The Clock is Ticking

After students have learned the basics and played a number friendly OTB (over the board) games, they often want to try out their newly acquired chess skills at a local tournament. Tournament games are played using chess clocks which requires time management skills. If there is one problem that plagues the beginner, it’s the problem of time management. Beginners, at the start of their chess careers, often make moves too quickly. As their game improves, they start to spend a far greater amount of time studying the positions that arise in their games. While it is crucial to spend as much time as possible studying a position, beginners can spend too much time on that position, especially when they’re playing in a tournament that allots a specific amount of time to make a specific number of moves. Therefore, I teach specific classroom lessons to help tournament rookies learn proper time management. I’ll introduce tournament rules, game time, etc in a later article. For now, we’ll look at some basic time management concepts.

Beginners, especially younger beginners, have a tendency to make moves at lightning speed. Slowing them down becomes a challenge for their instructor. One reason for this is because younger players have a different sense of time. If you’re an adult, you may have noticed that time seems to move more quickly as you get older. It seems to be the opposite for children. Ask a small child to sit absolutely still for one minute. Most tend to start fidgeting after thirty seconds. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. Teaching patience to the beginner is a key first step towards mastering time management.

When teaching beginners how to manage their time, I start by having them take one full minute to think about their move. While only a mere sixty seconds, a minute can seem like a lifetime to a child. This sixty second “lifetime” can lead to instant boredom. This being the case, the young mid must not be allowed to wander. Therefore, the student is assigned a basic task to accomplish during this one minute time interval. That task is to come up with three possible moves they can make in any given position. I use a stop watch, announcing increments of fifteen seconds as the minute passes. This lets the student know how much time is passing during their thought process. The idea is to train students, especially the younger ones, to slow down and put some thought into the position. Once students are used to working within a one move per minute time frame, we a lot two minutes of time per move, announcing the passage of those two minutes in thirty second intervals. The same task is assigned, three possible moves within a given position. How long this training phase takes is dependent on the age of the student. The overall goal of this phase of their time management training is to get students used to working within time frames.

Now we move on to a timed game using a chess clock. With my younger students, I start them off with 60 minutes on their clocks, reducing the clock time as their time management skills mature. While the number of minutes a player has to complete his or her game/moves varies, depending on the type of tournament, this number is easier to work with for training purposes. We break the sixty minutes down to three twenty minute phases to coincide with the game’s three phases (opening, middle and endgame).

During these training sessions, they have sixty minutes to win, draw or lose on time. It is crucial for students new to clock based play to remember that they are not only playing against a human opponent but against a clock as well. If you run out of time, you can lose the game. This is where good time management can become a winning edge!

The game of chess has three phases, the opening, middle and endgame. Because I assess my student’s strengths and weaknesses in class, I know where they’re apt to run into trouble with their time management. I meet with each student prior to their first timed game and tell them where they’re going to need the greatest amount of clock time. The first timed game a student plays is their trial run. After each move is recorded, I have the student write down the clock time next to that move (both students playing record their individual clock time after each move). After the game is finished, we can examine how long each move took and see where the time trouble started. Since I work with beginners and young improvers, we have to take small steps to master time management. Taking small learning steps helps to avoid overwhelming the beginning and creates achievable goals.

Once we isolate which phase of the game the time problems started in, we have a closer look. Was it during the middle game? If so, was it a tactical problem or a strategic problem? I like to ask students what they were trying to immediately accomplish when the time trouble started. Were they trying to launch an attack or defend against one? This is the time to ask as many questions of the student as possible. The end result of these questions is to identify the problem and outline a system of study that will help streamline the solution. We also look at their opponent’s time issues as well with both students comparing their problems.

You can also use your opponent’s clock time as well! What do I mean by this? Both players have sixty minutes on their clocks. This means that you can put your opponent’s time to good use! While your opponent is thinking through his or her move, you can use that time to carefully examine the position. I have my students ask themselves a number of questions while their opponent’s clock is ticking away: Are my pawns and pieces protected? Can I tighten up my pawn structure? Are their weak spots in my opponent’s position? Can I employ any tactics? There are a large variety of useful questions that can be asked. The point is that we should be looking at the position and using our opponent’s time to our advantage.

Some beginners get into time trouble early in the opening. If you’re playing a sixty minute game and spend thirty minutes on your opening, you now have thirty minutes left for both your middle and endgame, so time problems in the opening create middle and endgame time problems. A beginner might be facing a stronger player who plays a specific opening. It might be an opening that our beginner doesn’t know. Time trouble is time trouble no matter where it takes place within the game. Those minutes wasted during the opening can take away from the time needed to calculate a position in the middle or endgame. If you’re unclear about an opposition move made during the opening, use basic opening principles to help with the decision making process. All good openings adhere to the opening principles (there are some exceptions).

During the middle game, consider bringing your pieces to more active squares before launching attacks. Many beginners lose time trying to find potential tactical strikes in positions where there are none. Active piece placement makes finding and employing tactics easier. I’m holding off on endgame time management for now because most beginners in my classes don’t reach the endgame phase during their initial time management training. I’ll cover this in a later article.

We continue to play these sixty minute games throughout the school session so my students have a basic feel for time management. We carefully work on their weaknesses so they don’t run into the same time problems again during their games. I compare the recorded time increments on my student’s score sheets each month to check their progress and make lesson adjustments where necessary. It should be noted that I provide a handout to each student with questions he or she should be asking themselves during the game. This helps to keep them focused and using their and their opponent’s time wisely. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

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).