Thirty years ago a picture hung in the Sydney Chess Centre. It showed two chess players—one looking bored, the other indecisive. He had picked up a pawn to make his first move but had taken so long that a spider web extended from his hand to the chessboard.
Now that we have chess clocks long delays are rare, but until the mid nineteenth century they were commonplace. You can sympathise with Henry Thomas Buckle who said, The slowness of genius is hard to bear, but the slowness of mediocrity is intolerable.
The first timed game was between Adolf Anderssen and Ignatz Kolisch who, in 1861, were allowed two hours for 24 moves. No clock was used. The match was timed with an hour glass—a long way short of the digital clocks we use today. Until then a slow player could drag out a game interminably and his opponent needed plenty of seitzfleish (literally "sitting flesh"—the ability to sit and endure). The first mechanical chess clock was developed by Thomas Wilson in 1883 and was surpassed about twenty years later by the first modern push-button clocks.
Next time you complain that your opponent is taking too long to make the only legal move on the board spare a thought for the opponent of the Brazilian Grandmaster Trois who once spent 2 hours and 20 minutes on his 7th move. It was the longest recorded time for a single move in the modern era. No doubt his opponent would have found a way to capitalise on the resulting scramble.
Although chess clocks solved one problem they created another—time trouble. Different players handle it in different ways.
You've probably noticed that the best players often run short on time. Gary Kasparov gave the reason when asked why he and Karpov get into time trouble so often. He shrugged and said, "We like to think."
Of course clock time is only one aspect of chess time. More important is the problem of game time which relates to the number of moves, or tempi, it takes to reach or given position—or to get out of it! Some years ago the CCLA Handbook told of a correspondence player discussing a game with his postman. When he admitted that a piece had been en prise for six months the postman asked why he hadn't moved it. "There hasn't been time," he said.
Even the age-old values given to chess pieces won't stand the test of time and there are positions where the humble pawn can outmatch a much stronger piece that simply can't be brought to the defence in time and many sacrifices are based on the simple tactic of diverting a defender from a key square or diagonal.
During last year's Grade Matches I won a piece from Slavko Trkulja and in the diagrammed position he had just played 51. Qxh6. I wondered if he would grab the bishop if I moved my queen from the diagonal and played 51. ...Qf2+. Slavko played 52 Kh5 (Kg5 would have worked out the same way) then 52. ...Qxb2 53. Qxc6?? Qh8+, 54. Kg5 Qg7+ 55. Kf5 Qg6+ forking King and Queen. After the exchange there was no time to stop the debutante on b3 en route to her coronation.
Fans of the English sitcom Porridge will be familiar with the phrase, If you can't do the time, don't do the crime. The same advice applies in chess and you don't steal your opponent's pieces if he's likely to lock the door before you get out. This probably happens most often if a white rook launches a frontal attack on black's a2 pawn, only to find a black bishop swooping down to b1, confining him at black's pleasure.
More rarely it can happen to the queen and it was white's queen who was forced to "do time" in the following delightful position Chassanowa-Saizewa, Moscow, 1982.
Black played 1. ...Qxd4, 2. cxd4, b4, and the mighty queen was humbled. Storming the Bastille with the h pawn wont be in time to stop black's egalitarian pawn on its road to power.
There's another time factor in chess and it's a problem we all share—as time goes by we get older. It was Viswanathan Anand who said, "Nowadays, if you're not a grandmaster at 14 you can forget about it." It's an over-simplification, of course, and the oldest player ever to gain master status was made an IM at age 74 so perhaps there's still hope that we can continue to improve, even after we lose some of our youthful energy.
Even so, our Grandmasters are getting younger.
Bobby Fischer used to be a yardstick for prodigies but, in the following table, look at the age at which these kids reached their final GM norm.
Grandmaster Magnus Carlson
There's an interesting story about Magnus Carlson from the Calvia Olympiad. When he tried to enter the playing hall he was told by an official that he wasn't permitted to go in yet but could come back later and watch the games. It speaks volumes for his humility that he accepted her decision until a team-mate explained to the woman that Magnus was playing Board 1 for Norway!
So there you are: chess and time are so closely intertwined that you can't have one without the other.
Click here for
free on-line chess.
to return to top of page.