Playing Too Slow: a Professional's Opinion

Playing Too Slow: a Professional's Opinion

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One of my former students, Trevor Harley, is a professional psychologist. I told him about my concern about students who play too slow and consistently get into unnecessary time pressure, which costs them game after game. These students know they play too slow, have all kinds of tips about how to speed up, but still can't bring themselves to play at a normal, faster rate.  So Trevor offered to make some suggestions for them, and here they are:

Playing too slow

by Trevor Harley

Suppose you’ve just finished your life’s work - the next great novel, say. Just after you finish it you decide it’s rubbish and immediately burn the only copy. As it’s going up in flames, lost for ever, you realise how good it was. You’d probably regret it immediately.

Of course you wouldn’t set it on fire, you say. But some people play chess just in a similar: they labour for maybe two or more hours creating something that is good, but then they start to run short of time, and have to move very quickly. They then blunder in time trouble, or even worse, their flag falls, or its digital equivalent, and they lose on time. All that work, all that excellence, lost in a moment because of a lack of foresight.

Some people play too quickly, and some play too slowly. It’s no good complaining about the time (“I had a won position before I lost on time”) because time is part of the game just as much as the number of pawns you have. So you have to manage it. Some people try to do so by dividing the game up into sections, say every five moves, and noting on their score sheet where they should be time-wise by that point. This technique is much more difficult to employ in an online game, and in any case it doesn’t work: the opening moves can be played relatively quickly, but there will be times when you know you are in a critical position and need a disproportionate amount of time to think.

According to database analysis the average game lasts almost exactly 40 moves. If you’re play 30 5 chess that’s an average of 50 seconds a move. You might play the first six moves or so very quickly before you come to the first deviation from your opening knowledge, but that’s still going to give you an average of around one minute a move. Not long.

Any of us might get into time trouble occasionally (although I have never lost on time - I have the opposite problem, tending to move too fast) but we know people what are habitual time troublers. What’s more they know they’re doing something wrong, but seem incapable of correcting it. So why do some people habitually play too slowly, and what can they do about it?

First, some people are perfectionists. They want their game to be perfect. You will never attain perfection: Magnus Carlsen’s play is rarely perfect. Of course you should try the best you can, but remember that time is an integral part of the game, so you should try to find the best move you can in the time. Related to perfectionism is fear of making mistakes. You can reduce the probability of making a mistake by introducing some kind of error check, such as Kotov’s “through the eyes of a patzer”, before you move, but again remember that this check will take time. Psychologists call people’s resistance to taking risks and making errors risk aversion. Some people dislike uncertainty more than others: people are risk averse, some risk neutral, and others risk loving. You can probably relate other aspects of your chess to where you are on this spectrum: if you love to sacrifice a piece in an attack without a forced win, you are risk loving. Risk averse people don’t want to take chances, and will spend time making sure they’re doing the right thing. Recognise this aspect of your behaviour.

Most people have heard of Pareto’s Law, which says that for many tasks 80% of the work is done in the first 20% of the time (and variants thereof). It’s also called the rule of diminishing returns. Most of the time most of the work is done early on in your analysis for each move, and after a while you’ll be getting very little out of spending extra time on the position.

Third, not every position is critical. In fact few are, and the key to success is recognising which positions are. Dan Heisman has written extensively about this topic. There is no point spending a lot of time about alternative when which one you choose makes little difference to the outcome. If you regularly get into time trouble concentrate on learning to recognise when a position is critical.

Third, I think playing slowly is related to indecisiveness and procrastination. We know that the best way of dealing with procrastination is simply to force yourself to make a start on the dreaded job.

Fourth, being aware of how much time they have for each move and how much is left. Some people are shocked that they might have on average only a minute a move. So if in a 30 5 game you get to move 15 and spend 20 minutes on it, you’re only going to have 5 minutes or so for the remaining 25. So then you have to speed up a lot. And of course playing fast is terrible. You’d be better off recognising that anything much longer than a minute is going to result in a defeat for you, either because you make a mistake in time pressure or lose on time, unless it’s a critical position.

Fundamentally being slow in chess is being cautious. Cautiousness is correlated with the “Big Five” personality factors of higher conscientiousness, higher neuroticism (through fear of commitment), and lower openness to experience. Personality is difficult to change - it’s dependent on genetics, brain structures, and early experience - but it’s not impossible. You need to work on specific training, ensuring you don’t get into time trouble though the tips above. Although playing too many fast game is usually bad for you, this situation is one case where it will be good for you. It you’re often playing too slowly try laying a large number of blitz games to speed up your decision making and “chess reflexes”.

*** Thanks, Trevor! Hope the "slow" players found this helpful.
PS: I also have a videos on: