Just the Rules: Whose Clock Is It Anyway?

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.

The round is about to start. After a quickly noting your board assignment you rush over to your spot in the playing room. Your opponent, the captain of the white pieces, arrives only a few seconds before you. According to the pairing sheet you are the commander of the black pieces. Since the organizer is not providing any equipment that gives you the right to choose the game’s gear—if the organizer provides equipment you no longer get to choose what gear to use. With a bit of a flurry your standard equipment gets set up. You place your beloved Jerger analog clock on your right handed side of the board. Your opponent objects. Say what? Since the time control is Sudden Death with a 5 second delay (G/30, d5) your adversary wants to use his delay capable clock, not your analog clock. It’s time for the TD to use his problem solving skills. “White’s delay clock will be the game timer,” declares the TD. “I’m playing under protest,” is your reply to the ruling.

An analog clock is standard equipment—right? As the player of the black pieces you were denied the right to use your analog clock. Why? Because chess law says that the preferred clock to use in any game is the one that can be set for the announced time controls. The rules say that a preferred clock trumps all other clocks; i.e., delay clocks reign supreme in games with any sudden death time control, while increment-capable timers are the clocks of choice in games with any increment time control.

So, if you have a delay clock and your opponent has an analog clock in a sudden death contest, you can swap in your clock for theirs before the game starts. The proper clock for the proper time control trumps black’s right to select the chess equipment. Similarly, if you have an increment-capable timer—in a contest with an increment time control—while your adversary does not, then you can once again swap clocks before the start of the game.

If sudden death time controls are used to play, then set your clock with delay.

If both you and your opponent have delay clocks, the player of the black pieces gets to choose which timer to use in sudden death time control contests. Clocks provided by the organizer can’t be swapped for your own timer without TD permission. Unless it is announced (or advertised or posted) otherwise, the player of the black pieces may choose where to place the game timer—unless they are late to the start of the game and their opponent has a properly set delay clock already in use.

Your game timer is down to the last few minutes of a G/30 d5 contest. Your opponent notices that the clock is not set right: the base time control was set properly (remember we don’t add or subtract time from the base time control for any kind of clock anymore), but the delay was not active (set) for the whole game! Pause the clocks and get a TD to help straighten out this mess. Typically the TD will see to it that the clocks are set properly and then possibly assign any appropriate penalties.

An increment time control would suggest that an increment clock is the best.

Use the increment setting for games requiring it (G/30 + 30 sec, for example—a base time control of 30 minutes of displayed thinking time per player with 30 seconds added permanently to the displayed time control for each player each time a move is completed by pressing the clock). If your opponent does not have an increment-capable clock and you do, see a TD about using your clock for the game. Remember, if you both have increment clocks, the player commanding the black army gets to choose which increment clock to use, unless they are late for the start of the game. And there is a procedure for using a delay clock for an increment time control.

Delay clocks without the ability to set increment time controls should instead be set for a delay equal to the increment time (Example: G/45 + 30 seconds would result in a 30 second delay setting). For delay clocks that can’t be set to equal the announced increment time then the largest amount of delay that is smaller than the increment time may be used as the delay setting instead

Analog clocks can only be set for the base time control with no extra adjustments, such as added time, to compensate for their inability to be set for the increment time; i.e., all clocks in all time controls must now start the game with the same base time.

But what if you are late to the game and your opponent has already set up their own analog clock?

When your clock is more up to date, ask to swap it even if you’re late.

You are assigned the white pieces and are ten minutes tardy for the start of your game. When you arrive for your G/45 d5 match-up, black’s analog clock indicates you have lost ten minutes of playing time; however, your delay clock trumps any analog clock in a sudden death contest. You may be allowed to swap your clock for black’s (see the TD) as long as you have made no move—and yes, you should expect to still be down ten minutes of thinking time when your properly set delay clock gets swapped for the analog timer.

Watch for more Clockamania next month.


  1. For games ending in a sudden death time control (which are essentially all of them), analog clocks have been non-standard since December 1994, when the Chronos became commercially available.

    Analog clocks have no place in modern competitive chess. If you still have and use one, it is a disservice not to tell you bluntly:

    It’s time to buy a new clock.

    • Respectfully, I must disagree. Perhaps it’s just because I’m an old codger, but the analog chess timer must be acknowledged as the loyal, inveterate companion of a chesser. These new-fangled, cheap plastic gadgets have so many settings and controls that can fail — or be accidentally set incorrectly. I’m even not happy about battery-powered analog clocks, let alone these modern gizmos. Tell me: what would happen if you’re playing a tournament game and North Korea detonates a nuclear device at high altitude over the country, causing an Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) which burns out the national power grid and all electronic circuitry and microchips? What then, eh? Your hyper-modern, electronic contraption will be fried, and you will have to call for an analog clock (the wind-up kind) in order to continue the game. But at my table, my opponent and I will go on with our game, oblivious to the devastating national catastrophe, and play beautiful chess, thanks to my wooden analog chess timer made in the Czech Republic. By the way, analog clocks have long been used for (and will continue to be used for) “sudden-death” games. Right now, I have to put down my fountain pen and excuse myself; it’s time for my nap.

      • I agree 100% with Brennan. Analog clocks can’t do increment and delay and for most analog clocks, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much time you have left when you are low on time. The ticking on most analog clocks is annoying. Despite the fact that SOME digital clocks are made of cheap plastic, analog clocks are more likely to tip over. Also, I think analog clocks fail more often than digital clocks. Honestly, most digital clocks are not that hard to set correctly. The hypothetical you gave as a reason to prefer analog clocks is ridiculous.

      • You may have needed a smilie to show that you may not have been 100% serious. Some missed the bit about using a fountain pen to get a comment on the website.

    • As of January 1, 2016, a digital clock is standard equipment in ALL cases (even when there is neither delay nor increment, as specified in rule 5F3.) While for the time being an analog clock is still allowed, it is the least preferred choice of clock type and is nonstandard. (The text of rules 5E and 5F was changed after publication of the sixth edition of the Official Rules of Chess. The new version explicitly spells out how to set each type of clock for each type of time control.)

      The “rules update” document is available at http://www.uschess.org/docs/gov/reports/RulebookChanges.pdf.

  2. I’d like to compliment Tim Just on this fascinating discussion on timers. Each situation posed different problems and Tim explained clearly the “what” and the “why” of the correct decision by the TD. Players should thank our great TDs for their dedication service; and thanks go to Tim for his indispensable “USCF’s Official Rules of Chess” — which should be owned by every serious player.

  3. The statement in the article that says “Because chess law says that the preferred clock to use in any game is the one that can be set for the announced time controls” makes it seem like an analog clock is just as standard as a digital clock for time controls without increment or delay but it’s not.

    The statement in the article that says “delay clocks reign supreme in games with any sudden death time control, while increment-capable timers are the clocks of choice in games with any increment time control” makes it seem like there is no sudden death with an increment time control but there is.

    The statement in the article that says “If sudden death time controls are used to play, then set your clock with delay” is not entirely accurate since you are not allowed to set your clock with delay if the sudden death time control is, for example, G/30;d0.

    • Many delay clocks still have a delay setting from the last time it was set and thus the delay does still need to be set (to zero). If the last time the clock was used it was still in the same mode and delay setting then you may not need to change the setting at the moment, but you still have to verify the setting and that just means you set your clock to the correct setting that last time you changed it (at some point it did need to be set).

    • I won’t speak for Tim, but I’m preconditioned from the years (from 1994 until recently) that an analog clock was standard equipment in the absence of a delay or increment. Others have correctly pointed out that this is no longer the case.

      Of course, several of us are preconditioned to associate delay with sudden death because there was a standard delay to be automatically used in a sudden death time control. Not all agree that ditching the previous standards for free organizer choice (whether that choice is d10 or d0) was a good thing, but the ship has sailed.

      • OK but the person who writes articles like this should be up to date and explain how things are currently.

  4. d10 is much better than d5 if you want games decided over the board – not sure why d5 continues to be in use more.

    • Back when the Excalibur/Gametimer was more popular (showing only minutes) and it was still common to take five minutes off for a five second delay, I would regularly ask players to correct Gametimers set at 155 minutes to change to 115 minutes and DG/Chronos/Saiteks set at 1:15 to change to 1:55. Getting rid of the five minute deduction makes such correction rarer but I still sometimes have to have players change 1:20 to 2:00 for a two hour time control.
      Generally neither player knows of the need for the correction until I point it out.

    • And when you are the higher rated player arriving on time playing black with a delay-capable clock that can be set for the tournaments time control I will be perfectly happy to let you choose the clock. I’ll even be kinder to you and let you do so even if the situation is exactly the same except that you are not the higher rated player.

  5. We have been using 30 second increment in our tournaments lately, for example G/90 +30, and find that eliminates a lot of problems. It is not important that the move counter is accurate since there is no second time control, so all those disputes about if the 40th move was made on time or not are gone. The game is decided on the board because it is hard to lose on time with 30 seconds added every move, although I have seen it happen when people completely forget to look at the clock. I also agree that when using delay, 10 seconds is preferable to 5 seconds, but that is a minor preference, I just find it hard to do anything in 5 seconds. Another benefit of the 30 second increment is that moves have to be recorded, even when under 5 minutes. This helps when trying to use the 50 move rule or 3 time repetition rules.

  6. I wish I knew whose bad idea it was to introduce digital clocks to chess in the first place. Better to learn to manage your time than to create a slew of new rules to accommodate a clock that has the additional side effect of handicapping the already disadvantaged patzer.
    So sayeth…
    Old Codger the Luddite

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