It’s All About Timing

One difference between beginners and advanced players is their use of time. Advanced players make a point of wasting little time while beginners tend to waste a great deal of time. When I say beginners waste time, I’m not trying to be critical of the chess novice. Part of being a beginner is having to learn the game from the beginning which means learning by trial and error, making mistakes. As the beginner improves, they make fewer mistakes and have fewer problems during their games. One of the problems beginners have has to do with time or tempo.

Tempo is the way in which we measure time in chess. In chess, tempo refers to a single move. You can lose tempo or gain tempo depending on what you do during your turn or move. For example, in the opening game, if you move the same piece over and over again and your opponent develops a new piece with each move, you fall behind in tempo. Sound confusing? Let’s review what you should and shouldn’t do during the opening and see how it effects tempo.

During the opening phase of the game, your job is to control the center with a pawn, develop your minor pieces towards the center of the board, develop a new piece with each move, castle your King to safety and connect your Rooks. That’s what you should do. What you shouldn’t do is make too many pawn moves, bring your Queen out early and move the same piece over and over again. These are the things you should and shouldn’t do. How does this relate to tempo?

We know the name of the game during the opening is control of the board’s center. Since White moves first, it’s like having a free turn so you’re one tempo or ahead of Black. This means, if you’re controlling the Black pieces, that you cannot waste time and have to catch up or at least not loose any further tempo. White shouldn’t waste time either, especially being ahead in tempo from the game’s start! Let’s look at an example of a beginner’s game in which White wastes time or tempo.

White starts off correctly with 1. e4 followed by Black playing 1…e6, signifying The French Defense. When given the chance to place two pawns on central squares, White should always take advantage of this opportunity. However, White chooses instead to play 2. Bc4, which turns out to be a dreadful move after Black plays 2…d5, attacking the Bishop on c4. Since the pawn is worth one point and the Bishop three points, White decides to play 3. exd5, capturing with the unit of least value. Now we see White’s first real loss of tempo after 3…exd5. The Black pawn is protected by his Queen and, because of the difference in material value, White has to move the Bishop employing 4. Bb5+, another bad move. Why is it a bad move? Because Black simply blocks the check with 4…c6, forcing the Bishop to move once more! The White Bishop has moved three times so far. Two of those Bishop moves can be considered a free turn or move for Black. White has lost two tempi, one for each of the additional moves the Bishop made. That means Black is now ahead in tempo. Every bad move leads to a loss of tempo! It gets worse!

After 5. Ba4, Black logically develops the King-side Knight to f6 (5…Nf6). White brings the Queen out early with 6. Qf3. Black counters with 6…Bg4, attacking the White Queen and winning another gain in tempo because the Queen has to move, 7. Qg3. Notice the Knight on f6 protects the Black Bishop attacking the White Queen. Piece coordination is a must! Black’s tempo is growing greatly! White’s last move is proof of why we don’t bring our Queen out early! With 7…Bd6, Blacks gets to develop yet another piece while White’s poor Queen has to run with 8. Qh4. White’s position is getting worse and worse while Black freely develops his forces to active squares. Black’s next move, 8…Qe7+ attacks the White King.

The White King is forced to move to f1 with 9. Kf1 which means his majesty is now stranded, unable to castle. With 9…0-0, Black safely tucks his King away. At this point White is so behind in tempo that recovering from this dreadful position is nothing but a pipe dream! White tries to push Black back with 10. h3, attacking the Bishop, but little can be done to stop Black from winning! Black brings his Rook to e8 with 10…Re8, creating a battering ram aimed down the e file. White’s tries to hold back the attack with 11. f3 and Black responds with 11…Ne4. White thinks, “ah ha, I can trade Queens and reduce the attacking forces with 12. Qxe7. Rather than trade Queens, Black checks the White King with 12…Ng3+ and the White King goes on the run with 13. Ke1. Black now plays 13…Rxe7+, employing good timing in capturing the White Queen, delivering check and setting up the soon to be checkmate! The poor White King shuffles over to d1 with 14. Kd1, running away from the attck and Black plays 14…Nxh1. White again, tries to reduce the number of potential attackers with 15. fxg4 and Black ends White’s suffering with 15…Nf2#!

The problem for White was a great loss of tempo. Each time White had to move the same piece over and over again allowed Black the opportunity to introduce a new piece into the game which led to a swarm of attackers White couldn’t deal with. If you want to avoid being hopelessly behind in tempo, you have think carefully about you moves. White should have played 2. d4 rather than 2. Bc4. White also paid the price in full by bringing the Queen out early. The Queen is an easy mark for minor pieces and sadly, Black was able to develop new minor pieces while pushing the Queen around.

There’s a reason for the opening principles, namely, they work! Had White employed sound principles and avoided what you shouldn’t do during the opening, he might have fared better. Next time you play a game of chess, keep the idea of tempo in mind and use the game’s principles as if your life depended on them. Your chess game certainly does. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. These guys know their opening principles!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).