Time controls are a critical part of any serious chess game. While casual games are often played without chess clocks, any tournament game will feature a time limit that players must be wary of during play. Failing to keep an eye on the clock can have dire consequences, as exceeding the time limit for any reason will result in a loss.
Basic Time Controls
At the most basic level, time controls can simply be expressed as a number of minutes each player has in order to make all of their moves during a game. These time controls are common when playing blitz games – where each player might have three or five minutes of thinking time for the entire game – or in one day tournaments where games must be completed relatively quickly.
Commonly, these time controls are called “Game in X” controls. For instance, you might see a tournament advertised with a time control of G/60 – shorthand for game in 60 minutes. In that time control, each player would have one hour of thinking time during which to complete all of their moves.
Multiple Time Controls
In more serious tournaments, games may be broken up into multiple time controls that help dictate the pace of play, while also giving players plenty of time with which to think. This ensures that while a game might last six hours or longer, players are forced to reach a certain point of the game after just a few hours.
One multiple time control format seen frequently in major tournaments is 40/120, G/60. This time control requires players to make at least 40 moves in their first two hours of playing time, then gives each player another hour with which to finish the remainder of the game.
International events among elite players sometimes give competitors even more time to complete their games by adding a third time control. For many years, the standard of international play was 40/120, 20/60, and then G/30 with an increment for the remainder of the game, allowing players to play for seven hours or more without running out of time.
Increment and Time Delay
In recent years, time controls have increasingly incorporated increments and time delays in order to give players some protection when under severe time pressure. Since time controls are generally designed to dictate how long games will last, and were not intended to be a regular way for players to lose games (except in blitz and bullet chess, where the short time controls are designed to force losses on the clock regularly), the introduction of increment and time delay has generally been seen as a positive development: allowing players a chance to avoid losses on time without significantly extending games.
With an increment, players have time added to their clock after every move that’s completed. In the long international tournaments mentioned earlier, players often receive a 30 second increment – either throughout the entire game, or (more commonly) only in the final time control, thus ensuring that they’ll always have at least 30 seconds to make a move.
Time delay works slightly differently. Instead of adding time to your clock, a time delay creates a period after your opponent moves during which your clock will not run. For instance, if you use the common five second time delay in USCF tournaments, your clock will go through a countdown for five seconds before beginning to run. This means you can have just one second on the clock, yet still have five seconds with which to make every move.
The main difference between these two systems is what happened to unused time. With an increment, it is actually possible to build up time; since the time is added at the end of each move, it remains on your clock, and making several quick moves can give you a reserve of time to use on a later move. Conversely, time delay is simply a countdown at the beginning of each move, and does not accumulate.