Time Management

Time management is a subject teenagers don’t seem to be qualified to discuss. Fortunately, time management in life and time management in chess are two different animals, and I do know a thing or two about the latter…

Here in the US, time controls can be confusing to say the least. The traditional time control of 2 hours/40 moves, sudden death 1 hour had been replaced with 2 hours/40 moves, sudden death 30 minutes with a 10-second delay. Or maybe there’s a 5-second delay some places. Then there’s the 30 second increment which is the standard time control internationally. Sometimes there’s a time control after move 40, sometimes there isn’t. With all this confusion, I will briefly compare the two time controls: those with delay and those with increment.

First off, being in time trouble with delay is much worse than being in time trouble with increment. 30 seconds isn’t that much to make a move, especially if you have a difficult decision to make, but it’s better than 5 or 10 seconds. No question about it. On increment you can also build up time and potentially invest it at a critical moment, while with delay you can’t.

With the increment, on the other hand, you are more likely to land in time trouble, simply because you start with 90 minutes instead of 2 hours. If there’s no time control after move 40, then you’re even more likely to end up in a situation where you, and often your opponent, are playing on the increment alone. Those situations aren’t easy to handle at all. Meanwhile, with delay, you may be a bit short on time with a couple moves to go to the time control, and most games don’t go long enough for you to burn the extra 30 minutes you get at the time control.

General guidelines

With increment or delay, time trouble is still the same kind of animal, and there are some general principles you should follow.

If your opponent is in time trouble, don’t rush and take your sweet time. Figure things out on your own. In a complicated positions, your opponent isn’t a happy camper; he’s stressed out and is calculating variations over and over again. Then some hallucinations start creeping into his thoughts… When you make a move, he has to reply fairly quickly with all this chaos going on in his head. That isn’t easy. If it’s a technical endgame or a position where your opponent has fairly easy moves to make, then there’s all the more reason for you to think. It’s not like you’re letting your opponent think more about his next fairly intuitive move…

I learned this lesson in a rather extreme way when I was rated about 1800. I was beyond completely winning, with an extra queen and piece, and my opponent had one second on the clock. I was playing quickly until… guess what? I managed to stalemate my opponent! Every chess player has had an embarrassing episode or two like this, but I did learn my lesson.

Don’t make committal decisions right before the time control—assuming there IS a time control. It’s a bad idea. In my personal experience, most of my big decisions during moves 35-40 with a couple minutes on the clock have been pretty stupid to say the least. Unless there’s a forced win or you really need to make a committal decision, just do something normal. Also, take a little break after the time control to refresh your mind. Go to the bathroom, walk around, check out the other games, etc. Just don’t continue sitting at the board crunching things out. Spending a few minutes to refresh your mind is a much better idea.

Quasi-time trouble

Say you have 5-10 minutes on the clock to make a few moves before the time control. It’s not like you have no time, but you’ve got to speed up. This isn’t an unusual scenario, and it’s a hard call what to do. It all depends on the position.

If you’re winning or near-winning, I wouldn’t recommend spending all your time looking for a knockout punch. Here’s a worst case scenario of what could happen: You play some regular moves, trying to find a knockout at every moment, while your opponent will get away with some reasonable moves. You start to lose the thread, and before you know it, your opponent is posing some problems, and you don’t have time to think about them. Then you start making mistakes/blunders and lose a heartbreaker. These kinds of games have happened before and will happen again. Unfortunately, it’s not like there’s a nice way out of it. After all, if it turns that you missed a knockout punch on that move you played in 10 seconds, you’ll be kicking yourself for not spending more time! Since you can’t see—and don’t have time to see—everything, use your intuition. If it really looks like you can finish your opponent off here and now, then do spend some time trying to figure things out. Otherwise, take a bit of time but don’t take your last big think at that moment.

If the position is totally unclear and razor-sharp, then you’re in for a (potentially not enjoyable) ride. Leave yourself with enough time so that you don’t all-out blunder, stay sharp, and hope for the best. If the position is fairly technical, however, your moves shouldn’t be that hard to play. There’s nothing wrong with dancing around a bit before the time control.

In conclusion, I’d suggest that you don’t burn your time too low unless you really feel there is a win or the position is critical. Use that little time you have left wisely!

Chronic time trouble

Some people have a serious time trouble addiction. By that I mean getting into time trouble practically every game. It’s a serious problem with no real cure. Dealing with chronic time trouble isn’t my area of expertise, since I personally have only had occasional struggles with time trouble. I’ve actually never flagged in a long time control game, though I have gotten down to one second a couple times.

It seems that, in general, time trouble is a sign of bad form for me. My worst time trouble issues came up at the 2015 Philadelphia Open, when I went into the tournament with a perfectionist attitude and spent way too much time on my moves. My result there was apocalyptical. Fortunately, this was just a one-tournament issue, and my time management was soon back to normal. In other tournaments where I was regularly getting into time trouble, I wasn’t playing very well either. In general, I was spending a lot of time on nothing special/bad moves. I’d blame it on my pre-tournament mindset rather than my time management itself. Long story short: perfectionism is a bad idea that leads to time trouble. Also, if you’re getting into time trouble in a certain tournament, try to play a bit faster the next few rounds.

What’s normal and what’s not?

There’s no big rule of thumb. How much time should you have at move 20? Move 30? How about 35? How much time should you spend after the time control? I could go on and on with these questions that have no real answer.

In some ways, time trouble is normal. Is it really expected that if you reach move 60 you’ll have 20+ minutes on the clock? No, of course not! It all depends how complicated the game is. If you’re playing some razor sharp stuff, take your time. It’s better if you’re in a bit of time trouble a few moves down the road than if you get demolished because you didn’t calculate deep enough.

If, however, you’re spending a lot of time on fairly straightforward moves without coming up with any strokes of genius, that’s a bad sign. Unless you’re at the crossroads deciding what plan of action to take, you shouldn’t be tanking. If there’s a tactical shot that looks promising but turns out not to work, and instead you play a fairly natural move, that’s time well spent. In some cases, those tactics will work, and in other cases they won’t. This is just one of those. In general, don’t spend too much time on simple decisions. If you’ve spent all your time placing your pieces to perfection and have no time by move 25, you won’t be a happy camper when complications arise.

What about critical moments? Well, a critical moment is a really vaguely defined term, and there’s no Mariam-Webster definition.  If you feel that your next move will significantly affect the course of the game, then do take your time. However, if you think every other position is a critical moment, you’re mistaken! By the time you get to an actual critical moment, you’ll have no time to figure things out… Don’t spend too much time on simple decisions.


I could go on and on with this philosophical discussion about time management. What’s the big conclusion? Really a lot depends on the game. In general, spending a lot of time on simple moves and perfectionism is a recipe for time trouble and disaster. Getting into time trouble here and there is okay, but if you get into it every game, you have a problem.

Until next time!

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