Time Is Running Out


We’ve all been there – your flag is rising perilously towards 90 degrees or the countdown on the digital clock quickly plummets towards 0:00 and you’ve still got to make loads of moves. You don’t know if some or all of these moves will be critical to the result of the game because you simply can’t figure it out. You simply have to make moves, hoping that your instinct is good enough to carry you through to time control, or the end of the game.

For me, this is never a pleasant experience, but some people seem to be addicted to it and are very adept at bashing out moves in a very short space of time. Notable players at the elite level include David Howell and Alexander Grischuk. Chuky has also been known to get into an occasional spot of bother!

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I’m going to try and explain different reasons why I get into time trouble in some of my games. The games that I’ve decided to show aren’t going to be pretty, but I hope they will provide some instructive examples of what happens to us all and how we can learn to cope with the most fearsome of opponents – the clock.


In the Leeds Evening League Arjay Competition between Pudsey 1 and Rose Forgrove A earlier this season, I played my good friend Richard Archer. The game started out as an Open Sicilian, but black’s king was left in the middle of the board. Rich initially spent a lot of time in the opening and early middlegame putting up a tenacious defence to ensure that he could enter the middlegame unscathed. I then caught him up on the clock trying to find a way to breach his defensive setup and preparing the possibility of sacrificing something. By move 25, we both had about 2 minutes left to  reach move 35. After I sacrificed two pieces, we reached this position:

In reaching this position, I had intended to play Qg6+, forgetting that the knight on e7 covered g6! I then saw the clever move 29.Rf6? threatening 30.Rh6# (well, it’s nearly mate!). Rich covered this “mate threat” with 29…Ng8??, allowing me to execute a legitimate checkmate with 30.Qg6#.

I think that this reason is the most common reason for people finding themselves in time trouble. Both sides realised that there was a serious possibility that a critical point in the game that might lead to a forced win could have occurred early in the game. Therefore my opponent spent time ensuring this could not happen, and I tried to find a way of winning the game whilst Black was still undeveloped and uncastled. Because the game did not finish early and was still complicated, we got into mutual time pressure leading to mutual blunders. As Alekhine famously said, “The penultimate error generally wins the game!”


The next example is from my game in Round 1 of the York Congress against Pete Hempson. My opponent decided to take a hot pawn on move 20, which led to complications where I managed to win an exchange, but white had some compensation. After a time scramble leading to move 42, we reached an ending which is probably drawn and indeed my opponent offered me a draw on move 43. I declined, stating my intention to try and win the ending. After move 54, we had reached the following position.

I had 3 or 4 minutes left to complete the game from here. In the end, I lost on time in a position that would have been a forced draw on the following move.

In this game, I did not play in a very practical way, which cost me on this occasion. I was determined to try and win a position that may or may not have been won and in doing so, allowed myself to get so short on time that I even managed to turn it into a loss! I do not regret choosing this course of action at all. This game has given me practical experience of how to play in time pressure and also how (not) to play rook vs knight endgame! Of course, I might have played quicker earlier on in the game. As I gain more and more experience of these endgames, I will hopefully be able to play them quickly in future, so I can convert more of these games into wins.

We both knew we would be in for the long haul!

Another instructive game in this category is my game against Jeremy Fraser-Mitchell from Round 6 of the 4NCL. As those of you who read the 4NCL round up of rounds 5 and 6will know, I had played an ending with a rook and pawn vs bishop, knight and 2 pawns and managed to grovel a draw after 6 hours. After 41 moves of my game against Jeremy, we had reached the same material balance, except this time I had the bishop and knight.

In the 4NCL, you are given 2 hours to reach move 40, then a further hour to reach move 60. I had reached move 40 with 15 minutes to spare, so had 75 minutes to make 20 more moves. As such, I decided that I should try and accurately find a way to untangle my strangely placed pieces to make progress. I spent half an hour on my 41st move, after which the next 6 moves came quickly. By move 50, it is obvious that I have made tremendous progress. However, these endings need precise play from both sides. I spent another long while calculating the Bf4-g5 manoeuvre which places white’s rook in a sort of zugzwang.

However, this only left me with 3 minutes to make my next 5 moves. This does not seem like terrible time pressure, and it isn’t. However in this position I hallucinated and thought that I saw a winning line! So without thinking and double-checking, I played 57…e3+? 58.Kf3 e2?? With delight, my opponent played 59.Rxe2 and said “draw?” I incredulously thought that he was being really cheeky here and played 59…Nxe2, still having not yet realised that white’s 60th move was going to be Kxe2, when I no longer have enough mating material!

These two example are very good illustrations of the value of putting up tenacious defence. Sometimes you may be theoretically lost, but chess is hard and the clock is always ticking – putting up a tenacious defence can be source of time-consuming frustration for the opponent and might lead to mistakes which gain you that extra half point! If you do find yourself in a much better/winning position, play practically and try not to lose sight of the objective merits of the position and be aware that your opponent is fighting just as hard as you are to try and hold the position.


Pierre clearly enjoys winning!

This example is taken from my Woodhouse Cup game against Pierre Weller. I had been under the cosh from the opening and was trying to not find myself in a lost position from the get-go. As it turns out, I was unnecessarily pessimistic about my position. By move 28, I had about 2 minutes to reach move 42, not a simple task. However, I had a plan! I had constructed a type of fortress and was planning to play instant waiting moves with my pieces until my opponent threatened something.

My opponent was not making any committal moves in my time pressure. In fact, he even made a slight error on move 33, allowing me to play 33…Nxb3, winning a pawn. However, he made a huge blunder with 37.Qb2?? leading to the following position: I instantly played 37…Bd7, missing a tactical trick. Can you spot it?

Black to play and win

In the end I just about made the time control, but ended up losing on time at the second time control. In this game I should have been less pessimistic about my position, when I would have just played the position and not been so terribly short on time.

In summary, time trouble is something that should be avoided, often people find themselves in time trouble when there is no real reason for them to do so. When the position is tactical and complicated when one mistake might be fatal, it is understandable that players end up in time trouble. When the position is less tactical in nature and one mistake probably won’t decide the game, it is necessary to not strive for 100% accuracy, but to play pragmatically and make sure that the clock does not beat you. It is no good finding the best move if you end up losing the position because of a shortage of time!

I want to see how time pressure has played a part in your games! Please send in your time trouble games, positions and stories. You can email us at yorkshirechess@gmail.com, post on the forum or comment below!

Thanks to John Saxton who gave me the idea to write an article on this subject. If there’s anything you would like me to write about, drop me an email at yorkshirechess@gmail.com or just tell me!

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Features editor for the Yorkshire Chess website. I collate and write atricles about all the latest chess activities in Yorkshire and beyond. I've also been known to shove some pieces myself from time to time!


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