Just the Rules: Little Used Clock Strategies

You sit down to your assigned game with your new clock–the one that you just purchased at the tournament bookstore. You are not sure how to set it, but another player claims to know how—so you let him. As your game progresses, you notice that the game timer display does not seem to reflect the time control—G/90/D5 (game in 90 minutes with a 5 second delay). Once you discover how to pause the clock, you find a TD. What was wrong with the way your clock was set? Your new toy was programmed for game in 90 hours with a 5 second delay—instead of game in 90 minutes with a 5 second delay.

If this game clock can’t be set properly, then you are in the position of having to borrow a clock or play without one. No matter how the problem gets solved, you cannot be sure that any new clock settings will accurately reflect the correct amount of thinking time used by either you or your adversary. And the later in the game the problem is revealed—especially if it is only discovered during time pressure—the trickier it is to correct.

Know your clock’s settings! It’s to your benefit; you may not find anyone else who can set it.

TDs know how to set all of the clocks in existence—right? Wrong. Practice programing your clock at home before going to a tournament. Better yet, find out the time control(s) of the tournament and set your clock beforehand. Check out YouTube for videos on how to fine tune your clock. And bring your device manual with you to tournaments. Some clocks even have settings, or instructions, printed on the bottom of their bases. Plus remember if it can’t be set, then you can’t use it.

By the way, if your digital delay/increment clock is not set using the delay or increment setting then your timer is equivalent to an analog clock.

Ask your opponent how their clock works, and then you’ll be familiar with all its quirks.

Do you ever find yourself using another person’s clock? Did the clock’s functions and displays confuse you during the game? Before the game starts, ask your opponent about how their clock works. Find out how it is set, how it adds time for the second time control, how to read the display (especially if the display changes during time pressure), how to stop it, how to pause it, etc. This benefits you and often stops confusing situations from developing.

Use the same hand for your clock and pieces; the chances of a claim then decreases.

Did you know that players must use the same hand to press both the clock and to move pieces?

Watch out for players who use one hand to move the pieces and the other hand to press the clock. Why? The hand pressing the clock is sometimes used for the dirty trick of pressing the clock before the other hand completes the piece move. If you have an opponent who does not use the same hand to both move pieces and press the clock, pause your clock and see a TD.

Start white’s clock to begin the game, black or white—it’s all the same.

At the beginning of the game, white’s clock is always started first, no matter what. This one simple act helps to keep the move counter accurate and avoids many problems later on. If the general of the black army is not there on time, white’s commander starts his own clock, makes his move, and then starts his opponent’s timer—just as if the player of the black pieces were on time. If the commander of the white pieces is not present at the start of the game, black simply starts white’s clock.
Move counters are great, but they’re hard to keep straight.

Do you know how to adjust the move counter on your game timer? There will be rare times when it will be necessary to fine-tune this clock feature. Trying to figure out how to do that tune up at critical moments, like during time pressure, just increases the probability that things will not turn out the way you expected. And don’t forget that scoresheets, not move counters, are used to make correct flag fall claims—but any disagreement between the clock’s move counter and a scoresheet can be very confusing.
End the risk of a silly claim: Stop the clock at the end of the game!

You and your opponent are banging out moves in a sudden death time control. You mate your adversary. You offer to shake hands. Then your rival sees that your flag is down. They make a flag fall claim. Their claim is that you ran out of time before you made the mating move. Will the TD be able to sort this out? Probably, but if the TD has no way to tell which happened first (mate or the flag fall) they usually rule that the position on the board gets the nod. How can you avoid this scene? Stop the clock the instant the mating or stalemate move is made.

In theory, stalemate and checkmate end the game at the instant that they occur. In reality, it does not work out so simply.

Next month we will examine the clock rules for tardy players.


Tim Just is a National Tournament Director, FIDE National Arbiter, and editor of the 5th & 6th edition of the US Chess Rulebook. He is also the author of My Opponent is Eating a Doughnut & Just Law, which are both available from US Chess Sales and Amazon/Kindle. Additionally, Tim recently revised The Guide To Scholastic Chess, a guide created to help teachers and scholastic organizers who wish to begin, improve, or strengthen their school chess program. Tim is also a member of the US Chess Rules Committee and his new column exclusive to US Chess, “Just the Rules” will help clarify potentially confusing regulations.


  1. When using a DGT North American clock (the kind furnished by some organizers) with two time controls, like 40/90 SD/30, inc/30, the clock can be set either to add 30 minutes when 40 moves have been played, or to add 30 minutes only when the primary 90 minutes expires. In theory, it doesn’t matter, because each player will eventually get the time added, provided he doesn’t time-forfeit before move 40.

    If the clock does not add 30 minutes after move 40, it is possible that the clock has been set for the latter option, but it is also possible that the move counter is inaccurate and the clock thinks that move 40 has not yet been reached. Unfortunately, on this particular clock, the move count is not displayed during the game! There is a way to see the move count — I think by pressing the plus button briefly, without pausing the clock first — but how many players would know this, or even if they did, how many would dare do this during the game? The opponent might react, “Hey, stop fiddling with the clock during the game!”.

    Then, if the initial 90 minutes gets used up (say, well after move 40) and the clock never added 30 minutes, and now shows a time forfeit, then the arbiter will have a mess on his hands. One hopes that, in this situation, no arbiter will ever forfeit a player just because the clock wasn’t set properly to begin with. But be careful!

    • Shame on IHSA for its diatribe against the Bronstein method of implementing delay, and for its claim that Bronstein is “against rules and not allowed”. The accompanying video demonstrates that the two are exactly the same! Each method has both advantages and disadvantages psychologically. Don’t forget, psychology is in the mind of the psychologee.

      Bronstein shows exactly how much time you have left before you will run out of time for the current move. With “straight” delay you have to add two numbers together to figure this out. And, on the DGT North American, one of these two numbers isn’t even displayed! — it just flashes “DELAY” for five seconds.

      It’s a matter of personal preference. IHSA has no business imposing one or the other on players, or declaring one of them illegal.

  2. TD’s should prominently display the fees charged to the owner of a clock for setting or adjusting their clock for them. It amazes me that someone that plays expert level chess can’t (doesn’t want to) set their clocks.

    • As opposed to someone that plays master level chess and can’t (doesn’t want to) even bring their own clock?

  3. One of my students asked me recently about bringing his own clock to a tournament. Apparently (I’ve not attended the tournaments organized by this particular organizer), they don’t provide clocks, and allow games to go on for a while without clocks, then for games going beyond a certain time, they give the players a clock splitting the time already elapsed. That’s fine, but my student didn’t understand that he could bring and use his own clock and then ALL his games would be timed from the start. He even asked me which tournaments were actually timed all the time. I told him they are ALL supposed to be timed, except for the shortage of clocks.

    I explained this to him and encouraged him to take his clock (DGT-NA) so he could time all his games. I’ve even included CLOCK RULES in my curriculum for teaching/coaching Newbies. It’s astonishing how many players know nothing about the rules for clocks, pairings, equipment, the right sequence for offering a draw, etc.

    • Until a few years ago, it was almost universal practice in the USA for the players, not the organizer, to furnish the clocks. Recently, though, the tide has started to turn.

      The best idea for players is to bring a clock (and board and pieces) to a tournament, unless they are sure the organizer is furnishing the equipment. Once a player has played in a few tournaments, he will find out which organizers furnish clocks and which do not.

      If the organizer furnishes clocks, the players should expect that they will be required to use the organizer-supplied clocks. If a player prefers to use his own clock instead, he should probably get the permission of both his opponent and the organizer.

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