10 August 2020

Bad chess attitudes #2: My opponent disrespects their clock and must be punished

I'm highlighting in a short series of posts some bad chess attitudes that can actively harm our game performance and hold us back from improving. To avoid being seen as too judgmental, I'll only share ones that I've struggled with myself. #1 was about trying to punish your opponent's opening choices; here it's about their clock use.

Old school clock, perennial issue
2. My opponent disrespects their clock and must be punished

This attitude can afflict chessplayers who consider themselves to be conscientious about time management. It is a common reaction to those opponents who show up late to a tournament game, which means their clock has significantly run down before they start playing, or to opponents who get massively behind on time and have to blitz out a number of moves to make the time control. Both of these things, of course, can occur in the same game.

The objective result of this situation is always an advantage to the player with more time on their own clock. However, even if you have more time on the clock, a misguided emotional reaction to the situation can disrupt your own game more than that of your opponent. Rather than focusing on playing as excellently as you can, which I think for an improving player should be the goal of every serious game, it is common to instead start trying to punish your opponent for their misuse of time. This attitude typically manifests itself in choosing to play more quickly than you know you should, to try to pressure your opponent into moving more quickly themselves. In essence, it is a decision to pursue a negative strategy (trying to force the opponent to make bad moves) rather than a positive one (focus on making good moves yourself).

The obvious problem with this strategy is that it puts you on roughly the same level as your opponent in terms of actual time usage. This means you end up playing your opponent's kind of game, rather than your own. Time-trouble "aficionados" - or "addicts" or whatever you choose to call them - by definition have a lot of experience in playing rapidly. This means they are used to it and maybe even enjoy it, especially if they play a lot of blitz chess. I believe it is a fundamental error to think you will successfully rattle your opponent by altering your own playing style for the worse. Occasionally it might work, but relying on luck (for your opponent to play badly) while deliberately compromising your own excellence of play is a bad idea in itself, and is not likely to be a winning strategy over time.

Instead, a practical approach to time management is to develop a general game plan for your clock usage at the selected time control - then stick to that plan, regardless of what your opponent does. This means consciously calculating your expected average time per move and using that as a cutoff point for think time, making an exception only if you are in a critical position. For example, GM John Nunn in Secrets of Practical Chess recommends forcing a cutoff of the thinking process when you cannot decide between two moves with very similar evaluations after a reasonable period of calculation/thought. Basically, you pick one on intuition and do a blunder check before going with it. This practice can help reduce unproductive mental wheel-spinning, since in many positions without forcing continuations, it is easy to simply keep calculating different possibilities with no real resolution.

A common thread for this bad attitude and #1 on openings is focusing excessively on how your opponent is choosing to play. In reality, you have little to no influence over their move choices or how they use their clock, which means your mental energy is much better spent on improving your own game. Like many things that seem simple and obvious, it is not always easy to enforce this kind of mental discipline during a game. Deliberately committing to an efficient time management plan and positively focusing on the quality of your own play, however, should provide a strong foundation for your game, regardless of what your opponent does.

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