Time-Pressure – A nightmare of every chess player


GM Swapnil Dhopade

GM Swapnil Dhopade

Headcoach - Chess Pathshala

Time-pressure - A nightmare of every chess player

Have you ever lost a winning position in time-pressure? I am sure the answer is a resounding yes! 

Every chess player has lost winning or equal positions in their games due to time trouble.

 Imagine a situation – 

  1. You have prepared for hours before the game.

  2. The efforts are paying dividends as your opponent falls into something that you have prepped for.

  3. You get a slightly better position and also some extra minutes on the clock. 

  4. You invest your time on every move and slowly but steadily build up a clearly better / winning position till move 25-30.

  5. But then you have around 3 minutes left on the clock with 30 seconds increment for the entire game. You being low on time, your opponent tries to create some mess on the board and you have to find that one single move, a deceptive one that wins on the spot! 

  6. With your time ticking away, unfortunately, you do not find it and the tables are turned against you. You either lose the game or draw a winning position. 

  7. The emotions after such a game of chess are felt by most of us at some point or the other in our careers. It further turns into agitation and you may end up cursing your luck or blaming yourself. You come out and tell your friends, coaches and parents that you played a nearly flawless game but only if you had some extra time at that exact moment, you would have found the required winning move and crushed your opponent. Doh!

Does this story sound familiar to you?

If this happens once in a while, maybe it’s not that big an issue but if it happens game after game then it is high time to do something about it. Unless, of course, you enjoy playing under time pressure and find reasonably good moves without too many errors even in the most complicated of the positions.

If this is the case, then, congratulations! You are the next Grischuk! 

Pic Credit - Chessbase.com

On a quick note, the above-mentioned situations are not fictional, it happened with me when I was a young upcoming player. Well not just once, many times!

In the book secrets of practical chess, John Nunn writes:-

“The clock is just as much a part of the game as the board and pieces and losing because of time-trouble is no different than losing because of weak play - it's still zero point on the scoresheet.” John Nunn

Getting into time trouble in every game is a serious sin and I committed this sin many times in my childhood. Back then I was not self-reliant enough to resolve this problem in detail.

But in my journey towards excellence as a player and a coach, I read a lot of books and that helped me to understand many things on how to avoid time trouble. To be honest even today I still find myself in this situation in a few games but the percentage has gone down drastically.

Before finding a cure to any problem it's first important to understand the problem and in order to understand the problem, it is useful to ask the right questions.

So why do players get into time pressure regularly after all?

Don’t they know getting into time pressure is bad for practical results?

We all know that into time-trouble regularly is bad for our tournament results, but it unknowingly becomes a habit . A habit which is difficult to break but is not impossible. If I can do it so can you.

Let us see a short video clip (start from 3:47:30 to 3:50:00) of one of the fastest chess players in the world right now Ian Nepo who shares his story of how he improved his time trouble problem which he faced in his childhood.

Ian Nepomniachtchi on how he solved the time pressure issue

Let us now examine the reasons of time-pressure:-

  1. Assuming every position as critical:– I feel the major reason why players get into regular time-pressure is that they assume every decision that they make throughout the game is equally important. This is not the case. The decisions they make in the critical moments in the game, are far more imperative than the decision they make in the positions where there are several alternatives of more or less equal strength.

  2. Self-doubt:– Sometimes we intuitively feel that a certain move must be good because position demands it! But in order to prove ourselves right (because we are afraid of missing something even better), we calculate and calculate and calculate! After a while, we end up playing the same move but after losing unnecessary time on the clock. 

  3. Playing perfect chess:– Some of us want to create a masterpiece, play a perfect game of chess. Such games rarely exist! Even in top-level games, there will be some inaccuracies here and there. If you spend time finding perfect moves from the early stages of the game, you may end up playing horrible moves towards the end due to shortage of time. 

  4. Procrastination:– Some players do not make decisions, not only in chess but also in real life, until they are forced to by external circumstances. This results in a delay of simple decision making process over the board because there is no pressure until of course, the time-pressure arrives!

  5. Bad opening preparation:– You may lose a lot of time in the opening phase of the game itself if you have no idea how to continue after 7-8 moves into the game. Figuring out everything from the very start creates pressure and in return you lose a lot of time which may be difficult to cover later on.

  6. Lack of concentration:– Some players may suffer setbacks due to a lack of concentration during the game. Their mind is flooded with sometimes unrelated thoughts/ideas which distract them from focusing. The result – loss of valuable time.

To Summarize – 

  1. Assuming every position as critical

  2. Self-Doubt

  3. Playing perfect chess

  4. Procrastination

  5. Bad opening preparation

  6. Lack of concentration

So once we have understood the reasons of time pressure let’s dive into the solutions to overcome this:-

  1. Understanding the critical moments in the game:- Basically spending the right amount of time and energy is a mark a strong practical player. On the surface, such players may not look like playing the best moves every time. But they will find accurate moves when important moments of the game come. Of course, finding accurate moves also depends on the strength of a player but they are able to find simply because they have time to think when it matters! How to identify which moments are critical and which are not, is an entirely different topic and I will cover this topic in future articles.

World-famous chess author and coach Jacob Aagard has written an insightful chapter on decision making in his amazing book ‘Thinking inside the box’. You can refer to this book to know more about critical moments in the game.

  1. Don’t doubt yourself on every decision:– Stop doubting every move you play. Your intuition always has insights to offer in any given position. Trust them more often, except in positions where accuracy is the key!

  2. There is rarely a perfect game of Chess:– Spending loads of time on every move to find a perfect one is like driving a car in the second gear to avoid even the slightest of bumps on the road. If you play in the second gear from the start and when suddenly you feel the time pressure, you anxiously switch to the top gears and that is exactly where you drive into the unknown territory. Always aim for perfection in the critical moments of the game, not when simple decisions have to be made. Go ahead and play the moves that seem logical and obvious to you.

  3. Don’t wait for outer reasons to force you:– Players suffering from delaying decisions on the board for no apparent reason should examine if they do the same in other matters of their day to day lives. Many times our character reflects in our play in chess. Practise taking simple decisions faster in your daily life and it may help you in taking decisions faster on the board.

  4. Improve your opening knowledge:– If you find yourself thinking from the very early stages of the game you need to improve your opening preparations. When you already know the opening lines inside out,  you automatically play faster and better moves thus saving a lot of time on the clock for the future.

  5. Meditate if you have problems with concentration:– If you face problems in concentrating during the game, it makes sense to work on this weakness on a daily basis. There are many ways to improve your concentration. Meditation is an ageless, proven way of doing it. Focusing on your breathing during the game can also be helpful. I will go in detail about this in future articles.

To Summarize –

  1. Understand the critical moments of the game

  2. Don't doubt yourself on every decision

  3. There is rarely a perfect game of chess

  4. Don't wait for outer reasons to force you

  5. Improve your opening knowledge

  6. Meditate if you have problems with concentration

My last two suggestions are specifically for ambitious players. I have personally used these in my playing career too and also recommend my students who are facing issues related to time-trouble.

  1. Use your opponent’s time:– Most of the players have the habit of getting up from the board after playing the move and roaming around the hall. If the position is complicated and you have not yet figured out what reply you will make on some of the opponents most obvious moves, then it is better you stay on the board and use your opponents time to calculate and figure things out. By this way, you will already have a lot of information about the position when the opponent actually makes his move as you have already calculated at least a few variations in your opponent’s time.

  2. Record time after each move:– This is a very important thing that you can do to improve your time-management during the game. After the first 5-6 moves are over, record the time shown on your and your opponent’s clock after each move on your scoresheet. In this way, you will get an idea of how much time you spent on each move. Keep the scoresheets safely or take a picture of your scoresheet and after the tournament, once you are back home, you can discuss with your coach or think for yourself why did you spend so much time on this particular move. You will get a lot of insights into your thinking process during the game. This habit has helped me a lot in improving my time-management and I have seen other friends of mine who are now world-class players use this method as well.

The truth:- You will still find yourself in time-pressure every now and then. 

What to do when you are in time pressure-

  1. Relax calm down:– This is easy to say but difficult to apply. But if you get tensed in time-pressure then there is a strong chance that you may miss something. Tell yourself to relax and focus on the game.

  2. Be tactically alert:– Most of the misses in time-trouble are usually of tactical nature. Be tactically aware and be ready for some quick calculations. It would be great if you train your tactical vision and quick calculation skills at home.

The journey to playing faster:-

It could be one reason or a combination of two or more reasons that results in a habit of time pressure. The journey to turn it around into a good habit starts with first acknowledging that time pressure is bad for our practical results and second to take firm steps to resolve this problem once and for all.

It would be very naive to expect that after reading this article or after taking steps you would never come into time-pressure again. Habits good or bad once formed takes time to be changed. It is important to be patient and trust your abilities to come over it.

You may try to play faster but make bad decisions in a game or two, get into a worse position and lose the game in the end. But that is OK. When you try to change something that has become your second nature (in this case playing slowly in every game) results never come as quickly as we expect them to.

When you lose games by playing faster, remember that this is a just a step-back in your journey towards your goal. Remind yourself how many games you have lost by blundering or missing moves in time-pressure. A better way to look at your mistakes when you play faster is to investigate why you played that bad move, how can you improve your understanding of that position so that you can make better moves in similar positions rather than trying to go back to your old ways of playing very slowly.

I hope this article has helped you to understand the issue of time-trouble and gave you insights as to what are the steps you can take to improve this bad habit of time-pressure. 

Best Wishes!

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