Greg on Chess: Time Controls in the US
By IM Greg Shahade   
September 21, 2012
greglead.jpgImagine the following: You are staying at a beautiful resort hotel, you wake up around eleven, relax, check your email, go for a leisurely hour long swim. Then you have time for a quick lunch, a short workout, and after reviewing a few openings with a friend or on your computer, you play one chess game at 7 PM.

The above was my experience at the 2005 US Open in Phoenix. Now let’s take a moment to compare that tournament to every tournament I’ve played since my return to chess. With the exception of the North Bay Invitational, in which there were five days with only one game a day, every other tournament has used a two game per day schedule.

In Europe it’s commonplace to have tournaments with just one game per day. I am not suggesting that we should adopt that approach in the United States. We don’t get nearly as much vacation time as the average European does, and therefore it’s extremely unlikely that we could easily get a large number of players to play in an event with a one game per day format. However my main problem is not just with the two game per day format, but with the unnecessarily long time control that is so prevalent.
GM Michael Adams wrote in his blog:  
“In passing whilst it’s obviously undesirable to play 2 games in a day the ordeal could be minimised if some sensible rules regarding time controls were applied to this situation. I would think 90mins +30 secs for the whole game should be a maximum time limit allowed for a double header.”

In Europe, many two game per day events use G/90+30 time control. It’s unreasonable to expect people to play two potentially six-hour games in a single day. It seems that we want to have it both ways in the United States. We want to have two games per day, and we want the time control to be long. Unfortunately this allows little room for typical human needs such as sleeping, eating healthy food at normal meal times and so on. If you are lucky and have a short game it can work out, but if you have multiple 5 hour games in a row, which is not at all unheard of, especially in the higher sections, a chess tournament can be a very unpleasant experience and the risk of illness due to both physical and mental fatigue goes way up.

I often find advertisements for tournaments in fun or luxurious cities like Orlando or Las Vegas. They tell you all the details of the wonderful place, all the fun things you can do there. Sometimes I get the feeling the advertisers have never played chess in their life, because I never I get to do anything but sit in front of a chess board, rush as fast as possible to eat, nap, and maybe if I’m lucky prepare a bit before the next game. I almost want my tournament locations to be as boring as possible, so I'm not sad to be stuck inside the entire day. Exotic locales and enticing attractions may be more relevant for parents who can have some fun while their kids are playing, or players in class sections who may on average have shorter games. But it still makes me laugh.

A great recent example is a new tournament in Bahamas. I mean seriously, I’m supposed to come to the Bahamas and then play 40/90 SD/30 twice per day and then have to read about all of the great amenities in the Bahamas in the tournament advertisement? Please, at least get rid of the extra 30 minutes at move 40. I’m in the Bahamas at the end of October, I’m willing to slightly sacrifice the quality of the chess game for a chance to relax on the beach or by the pool. I should point out that the organizers probably have good intentions- I’ve heard that casual polling of participants shows that players prefer longer time controls. That’s not a good reason not to try it at all-once players see how much more relaxing and fun it is to play fewer hours of a chess a day, they may change their opinion.

I specifically recommend:

Some organizers should adopt the 90+30 time control, without an extra 30 minutes at move 40 for some of their tournaments. This is the minimum time control needed to ensure that norms are available. 

I don’t believe every tournament should make this change (although I’d certainly appreciate it).  

The one tournament I played in Europe since my comeback, in Copenhagen, used the 90+30 time control with no increment. I think they have a much better feel in Europe that we shouldn’t be working every second of the day and that food, rest, relaxation and exercise are valuable components to life.

I will continue to play in these hectic events because I love to play, I want to improve, and my options are limited in the United States. While I absolutely love the game, and appreciate the job that so many tournament organizers do to put together such events, I hate to see and play under such grueling conditions on a regular basis. Just give us a break and save the long time controls for one game a day tournaments.

Also see IM Greg Shahade's article on GM Ray Robson.