GM Joel on Time Management Print E-mail
By GM Joel Benjamin   
March 4, 2009
Dear Joel Benjamin,

My name is Isabel, and I am writing to ask you a question. I am 11 years old and in sixth grade. I have been playing chess for three years and am about a 1000 player. I am a scholastic player, but I also go to open tournaments and play higher rated players. When I play the higher rated players I often lose on time because it takes me five to ten minutes to evaluate the position and more time to calculate my moves. Is there any way to see all of these things quicker and still see them thoroughly without taking as much time?



Time management is a difficult issue for players of different levels and ages.  Playing too slowly can be just as damaging as playing too fast, and often more difficult to cure.

The first part of the problem lies in all that time you spend on “evaluation.”  I’m not sure what the term, as you use it, includes.  Deciding how you stand can be useful, but it shouldn’t take very long, and you need not do it every move.  I suspect you are including making plans in “evaluation,” but the same comment holds there as well.  If you spend a few minutes planning on one move, you most likely don’t have to spend any time there on the next one.  Most of the time, your ideas will still be good.  If the position changes significantly you may need to make new plans, but that won’t be every move.

You want your thought process to be as efficient as possible.  It should go something like this:

1) Examine your opponent’s move to see how it affects the position (does it threaten something, or prevent your plans?).
2)    Look for “candidate moves.”  This process doesn’t have to exhaustive and should take less than a minute.  Two to four candidates should be enough for most moves.  Analyze the ones that look best to you, and try not to jump back and forth too much.  Don’t feel you have to spend a lot of time (if any at all) on choice #4 if the first option looked really good after a bit of analysis.
      3) Make your decision and do a final check for safety before playing your move.

In a slow time control game (say forty moves in two hours, but not game/30) it is okay to have an occasional long think.  But you should only do that if the position is critical, or the choice between two moves can lead to very different positions.  Most of the time you can trust your intuition or instinct.

That, I think, is really the problem.  Choosing a move doesn’t require so much time.  You probably need to trust your judgment more, and not try to make a perfect move every time.  Excessive time usage is usually mostly about confidence in making decisions.  Use a combination of your gut instinct and brief calculation (only extensive calculation if the position really demands it) and your moves will probably come out fine.  In fact, the moves late in the game will probably be better…because you will actually have some time left to think!