Timing is Everything

At some point, the beginning chess player will enter a tournament to test his or her new found skills. Up until this point in the beginners chess career, games were played casually with no real regard to the concept of time, except maybe thinking their opponent should move a little faster so both players don’t die of old age before the game’s finished. Now our brave novice player has entered their first chess tournament and when they sit down to play they see the chess clock, that harbinger of positional doom that has destroyed many a player, both good and bad! “I’ll just speed through the first fifteen moves which will leave me plenty of extra time should I get stuck contemplating a difficult position. I can manage my time if I go fast during this part of the game and slow down for that part of the game.” These musings are a recipe for disaster.

Of course, one of the key ideas I teach my students is patience, taking your time when playing chess in order to find the best possible move in a given position. However, this idea of being patient or taking your time goes out the window when you sit down to play a game of chess with a chess clock limited the time in which you have to play the game. Time can be extremely troublesome and many a great chess player has lost a crucial match because they start to run out of time, forcing them into making less thought out moves.

Prior to the invention and use of chess clocks, tournament games could and did go on for ridiculously long periods of time. Back then, you might have to block off months of time within your schedule to accommodate playing in a tournament. The chess clock allowed individual games to have a set length of time in which they were played. This made things run much smoother from the tournament’s point of view. With a clock, each player, for example, may have (depending on the type of match) 90 minutes to make the first 40 moves and then additional time added on after completion of those moves. This seems simple enough. You just do some basic arithmetic and conclude that you have a little over two minutes per move, using the above example as a reference. However, things are never that simple, especially when you hit a position that requires some serious analysis.

The way I teach my students to manage time is by employing the “savings system.” Simply put, my students bank their time much in the way one banks or saves their money. We start with the opening.

The opening should be the first place you acquire bankable time because the moves should be easy to make and require less overall analysis. Of course a seasoned player makes their opening moves without hesitation whereas the beginner can get hung up regarding what move should be made. To keep from getting hung up, I have my students use the opening principles to guide them. During the opening phase, they make moves that apply the opening principles (controlling the board’s center with a pawn, developing the minor pieces towards the center, Castling and connecting your Rooks). Using the opening principles as a guide should leave you with some bankable time (time left over from moves made in less than two minutes) and that time adds up!

The middle game is where beginner’s have a tough time when it comes to time management. During the opening, you can make some moves automatically with little thought going into them. However, during the middle game there is so much going on that it’s hard to quickly find good moves. Therefore, I have my students first look to see if any of their material is under attack and if so, I have them address it. Next I have them further develop their pieces to more active squares. The idea behind this is that you’re more likely to find a potentially good attacking move in less time if your army are on their most active squares. Lastly the look for potentially favorable exchanges *where you come out ahead not your opponent). The point here is that my students have a checklist they can go through that keeps them focused and less apt to loose time.

The endgame is tough for beginners because most beginner games never reach a proper endgame. Therefore, they assess what material they have and how to deliver checkmate with that material. My beginning students usually end up with a Queen and King or Rook and King against King and pawn endgame scenario. They have been taught the proper way to deliver checkmate with these pieces. More importantly, they’ve been taught not to waste time. If you’re simply chasing the opposition King around with a Rook or Queen while your King sits idly, you will waste your time.

Time management is about being organized. You need to have a check list as a beginner that will serve as your guide. Improving the position of your pawns and pieces during the early middle game will make it much easier to find tactical plays. By improving the activity of your pieces (and pawns) you’ll often see middle game positions with greater clarity, allowing you to find that winning tactic and saving time otherwise spent staring at the board. Always be mindful of the clock but don’t spend too much time staring at it or you’ll lose time and perhaps your mind. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Author: 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).