Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The thirty-third piece

To add to the list of things I suffer from at the chess board - forgetfulness, a poor opening repertoire, a lack of concentration, tactical oversights, little or no strategic understanding, positional naivety, a pendulum mind that swings from the vanities of optimism to soul-crushing pessimism without pausing for the realism that presumably should lie somewhere in between - I can now newly add: time-trouble. Desperate, clock-banging, move-blitzing, pulse-racing, flag-hanging time-trouble. And sometimes more than once a game.

Where has this come from? Is it definitely a bad thing? What was I doing differently before? Is there any hope? I've spent, as you might guess, an unnecessary amount of time thinking over these questions, and have settled on three possible theories to explain my new difficulty, which you can vote on on the left. But if you need a bit more information to decide, then:

Theory 1: Decline

I am newly thirty-four years old. Don't they say we get worse at chess at the age of thirty, or thirty-five? And I'm somewhere in between. So, I've peaked, and the first part of my decline is spending longer to do what I used to be able to do quickly.

Every day, the future looks a bit darker. But, the past, even the grimy bits, well it just keeps getting brighter all the time.

But... my results say otherwise, and so far this season I have maintained a performance comparable to the last few years. So could it be that the difference this year is . . .

Theory 2: Tougher Opponents?

I am playing higher up the board order than ever before, and as a result my opponents are significantly stronger. So time-trouble is natural. Sure, it has cost me at least one clear missed win - on the other hand, it has rescued draws from difficulties set by IMs. These things balance out, since my grade reflects my standard, but playing just takes more time.

Not only that, top players experience time trouble surprisingly frequently. The mistake patzer kibitzers make when they criticize them for it is to presume the elite became the elite despite incidents of time-trouble - rather than in part because they know when to spend extra time. By analogy, were it not for my time trouble, my results might well be worse.

Revel in your time.

But... this doesn't wholly ring true with the positions on the board. For instance, here:

my opponent played 11...Be2. How hard is it to see 12.Qxg7 is a bad idea? That 12.Re1 is fine, because after 12...Bxd3 13.Bxb6 axb6 white has the zwischenzug 14.Bxc6+? Added together, would you say in excess of half an hour, leaving me around a minute per move until the time control?

Or here:

where I was instantly attracted to the unusual 8.Qa5, which restricts black's potential breaks of c5 and e5 and should black castle permits a possible Qh5, with an attack. I realised fairly soon that there were some other potentially unusual ideas for white here - b4 to restrict c5, Rb3 to protect a Bd3 or possibly swing the rook over to the kingside, Bd2-c3 to further restrict a5 and e5. And lo, within a few moves all of these ideas had come to pass on the board: and lo, again I had less than a minute per move until the time control.

The bottom line: neither of these positions are complicated enough to require epic thinks and permit the time-trouble that resulted, are they?

Theory 3: C'est la vie

Both the above two theories relate to competition: but perhaps the overarching cause is a loss of competitiveness. After all, my rating will probably not ever be higher, neither will my place on the board order, and I've probably already taken my best ever scalp; I am less nervous and more relaxed than ever before; I am enjoying chess as an opportunity to just think, unconscious of time. Time-trouble, c'est la vie! Embrace it - or rather the uncompetitive absorption in chess it points to.

At the still point, there the dance is

But... when my flag hangs I don't feel uncompetitive; I feel inordinate relief if I rescue a draw from difficulties on the board and fighting against the problems caused by the thirty-third piece, and anyway if what I'm really getting out of chess is some kind of meditation, why don't I switch from playing to, say, solving puzzles? Or entirely non-competitive puzzles like modernist poetry?

And besides, aren't I still trying to apply the clock-management principles I decided upon having read Nunn and Rowson? (That is: any think over fifteen minutes is likely to lead to a blunder, so if undecided after fifteen minutes, mentally toss a coin or go with your intuition; long thinks should establish several moves in a row, so after a long think play the next few moves rapidly).

In conclusion, I've unsurprisingly spent too much time on this post already. Get voting to help me understand my new problem!


The poll is closed, results as follows:

A: Because he's old
  4 (30%)
B: Because he should
  3 (23%)
C: Who cares? He shouldn't.
  6 (46%)

I was rather surprised to see that the laissez-faire C won, chess players normally being mini-dictators when it comes to such matters as other player's clocks. However, I now rather suspect that C's victory is based upon a misunderstanding. The poll question was "Why is Tom getting into time trouble?" and I suspect that those who answer C think it means "The reason doesn't matter. He just shouldn't get into time-trouble". But my intended meaning was: "Who cares about time trouble? Tom shouldn't worry about it if he's enjoying chess." Quite different.

Thanks to the three players who voted 'Because he should' and the implicit compliment therein!


Jonathan B said...

Bladerunner references are always welcome.

Martin Smith said...

Yes, it was indeed T.S Eliot who gave this advice in the Waste Land: "HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME"

Bear those words in mind, and modernist poetry could be your salvation.

Jonathan B said...

I voted for "Who Cares?" although it doesn't really fit my view it seemed to be the closest option.

Ultimately, it seems to me, on the whole repeatedly getting into time trouble will be a negative thing. It doesn't really matter why - you need to make sure you don't.

Have you looked at where you're taking the time? If you're not recording the time taken for every move I don't see how you can be totally sure where it's going.

Jonathan B said...

Incidentally, talking about how to get into time trouble...

I recently played a game in which my opponent took 15 minutes to decide on his 4th move ... cxd4.

I replied with the forced 5. Nxd4 and then my opponent took five minutes to play his next move.

I won that game on time with 7 moves to go to the time control.

Martin Smith said...

Didn't Bronstein habitually take 20 minutes or so to decide on his first move? In fact, I remember seeing him do it when he briefly appeared on Board 1 for Charlton in the London League a few years ago.

Tom Chivers said...

I think the last three games I've been in time trouble by around move 15.

Where isn't he issue really. Why is!

Jonathan B said...

Where leads to why, Grasshopper.

Tom Chivers said...

In that case, the examples of where are typical: the opening. So virtually as soon as possible.

Jonathan B said...

Not specific enough. When in the opening? Patterns? Idiosyncratic but always the opening? Are you sure?

If you're not recording the amount of time you use for each move I don't see how you can be absolutely sure.

Anonymous said...

Currently marking the last question of an A Level exam. It is clear that many candidates have got into "time trouble" with brief answers. Looking back on my exams, chess was a great help as an exam was a case of rationing time just like a chess match. Not quite actually, as Tom has suggested, it may make sense to spend a long time on early moves. In an exam, all questions carry the same importance (per mark) so time should be allocated evenly. If you were a time trouble addict, chess may have actually harmed your exam chances.

Tom Chivers said...

The poll is closed and the post updated with the results. Thanks for voting!