Slow Chess Should Die a Fast Death – Part 2

Wow. Part 1 of this blog was by far the most controversial thing I’ve written. The blog received hundreds of comments on multiple websites, for instance reddit and chess.com.

There was lots of positive feedback and also lots of violently aggressive negative feedback. I can’t imagine that I’d get more hatred from some of these people than if I kidnapped their child. Multiple people even made it clear that I must have wrote the blog because I was so jaded due to some slow chess game that I lost in the past or that I had some deep, dark emotional problems that were finally manifesting themselves in my blog.

One person, a complete stranger, was seemingly so offended by the article, that at 4:17 AM they posted a tweet on my Twitter feed that simply said “ Jackass”

What’s the truth? I love chess but I also live in the real world and realize that 5-6 hour chess games are an impractical use of resources and time.

In fact quite a few strong players felt there was lots to agree with. For instance one of the top players in the country, GM Daniel Naroditsky, replied with: “Agree with every word.”, while GM Jonathan Tisdall replied with “An interesting read, I completely disagree with it, and completely agree with it.”. IM John Bartholomew agreed with the general tone although felt the time control should be a bit slower than what I suggested, and IM Keaton Kiewra also agreed with the general idea.

I can only imagine what people who were against adjourned games had to fight against for decades. I suspect that they were told by many people that if you eliminate adjournments, that chess as an art will simply die as a result, and that the only real chess is chess with adjournments.

Somehow chess managed to survive the elimination of the adjournments, which in retrospect I’m sure seem to be completely ridiculous. I think we can survive if we reduce the length of a chess game by a few hours.

In any case I’d now like to summarize what the key focal point is of this discussion:

The perfect time control should be a time control that allows all levels of players to play somewhere close to their highest potential, while at the same time making sure the game is fun for both the players and spectators.

What does this mean? Well it means that a time control of 10 hours per side is a bad one. You aren’t going to play much better with 10 hours as opposed to 2 hours, and meanwhile you are going to completely destroy any enjoyment that fans will get from the game, while making the experience of playing completely impractical.

Meanwhile a standard time control of anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes isn’t great either. The large majority of chess players will play moves that fall far below their maximum potential. Meanwhile the action will come so fast and furiously that announcers will have a difficult time explaining it to the audience.

Chess players are perfectionists in general, which I think is a bit of a personality flaw. If we make a time control too fast (and to most people, a single chess game taking an entire hour is too fast), then I admit that all players will experience a significant dip in their playing abilities. I still believe that something in the 30+5 range is the ideal time control for chess, due to the many practical benefits it provides, but I also admit that there will be a noticeable decline in the skill of most players. I think this is easily an acceptable loss, but not everyone will.

What is the time control that strikes the perfect balance between length of the game, and skill of play, so that we can make this game more fast paced, more media friendly, while at the same time not demonstrating a significant hit to the quality of play?

I think the answer to this question comes when you take a look at other sports. How long is a football game, soccer game, or a basketball game? They are all in the range in the 2-3 hours. How long is a movie? The typical movie length is anywhere from 1.5-2 hours. Despite the fact that it’s clear that 2-3 hours is a standard for a sporting event or contest, for some reason a single chess game massively eclipses all of these wildly popular sports by lasting a potential 5-6 hours.

I think that a time control of 60+5, or basically anything in which you’d expect a game to take 2 to 2.5 hours, would be a reasonable compromise. First of all it easily allows for two rounds per day, at high level chess events. For the chess obsessed Americans you could even fit 3 very high quality games in every day.

Most importantly, people will still play very close to their maximum chess potential. This time control still gives you the opportunity to think for 10 minutes on a move on more than one occasion during a game. Now might be a good time to quote GM Gregory Kaidanov when he tells his students “There is no reason to spend more than 10 minutes on any move”.

These extra 3 hours that you’ve cut from the game definitely do a small amount to add to the quality of play, but what you are sacrificing for these 3 hours is massive. We are currently alienating large amounts of potential players and fans so that we can maybe play 20-50 points stronger. We are making chess tournaments unwieldy and long, and reducing the number of games you can play in any given tournament.

An expected chess round of 2 to 2.5 hours is a great number, allowing fans to follow the ebb and flow of each game in a reasonable and condensed period of time. Meanwhile it would be very easy to play two games in the same day of any tournament. You could immediately double the length of any important match or tournament in order to be more likely to determine the appropriate champion. I’m willing to even admit that you could get away with making the time control as slow as 75+10 and experience similar benefits. Meanwhile players are going to play very close to their maximum skill level at a 75+10 time control, while shaving hours off of the length of the game.

Let’s look at some more of the amazing benefits of having a faster time control as our standard:

The FIDE World Cup, which many people consider to be not such a serious tournament due to the seemingly random nature of the results, could change drastically. Imagine if the time control was 30+5, and players played mini matches of eight games instead of two games. You are going to suddenly start seeing the top players advance with much more frequency, to the extent where it actually becomes seen a legitimate test of chess skill. Aronian loses a game in Round 2? No problem, he has seven games to catch up instead of just one, and trust me when I say that he’s probably going to catch up. Even at 55+5, you could increase the length of the matches to at least four or six games with no problem, and this will still drastically benefit the stronger players.

This same logic could be used for both the Candidates Tournament and the World Championship Match. Don’t forget that in 2013 Magnus Carlsen was extremely lucky to have won the Candidates tournament. Imagine what a shame it would have been for chess if Magnus, who was far and away the best and most marketable player in the world at the time, didn’t come out on top.

The strange conclusion is that a faster time control, with more total games played, actually reduces the variance in results instead of the opposite. The best players will start winning much more frequently in grand and inclusive events like the World Cup, which as far as I can tell is exactly what people want. These ideas will result in more demonstration of skill during chess tournaments, not less.

So in conclusion, if the standard time control is reduced to something in the range of 30-75 minutes per side, you suddenly:

  1. Make chess less strenuous for the players
  2. Make the games much more entertaining for the viewing audience
  3. Will retain the ability to play high quality moves, while making chess accessible for the large number of people who don’t want to play 6 hour games
  4. Allow for more games in a given tournament
  5. Ensure that in the major chess competitions, the top players will have the best chances to come out on top.

The current standard chess time control is way too slow and those extra hours of play provide very little in terms of quality of play and entertainment. I hope someday to see a 40-50 game World Championship Match once again.

17 thoughts on “Slow Chess Should Die a Fast Death – Part 2

  1. Is the spectator factor really that important? What do you think of live broadcasting/viewing of these high level tournaments? Like others have said, there’s a lot of fluff in some of these broadcasts where there’s only so much you can say about the position but they have to keep talking while the players are thinking. Edit out all the fluff and you can get down to the 10-15 minute per game summary videos like Daniel King makes. Something of that style combined with multiple commentators and perhaps some post-game interviews and maybe show video of the players if they are in some time scramble. In my view, live viewing isn’t so important because so many of the tournaments take place in the middle of the night PST time anyway. So, why not just produce an hour long edited program and there’s no spectator issue?

    Your first post was from a player perspective and I agree with that but non-live spectators might still prefer a longer time control to try to get the highest quality game.

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  2. Someone with a great deal of time on their hands should do a study. Analyze the average number of gross mistakes in faster time control games as compared to slower time controls, using players of similar ratings.

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  3. Personally, I dislike all of things you talk about regarding classical time controls, but alas, I hate fast chess even worse.

    I am a rare person: an older player that is actually improving. But I need time to sort things out at the board. The bottom line is my rating started to go up when I quit playing at faster time controls. And since, like everyone, I want my rating to go up, I want more slow tournaments, not less.

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  4. Greg,

    I agreed with a lot of what you’ve written in the last two posts. Weekend chess tournaments definitely take up too much time, and I’m usually exhausted by the fifth round. However, I disagree with your claim that people don’t enjoy playing slow chess.

    It may be that the best chess players in the world don’t lose that much strength when the time control decreases. But speaking as a decent amateur (~2000), I feel much more satisfied with my play after a long time control game than after an action game. I still enjoy playing shorter games, but am frustrated by both the frequency of my blunders and my inability to analyze a position extensively. In particular, I think time control matters for the quality of the endgame—my favorite part of chess. Maybe IMs and GMs don’t lose that much strength when they have to blitz out an endgame. But for me, it’s much more fun to play the endgame when I have thirty minutes than when I have five.

    Dan

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  5. I can share some preliminary results of my research on faster time controls. The later Amber rapids played about 200-210 Elo under the players’ ratings. The faster World Rapid championships (15′ + 10″/move) played about 270-280 under. The World Blitz events have played 550-600 under. I don’t yet have results for G/60 and will need more games for reliable results—it may help that as of work this year I can calibrate all the way down to (FIDE) Elo 1300.

    This is all pending a still-in-progress re-basing of my model from Rybka/Houdini to Komodo/Stockfish. My early Rybka-based results at http://www.cse.buffalo.edu/~regan/papers/pdf/Reg12IPRs.pdf show that WC Lasker raised his game after 1900 and turned in some 2700+ performances, ditto Capa-Alekhine 1927, though 2700+ wasn’t seen again until the 1950s.

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  6. Dear Greg,

    it’s a pity that I have come by this article only now but that’s no reason not to join the discussion. It’s always a pleasure for me if someone has a clear opinion and also has the guts to throw it into public, being well aware of the negative reactions that seem to be inavoidable in our funny times. The discussion itself is too valuable to allow the idiots to distract us from what’s important: Finding out how we want to play our beloved game. In fact, I am not really entitled to give an opinion on this matter as I am retired from tournament chess for many years now. You probably would take my decision to stop playing tournament chess as validation of your argument because the reason I gave up was that I had too little time for chess.

    However, this doesn’t mean I didn’t have the time to play chess. Of course, a handful of Sunday league games can be pressed into any calendar at will. What I didn’t have time for was the work, the preparation and the learning experience that is required for just keeping your level of play, let alone improving. And soon I realized that I might keep on playing standard tournament games but if so, it’s basically watching myself getting worse day by day. I could not stand the thought. Yes, that is the perfectionist chess player.

    Instead of playing standard time control chess I used my Sundays for playing rapid and blitz chess. I thought it would be more fun. And indeed it was at the beginning, because in rapid chess the details just don’t matter as much as they do in standard time control, and you can be successful by letting your instincts guide you even if you are not on top of every theoretical opening discussion. After a while, however, it was obvious even in fast time controls that my level of play had dropped – without all the work done at home and by playing those long exhausting tournaments the brain just did not work as it used to. And then it was no longer fun.

    Chess is a game between two players, or so it seems. But for me (and I know really a bunch of players thinking the same) chess is rather a contest with myself: Trying to improve, trying to find original and good ideas – and most of all, avoiding all the stupid mistakes I have made before. Of course, it’s possible to press this self-improvement process into two hours, but it’s not very likely to be successful or enjoyable. I have experienced the deep satisfaction of a really long thought that actually brought up something good (and I strongly disagree with GM Kaidanov there), and the even more satisfying feeling of bringing such an unexpected stroke of intelligence to a logical end. There is nothing that compares with it. I have been lucky enough to beat some really good players at a 25+10 time control but it wasn’t a great feeling because it was obvious they hadn’t put up real resistance, being pressed by the clock. The few things in chess I am proud of have occured in long (most of them very long!) games where neither side was in time trouble.

    What comes up repeatedly in your reflections is the comparison of chess to sports (I won’t say other sports because I believe chess does not belong there). It’s true that many sports matches are limited to two or three hours, but not all. Snooker may be one of the closer relatives to chess in many aspects, and while a snooker match can last anything between five minutes (one frame) to two days (35 frames at the world championship final), the tournaments that are most attractive and generate most interest are the longest ones: legends are not born in one frame. Or look at tennis: The grand slam tournaments last for two weeks and have best-of-five matches (for the men) which can be really, really long. The matches people remember are the ones that go down to the wire in the fifth set.

    Would people consider a two hour chess game worthy of a world championship match? Some will, of course, but in the end, I think we would destroy the thrill of an epic head-to-head encounter. If we think that grandmasters should be admired (even if in a weird sense sometimes), should we cut the game in half to fit it into the sports TV directors schedule? Maybe we might get a few hours of broadcast in the beginning but I doubt that it works in the long run. What makes chess grandmasters special is that they are people who are not only able to find brilliant ideas and hidden subtleties but that they have learned to take their time (and are allowed) to look for them in the first place. Of course, we can save the time for subtleties and play a second game instead. But even for the general audience, two flawed games are less attractive than one epic, exhausting encounter that both sides put all their skill and energy into – and gives the audience the feeling of having witnessed something special.

    That’s what I think about grandmaster chess. But in fact I also think that this is just as true for our own amateur games. Why do we play chess? Well, some of us may like the thought of destroying their opponents’ egos. Others may take their pride in getting to new rating heights or win prizes. But then there are also quite a few of us who think that chess is the art of searching and finding, of being creative and learning about ourselves in the process. And I think it’s great that there is something for everyone: Bullet internet chess and blitz OTB for the adrenaline addicts; a very active rapid chess scene (at least in Europe) for you, Greg, and your peers who think it’s fun to play almost correct chess more than once per day; and the good old six or seven hour game for those who believe chess is not some TV sports event but a way to explore and improve themselves in a competitive environment. Is that fun? Well, it’s not always fun, but in case of success it’s deeply satisfying. Maybe it is like an finishing an ultramarathon (which I have – obviously – never done but I read books about it): The gain is worth all the pain. And would you believe it: Ultramarathon running is getting more and more popular, even if it does not fit into TV schedules.

    Best wishes & kind regards
    Till Wippermann

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  7. Play chess without regard to whomever is spectating…spectating is not playing. Whether or not chess will be a successful spectating sport is a matter for sponsors and broadcasters, not players.

    Chess is subject to evolution, any attempt to change things too quickly will likely result negatively.

    If you think 10 minutes is enough time for any move in a game of chess you are smoking some strong stuff, just ask the top 10 players is 10 minutes enough time for any move in a game!

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  8. “I love chess but I also live in the real world and realize that 5-6 hour chess games are an impractical use of resources and time.”

    Then why don’t YOU just play faster time controls?
    The rest of us who want to watch and play longer time controls and have the time will do so.
    You don’t have to worry about us so much.
    Just stick to faster games and be happy. The world is big enough for all the time controls out there. No need to change anything.

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  9. Greg,

    I am writing because you were the topic of conversation between Peter Svidler and Jan Gustafsson during today’s broadcast of the last real round of the WCC. Please keep in mind you are reading the Armchair Warrior (https://xpertchesslessons.wordpress.com/). I introduced myself at the Nat HS in Atlanta while you were in line at the food court but you seemed unaware… That was OK because there is a plethora of Chess blogs, and mine was mainly about my native Georgia, and the South. Until today I was unaware of your blog.
    I find it curious you neglected to mention your ‘other’ game, Poker, when discussing the amount of time in other games. As for a movie, it was said best by Alfred Hitchcock, “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”
    I won the Atlanta CC in 1976 with a time control of 40/2 1/2. The games began at seven and were over before midnight.
    In the 1980 US Open my opponent, Dauntless Don Mullis, refused to adjourn the game so we played until 3:30 AM when he resigned. I had to be at work the next morning for what turned out to be my last day on that particular job. I seem to recall losing to NM Tom Algeo the next night before withdrawing from the event.
    I still can picture IM Boris Kogan walking around with bleery eyes, hands clasped in back, during the THIRD game on a Saturday. “You Americans CRAZY,” he was fond of saying.
    Why did we do it?
    In a recent email conversation with a friend concerning Senior tournaments I wrote that three G/60 games with an increment per day would be worth considering. For example, the rounds could begin at 9AM; 1 PM; and 4 PM, which would leave the night free for dinner and conversation, not to mention pleasing the wife. He was more inclined to go for 10 and 2 and only two games per day. “After all, we are SENIORS,” he wrote!
    I have long said, and written, that time limits should be shortened for the lower classes. If one goes to any large tournament one will see the bottom boards finishing long before the top boards. With so many children playing now, certainly there is a need to shorten the game. The Legendary Georgia Drawing Man said he would NEVER play in a G/2. I told him he would because it would be the longest time limit left. I noticed he played in this year’s Castle Chess Grand Prix. The time limit was, as always, G/2.
    The fact is that the best players in the world should play longer games. How long I will leave to the younger players of the future.

    Michael Bacon

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  10. i agree. also the drop in the qualiity of games is not a problem. these players play games at such a high level, that i dont understand half of what happened even if i keep staring at the games for 2 days straight.

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  11. I get the point and this makes a lot of sense. I was new to chess and played a lot online. When I competed in my first tournament a was so confused as to why the time was so long. I only needed a few minutes to really find the move I wanted to play. and no one outside of the chess world wants to watch us sit there for an hour and move a piece.

    But, the longer that I played and competed in that tournament the more I fell in love with the long time control. there wasn’t any pressure about having to blitz out moves and I had the time to consider moves I would never have considered on the internet. and if I lost it had nothing to do with anything other than me. I felt like I had more control, I was controlling my men not the other way around.

    But I don’t compete in tournaments to make fans happy, I don’t even understand this concept. I compete for me not for anyone else. And I would be willing to bet that most of the top players don’t play for me (a fan) they play for themselves because they enjoy the game. If long time controls really are as insanely dreadful as you describe chess would never be popular in the first place. Regardless of the time it was created. If long time controls are the kiss of death than it has had a lot of time to die. But it’s not dead in fact quite the opposite Chess is far more popular now than it has ever been.

    But, blitz chess is fun I would really like to see it gain in popularity but I would never ever like for it to be the only option. If that was the case I believe a lot of top players would stop playing and be replaced by people who believe this to be the only option.

    Death to long time controls is.. wrong. I personally would like to see it gain and even be an equal to long time controls but never ever would I wish for it to completely take over.

    I just want to be clear I agree with your idea but it does need to be revamped.

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