their moves, and that the game is about truth and logic. This is absolutely not true, and Bullet Chess reveals the lie in all its absurdity. Chess, like life, is about using a finite amount of time to best advantage. The positions where you can find the one best move are the exceptions. More often, you should trust your experience and judgement and make a move which, as far as you can tell, is okay. If you overthink, you won't necessarily play a better move than the one you first came up with. It's entirely possible that you'll play a worse one, and you'll be wasting precious time that you might have been able to spend doing something genuinely useful at a later stage of the game. Nakamura gives instructive examples of bad time management. As he says: in Bullet, thinking for ten seconds when the position doesn't demand it is at least as bad as dropping a piece.

I have read few books that convey as effectively as this one how every second counts, every moment is precious. It's an odd path to enlightenment, but then all paths to enlightenment are odd. Nakamura Sensei, I bow before you.

Now, if only the editor had spent more than one minute on his mundane but important task...

Update for people who are serious about speed chess: this book has tangibly improved my play, in particular in the all-important field of time management. I strongly recommend it. You may think you manage your time well, but you can almost certainly do better. And if you want to see hard evidence, look at my ICC rating graph for the last year. For the three months before I read the book I was averaging under 2250, but the average since then is over 2350. I have trouble believing it myself.


Not and I are doing live web commentary this week at the Geneva Masters tournament (you can see us here if you're curious). Nakamura is playing, and we have already commentated on six of his games.

At speed chess, he is simply phenomenal. He never seems to need any time to think. Today, he was playing Alexandra Kosteniuk, a former Women's World Champion and a reasonably strong grandmaster. He completely destroyed her in both games, just using a few minutes of the 25 he had available. Kosteniuk used nearly all her allotted time to achieve two miserable positions, both of which she lost quickly.

You really wonder how he does it.