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Interview with the World #1 Crazyhouse Player

crosky Chess

A player profile and Q&A with JannLee

Those of you who have only recently acquainted yourselves with the crazyhouse scene will recognize the name 'JannLee' as the player whose meteoric rise shortly after crazyhouse rolled out on lichess firmly established him as the best player on the site. Those of you who regularly haunt channel 24 on FICS—the crazyhouse & bughouse channel on the Free Internet Chess Server—will perhaps know him better as the guy who has dominated the FICS crazyhouse scene for over a decade: tantheman.

But for the rest of you left scratching your heads: who is this guy?

Well, for the uninitiated: crazyhouse, a game which has been growing in popularity by leaps and bounds in recent months, is an extremely tactical, fast-paced chess variant tantamount to single-player bughouse. And JannLee is the best crazyhouse player in the world.

Let's take a look at some of his stats.

Stats

  • #1 crazyhouse player on FICS: current rating of 2714

  • #1 highest all-time crazyhouse rating among active players on FICS: 2771

  • #1 crazyhouse player on lichess: current rating of 2957

  • #1 highest all-time crazyhouse rating on lichess: 2957

  • #1 highest all-time crazyhouse rating on Buho21: 3357

  • Extraordinary longevity

Style

You might be tempted to postulate, given his dominance of the field, that in all his games he takes the initiative and never lets go, pounding his opponents into submission with ruthless attacks. Not so. What strikes me the most, after spectating a healthy number of his games, is his singular defensive prowess. He plays with defensive precision and fearlessness unmatched by any of his peers; the defensive resources he comes up with are a testament to his extraordinary creativity and tactical mastery. Some challengers will develop ostensibly overwhelming attacks, and the unseasoned onlooker might be quick to conclude that JannLee's position must surely be crumbling; but his opponent is more often than not soon shocked to find that his attacking resources have ever-so-insidiously evaporated—and then it's JannLee's turn to attack, and he's got a pocket brimming with heavy material. That means it's lights-out. JannLee doesn't pummel his opponents; he out-calculates and out-imagines them.

It's amazing to watch.

Now, that's certainly not to say that he isn't a world-class attacker. He is. But it's his creativity, resourcefulness, plasticity, and stunning precision under pressure that sets him apart.

Legacy

To reiterate an aforementioned point, JannLee has presided at the pinnacle of competitive crazyhouse for well over a decade. This is no mean feat. Though obviously only a subset of the whole chess player base, I know from experience that the crazyhouse community, especially where it first really took root and flourished on FICS, is active, combative, and fiercely competitive. To boast such an overwhelming preeminence over the field, and to sustain such preeminence for years on end—with talented new players coming and going all the time, not to mention all the seasoned vets perpetually thirsty for blood—is nothing short of incredible.

Now that crazyhouse is expanding into some of the most popular chess websites on the internet—lichess and chess.com—and now that, at least on the former (as chess.com has no crazyhouse leaderboard), he's skyrocketed up to #1, he has reaffirmed and cemented his status, at least in my eyes, as the unqualified best.

Given his sterling record and longevity at the top, as dramatic or poetic as it may sound, I think it's fair to propose that JannLee is to internet crazyhouse what the great Paul Morphy was to chess: the first unofficial world champion; the de facto world's best in an era before the competition was standardized, unified, and codified.

JannLee's legacy continues to grow. Presently at 148 (+) followers, his presence on lichess surely inspires many ambitious up-and-coming crazyhouse players with a fascination for the game.

I recently approached JannLee over lichess to see if he'd be willing to answer some questions. For a long time I'd been curious about this prodigious enigma, curious about any insights the crazyhouse elite might have about this game I so love. To my pleasant surprise, he accepted! For someone of such caliber I found him approachable, humble, and equipped with some enchantingly lucid perspectives on the game and his place in it.

So, without further ado, let's get to the interview!

Q & A

crosky: I've compiled the following questions to try to get a reasonably thorough picture of you as a person and as a player. It would be great if you could answer them all, but obviously it's your prerogative to answer or not answer as you see fit. I will be posting these questions and answers publicly.

JannLee: Hi crosky, please see my responses below. Thanks for taking the time.

1. Where does the name "JannLee" come from? Is there any special significance to you as a player?

JannLee: This is a fighter’s name from an old console game “Dead or Alive”. Fast, sharp, powerful moves, with a crazy character. Having said that, the name selection is more random than deliberate.

2. Where are you from?

JannLee: Australia

3. Do you have a USCF (or any other official national chess institution) or FIDE chess rating? Are you titled (FM, IM, GM, etc.)? If you don't want to give specifics like rating or titles, can you give us a rough approximation of your chess strength?

JannLee: It’s been around a decade since I was actively playing live rated tournaments. I reached 2250 in FIDE rating, but never made a title. I did represent my country four times overseas in junior years.

4. How closely do you think chess and crazyhouse skill correspond?

JannLee: They’re related, but not all elements are transferable. In my opinion, crazyhouse taps into a subset of chess aspects where it seems reasonable to expect correspondence. This primarily includes, but would not be limited to: tactics, creativity and (given the short time controls crazyhouse is currently played with) fast thinking.

5. I noticed you exclusively play crazyhouse on the JannLee account; do you have an alternative account you use for chess?

JannLee: I generally don’t play chess these days and I choose not to use multiple accounts.

6. Which do you enjoy more: chess or crazyhouse?

JannLee: Crazyhouse

7. Do you play crazyhouse or bughouse on FICS? Under a different handle, maybe? Are you as strong in bughouse as you are in crazyhouse? I also think I remember you from Buho21; do you still play there?

JannLee: I have played tens of thousands of crazyhouse and bughouse games on FICS as tantheman. I have played as JannLee on Buho21, but not as actively.

8. Where and when did you first start playing crazyhouse? What first attracted you to the game?

JannLee: I started playing crazyhouse on FICS in 2000. My chess strengths were in tactical ability and fast thinking which made the variant attractive.

9. Did you teach yourself? How?

JannLee: Yes, self taught, largely because there was no one to learn crazyhouse from. I played often and I played anyone, generally at time controls of 3 0 or less. The same went for bughouse which has a lot in common. It’s fair to say that bughouse experience accelerates exposure to the broad set of tactical complications and patterns that are possible in crazyhouse.

10. How long have you been playing—have you played consistently or only intermittently over time?

JannLee: I’ve been playing for over 15 years – more consistently in earlier days and now less frequently given life’s constraints.

11. Any memorable games or moments from your years playing crazyhouse?

JannLee: Rather than a particular game or moment, I’ve enjoyed the journey of acquiring a skill set and playing against a talented group of individuals to keep the mind sharp.

12. Could you maybe link us to one of your favorite games? Why is it your favorite?

JannLee: I don’t have a favourite game, but I do enjoy playing a good series of matches. I’ve played several on lichess recently and this is not determined by the number of wins. Generally a series over 20 games in duration where both players are pushing the known limits of the game is great to see.

One example would be the series played against gnejs which contained 52 matches. Without giving away his identity, this is not Gnejs from FICS, but he has historically been one of the strongest bughouse/crazyhouse players and still is today in my opinion.

Editor's note: see the JannLee vs. gnejs games here. Extremely high-level play from both sides!

13. Do you consider yourself the best crazyhouse player in the world? If not, who is? Which players have given you the toughest competition?

JannLee: Honestly, I believe this is for others to judge and not myself. For years I’ve often heard from keen followers or my peers that I’m the world’s strongest, but there’s no official title, it’s only popular opinion. I’m far from invincible, the game is still in primitive stages and I would not rule out a newcomer to the game rising to the top.

There’s a large group of talented FICS players that would fit into the tough competition group and I believe if they pursued the game with more will, then the popular opinion of the world’s best crazyhouse player could shift to one of these candidates. Not all are active, but this would include at least cheesybread, VABORIS, Eleventeen, JKiller and mastertan.

I expect Buho21 or lichess could also breed strong contenders if the right talent is backed by passion and drive. These are the sites I’ve known but there could be others.

14. Do you think the best chess players in the world—say, anyone on the 2700chess.com list—could compete on a higher level than you do if they spent some time learning the game? Do you think there's a high skill ceiling? Is there any particular player you think would be especially good at it (for example, Nakamura due to his aggressive tactical style)?

JannLee: Of course they could! These top chess players are excelling in a highly competitive environment with financial benefit. I’m stating that even newcomers without such credentials could push the game beyond its primitive limits. Money is an obvious driver in the world, but I’m a believer that there’s no substitute for passion – the game can still grow and progress without it.

15. Do you think you're still improving, or have you plateaued? Do you ever go back and review your games to see what could be improved?

JannLee: I think the skill set and pace has been close to a plateau in recent years for me. What has actually declined is the fire in the belly, raw competitive will power or tenacity if you like. Becoming a father has changed perspective and available time to play.

I generally don’t review much over a board – sometimes it’s a few thoughts on a critical position just after a game. If I’ve repeated a bad line during a series, it might get avoided the next time.

16. Have you ever played 1. d4 or anything other than 1. e4 e5? I don't think I've ever seen you vary from 1. e4 e5 systems as white or as black; do you consider this the most theoretically accurate opening for both sides? Why?

JannLee: I’ve certainly played 1. d4, among other moves, though 1. e4 has been the predominant choice without rationale. So little is known about the game to make theoretical assessments. From a practical view, either option seems fine since it’s making a play in the centre to open development opportunities without causing a significant weakness.

17. How closely does your crazyhouse style and opening selection parallel your chess style and openings?

JannLee: Strategically it’s the same – I’m not aiming for an edge in the opening, but rather avoiding being worse, while hopefully putting my opponent in unknown territory. If that takes me into unknown territory as well, then all the better. I’m not a great fan of theory and study – my preference is to enjoy playing the game on the board with a pure clash of talent, rather than outside the board with prior knowledge.

18. What pointers would you give to an aspiring crazyhouse player? Any other general advice: openings, tactics, strategy, anything? Or maybe to put it another way: if you were to write a crazyhouse book, what are the main things you would go over?

JannLee: My advice here is more practical rather than knowledge based. Others may approach the game differently in valid ways, but I’ll share my opinion for the purpose of this article.

Firstly, ignore your rating, it’s just a number. I’ve seen a lot of talented players break new ground in their repertoire of skills, but then stop playing for a period of time to preserve a high rating. That’s when they should be playing more to keep pushing their bounds, but then they lose acquired potential and fall back in skill.

Seek out the toughest opponents and if they’re not available then play against lower opponents even when it seems the rating odds are far against you. My rule is simply +1 rating point for a win or greater and I’ll accept a challenge.

Secondly, learn through lots of live play! In it’s primitive stage, crazyhouse is largely a practical game rather than theoretical. There’s some limited depth to opening play, with some opening tricks that might be good to know to use/avoid, but it will only take you so far. Tactical ability, fast thinking and adapting to unfamiliar live situations are highly valuable.

Thirdly, watch some live games of stronger players. The practical elements and thinking time in critical positions are readily visible here, but not as obvious during review post game. A lot can be learned from games where the strength differential between players is greater. Mistakes are more frequently exploited and you can benefit from the answers provided by the stronger player.

Lastly, a note on inspiration. If I’m the guy that most people think is at the top and I’m saying that a newcomer to the game could rise to the top, why not have a go?

19. While the rest of the Top 10 on lichess are constantly shifting, you remain immutable at #1. It's pretty clear you're the best player on this site, presently boasting a rating differential well over 100 points from #1 to #2. In your opinion, what is it that separates you from the rest? What do you do better than everyone else?

JannLee: I’ll start by saying that I wasn’t #1 only a week or two ago! Ratings are just numbers and I won’t be surprised if mine fluctuates by 200, if not more, within a short period of time. I’d prefer to move in and out of #1 but enjoy playing the game frequently.

I’m expecting I’ll have an edge over most opponents in experience with time playing crazyhouse, but aside from that it’s about keeping active to adapt at the pace of the crowd and maintaining a competitive level of tenacity when it’s required.

20. Your max lichess rating is 2954, achieved on February 17 of this year [edit: now 2957, achieved March 23]. Currently that's the highest rating ever achieved. Do you think you'll be able to break the monumental 3000 threshold?

JannLee: I expect a number of players will break the 3000 threshold.

21. Do you have any crazyhouse goals, or do you just play for fun?

JannLee: For myself, it’s certainly just for enjoyment, but if there was a goal, I would like to see the game grow further in popularity so others can enjoy the same experience. I think lichess will do a lot of good for the game, exposing the variant to a vast number of new players as well as encouraging interaction through regular tournaments, forums and live streaming ability.

22. What's your preferred time control in crazyhouse and why? Do you think crazyhouse is viable at classical time controls?

JannLee: I tend to play 3 0 or less. Perhaps 5 0 has been the longest time control. That’s only because I’m time poor and I’d like to play more games in less time. It should be fine to apply classic time controls. It might not be the same way for bughouse though, where a limitation on time has critical implications to the game.

23. If there were OTB crazyhouse tournaments, would you compete in them? Have you ever played crazyhouse irl?

JannLee: Probably not – Australia is so far from the rest of the world. I may have only ever played a few crazyhouse games over a real board.

24. Have you ever competed in OTB bughouse tournaments? Any notable results?

JannLee: No – I’ve only caught up with a small gathering in New York while on holiday there. The interest is not great enough in Australia to hold such events.

25. How would you describe your crazyhouse playing style and overall playing philosophy?

JannLee: I’ve made it clear in earlier responses that I follow a practical approach, rather than a theoretical or perfect approach. I enjoy the game for its complications and seek out unknown territory to test the talent between myself and my opponent.

When it comes to style I tend to draw on a repertoire of styles depending upon the inherent style of my opponent. Some prefer open positions, some closed. I’ll often try to go the other way to either stifle creativity or make them uncomfortable. It’s not always the best theoretical play.

Against the stronger players that can meet this with their own repertoire of styles and understanding, sometimes fire just needs to be fought with fire. But it’s always practical – where the position is too closely contested there’s also the pressure of the clock to be applied.

26. Do you think crazyhouse will continue to grow? Will a corpus of theory ever be established for this game as it has in chess? Are you glad it was added to lichess?

JannLee: I think the game will continue to grow with the likes of lichess bringing the variant on board and I’m glad to see that. Aside from broad reach, I must say that this website does enhance the interactivity between players on multiple levels.

It’s also apparent that more players are contributing towards forums and media material in recent months, with one money prize tournament being run as well.

Perhaps theory may be developed, but not at the rate of chess. That’s certainly not my goal, but it’s a path to be taken. At the stage when it becomes significant, I might prefer a new variant like crazyhouse 960 to keep my practical chances alive!

Editor's note: this is the cash-prize crazyhouse tournament being referred to.

27. Just for fun: if you were in charge of bestowing crazyhouse titles of Master (ZM), International Master (ZIM), and Grandmaster (ZGM), what lichess rating (or other parameters) would be required to earn them, respectively?

JannLee: Without prescribing the clear boundaries, I think this should be done through tournament events (like the arenas) so that this is not subject to opponent selection. There might be a minimum requirement of a number of tournament games to be played as well as factoring in performance ratings during events.

28. Do you ever get upset at losses, or do you take everything in stride?

JannLee: I certainly used to get upset at losses during teenage years when I began playing, but it’s been a long time since I’ve taken the game that seriously. On the contrary, during recent years I’ve probably been more excited to see the result of a loss because that indicates the strength of opponents is on the rise which is great for the game.

29. Do you enjoy having so many people spectate your games (148 followers and climbing!)?

JannLee: It’s certainly nice to receive some attention, but when I see this I’m really hoping that it gives me the opportunity to inspire new players to pick up the game and pursue it with some passion.

30. Would you ever consider recording your games and uploading to youtube? Perhaps even doing a 'dual commentary' match with another top crazyhouse player?

JannLee: I recently upgraded my home computer which might make this possible, but it’s not high on the list at this stage. Let’s not rule it out though.

crosky: Thanks again for your time and willingness to help out. [...]

JannLee: Again, thanks for your time to organise this – hope it supports the growth of the game. We’re aligned on that.

Closing Thoughts

First of all, I must once again send a huge thanks to JannLee for his time and candor!

Next, in light of JannLee's insights, let's take a moment to consider what crazyhouse is, and what it could be.

What is crazyhouse, really? That is, what does it offer as a game that sets it apart from chess? Well, in my admittedly inexpert and biased opinion, crazyhouse is what tactical chess ought to be in its unadulterated, rawest, most creative form. There it is--that's the magic word! Crazyhouse is and ought to be a creative enterprise.

As much as I love and will always continue to love chess itself, there's no denying it's become bloated by rote memorization. Opening, middlegame, and endgame theory are all well-established and deeply, deeply analyzed, especially in the modern era of AI computing. GrandMaster games will oftentimes go dozens of moves before venturing into novel territory, positions are strictly evaluated by engines in cold hard centipawns, and today's super-GM tournaments are preponderated by draws.

Crazyhouse throws all that out the window. Instead, crazyhouse thrusts you headlong into an uncharted, explosive, all-out, talent vs. talent tactical battle, with little or no superstructure of theory to get in the way. As JannLee so aptly puts it:

"My preference is to enjoy playing the game on the board with a pure clash of talent, rather than outside the board with prior knowledge. ... I enjoy the game for its complications and seek out unknown territory to test the talent between myself and my opponent."

I couldn't agree more. If we take a moment to revisit the old Bloom's Taxonomy chart we all learned about in grade school, we will see how rote memorization (say, specific lines in chess opening theory) and creativity (crazyhouse!) stand on polar ends of the spectrum.

It's exciting how much is possible in crazyhouse. Consider the stupefyingly astronomical set of possible chess positions. Now add on top of that the prospect of endlessly re-introducing pieces back onto the board. The possibilities are all but infinite.

Perhaps, if we extend the Morphy analogy, we can appreciate that we're living in the hazy, heady "Golden Era" of crazyhouse before the advent of engine takeover, when the game is Romantic, adventurous, undefined and unexplored, when the thrill of the game and creativity therein is still very much alive. And even should theory eventually evolve, and to be fair there's no reason it shouldn't, it will surely be far more malleable than chess theory simply by virtue of the titular 'crazy' nature of the game.

What, then, is the future of the game? And how can we take it there?

This is a matter open to speculation. While its recent addition to the major chess sites has undoubtedly spurred its growth, and while said addition has catalyzed a great deal of nascent interest in the game (including attention from many high-profile youtube personalities!), crazyhouse remains a variant played by a mere subset of total chess players. Let me humbly suggest, then, to persons of any significant visibility and institutions of any significant clout—the Chess Networks and Chess.coms of the world—that crazyhouse is a game worth investing in. Build the infrastructure, build the visibility, pave the way for it to grow. Give the game the respect and attention it deserves.

"If you build it, they will come."

Heck, maybe in the future we can encourage chess sites to introduce formalized standards for earning crazyhouse titles: Crazyhouse Master, Crazyhouse GrandMaster—for fun if for nothing else. Maybe one of these sites can host a highly-publicized crazyhouse blitz supertournament to crown the first crazyhouse World Champion, much like chess.com's highly-anticipated Blitz Battle. Fun, right? I can dream!

If nothing else, we can at the very least simply continue to appreciate the artistry the likes of JannLee bring to the game.

Regardless, crazyhouse is an extraordinarily rich game whose frenetic complexities will never cease to hold me riveted, and I can only hope it continues to grow. And even if his prediction holds true and the next generation's players surpass him in skill, JannLee has still undeniably claimed his spot in crazyhouse history as the first true titan of the game.

Finally, come join us at /r/crazyhouse!

Article written by crosky for reddit and lichess.