Time Controls

Chess Clock

The stereotypical chess game is a crazy long drawn out affair where intense people sit across from each other and stare at a board for hours on end, occasionally reaching forward to move a pawn. Most people find this intimidating and… well… boring.

Enter the clock.

Time restrictions can make chess extremely exciting. The purpose of this post is to explain common types of chess games as they relate to time.

Fast Chess

Ignoring the long variant for now, fast chess games are often lumped under three terms:

Rapid chess
Games that last somewhere between 10 and 60min

Blitz chess
Games that last between 5 and 10min

Bullet chess
Games shorter than 5 minutes

You may have seen a chess clock before. It has two clock faces and two buttons. The way it works is simple: when player 1 makes his move he hits the button. This action stops his time from ticking down and starts his opponent’s clock. When his opponent finishes her move and hits her button, player 1’s clock starts to tick down again. The two clocks never run simultaneously.

With time controls like this there are two ways to lose: by checkmate, or if your clock runs out of time.

This structure is often referred to as Sudden Death (SD).

Consider a one minute bullet SD chess game: each player has a total of one minute for all their collective moves. That means the longest the game could possibly last is two minutes. The result? ADRENALIN. Oh, and also horrific chess practices.

Skilled chess artisans seem to advise that learners not get too excited by Bullet or Blitz chess*. When the clocks are flirting with zero, sometimes you can win a game by playing any move faster than your opponent even if it’s a terrible terrible move. This reward system results in messy chaotic chess behaviors where speed can be prioritized over skill.

That said, it is REALLY fun. It’s exciting and thrilling and will get you pumped to play play play. So for all the nay-sayers, there is an emotional value to fast chess and it most certainly helps generate interest in the sport.

With the invention of the digital chess clock, people started refining time restrictions to prevent games from entering sloppy conclusions. Famous American Grand Master Bobby Fischer proposed one of the most commonly used methods: start the clock with a set time, then add additional time after each move.

This incremental style of chess is notated like this:

15 | 10

This means each player has 15 MINUTES on their clock at the beginning of the game but after each move, 10 SECONDS are added to their time. Thus even if your clock falls precipitously in the first part of a game, you can be sure you’ll always have a minimum of 10 seconds to make a decision. This is called Increment Timing or Fischer Timing.

One bizarre side effect of this design is that by moving quickly a player could ADD time to their clock. In a 15 minute game if a player makes the first 6 moves nearly instantly (executing, say, a prescribed well-documented opening) then they’d have 16 minutes left on their clock. This could yield them an advantage later in the game. Alternate timing methods avoid this pitfall:

Bronstein delay: You still get extra time added to the clock after each move, but it will never add more time than you had at the start of your turn. So if you’ve got 25 seconds left, and you only take 1 second to make a move, the Bronstein clock will only add 1 second back onto your clock bringing it back to 25 seconds.

Simple delay: You get extra time per move at the START of each turn. But instead of adding the time onto the clock, the clock doesn’t start ticking down until the extra time has gone by. So if you have a 10 second ‘add’ then your game clock won’t start ticking down until 10 seconds have passed.

Classical Chess

Now let’s circle back to the long form chess referred to as Classical Chess. Games of this variety often combine different timing structures over the course of a game. Here is, for example, the FIDE regulations for the World Championship of Chess:

The time control for each game is 120 minutes for the first 40 moves, followed by 60 minutes for the next 20 moves, and then 15 minutes for the rest of the game with an increment of 30 seconds per move starting from move 61.

FIDE Handbook: regulations for the FIDE World Championship Match 2020

That’s fairly… specific.

This type of time control is common for tournaments and has its roots as one of the first methods of controlling time in chess. By offering banks of time for each set of moves, games could be kept on pace. Early chess masters agreed that letting someone take hours upon hours for a single move wasn’t making the game any more fun for players or for spectators. On top of that, tournaments would drag on FOREVER. Even the World Championship of Chess time controls are lengthy compared to a normal mortal human tournament. Most of those operate within the 30 minute time frame so that a tournament can be completed in a single night.

Lastly, it’s worth noting how much time control has changed and that it will likely continue to change. With the use of computers to aid performance, Classical Chess between the chess super-grand masters seem to be headed towards a pattern of draws, draws, and more draws. The 2018 World Chess Championship had 12 consecutive draws between Magnus Carlson and Fabiano Caruna. Carlson famously opted for an early draw in game 12 to intentionally enter into the rapid tiebreaker portion of the contest where he won handily. It will be fascinating to witness how the chess world adapts as we head down this path.

*From what I’ve learned, most chess powerhouses recommend the 15|10 game format as the shortest game to play if you’re trying to improve your chess critical thinking.

FIDE Handbook: regulations for the FIDE World Championship Match 2020

Extra Fun Bonus:

In that 2018 World Champion Chess Tournament if the draws kept going past the Classical Chess and through Rapid chess, the competitors would then play blitz. If the blitz games were still a draw then they would play a very unique time variant:

Armageddon. In Armageddon white has 5 minutes on the clock but black only has 4 minutes. Both players may get an increment (like 3 seconds per move after the 61st as was the case in 2018). But if the game falls to a draw, black is declared the winner because they had less time at the start.
How clever!


Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

As you get started with Chess, it’s helpful to be aware of some the best resources for learning. Here are my favorites:

Online Resources
In my studies I’ve come to appreciate three websites most:

  1. Chess.com – Very well designed site with a decent amount of quality free content. Personally I gravitate towards this site first for general play.
  2. Lichess.org – Lichess is completely free and beginning lessons might be better for nascent players. So this might be a better starting point for those with no chess knowledge whatsoever.
  3. Chessable.com – A highly repetitive (in a good rote sort of way) educating tool for learning chess basics and concepts. As of the moment, I think their website navigation is wanting – but they are a growing site and will likely improve.

If you’re just starting out, check out the “Lessons” section of these sites to learn how the pieces move and the goal of the game. My Dad taught me chess basics when I was a kid, and I toyed with the game through my youth so for me these were mostly review. But it was a good exercise either way.

IMPORTANT FACT FOR NEWBIES: I got a little confused when I first started looking at computer chess because I didn’t know which way the pieces were suppose to go. Like… if it says white to move but it’s showing an endgame where the pieces are all over the place… are my pawns moving up? or down? This is a super simple thing, but it is never explained: Your color is always on the bottom of the screen moving up. The opponent’s color is always moving down. Again, if it says “White to move” then that’s you. And you’re moving Up.

Mobile Apps
I have the Chess.com and LiChess apps, but find myself mostly using Chess.com. At one point I tried Magnus trainer, but I think I tried it too late in my education. It might be great for those just starting out, but I found it a little tedious.

Once you’ve got basic moves under your belt, start building your conceptual chess understanding with John Bartholomew’s ‘Chess Fundamentals’ YouTube series. It is FANTASTIC.

  1. Undefended pieces (54m)
  2. Coordination (51m)
  3. Typical Mistakes (1h 33m)
  4. Pawn play (1h 25m)
  5. Trades (1h 27m)

Adding to your YouTube education, enjoy the series Beginner to Chess Master by Jerry from ChessNetwork.

One more I really enjoy: Hanging Pawns by Stjepan
It’s a chess journey youtube channel dedicated to education. I love the way Stjepan teaches and communicates. He talks through ideas not as tactics but more as strategies. I LOVE THIS.

Here’s the problem with chess literature. It takes too much space to show the board after every move, so the authors rely on chess notation for most game presentations. Chess notation is not for the beginner. I’m still terrible at reading it and keeping track of what’s going on. If you want to read books on chess, make sure you read them with a board in front of you that you can use to move the pieces while you’re reading.

My System by Aron Nimzowitsch
This is really well written for the layperson. It’s accessible and thorough. But again, you can’t read this at a beach. You need to read it at a desk with a chess board.

Fundamental Chess Openings by Paul van der Sterren
So far I’ve only used this as a reference book for the specific games that I’m playing. I wouldn’t recommend this until you naturally realize it’s time to learn opening strategy.

For Kids
We just recently purchased Storytime Chess for our kids. It’s a board game that comes with a story book to explain who the characters are and why they move like they do.

It can be slow at times, but it’s designed appropriately. The intention is you read the story for the piece and then re-read it and play games that just use that one character. It’s pretty good. I recommend it.

Lastly: if you have any chess resources you’d like to recommend, please comment below. I’m always eager to explore

Chess, the beginning

Chess, the beginning

It started with an unassuming statement. While playing a board game with some friends during lunch , a coworker casually dismissed our choice of game, commenting on their proficiency in chess and how we should instead play “a real game”. Irritated by the pretension, I made a pledge to start a long con: I would quietly practice and study chess and when I felt I was ready I would agree to a game and crush him.

That was November of 2018.

And now I’m in. Oh boy, I am so deeply in. Chess has become more than a practice or study, it’s a passion and an obsession. The depth of this game is staggering. I remember in 4th grade I went to my dad with a claim that I had mastered mathematics: “I already know addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. What else could there possibly be?” As I stare up at the Chess learning curve I feel like I did in 1991 when I was exposed to the vast cavern of my own ignorance.

Learning chess isn’t for a destination, it is not to achieve mastery. It is to pursue mastery and that’s what I love about it.

I’ve set up this section of my website to talk about chess. I don’t know if this is a short term thing, or a long term thing. But I like it, so I figured I’d give it a try. Stay tuned for more.