Time Trouble

Some of the game’s greatest have had trouble playing against the clock. Not so Bobby Fischer, who was a lord of time.


It is often said that the chief characteristic distinguishing the modern era from all previous history is the value put on time. Arguably this is just another way of demonstrating that capitalism has speeded up the world in a way our ancestors could not have imagined: the main point about industrial efficiency is that it saves time.

Chess being a cultural artefact, rather than just mathematics, is not immune from the historical process. Thus it is not surprising that 150 years ago next month there took place the first chess tournament with a time limit: the London chess tournament of June 1862 was part of the second Great Exhibition, designed to show the world the marvellous new technology of the British industrial revolution. Its chess tournament had its own innovation: the moves would all have to be played within a set time — to be precise, 24 moves every two hours. Sandglasses were used, one for each player.

This would have come as a shock to the notoriously slow German player Louis Paulsen (who finished second). He it was who took no fewer than 75 minutes to decide on a single move against Paul Morphy in the American Chess Congress of 1857. It is said that towards the end of this vast think, the usually imperturbable Morphy raised his eyebrows at his opponent, who then responded: “Oh — is it my move?” 

It was not until the 1880s that chess clocks were fully developed: these linked two clocks to a single mechanism, so that when one player presses the button on his side of the device, it stops his timer and starts his opponent’s. The Dutch added the idea of a little red “flag”, which would fall when the minute hand passes through the vertical. If that happens before the required number of moves are completed, then the offending player loses automatically “on time”. Anyone who has played competitive chess will know the awful feeling as the “flag” begins to rise with many moves still to make before the time control. You want to keep your eyes and mind focused on the board, but somehow it is impossible not to keep glancing at the clock.

With the development of digital chess clocks (a century after the mechanical version made its debut) this torment has become less redolent of Edgar Allen Poe’s Pit and the Pendulum. Not only is the digital display less like a guillotine; gone also is that infernal ticking. The increasing sophistication of the digital chess clock made possible a brilliant innovation by Bobby Fischer. In 1988 the reclusive genius patented what he called the “Fischer clock”: in reality it was not a new device, but simply the proposal that each player would gain a time increment (typically of 30 seconds) with every move he made. Fischer’s idea was, in part, that this would end the unsatisfactory situation in which a player would lose on time in an easily winning position even though he knew exactly how to finish off his opponent.

Fischer’s patent has taken away a little of the almost absurd drama which used to occur when a player so mismanaged his clock that he had, say, only a minute to play 20 moves. Before Fischer’s innovation, that would have meant just three seconds per move: now, every time such a desperately short of time master plays one of his 20 remaining moves, he will gain a further 30 seconds’ allocation.

With or without the added increment, there are and always will be even very strong grandmasters hopelessly addicted to what chess players call “time-trouble”. Today, the worst addict is the many-times Italian champion Michele Godena, who would almost certainly have achieved more if only he had been able to cure himself of what appears like hopeless indecisiveness in the early stages of every game. 

For much of the 20th century the most notable time-trouble addict was Samuel Reshevsky, the strongest US player before Fischer arrived on the scene. He was fantastically good at bashing out half his moves (or more) almost instantaneously, having used up almost all his time allocation during the opening and early middle-game. Some accused Reshevsky of gamesmanship, especially after he noted: “It is an odd fact that more often than not it is my opponent who gets the jitters when I am compelled to make these hurried moves.” But this was not something Reshevsky really wanted to do: it was more of a compulsion. When he was asked by an interviewer why he was such a notorious time-scramble addict, he admitted: “I tried to figure out that which was impossible to figure out in the time allotted. I was so anxious to analyse the position to its end, so to speak, that I had a tough time getting out of the habit.”

His problem, in a word, was perfectionism. In his outstanding book The Seven Deadly Chess Sins (Gambit, 2001), grandmaster Jonathan Rowson gives no fewer than 18 reasons for the affliction of time trouble. He includes low self-confidence, adrenaline addiction and perverse self-punishment; but perfectionism (which Winston Churchill once said was the same as paralysis) Rowson rightly puts at the top of his list. The problem is that complex chess positions contain more possible sub-variations than any human could begin to calculate to a finish. It is essential, at some stage, to put one’s faith in gut instinct; but this is something alien to the most obsessive perfectionists. 

The greatest display of chess played at lightning speed was by — who else? — Bobby Fischer in 1970. That year the Yugoslav resort of Herceg Novi held a unique “blitz” event, in which 23 of the world’s strongest masters had only five minutes for all their moves. The 27-year-old Fischer finished an astonishing four-and-a-half points ahead of his nearest rival, Mikhail Tal, the former world champion whose own speed chess skills were seen as almost supernatural. 

 Here is one of Fischer’s improbably flawless five-minute victories from that event, against the Yugoslav grandmaster Milan Matulovic, and with Fischer’s own deadpan comments: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 f5 (“This is Matulovic’s speciality. I know this variation very well”) 4.Nc3 fxe4 5.Nxe4 d5 6.Nxe5 dxe4 7.Nxc6 Qg5 8.Qe2 Nf6 9.f4 Qxf4 10.d4 Qh4+ 11.g3 Qh3 12.Bg5 a6 13.Bh4 Bd7 14.Bxf6 gxf6 15.Qxe4+ Kf7 16.Ne5+ fxe5 17.Rf1+ Ke7 (“If 17…Qxf1+ 18.Kxf1 Bxa4 19.Qf5+ wins”) 18.Bxd7 Kxd7 19.Rf7+ Ke8?? (“19…Be7! gave chances for a successful defence”) 20.Rxc7 Bd6 21.Rxb7 Rc8 22.0-0-0 Qxh2 23.dxe5 Be7 24.Rxe7+ (“After this move Black has no hope”) Kxe7 25.Qb7+ Ke6 26.Qd7+ Kxe5 27.Qd5+ Kf6 28.Rf1+ Kg6 29.Qf5+ Kh6 30.Qe6+ Kh5 31.Rf5+ Kg4 32.Rf4+ Kxg3 33.Qg4 checkmate. Whoosh!