The Time-Trouble Blues

The Time-Trouble Blues

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EscapePlan69 asked:

“I get into time trouble in most of my games while my opponents always have plenty of time left. How can I improve my time management? My tournament games are one hour and 30 minutes plus 30 seconds per move.”

JS: Time trouble plagues beginners, strong amateurs, masters, and grandmasters. There is no universal cure. Some players simply accept that it’s a part of the “chess rush.” Some, like Sammy Reshevsky (one of the best three or four players in the world during his prime), never did find a way to avoid time pressure, but he did something most can’t do: With seconds left, he suddenly played even better! 

Young Sammy Reshevsky playing Frank Marshall in 1921.

The late GM Walter Browne was famous for his time-pressure scenes, and when the final ticks on the clock filled his ears, he would often “share” his horror with the spectators by twitching, grabbing his ears, drooling, throwing the clock out of a window, and putting on quite a show. I played him many times, and, since I also suffered from time pressure, we would (on an occasion or two) simply accept a draw since the game was no longer chess. It was just a contest to see who could make more moves before the time ran out!

Why do people get into time trouble?

Strong players tend to get into time trouble if they find a position particularly interesting. They want to know the “truth” of the position so they think and think, and in some instances, they even forget that there’s a battle going on. 

In other instances, an opponent might toss out a new move in the opening. Since playing the “usual” move just won’t do, the chess pro goes into a long, deep think so that he can fully understand the opponent’s intentions. A similar situation occurs when you realize that you don’t like your position. Instead of just making reasonable-looking moves, the person who isn’t overly happy with their game will take a very long think. They are basically trying (by dint of will) to find a way to equalize or a plan that gives them reasonable chances.

Exhausting your time on one move will rarely turn the tide.

Here’s an example from one of my own games.

I hadn’t played the opening particularly well, and I am now facing slow suffocation due to my lack of counterplay (it’s almost impossible to attack b3 in any meaningful way), White’s two bishops, White’s superiority in space, and White’s long-term chances against my king. Realizing that the situation was critical (at least it was in my mind!), I thought for an hour and came up with a very interesting plan. Of course, after taking a whole hour for one move, I was left with far less time than I wanted. However, since I had already planned what I was going to do for the next several moves, it turned out okay.

Non-masters end up in time pressure for very different reasons. Here they are:

Very Little Pattern Recognition

Whenever I bring up pattern recognition, quite a few readers get upset because learning zillions of chessboard patterns means you need to put in a LOT OF WORK! Telling people that they need to work hard to be really good is, somehow, an insult to those that hope to wake up one day and find themselves a grandmaster. Dream on! Yet, if you think about it with a clear mind, it becomes obvious that knowing patterns not only helps you avoid time trouble, but it also makes you a far stronger player. The more patterns you master, the stronger you’ll get. I’ll give you an example.

Here’s a typical endgame pattern.

Knowing this pattern can even help you in the middlegame.

As a result of seeing reality for the first time, I decided to put on the brakes. Here's the actual game:

As I mentioned, this is still a dead draw even if I lose my two queenside pawns. Though I used quite a bit of time on my clock on move 17, I wasn’t worried since I already knew what to do and what positions could arise. That is all thanks to the wonders of patterns.

Lack of Opening Knowledge

It’s tough trying to reinvent the wheel over and over again. However, amateurs often don’t understand the most basic things in their openings, and this means that they will not only make huge mistakes (moves that have nothing to do with the position’s needs), but they will also take lots of time on the clock to try and figure out what should be done.

Time disappears quickly! Using it all in the opening will rarely bring good results.

Again, to avoid time pressure, you need to know lots of opening patterns too!

Imagine all the time you would have to use on the clock if you didn't know those basic Ruy patterns!

Here’s a position from the game Negi vs Spraggett played in Barcelona in 2013. Both White and Black have made use of all of the ideas I mentioned. From here, more basic patterns arise. White can go for a sacrificial kingside attack with Rg1 followed (eventually) by Nf5. Or White might (once the g4-pawn is protected) play for h3-h4-h5. Or White might decide to dominate the a-file with Ra2 or Ra3 followed by Re1-a1 when White can open the a-file at any point with axb5. All of these ideas should already be known to you if you wish to play this opening properly.

Of course, White might not push the pawn to d5. Instead, White might prefer a more open game with 13.dxc5:

A key idea for Black is to push the c-pawn to c4, then bring a knight to d3 via ...Nf6-d7-c5-d3. Another idea after ...c5-c5 is the sacrificial ...Nc6-d4. Here’s a classic game where Fischer walked right into it.

After this game, everyone (Black and White) knew that this idea had to be avoided or only allowed if the sacrifice wasn’t quite sound.

Returning to 13.dxc5 dxc5 14.Nf1 Be6 15.Ne3, there’s another idea that White dreams about: White's knight can come to f5, Black’s light-squared bishop can capture it, White’s e-pawn captures back on f5, and then White makes use of that hole on e4 by placing a knight on e4. When White’s knight is traded off, White’s light-squared bishop makes e4 its home and the two bishops (usually combined with cracking open the a-file by a2-a4xb5) apply horrible pressure to Black. Nowadays, both White and Black are well aware of this pattern. White wishes to get it, and Black makes sure it doesn’t happen!

Here’s an old game that shows what happens if Black allows this:

Once again: Imagine how much time people would have to use if they didn’t know these patterns.

I want to add that I’m not talking about memorizing tons of theoretical moves. I’m talking about understanding specific situations/positions/concepts that make life easy in almost every opening and middlegame position. Without such knowledge, the clock would run out for everyone, or the players would simply get bad positions since they aren’t aware of the position’s true needs.

To repeat:

Did you notice that, though the article is about time pressure, I leaped into patterns. Why? Because everything in chess is interconnected. Not having pattern recognition means that you will make errors and get into time pressure. Lack of pattern recognition is a major cause of time pressure in the amateur ranks.

Time and patterns, all turning in upon each other.

Going over your analysis again and again

Yes, we’re talking about the good old, “I go there, he goes there, I go there, and … hmmm … Let’s look at that again. Seems good, but if I’m wrong, I’m toast. So I’ll look again.”

Repeating an exciting line, or a defensive series of moves, is something everyone does from time to time. Some do it all the time. However, it’s a massive clock eater! Often the problem is a lack of confidence which makes you repeat calculations endlessly, leaving you short of time and emotionally frazzled.

This is a tough one; if you can’t calculate, there is nothing you can do. The only cure is to improve your tactics, pick up some patterns (opening patterns and middlegame patterns), and improve your openings. This brings us right back to HARD WORK!

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