Chess clocks

Chess clocks are a pair of clocks used to time chess moves. Only one clock is ticking at a time, depending on whose move it is. Chess clocks can be used to time long tournament games in tournaments, and can also be used in social play (e.g. each player gets 5 or 10 minutes). Junior chess tournaments often play without clocks, or with clocks only on the top boards. And you can obviously play social chess without a clock.

Pressing the Clock

Using a chess clocks means that you press it after every move. You make your move on the board, and then you press your clock, whereupon your opponent’s time starts ticking. They make a move, press their clock, and your time starts ticking.

Clock Not Working

During the game, someone’s clock is ticking, even if they forgot to press it. Sometimes it is possible to have neither clock ticking. This is a common problem and usually just means your clock isn’t working. Probably it hasn’t been set up right, or is out of battery. You need to find a tournament official and get the clock fixed before starting the game. If this happens in the middle of the game, you also need to find the arbiter before continuing. Note that you cannot have both clocks ticking at the same time (that’s also a problem with your clock if so!).

Time Forfeits

Near the end of the game, you need to watch the time. You can win or lose on time. You need to make sure that you don’t run out of time, and you need to claim the win if your opponent runs out of time. You don’t automatically win if they run out of time, you have to actually claim it. A loss on time is called a “time forfeit”. There is also a “double time forfeit” if both players lose on time. And there is often also a special time forfeit at the start of the game if one player fails to arrive in time, they will lose on time after some grace period (usually 30 minutes or 60 minutes) even if the clock in theory has more time than this available for the entire game.

Chess Clock Etiquette

Clocks are easy to use. So you know how to press a button, right? Surprisingly, there is a proper way to press the clock in tournament rules. You are supposed to use the same hand that you use to make the move. You aren’t supposed to have one hand hovering over the clock button while the other hand moves the pieces. In fact, even for castling, you are supposed to use one hand to move the King first, then the same hand to move the Rook, and then the same hand to press the clock.

Sometimes you need to “unpress” the clock. For example, if you accidentally make an illegal move, you are supposed to not just undo the move on the board, but your opponent is also supposed to reset the clock so it’s your clock ticking again. Clocks don’t usually have an “undo” button so this just means that your opponent presses their button so your clock restarts again. That way, you don’t use your opponent’s time while you fix the board and think of a different move!

Stopping the Clocks

Stopping the clocks also has a special significance. It occurs mainly at the end of the game. One way to “resign” a game is to stop the clocks, usually also with a verbal indication of resignation and a handshake. Also, if both players agree to a draw, then someone usually stops the clocks. Stopping the clocks can also mean that a player is going to find an official tournament referee for a variety of reasons (e.g. to claim a draw by triple repetition).

Timed Chess Games

Time durations for chess games vary with the tournament rules. Slower tournament games might be specified as the whole game in “60 minutes” or as 40 moves in 90 minutes (or in 120 minutes). Faster games might “5 minutes” for the game (“lightning chess”) or 10 or 15 minutes for rapid play chess.

In all cases, the time schedule refers to the time for each player, so the approximate time for the whole game will be double that. Actually, a game can go longer than this in a few ways. If the time is “40 minutes in 90 minutes” then the player will get another extra slug of time on the 41st move, which might be like “30 minutes for the rest of the game” or it might be “30 minutes for the next 20 minutes”, and so on.

Fischer Clocks

The other likely time specification is a “Fischer clock” style, named after famous champion Bobby Fischer. This time setting refers to each player getting a set amount of extra time on each move. For example, a tournament game might be “90 minutes” for the whole game but with “30 seconds per move” added as a Fischer time. This means that each player starts with 90 minutes on the clock, but will also get 30 seconds added on every move. So the game can go on longer than 90 minutes, and in theory could go on for a long time.

The idea of Fischer time schedules is actually quite a nice one. It avoids those frantic time scrambles where both players have only a few seconds left. The result of those games tends to be about the clock time rather than anything on the board or any skill of the players. Fischer clocks avoid this by allowing each player a minimum amount of time for each move, so they can always spend a few seconds playing their move. Even so, players often think too slowly and lose on time with a Fischer clock.

Flagfall and Old Clocks

Digital chess clocks are widespread, but there are (or were) also analogue styles of chess clocks. You know, with the big hand and the little hand, except that analogue chess clocks don’t really work like a real clock. An analogue chess clock will indicate a time forfeit via the “flagfall” of the clock. If you’re a junior player, you’ve probably never seen one, and probably won’t need to worry about it.

Chess Clock Strategy and Time Management

How much time should you use? Well, that’s a matter of chess strategy. Masters will usually spend little time in the first few moves, because they know them by rote as part of an opening repertoire. Masters will use up more time in the middlegame, when things get complex, such as with an attack or defence. So players will often have less time available for the endgame. With the advent of Fischer time schedules, the risk of a massive blunder in time trouble is lessened (although not completely gone).

But some people like to play faster. If you can play a reasonably good move, it’s often a good practical strategy to just play the move, rather than expending a lot of time trying to find a more perfect move. Having extra time nearer the end of the game is a significant advantage if your opponent is short of time. But you probably shouldn’t play rapidly without thinking in the early part of the game, as many beginners do. That’s likely to lead to weak play and lots of errors. Take some time to think about your move, and think about the move your opponent just made too.

Forgetting to Press the Clock

Clocks don’t press themselves. Forgetting to press the clock is common for beginners. If you notice you did it, just press the clock. If you never notice, in theory your opponent could just sit there looking at you with a puzzling expression on their face until you lose on time. In practice, eventually you’ll notice that something’s amiss.

What if your opponent forgets to click their clock? Well, you can remind them, that’s polite, although you can also just take advantage of it by “thinking on their time”. In beginner chess, it’s unlikely to make much difference, so generally better just to remind them. But usually you don’t press their clock for them.

Other Clock Things

There are a few obscure things about your opponent not pressing their clock. In a formal tournament, they haven’t really finished their move until they press the clock. For example, if a player makes a move then stands up and goes away, in theory they could be going to get the arbiter or something, although in practice they would probably “stop the clocks” instead if doing that.

Get the App!

Don’t have a chess clock? There’s an app for that! Seriously, there are some apps where you can use your smartphone like it’s a chess clock. You can also, you know, actually play chess on your phone too!