Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Tick Tick Tick ... IV

Timekeeping for Tigers

As I prepare for my imminent arrival at life's first time control I find my thoughts have also turned to the question of how I’ve been spending my time when seated at a chess board.

As SonofPearl rightly said in the comments box to my post on Peter Wells' difficulties at the Staunton Memorial,

"You don't need to be a great player to know that time management is as important a feature of the game as accurate calculation, opening preparation, intuition etc."

Strange, then, that of the countless books, magazine articles and blog posts the game generates hardly anything is written about how to make the best use of the clock during a game. Indeed, amongst the far too many books I’ve bought over the years I can only think of two - Simon Webb’s Chess for Tigers and John Nunn’s Secrets of Practical Chess - that actually address this area in any depth.

Webb’s chapter on clock control suggests that the best way of finding out where your time is going is to make a note of the clock times after every move. This quickly becomes second nature*, the difficult part being rembering to take the trouble to review the game at some later date**. It takes a little bit of work but it's almost certainly going to help your chess more than another hour or two spent reading some new openings book.

I played this game …

… for the Other Club midway through last season. It has the rather pleasing attributes of being (a) an interesting Interesting French Exchange
and (b) a win for me but more importantly for today's purposes it demonstrates rather clearly many of the problems I have with time management when playing chess.

All the moves were to be played in an hour and a quarter. I ended up using 72 of those 75 minutes but taking a second look at it I have to admit that an alarming proportion of the time I spent "thinking" was at best wasted and even counter productive in some cases.

1. e4 e6, 2. d4 d5, 3. exd5 exd5, 4. Nf3 Bg4, 5. c4 Bb4+


I was still within my opening knowledge at this point but nevertheless I think the pause for thought was quite appropriate.

I’ve faced lines with an early c2-c4 a bunch of times over the years and until this game had always played set-ups based on … Nf6, … Be7 and … Nb8-d7-b6-d5. This time, however, I wanted to try out John Watson's suggestion from Play the French 3. As I was about to head into positions I hadn’t actually played before spending a little time reviewing the main plans and whether or not there were any particular tactics to look out for seems time well spent. That said, given the short time control for the game taking 5 minutes for this is probably a little indulgent.

TOTAL TIME SO FAR: 6 minutes

6. Nc3 Ne7, 7. Be2 dxc4, 8. 0-0 0-0, 9. Bxc4 Nc6,

It's not until White's next that I ran out of 'automatic' moves so I'm at a loss to explain why it was that I spent two minutes each on moves seven, eight and nine. It might have been justified had I not just had a decent think on move five but to do both is just ridiculous.

With the contest just leaving the opening stages I'd already managed to dither away 8 minutes of the game. Proportionately I'd already given away just as much time as Peter Wells lost against Smeets by failing to turn up on time.

TOTAL TIME SO FAR: 12 minutes

10. Be3 Bxf3

TIME SPENT ON MOVE: 14 minutes

Oh dear.

My idea was to exchange on f3, take on d4 then after White replies Qxb7 gain some time by knocking the queen around or perhaps even trap her. In fact this is just a bad plan but that's not relevant in terms of clock management. More to the point ... Bxf3 is a classic case of Don't Analyse Unnecessary Tactics (DAUT).

Even if it works it’s obvious that after … Bxf3, Qxf3 Nxd4, Qxb7 there will be a lot of variations to consider. Had I thought sensibly it would have occurred to me that I should hold this line back to analyse only if I could not find anything better. Perhaps then I might have chosen … Rb8 (setting up the idea of taking on f3) or more likely … Nf5 (simply adding to the pressure on d4 with no difficult tactics to analyse). As it happens both of these moves can be found in Watson's book. In any event, a different thinking process would perhaps have taken three or four minutes at most to produce a move. Not only would I have saved ten minutes I would probably have played better too.

TOTAL TIME SO FAR: 26 minutes

11. Qxf3 Nxd4,

I took two minutes on this which would seem to indicate that I lacked confidence in my plan. In fact it's not too late to back out and find a different way to play. The trouble is, as John Nunn pointed out, after a very long think it can be psychologically difficult to choose a different path and admit the time has simply been lost. Of course the worst of all possible worlds is to worry about things for two more minutes then play the move anyway.

At this stage although I've already used up over a third of my time for the entire game and yet I'm only just out of book.

TOTAL TIME SO FAR: 28 minutes

12. Qg4 Bxc3


I hadn’t considered that White might simply sacrifice the pawn and go for a direct attack. Without much thought at all I gave up my bishop to stop the knight bouncing over to the king side. This was definitely an occasion where I'd have benefited from a couple of extra minutes to weigh the benefits of eliminating an attacking piece against handing White a pair of unopposed bishops on an open board.

Of course having used up so much time on move ten I was now in a position where I'd have to cut down on the analysis and hope for the best to a certain extent.

TOTAL TIME SO FAR: 29 minutes

13. bxc3 Nf5, 14. Rad1 Qc8, 15. Bg5 Nd6, 16. Qxc8 Nexc8, 17. Bd5 Re8, 18. Rfe1 Nb6, 19. Bf3 Nbc4, 20. Bf4 Rad8


John Nunn:
“Chess is all about making decisions. Postponing a decision doesn’t improve it. Try to get into the habit of asking yourself: is further thought actually going to be beneficial?”

So what to do? Bring my last piece into the game or play ... Kf8 before or after swapping rooks on the e-file. At the time I wasn't clear whether exchanging rooks would help me or merely emphasise the strength of his bishops. In fact after a few months to think about it I'm still not clear what's best. I frittered away a few more minutes here simply because I couldn't decide on what course to take.

Sometimes you've just got to choose one plan or the other

TOTAL TIME SO FAR: 43 minutes

21. Kf1 Rxe1,

Unfortunately I chose one plan then the other and worse still spent ten minutes doing it.

TOTAL TIME SO FAR: 48 minutes

22. Rxe1 Kf8, 23. h3 h6, 24. g4 g5, 25. Bc1 c6, 26. h4 f6, 27. hxg5 hxg5, 28. Be2 Kf7, 29. f4 gxf4, 30. Bxf4 Re8, 31. g5 Rh8, 32. Bxc4 Nxc4, 33. Re4 b5, 34. gxf6 Kxf6, 35. Be3

An interesting moment. I'd already seen his rook was vulnerable to a knight fork but on the other hand his bishop attacks my a-pawn. With a bit more time to think I might have put these two ideas together and realised the a-pawn can't yet be taken without allowing a knight check on d2.

My dawdling earlier had left me with little more than a quarter of an hour to finish the game by this point. The rook ending is obviously much better for me but is it winning? With pawns on one side of the board general principles suggest my knight should be better than his bishop so perhaps I want to keep minor pieces on the board anyway. Pressed for time I made the exchange after less than a minute's thought. It worked out well in the end but in less favourable circumstances this could have been the point where I let the game slip away.

Needless to say, had I not haemorrhaged the minutes away earlier in the game I would have had plenty of time for a proper think here.

35. ... Nxe3, 36. Rxe3 Rh2, 37. a3 Ra2, 38. c4 bxc4, 39. Rc3 Ke5, 40. Rxc4 Kd5, 41. Ra4 c5

I hadn’t foreseen that he might go after my a-pawn but when he played Ra5 it occurred to me that he might not actually have the time to take it anyway. Since there’s nothing to be gained by worrying about this, since there’s nothing I can actually do to stop him capturing the pawn even if I’d wanted to, I just pushed … c6-c5 instantly and hoped for the best. Normally I'd have lost some time to self-recrimination and worries that I'd thrown the win away but I'd finally woken up and actually started to play sensibly (timewise at least).

Incidentally, throughout this ending I was plagued by the recurring thought that it would be an awful lot easier had I actually read some of the rook endgames book (John Emms’) that has been sitting on my shelf for many years. Things turn out pretty well - though your guess is as good as mine as to why I moved my king in front of the pawn on move 51 - but in a less straightforward position my lack of basic endgame knowledge could have cost me a lot of time which in turn might have made the difference between winning and drawing the game.

42. Rxa7 Kc4, 43. Ke1 Kb3, 44. Kd1 c4, 45. Rb7+ Kc3, 46. Ra7 Ra1+, 47. Ke2 Rxa3, 48. Rd7 Kc2, 49. Rd2+ Kb3, 50. Rd1 Ra2, 51. Kd1 Kc3, 52. Rd8 Ra1+, 53. Ke2 Kc2, 54. Rb8 Rd1, 55. Ra8 Rd2+, 56. Ke1 c3, 57. Ra2+ Kd3, 58. Ra1 Re2+, 59. Kf1 c2, 60. Ra3+ Kd2, 61. Ra2 Re8, 62. Kf2 Kd1, 63. Ra2 Rf1+, 64. Kg2 c1=Q, 65. Rd7+ Qd2+ 0-1

There’s no need to do this of course, Fritz takes just a few moments to find mates in 9 after both Ke2 and Ke1, but with my nerves shredded and just three minutes to go I wanted to be able to stop thinking and ensure there was absolutely no way I could lose. White resigned at this point but I think I might have been tempted to make him actually mate me. It shouldn’t go wrong of course but Black is close enough to flag fall to make playing on justified.

So happily enough it all worked out in the end but it could easily have been very different. With a better clock handling I would have been able to play the opening and early middlegame much quicker and saved the time for critical moments later on.

I found the very similar problems in many of my games last year. Just as I said of Peter Wells, it leaves me wondering how many ECF grading points I chuck away every year through poor time management

* I've been following Webb's advice religiously ever since I bought the second edition of his book in the early 90s.

** Sadly Webb neglects to mention simply recording the move times alone will not be of much use to you. After more than a decade of painstakingly keeping track of the time taken for each chess move I made in serious games it was only earlier this summer that I actually got around to making any attempt to systematically analyse the data I'd been gathering. This is a pathetically embarrassing state of affairs, the only possible benefit of which is that it's led to this aside - and I do love a good footnote.


ejh said...

The real question of course is, how does one actually improve one's time management, rather than simply observe that it's poor? Are there people who have actually managed to improve it substantially and how did they do it?

Anonymous said...

Good piece, Jonathan.

I know I don't manage my time that well. And it seems to me that stronger players are better at it.

Although I've done it before and not followed up, I think I might start recording move times again. Hopefully, I'll then review the expenditure.

FWIW, I'm pretty sure I'd have played Qd2+ at the end - it reduces the game to a simple win.


Jonathan B said...

The real question of course is, how does one actually improve one's time management, rather than simply observe that it's poor?

I think you first have to understand where YOU are losing time - there are many different ways and you have to understand yours.

Next step when you've identified problematic areas is simply to do something different. It's as easy and difficult as that. For me, essentially, that means not dithering most of the time.

Are there people who actually improve their time management? Well ask me next year and we'll see.

Jonathan B said...

And it seems to me that stronger players are better at it.

Well sometimes but not always - e.g. Peter Wells!

Robinson said...

In his book "Chess Master at Any Age," Rolf Wetzell went on at length about clock management and, as I remember, presented a system for addressing time trouble. I'd recommend this book as a good resource for chess improvement -- the author was able to raise his rating 400 points even after his rating had plateaued after the magic 8 years of serious play. (After 8 years of serious chess, it is said, most people never improve much).

I figured that book would be out of print by now, but new and used copies are still available at Amazon.

Currently, I've been reading Charles Hertan's "Forcing Chess Moves: The Key to Better Calculation" and I think this is about the best chess improvement book for players 1200-1800 and up that I've seen. If there is a combination on the board, I would think working through Hertan's book would make you more likely to find it, and find it quicker. Also, as one reviewer on Amazon suggested, work through the examples in this book as if they were exercises and you'll get even more from this instant classic. I rate this up there with Vukovic's "Art of Attack," but more accessible.


Jonathan B said...

Incidentally Angus,

I think while I was playing the game in question you were securing a short(ish) draw against Carsten.

Anonymous said...

It's pointless talking about time management if you're going to ignore the up to 3 1/2 hrs of the game when it's not your move.


Anonymous said...

Expanding - Time control is about many things.

Quality of opening preparation (general and specific), the efficiency of your thought processes (don't analyse the same moves twice, don't analyse unnecessary variations), the extent to which you are prepared to satisfice (time is inevitably traded against quality) and the extent to which you use all the time available. But frankly the second one usually takes second place to being in the bar ;)

Another factor is what you view to be the purpose of time management - is it an absolute thing (making your 40 moves in 2hrs or whatever) or a relative, where the purpose is simply not to fall too far behind your opponent.

For me it's the latter - as long as i remain in reasonable contact with my opponent then i'm happy, fall too far behind and i get twitchy (both in the context of falling significantly behind the clock in an 'absolute' sense).


Jonathan B said...

Another factor is what you view to be the purpose of time management - is it an absolute thing (making your 40 moves in 2hrs or whatever) or a relative, where the purpose is simply not to fall too far behind your opponent.

this is a very good point Richard. I've come to feel that in quickplay finish games I don't want to fall more than 15-20 minutes behind on the clock at any stage (less as the end comes nearer).

In x moves in y minutes time controls I'm not concerned about the relative clock situations just mine.

Also, you're point about the 'other' 50% of the time is very important too I think.

ejh said...

There's perhaps a question, too, as to whether and how Fischer clocks affect what you need to do about time management.