Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Tick Tick Tick ... VI

The other half
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.
... as Richard rightly said in the comments box to this post.

In Excelling at Chess*, Jacob Aagaard considers the time during a chess game when it's the opponent's turn to move to be analogous to the breaks between the individual games of a tennis match. According to Aagaard the realisation that five sets might actually involve playing tennis for perhaps half an hour at most led to attention being focused on those parts of the contest during which 'nothing' was happening. It was found, not coincidentally he feels, that "the best players all had a similar pattern of behaviour" at those times.

In the light of his findings Aagaard goes on to describes his visit to the Wijk aan Zee tournament of 2001.
"Kasparov, Anand, Morozevich, Ivanchuk and Kramnik all did the same thing. They walked up and down on the stage, staring down at the floor. They occasionally glanced at other games, but never with true interest. The only one of these who was not totally focused was Anand who, occasionally, would talk with Piket or another player. Anand, by the way, did not have a strong tournament ... [**]

Shirov behaved differently, sitting at the board for most of the time. After six or seven games he was leading by a point."

I had this passage in mind during my visits to the Staunton Memorial last month. I took a close interest in what the players did when it was not their turn to move and found their habits remained remarkably consistent throughout the event. Nigel Short, for example, would typically retreat to the arbiters' table where he would often share a word or two with Steve Giddens while Jan Timman would usually spend his time wandering the playing hall taking a close look at each of the other game. The Dutchman had a very lackadaisical attitude towards the clock and on more than one occasion I noticed him returning to his board then wandering off again without noticing that his opponent had actually moved.

Only one player - Michael Adams - was Shirovesque in his approach. Adams rarely left the board and indeed would even remain seated when it was not his move and his opponent was absent. He seemed to make a habit of going for a stroll around the playing hall for a few minutes once he'd reached the time control but other than that once he'd sat down for the start of play that was pretty much where he'd stay for the next few hours. It hardly need be said that it was Adams who ended up winning the tournament***.

Of course outward behaviour doesn't tell us for sure what these guys were actually thinking about. Timman clearly wasn't focused on his game but Short could have been contemplating his position just as much as Adams seemed to be. For that matter it's perfectly possible that England's number one didn't have his mind on chess at all but instead was spending the time pondering just how much fun it would be to find himself trapped in a confined space with Ann Margaret with nothing but a large tin of baked beans and a vat of melted chocolate for entertainment****. Still, if you had to put money on it, you'd have to say that it was most likely it was Michael Adams who was making fullest use of the available time wouldn't you?

Acting on the outside what you want to be on the inside is invariably a helpful technique. Not a cure all for sure but a good start. It's certainly not enough on its own though. We also have to find an answer to the question of what it would be helpful for us to be doing while our opponents' clocks tick away. Unfortunately in the otherwise very helpful and comprehensive chapter on Clock Control in Chess for Tigers Simon Webb doesn't have too much to say about this. His advice pretty much amounts to,

"The Tiger is determined to do his best, and so gets up only as often as necessary to refresh his brain. He spends his opponent's time thinking generally about the position and what manoeuvres are available to both sides so that he can start thinking in terms of exact moves as soon as his opponent makes a move."

What Michael Adams thinks about while waiting for his opponent to move. Maybe.

Sadly he doesn't give any examples of how exploring a position in general might look in practice. I suppose this is about positional understanding and identifying the key features of a position - fianchettoed bishop, queen side pawn majority, insecure king etc etc - but that's much easier to talk about than to do I feel.

So at the end of today's meanderings I'm left with the knowledge that my opponents' clock time is an important resources for me but without any clear idea of how I can best make use of it. Not for the first time I throw my troubles out to the esteemed and most valued readership of the S&BCC Blog and ask two questions:-

(a) what do you do while your opponent is thinking?
(b) what do you think is actually 'good' or 'helpful' behaviour at these times?

All answers gratefully received.

* A book I've discussed many times on the blog (from most recent backwards ... 1, 2, 3)

** Regular S&BCC blog visitors with elephantine memories may find these words familiar. If so it's because this passage is the lead in to the quote about Anand not reaching his full potential as discussed here and the prior to that in the original post here.

*** I might also add that unlike Peter Wells and Ivan Sokolov, Adams invariably arrived at the tournament hall five minutes before the start of play.

**** Or is that just me?


Anonymous said...

Adams was exactly the same when I visited his match against Hydra. In 4 hours he only left his chair once.

Talking about Sokolov, I'm surprised you haven't mentioned the fact that he went to the toilet about 20 times an hour. he gets worse when it's nearer the end of the first time control.

Tom Chivers said...

Many players analyze in their head without sight of the board. In "The Inner Game" Dominic Lawson says how Short more or less prepared for his Kasparov match without using a board, and in fact didn't at the time at least own a chess board.

ejh said...

I've started making a real effort to change the way I operate when the opponent is thinking. I'm much more Najdorf than Botvinnik (to use Kotov's categories) and I've rarely been found at the board when my opponent's clock is ticking. It always makes me laugh when people say "Oh, I couldn't play chess, I've got no concentration" - how much concentration have I got?

I've partly been forced to stay at the board by starting to play with Fischer clocks, which effectively keep you in permanent time trouble after the early middlegame. But partly, it's one of those things I've decided I ought to try and improve: being in my early forties certain aspects of my game are likely to decline and therefore if I want to maintain my standards for as long as possible, I should perhaps try to improve in those areas where I still can.

This business about what to think about when the opponent is thinking. In some ways I think it matters less what you think about than that you think of something. It's very easy to basically run through the variations you've already thought about, then think well, I can't really do any more until I know what they've actually played (or that it would waste my time to analyse stuff they don't actually choose to play) and get up until the clock is pushed. Don't do this! When you find yourself just going over old stuff again, just do something else. Even if it involves considering unlikely sacrifices. Anything.

Re: general considerations. Perhaps it might help if you imagine yourself taking a step back fro mthe table, and then sitting down again and imagining it was somebody else's game and you'd never seen the position before. Consider this "new" position as if you were being asked to describe it: where are the weaknesses, where are the open lines, where are the outposts? And how might either side go about exploting, atacking of defending them? Don't do it too mechanically, it's just a way of seeing things by focussing less (perhaps a bit like this) and if you see something that interests you, stop the scan and investigate it! Obviously you can be sidetracked by the wrong thing (most players of club level will tend to worry too much about something small and completely overlook something much bigger, ants that we are) but it's still, perhaps, a useful freshening-up technique.

ejh said...

Re: the toilet, I have a similar problem, presumably connected to nervousness.

Anonymous said...

After a crushing defeat at a congress a year ago, my oppenent pointed out that the titled players in the Open rarely left their chairs. Put simply - they work a lot harder!

Going for a walkabout in between moves is just lazy - there is nearly always something you could be analysing, even if it's just "what would I do if my opponent plays x". Most of us aren't machines like Adams, but surely even a regular club player can still concentrate for a couple of hours without the need to walk around every 15 minutes?

My grade increased 16 ECF points last season and pretty much the only thing I did different was to work harder at the board and stop being such a relentless voyeur of games that I had no influence over.

Adam B.

Anonymous said...

Yes I think watching other games is particularly damaging as not only are you wasting time but when your opponent does move, you need a minute or so to get back to working out what was going on in your position. If your opponent uses his time when it is his move well, then you are also giving him more time as well as you less. Perhaps this is one reason why captains (when I was captain of Pinner, my results were generally disappointing (a lot more so at home than away venues- this may be another point)) tend to do badly. Not only does it take them time to get into the game....where is that damned player? (lets give him a random name...I know, John C) but when everyone is present they spend too much time watching others games. Ironically the best way you can help the team may be if you don't care how it does.
Getting up when it is not your move can be justified to avoid tiredness, but it is very tempting to use this excuse as a reason for lazyness.

ejh said...

surely even a regular club player can still concentrate for a couple of hours without the need to walk around every 15 minutes?

Well, not entirely. All the Najdorf types probably overdo it to some extent, but some people really do need to get up for a while and to relax a bit. And there is an argument perhaps that arriving at the board and giving it a fresh look might help you, whereas sitting at the board too long may just lead to your thoughts going in the same direction every time.

Walking round for fifteen minutes, now that's something else entirely...

dfan said...

I have to go take a piss every half hour or so when I play tournament chess, maybe an hour if I push it. I assume it's nerves too. I'd love to find a way to turn it off.

Polly said...

It depends a lot of the time control. If it's a short time control such as 60 minutes per player for all their moves I tend to rarely stray from the board, unless I really have to go to the bathroom! I use my opponent's time to think about what he's going to play in response to my move. Sometimes my analysis is way off, and the time spent doesn't help.

With longer multiple time controls such as 40/2 G/60, I'm given more to wandering around some. I try to stay focused on my own game while away from the board, but sometimes I see an interesting position at a another table and watch for a moment. Also outside the playing room I may end out talking to someone.

What I have learned is that when I come back to the board I need to reaquaint myself with the position. I have had incidents where I thought I had everything worked out when I left the board, I come back my opponent has made some move and I just make the natural response or the one I had worked out before. Often there is something I've forgotten about or never saw that ends out surprisng me.

There are also times where the position has gotten very complex, and my mind is in overload. It's in times like that if time allows, I will step outside for some fresh air, take a few slow breaths and try to clear my mind of the stray thoughts. This little time out is often helpful when I'm feeling overwhelmed by the position.

Unfortunately I do not have the gift of doing deep analysis in my head without sight of the board. I guess that's probably why my USCF rating stays around 1700.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't Bob Wade the person who remained at the board the most at the Staunton tourney?

Jonathan B said...


Yes in the sense that I don't remember him ever leaving the board during the game. Adams very very rarely. Bob Wade never.

No in the sense that Bob Wade's games tended to last 3 hours at most. Adams' usually went an hour longer.

ejh said...

Bit of a special case in that respect, Bob Wade, being possibly a little less mobile than the average player.

Anonymous said...

Is there a bar in the vicinity? ;)


Anonymous said...

I tend to get up from the board a lot during play; I'm not sure that I could sit at my board for the long periods of time that the likes of Adams do.

(This, like my, uh, clock control, is something that I don't usually believe myself to have much conscious control over.)

Anonymous said...

I think it's fair to say that the debate is academic if you are involved, Jack! Especially if you're the opponent ;)


Robert Pearson said...

Something that I started to do recently during quickplay and blitz games on my opponent's time--just look at his pieces! That is, where could they move to and what would they threaten from there? Simple, obvious, yet one of my own major problems has always been a fondness for my own plans and a tendency to overlook strong moves for my opponent. This technique seems to help a good deal; not only do I sometimes get a get a jump on the next move, having already given it some thought before it was played, I also quit focusing on my plans to crush him and consider how to stop his plans to crush me.

Haven't played any longer time control OTB games for several months but I'm going to do it there too, as it seems more pointed and useful than Kotov's "general positional considerations."