How to Play Chess When You Are in Time Trouble

A shell-shocked Garry Kasparov walking away from the board after losing on time to MVL. Image by Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour.

Today’s blog post was inspired by Garry Kasparov’s recent abysmal performance in the Grand Chess Tour in Zagreb. The legendary 13th World Chess Champion scored 2.5 points out of 18 and finished in clear last place in the blitz event. One of the factors that caused such a disastrous result was poor time management and the inability to play well in time trouble. Notably, in a game against MVL, Kasparov lost on time in an innocuous equal rook endgame where he was at no risk whatsoever on the board.

Kasparov (White) froze in this position and failed to make a move, allowing his time to run out.

Obviously, the recommendations presented below are not aimed at Kasparov since when it comes to chess, Garry can teach pretty much anyone about any facet of the game. Still, I believe that some of the lifehacks presented below will be of use to less experienced players than Kasparov.

Also, it’s easy to offer banal advice like “do not ever get into time trouble”, but it’s challenging to follow it. Here are a few basic tips on what to do if you are in time trouble already:

• Keep your head cool and try to breathe normally. Amateurs start jumping up and down on the chair, hastily scribbling the moves on the score sheet, pulling their hair, knocking on the chess clock, and dropping pieces by trying to place them down with a shaking hand. Seasoned GMs remain solemn and make moves in a reserved and elegant way. They patiently write down the moves as if they had all the time in the world at their disposal. This behavior helps one to remain concentrated and prevents your heart from starting to beat like a drum and affecting your play.

• Avoid glancing at the clock over and over again. When you are in time trouble, every second is precious. You don’t want to waste time and pump up your heart rate by watching the clock tick away. It is easier said than done since you both need great self-control and an inner sense of time that will prevent you from flagging. The latter comes with experience and a lot of regular practice. Rusty players lose this sense and forfeit on time more often than you would normally expect from them.

• Focus on the game. Don’t start blaming yourself for getting in time trouble. Don’t fear that you will blunder something. Just concentrate and make the most of your current position.

Here are a few more intermediate-level tips that are must-know for tournament players:

• If you are on the defensive and hoping to take advantage of the 50-move rule, mark the last capture or pawn move on your scoresheet so that you don’t have trouble later on pondering whether you have earned the right to claim a draw or not. This habit helps one stay calm and collected when fighting for survival.

• If a conflict situation between you and your opponent occurs, stop the clock and call the arbiter. Sometimes people engage in a verbal discussion while their clock is still running. When they forfeit on time because of it, it is much harder for them to negotiate a favorable decision for themselves once the arbiter finally shows up.

• Try to make it to a time control if there is one. Sometimes move repetitions or exchanges can help you a lot. Of course, there’s a risk of trading the wrong pieces, but there’s also a saying: “Exchange more pieces so that you can’t blunder them in time trouble.” It has some truth to it. Generally speaking, even if you are a tactical genius, it is usually a good idea to simplify the position when you are in time trouble. When you are very short on the clock, it is next to impossible to find all the tricky lines that chess engines point out in the blink of an eye. Who cares that you have a winning position when you will either flag or blunder something away in the end?

Finally, here are a few advanced tips that are worth adding to your chess arsenal:

• If you desperately need to go to the WC and can’t leave it due to the prospects of losing on time, you can “pull a Leko”. There was a story involving him where he reportedly called for an arbiter, claimed a three-fold repetition, and rushed to the bathroom while the arbiter was diligently checking the score sheet! There was no repetition, but Peter did save enough time this way. Super GMs are resourceful!

• Back in the day, when people used to play with mechanical clocks, there was a dirty trick of not paying attention to the fact that your time ran out and playing on as normal, hoping that your partner won’t notice it in the heat of battle. Then, when the opponent flags as well, one could always point it out, if necessary, and claim a draw since it is impossible to prove who flagged first. Nowadays, however, digital clocks usually display a symbol showing who lost on time, so such tricks are no longer possible.

Garry Kasparov showing that even in 2021, you can still play on after you have run out of time!

• Get into the habit of making as many “short” moves as possible. This is especially relevant for drawish endgames. Let’s say the position is more or less equal, and the opponent is trying to test you by playing on and hoping that he will be able to capitalize on your time deficit. Then, for example, if you have a choice between shuffling your king back and forth and moving your bishop from g1 to a7, you should prioritize moving the king since it saves you a lot of time. I have seen quite a few players lose the game due to making fancy “long” moves over and over again, carefully choosing where to place the bishop, queen, or rook. Famous Russian blitz master Genrikh Chepukaitis took this idea one step further and suggested that in blitz, one should play “closer to the clock”, i.e., try to place pieces in proximity to the chess clock and to move them whenever possible, thus saving precious seconds. This was especially important in his golden days since back then, there was no increment, and the art of flagging the opponent was highly valued among fans of blitz.

• Apply Sun Tzu’s military advice to playing in time trouble: “Appear weak when you are strong and strong when you are weak.” This requires great self-control and good acting skills. Some chess players can send fake tells, bluffing the opponent into believing that they are not happy with their position and have just blundered something. Then when the unsuspecting victim goes for the allegedly winning line, it turns out that the hunter has just become the hunted! Or, conversely, if you blundered something terrible indeed, you should never show it and keep playing normally.

In the video above, Vishy Anand finds himself in an extreme situation, having just one second on the clock, and gives a phenomenal masterclass on handling time trouble. As you watch the video, analyze his actions, and try to recognize some of the principles mentioned above. Maybe you will even find something he could have done better!

If sweating it out and watching your hair turn grey from stress caused by playing in time trouble too often is not your cup of tea, you can always download Play Magnus and face Magnus Carlsen, Judit Polgar, Wesley So and other world-class Grandmasters in a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere. Feel free to take all the time in the world to beat them - but it will still be a formidable challenge!