How to Operate a Chess Clock

How to Operate a Chess Clock

Adding a chess clock to your game brings a new level of excitement and fairness! Knowing how to use a chess clock will add a wonderful dimension to your enjoyment of chess.

Did you know there's more than one way to win a chess game! Not only can you checkmate, you can call a "flag" if the other player runs out of time.

Have you played games where your opponent just takes his merry time (forever) to move? Unless he finds the perfect move, he's just not going to move? You need a timer!

Whether you're playing at home or in an event, these tips help you get started and gain confidence to play chess with a clock.

Topics in How to Operate a Chess Clock

How the chess clock works

Many chess clock manufacturers don't include instructions with their clocks. It may be due to an assumption that chess clock operation is already clear. This how-to guide is intended to give you a practical understanding that will apply to almost any kind of chess timer.

How to Use the Chess Clock

Chess clocks are distinctive with two timers built into one unit - one for each player. The two clocks are never running simultaneously but rather keep track of each player's time used. This keeps a chess game moving at a desired pace since both players will be motivated to use their time well for the completion of all their moves in the game.

If an hour is available for a game, players would be given up to 30 minutes on each side of the clock. With alternating moves it will take no more than 60 minutes total. Chess timers make it possible to run large, organized events that start and finish on time with 4 or 5 games played by each player in one day. Everything can run like clockwork with new pairings of players determined based on results between rounds.

Now, how do you operate this chess clock?

Besides the two dials or time displays, a pair of play buttons are easy to reach atop the clock.

These alternate which player's timer is running from side to side and they never count down at the same time. Circular face display clocks (analog style) have a neutral position that pauses both timers.

Immediately following a move (and with the same hand), the button nearest the player is pressed. This stops the time on the near side and starts the time for the opponent.

To start a game of chess

1. White pieces will make the first move
2. Players shake hands and Black side presses play button
3. White pieces move and follow by pressing near side button on clock.

When your opponent makes a move, he will press the button on his side which stops his timer and starts yours simultaneously. EVERY move, you will press the button. It seems tedious at first but soon becomes a skill that you can perform smoothly and rapidly.

How the game ends with a timer

Time management on the chessboard is fascinating in its own right and much can be learned about this topic.

The last 5 minutes of the game are generally most critical on games of 30 minutes or longer.

Regardless of timing strategy, on analog displays there is a red "flag" that will rise as the time approaches expiration. When it fall, that signals that the time has expired.

The player's who's time has expired loses the game, and the other player claims the win. There are some interesting rules and etiquette for later.

Setting the chess clock

Both digital and analog clocks are readily available. Digital are preferable for their versatility and interesting play modes. Yet many people still prefer the ease and classic analog style.

Digital clocks typically count down. Time has expired when it reaches 0:00. Digital clocks have various setting methods and modes so we'll deal with the more standard setting procedure for the traditional analog clock instead.

Analog clocks can be battery powered but are more commonly powered by spring tension and need winding every so often. Never over-wind until they are tight or your timer may stop working as expected. A light snug wind is enough.

Analog clocks have a dial and hands, counting up. The signal for a player's expired time is a small red flag. As the minute hand reaches 12 o'clock the red flag will rise. When it reaches 12, the "flag falls". In a competition, the player whose "flag has fallen" loses the game (with some exceptions!)

The time is set with two knobs on the back of the clock, one for each display. Turn this knob as you watch the clock face.

To set the clock for a game that lasts no more than one hour ("Game in 30" or 30 minutes per side), watch the face of the clock as you set, first one side to 5:30, and then the other side to 5:30.

Starting at 5:30 in this case results in a completed time of 6 o'clock a helpful standard for games that range from 5 minutes to several hours in length. An observer knows exactly how much time is left by adding the time from 6 o'clock to the time displayed.

If you're playing with a friend and you have only 30 minutes to play, set both timers to 5:45. You will each have 15 minutes before the time expires at 6:00 and one of the flags has fallen.

Most players feel rushed when their time reaches less than 15 minutes or 5 minutes. Some competitions are built entirely on the 5 minute game. It's called Blitz Chess. It's a form of chess that is very exciting and fun to play if you are already very comfortable playing the game.

Chess clocks in tournament play

Chess tournaments would be impossible without chess clocks. They keep the whole place ticking and participants pleased with the timeliness of the event.

We can learn some things from event standards whether or not you play in an organized event.

Tournament Time Standards

A tournament may be organized as a Standard, Action Chess, Blitz Chess, Speed Chess, Game 30 or many other styles.

Slow chess tournaments including US Championships will allow 1 hour to 2 1/2+ hours per player. These games can last as long as 7 or more hours! Many tournaments will have faster games at 1 hour per player, 30 minutes (Action Chess), 15 minutes (Quick Chess), or 5 minutes (Speed or Blitz Chess).

With a friend, a fast game is 5 minutes per player. A slower game is 15 to 30 minutes, and a long game is an hour or more.

In this photo, the digital timer is set to 1 hour and 30 minutes per player with a bonus time of 5 seconds per move. This is preset 15 on the DGT North American, our best selling clock for players.

Etiquette, rules, and expectations

On which side of the board do you place the clock? Most people favor it to their right. The player with black pieces gets preference on which side of the chessboard to place the timer.

If both players bring a chess clock, the digital style is automatically preferred, or you can agree to use either.

Here's one of the most common questions in timed chess games. What happens if you play checkmate at the same time your flag falls (time expires)? If checkmate is on the board before your opponent verbally claims "flag", you still win!

If your time is called before you've made the move you've lost the game, regardless if your next move could be checkmate. Don't need to claim your own time expiration. It's up to the opposing player to call it!

Never call flag on a game that's not your own! It's a hugely embarrassing act you'd never repeat.

Tips for smart time management

The chess clock adds an interesting dynamic to the game. 

Great players try to play the clock to their advantage by playing obvious moves (memorized openings) more quickly, thereby maximizing time for stages of the game that may call for deeper evaluation.

Both players have the same time to start. Will you make quick moves in the opening to accumulate extra time? Will you spend extra time in the opening to try to gain an advantage on the board early on and hope that you can play the advantage quickly to a win later on? Balancing and monitoring your time closely is crucial.

Learning opening moves helps to not only spot advantages you can gain early in the game but it can help you avoid using up time that you'll need later on. If you can make your opponent think in the opening, you can try to achieve a time imbalance in your favor. This can have psychological benefits too throughout the rest of the game.

Think on opponent's time and plan a few moves ahead. When you're opponent is running short on time, he will be thinking hard on YOUR time. If you have a time advantage and your opponent is moving quickly, don't fall into the trap of also moving quickly when you don't need to. Instead use this time to plan a few moves ahead and reply quickly a couple times, forcing your opponent to have to think on his own time or face making a mistake.

Run out of time? Never call your own flag! ... that is, if you're close to the end of the game anyway. If you can manage to stalemate, checkmate, or capture all of your opponent's pieces before your flag is noticed, you achieve a draw!

Your turn!

Get your timer and play with more confidence! If you have additional questions, our team at Chess House will be glad to answer those by email.

Shop for a chess clock here for your personal, club, or event needs or click on the menus above to view timers available for sale online at Chess House.