When Common Sense Loses to Slow Time Controls

I have just finished attending three National Championship Scholastic Chess Events. One thing I’m generally pretty good at is thinking to myself “if I wasn’t a chess player and wasn’t already immersed in this community, what would I think about things?”

Here’s what I’d think:

“What kind of insane person decided that a child in 3rd grade should be playing chess from 9:00 AM until 11:00PM?”

I know that as American chess players most of us are obsessed with making the game as slow as possible and squeezing in as many hours of chess as possible in a given day. It fits in with our culture of fetishizing those who work 10-12 hour days. But you know what?


I don’t care what values you have or how important you think having two hours on the clock is. The moment you tell me that an extremely young child should have to stay up until 11 PM in order to play chess, I stop listening to you as a rational person.

Jason Wang, the #2 ranked 9 year old in the nation, rated 2120, has a bedtime of around 8pm. Of course Jason is one of the most talented kids in the country. Now we are asking him to stay up 3 hours past his bedtime? This is complete lunacy. His father agreed and therefore Jason took a half point bye in Round 5.

How much sleep should children get? From the age of 7-12, ten to twelve hours of sleep is recommended. This is made completely unrealistic with the schedule we currently have in place.

The father of Maximillian Lu, the #2 ranked 10 year old in the nation at 2180 USCF, asked me “why do they use these time controls? It’s too much chess in one day”. On day 3 Max played multiple consecutive four hour games. Needless to say he was completely exhausted for round 5. After the tournament Max’s father wrote me an email to point out that “Max played 22 hours of chess over 7 games”.

The parents of Nate Shuman, the #3 ranked 9 year old in the country at 2050 USCF, were very passionate about how cruel the time control is. Nate’s mother gathered opinions from other top players who agreed and presented them at the Scholastic Meeting. GM Max Dlugy and GM Alex Lenderman were some of the most vocal opponents. Max said “absolutely no professional player would play under these conditions, why are we forcing children to do so?”

I’m telling you about the personal opinions of most of the parents of the top 9-10 year old players in the country. But I shouldn’t have to. Because any person who has common sense should realize that you shouldn’t ask anyone, much less a child, to play chess from 9AM until 11PM.

At the National Junior High Championship one player took a draw in Round 5. I asked why in a post game interview and he said “I’m just so exhausted, I can barely think”. This is a chess tournament, not a contest to see who can stay up the longest and focus without proper sleep.

If you asked Magnus Carlsen to play in a tournament like this, he’d look at you like you were crazy, and then laugh you out of the room. We can’t keep doing this to children.

There has to be a limit to what you force people, especially children, to endure in order to preserve this mythical “quality of chess” obsession. To ensure that kids feel like they got enough bang for their buck in the National Championships, it’s required to have seven games over three days. So since reducing the event to six rounds isn’t an option, this simply means we MUST speed up the time control. Here is my proposal for the time control and the games on Saturday.

The time control would be 90 minutes to start with a 5 second delay.

The schedule would be:

9 AM – Round 3

1 PM – Round 4

6 PM – Round 5

I added an extra hour break in between Rounds 4+5 because that is when kids will be most exhausted and this way they can be assured a decent dinner break and maybe even a short nap. Note that in general I would always try to ensure a full two hours rest in between rounds, but I think an exception probably should be made for one round on Saturday to ensure that kids expect to finish their games no later than 9:15 PM.

I admit that this schedule is still likely to be the most demanding schedule in the nation of any serious tournament and I would never dream of using it for any tournament I organized, but let’s use the baby steps method to end this madness.

The good news? When this topic was brought up at the Scholastic Meeting, it was met with unanimous support. The bad news? There is some overly complex and strange process needed to make the most obvious common sense change one could imagine.

Stop making children play chess until 11 PM! This is not rocket science. We are trying to promote something that’s good for children, not look like out of touch, one dimensional weirdos.







17 thoughts on “When Common Sense Loses to Slow Time Controls

  1. Greg, why do you keep advocating for common sense and reason? What’s wrong with you???? smile emoticon

    Seriously, you are absolutely on the right side of this, as you have been in more than 75% of your arguments against the status quo. But let’s take this a little further, too. K-6 and K-5 Championship sections are contested by more experienced and stronger players than all the “under-####” and K-3 and K-1 sections, so it also makes sense to make more changes to the events for these lesser groups, no matter what is done for the top groups. By the way, having run some hundred or so sizable swisses, it’s also important to consider the management challenges in the way the event schedule is structured. (And yes, I am the poster child for why the scholastics went from two days to three days in the 1980s.)


  2. Sounds great to me, and I’d like if many of our other non-elite tournaments would go that route as well. When I get to play at a 90-minute time control, I feel like I’ve played a full tournament game. I don’t feel like I didn’t have time to think. It’s a fine time control for legitimate games, and shaving a few hours off these days would be a big help to us weekend warriors out there.


  3. to be clear i’m not making excuses just stating a fact. i miscalculated the hours it was more like 23.5 ish. in any case great article. I would further note that the marathon day2 of three rounds on saturday doesn’t end there as round 6 is a very early 9am game. so if you last round goes 4+ hours it ends at 11:15-11:30 at night and by the time you get to the room, eat somethinng, shower, brush teeth it’s at a minimum 12:30 if not later and then you have to play again at 9am. meaning you need to be up by 8am at the latest. so he marathon day extends to sunday. Grade Nationals in december is already G90, so there’s clearly a precedent for this. chess purists would argue that the quality of chess declines at G90 yet the offsetting argument is that the quality of chess declines with 12 hours of chess on saturday. As the author notes the biggest reason for a change is there are no adult tournaments with this amount of chess in a day in the US, so why is the longest tournament in the US a 7-12 kids tournament?


  4. Someone told me about your post, and I was worried you would be proposing G30. Phew! G90d5 is reasonable. However, I would strongly prefer G90d10 – 5 seconds is not enough time to finish out a game without gigantic blunders for the vast majority of K-3 kids.

    Another idea someone mentioned to me was making the tournament 4 days instead of 3. At first I wasn’t impressed, but now I’ve come to agree, and that would be my top choice for a “stop the three games a day, the last of which is 7-11pm, craziness” proposal. As you note, the issue is not the time control itself but rather the exhaustion of playing until 11pm. A likely side benefit would be more revenue for the host venue, and/or possibly steeper chess rate discounts. As an aside, I don’t know of any participant who complained about the 2015 World Youth schedule of 11 (5-hour game) rounds in 12 days, though of course that would be extremely difficult to emulate here. It could be something to aspire to though if we’d like to ever have a professional tournament circuit (and not force future Caruana’s to move to Italy) this side of the Atlantic.

    Final thought: do K-1, K-3, K-5, and K-6 really need to play at the same times and time controls?! Next year’s Supernationals could be a good year to try to switch things up a little.


  5. I agree with the above. Perhaps we could make a 4 or 5 day schedule (maybe even make it FIDE eligible? Can you do it with 90 +30sec increments?) and then merge it with a three day schedule for those who can’t do a longer schedule. I think this would get far more of the strongest players to play.
    Also, it is hard to crown a true national champion after only 7 rounds. 9 rounds would be much better (is 8 even possible?). Top players do draw one or two games. It’s a shame when young kids know even a draw or two could cause them to lose a National title.
    Finally, I’m for getting rid of the grade categories altogether and having U7, U8, U9, U10, etc, titles. There is too much difference in ages among grades. Some kids are home schooled or have skipped grades. That makes it hard on them. You can still have the school team awards to keep the scholastic element there. Maybe keep the Under ### sections still by grades?
    And, no excuses from me. My child won one of the open divisions. It just makes no sense to have the latest night he ever stayed up be a national chess competition (he had a very long game 5 as well that wiped him out)…


  6. Quite a lot of the logistics are driven by the needs or desires of adults, not of the kids. And I like the suggestion that kids have more interaction

    USCF will never consider reducing the number of days for the kids in the “under-####” or “under-###” sections, because these events are budgeted based on their ability to sell hotel rooms at the Opryland Hotel and Convention Center and other not-quite-as-large convention-oriented hotels. But in the interest of the kids and their families, this might make a lot of sense – along with faster time controls for those sections. Same for the K-3 and K-1 Championship groups, maybe.

    And why not have more groups, with narrower bands of rating spread. There were over 450(!) kids in the K-5 Under 900 section this year, and 328 in K-3 Under 800. The number or rounds (seven) has not be revisited in decades, if ever, I think. The section boundaries are simply driven by what can be managed in seven rounds, as far as I have seen.

    Also, another way to shorten game lengths for many players, though not for all, is to have a first and second time control, as many games will end before move 40 (maybe even move 30), though clock issues would need more TD attention if this were done. Why not 40/60 for the non-Championship sections?

    These tournaments are also run as large profit centers for USCF, but surely there are better ways to fund USCF in their new era of being an educational charitable tax-deductible organization. The above would increase the need for staffing, with some more spreading of authority to additional tournament direction teams overseeing more but smaller sections. By the way, are the results electronically input directly from the playing hall yet, and have similar IT improvements been made to make the events more efficient to manage? When I was leading the introduction of computer technology in the mid-to-late 1980s as the main event organizer and director in southern California, the computers let more and more of the staff come out from the “back room”, but the back room staffs at these events still seems to be pretty large, and the time it takes for information to flow back and forth can probably be reduced while actually making data handling and communications more reliable, if this has not already been done.


  7. Good Article. Very well said. We need to make this change. It is not healthy or fair to the kids and, candidly, the current 4 Hour plus games favor the older kids in the tournament independent of their rating.


  8. Loved the article. First of all, I thought that this was another example of a wonderfully run tournament. USCF does a top notch job and should be commended. However, things can always be done better. A lot of the comments made–and not surprisingly–seem to be coming from parents of children in the elite category of scholastic chess players. Broadly speaking, I think that the first question that needs to be asked about any tournament is: “what is the goal of this tournament.” Answer that, and it will help direct you to what makes the most sense. The suggestion about age group tournaments and extending the number of days is wonderful, but it plays more into the needs of the top most players–or at least players who are able to spend many days at chess tournaments. Perhaps the best solution would be to have another National Championship, this one age group that is FIDE compliant with norms, would be held during the summer, and would be age based; it could also be invitational, but I leave that up to others. Performance in that tournament would be used for the World Youth qualifications and it would hopefully draw the majority of the highest rated players. Now, back to the most recent tournament and the article…. from my perspective, shortening the time controls makes sense; and frankly, G60 seems reasonable to me and perhaps even g45 d10. Frankly, there is always going to be an element of a crap shoot here; no tournament can guarantee that the best player always wins. Shorter time controls make things more random, but longer time controls tire kids out and that also makes play more random. I would also suggest moving bughouse and blitz to after the tournament. I wonder whether or not the child who was a 2200+ and lost in round one to a 1300 wasn’t hurt by playing both bughouse and blitz the day before. Kids shouldn’t have to choose between having fun and improving their chess and doing well at an important tournament. I would also suggest broadcasting the games of the top boards along with an engine to spectators. Yes, I’m aware that this would put the top players at something of a disadvantage, but I think that this is a sacrifice that they should be willing to make to improve the experience of the parents (or at least me!)–and doing that ultimately helps the game that they enjoy so much.


  9. The reality is that, for the longer playing players (probably scewed towards the elite players), reducing the time clock is not going to proportionally reduce their playing time, as they are likely to go to the end instead of leaving with some time on the clock as they might with the longer clock. But it will most definitely concentrate their playing time and probably eliminate time they might need to review their games and to get a mental rest.

    The bottom line issue, in my opinion, is having 3 rounds in 1 day. Yes, time of day is a factor. But, in my opinion, total playing time is a much bigger factor. And, with everyone playing in a more concentrated manner, finding food options will be that much more stressful. I do not think the option they are proposing will accomplish much in reducing anxiety. If anything, there are many offsetting anxieties to consider (ie getting food, mental rest, and rush to finish the game for higher level players). They should eliminate the 3 round day instead. Either cut it down to 6 rounds overall or add another half day if 7 rounds is a must. If they add a day, they could even go to 8 rounds if that is desirable.

    Or, perhaps the best solution would be a 3 or 4 day option, with the 3 day option having shorter rounds for 1 and 2 (like G60) which merges around round 3. Something Like:

    4 day
    Day 1: 4pm G120/5
    Day 2: 9am and 5pm G120/5
    Day 3: 9am and 2pm G120/5
    Day 4: 9am and 2pm G120/5

    3 day Option:
    Day 1: 9am and 1pm G60/5, 5pm G120/5
    Day 2: 9am and 2pm G120/5
    Day 3: 9am and 2pm G120/5


  10. The “normal” time control for K-6 is G/75, which is just a little more than I really think they should be playing to show the importance of it being a National Championship.
    Asking them to play 3 games under such time control is already quite demanding – G/90 would be 50% more than any adult would expect to be playing for in the World Open. Just because there is a bad policy in place, doesn’t mean we have to negotiate it down with baby steps. We should just scrap it. This reminds me of haggling for a carpet in Morocco. When I came into the store the shopkeeper started with 1,500$. I eventually bought it for a 100$.
    G/2 is plainly insane, G/90 is sick, G/75 is livable considering some powers that be really don’t like children to have fun at a National where they could interact with each other in various side events, and rub shoulders with some of the best players in the nations, if they had time.
    If I was President I would push for G/60!


  11. i agree the major issue is the saturday 3 round day. if it was 2 rounds a day g90 or 120 is potentially doable. the problem is the championship section is so big having only 6 rounds means the top kids don’t play each other. the way to fix this is have a smaller championship section cutoff at say the top 100 kids by rating for example and with 6 rounds you’re going to get the best player. but in a 330 kid section 6 rounds is not enough. the key is the ratio of # of kids to rounds. so potentially make a top championship section of the top 100 kids by rating that register and the rest play in a contender section and then make this a 6 round tournament and you will have enough rounds for a quality championship section without compromising significantly on the time control. basically this is how the north american youth ends up being in a self-selecting process(non contenders generally don’t go) and it’s a high quality tournament. so you could do that here while providing a quality experience for the middle-lower of the pack,.


      • i didn’t think of team aspect, that a good point. you could score team points by combining the score in the sections giving 1.5 for a championship win and 1 for candidates section for example(i’ve seen grand prix points at local tournaments calculated in this manner). although getting the ratio right could take some study though.


  12. G60 + 30 seconds increment is another option to consider. There are regular tournaments in MN with this time control and 3 rounds a day feel reasonable. 30-seconds increment allows for a better end game, which is nice. The final rounds in the championship sections could be G90 + 30 seconds increment. In general, I would like us to move towards international time controls in both classical chess and blitz.


  13. Interesting thought though I’m skeptical that there is an even minimal permanent damage to the kid’s health by staying up late in some occasions training his brain. Obviously if staying up late becomes an habit, then there may be a legitimate reason for concern, otherwise I do not see much reason for alarm.


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