I Will Solve Your Time Trouble Woes

NM Flicflac
Sep 28, 2016, 8:00 PM |

Hey chess.com,

Here's an exercise for y'all. List out the last 10 tournament games you played. Out of those 10 games, how many of those games did time trouble affect the quality of the moves you played?

I think for a lot of people that answer will scare you. I asked myself this question a few years ago after blundering in time pressure for the millionth time, and the number I came up with astounded me. That was when I realized that the clock is as much a part of the board as the pieces. Blunders lose games, poor clock management causes blunders, therefore poor time management loses games, no different than hanging pieces loses games too. If you consider blundering pieces as a serious error, then you better treat poor time management as a serious area of improvement too.

Here are some key takeaways that helped me improve my time management, and will hopefully help you with yours.

1) After each move, write down how much time each side has left.

I've said this many times again and it's worth repeating. The first step to improving something is to measure it. By doing this, you can analyze how much time you've spent on each move, and on which moves you should have allocated more or less time on.

I did this for a couple of my games, and started looking for where I could afford to start shaving time off my moves. It became very apparent in my games that that the opening was the easiest phase of the game to move quickly in and bank up time for later positions. This is because chess games always start in set positions, so the beginning positions that you play can be prepared for. But complicated middlegames and endgames we have to spend much more time in, so we should save as much time for those phases as possible.

This discovery motivated my deep study of openings so that I could get a big time advantage early on. My improvement in opening play was singlehandedly the most important aspect in improving my time management. Perhaps studying the openings more can help alleviate some of your time trouble too.

2) Before you even go to a tournament, set benchmarks for how much time you want to have left by a certain move based on the time control of the game.

This way you can pace yourself as you know how much time you really should be spending on each move. For many time controls many of you guys would be surprised at how little time you really have for the entire game. Consider this:

The average game is about 40 moves long. So taking a G/60 as an example, 60/40 = 1.5. That means on average you should only be spending about 1.5 minutes per move in a G/60. I bet that is a lot less time than you had thought you had!

Now that we have calculated the average time to spend on a move, your time allocation per move should be based on this average. Critical positions, positions where you have to make a lasting choice for the game demand more time than the average 1.5 minutes spent. Easy developing moves should be done less, and quickly after a blunder check. I hope it is clear now that your extravagant 5 minute think to develop your knight to its most natural square was not a good use of time after all....Foot in Mouth

In general for set time controls, I aim to use 1/3 of my time on the first 20 moves, which leaves about 2/3 of my time for the rest of the game. So for a G/60, we want to reach move 20 with only about 20 minutes spent so that we would have 40 minutes for the next 20 moves. I split it this way because we really need this time for finding the right moves in the critical positions later on, and we don't want to waste too much time just to make normal developing moves in the opening, especially since you have studied your openings and can play it quickly right? Laughing

To help with this, I find that it helps to circle the critical move numbers that you want to reach under a certain amount of time. In my G/60 example, I said reach move 20 with 40 minutes still on my clock. In this case I would circle moves 10, 20 and 30 and aim to have about 55 minutes, 40 minutes, and 20 minutes respectively on the clock at each of those junctures.

3) Accept (before you even sit down to play) that you are not going to play perfect chess, and that mistakes will be made.

This is for the perfectionists out there, which we all are a little bit of considering we are chess players seeking the truth in our positions.  You are not going to play like Magnus Carlsen, and that is okay! If you want to win, you have to be a practical player. That means that spending 10 minutes to figure out which rook to move to the open file to get a crushing +0.11 advantage (sarcasm) is not acceptable, and sometimes you just have to move quickly. Tournament chess is not about playing the best moves. It is about playing the best moves in the given available time, and if you constantly search for perfection, your time trouble will take a toll on your results.

4) Track your time management improvement.

In continuing the theme of our statistics-driven approach to improving our chess game, I want you to start using statistics to track your progress in managing time better too.

Since you've already figured out how many times time trouble has affected your game in the last 10 games, from here on forward, I want you to redo this exercise every 10 games you play. If the last 10 games you played you were in time trouble 4 times, I hope that by implementing the suggestions in this article, the next 10 games you play, you will be in time trouble maybe only 2 times, and then the 10 games after that maybe only 1 or 0 times. In that way, you have clear metrics tracking your progress in this area of chess. If you still get into time trouble frequently, and this number does not go down every 10 games you play, you know that this is something you need to take more seriously if you want your practical results to improve.

5) Stop making excuses! This is probably the biggest impediment to people who need to improve their time management, as they refuse to admit that it is a problem to begin with. How many times have we heard chess players say they lost a game because they "blundered in time trouble?" And then they shrug off the loss and move on, only to repeat this exact cycle the very next game.

Time management is a skill. It has nothing to do with luck, or your style of chess. And just like improving any skill, you need to spend time on it to improve. All the advice I gave you above is work I want you to internalize before you even arrive at your next tournament. Your results will thank you.


I thought it would be interesting to introduce a couple time management exercises here. In the following positions, I will tell you the time control, how much time there is left for each side, the side to move, and your goal is to tell me "How much time should I be spending on this next move?" Comment below what you think the answers are, and compare with my thoughts on the position! (I'll post my thoughts in the comments)

Exercise 1:

Exercise 2:

Exercise 3:


Exercise 4:

Exercise 5: 


Until next time,