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Frisco Del Rosario writes about chess960, women's basketball, minor league baseball, unsupported collectible card games, lettering in comic books, and Golden Age movies

Time controls 02/08/2017


200 years ago, chess games weren’t played under “time control”, so players could sit in cogitation interminably. (One legend goes that the German master Paulsen studied his board for five hours until he looked up and asked if was his turn to move.) This was unacceptable — mostly because chessplayers have to understand that whether one ponders a position for one hour or 10, one doesn’t see 10 times deeper, just the same thing 10 times longer.
So chess clocks were invented, and a standard tournament time control was, say, 40 moves in 2 hours, followed by 25 moves in one hour until conclusion. In the old days, a game might go on until the the start of the next round, or midnight. Then there was the odd practice of adjournment, where one player chose his next move and put it in a sealed envelope, after which the players could analyze at home until resumption of play. This used to favor the player with a team of analysts, until computers make adjournments wholly impractical.

To eliminate adjourned games, the “sudden death” time control came along, in which the player had X number of minutes to play the game, and if time ran out, the game was lost, no matter the situation on the board. This opened a new can of worms, because there were many positions where losing wouldn’t be a reasonable expectation except for the “sudden death”. One rules adjustment was that a player running out of time could claim unrealistic or insufficient “losing chances” — some of these claims were crystal clear, like the common occurrence where the player who was about to promote the last pawn had too few seconds to deliver the checkmate. Other “insufficient losing chances” claims were murky at best — sometimes you had tournament directors running to find the strongest player on the tournament staff, who could form a more knowledgeable opinion about whether those claims were valid. There was a rule of thumb: If a player rated 1400 could plainly hold the position against a master, then an insufficiency claim could be upheld. (In my opinion, this was a bad rule of thumb, because most chessplayers and organizers don’t know what chess masters can do to upset the mind of a 1400-rated player.)

In order to fix the problems with Rule 14H (the insufficient losing chances rule became such a common bug that players memorized its place in the rulebook), chess clocks were improved in a couple of ways. A player could be given some additional seconds with each move — the idea was that if a position fell under the 14H umbrella, the incremental time would suffice to keep that player afloat while demonstrating the easy win or easy draw. Or the clock would be put on delay, giving the player three or five seconds to move before the time started ticking off his clock. (Every basketball fan knows how this goes — if you’re on your home floor, the referee can signal “start the clock”, and the local staff on the clock can brainfreeze for a *long* time.)

At tournaments these days, I’m accustomed to time controls of sudden death in 2 hours, plus a 5-second delay. This weekend, I’m playing 90 minutes plus 30 second increments. Do the math, and they’re almost the same. At two hours plus D/5, if you play 60 moves and use the whole delay each move (which never happens), it’s 125 minutes. At 90 minutes plus 30, a 60-move game is 120 minutes. I’m wondering if there will be any noticeable difference in the feel of the game.

For example, 40 moves in 2 hours or 30 moves in 90 minutes are both three minutes per move, but 40/2 feels comfortable to me, while 30/90 feels hurried — because chessplayers don’t think “three minutes per move”; there are two or three times per game where the player takes a long think, though the other moves require much less time. At 40/2, there are 30 minutes to give to the long-thinking moves that aren’t available at 30/90.

This effect is most evident at “rapid transit” chess — you never see “rapid transit” these days, because players hate it — in “rapid transit”, there’s a 10-second pause followed by a 5-second interval in which the player *must* move. It’s like 15 seconds per move, but chess thinking just does not happen like that. At any time control — whether game-in-one-minute or 50-moves-in-3-hours — moves like recaptures, and especially automatic “only” moves, require less than instant of thinking; the 15-second “rapid transit” mode tortures players during those moves.


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