What Is The Clock For In Chess & How To Use One

One of the biggest differences between amateurs and experienced chess players is the use of a chess clock.

It’s important to learn how to use a chess clock if you want to play serious games. Although not everyone likes it, the clock and time management are part of the game.

So let’s take a look at why chess clocks are used and how to play with one.

Why use a chess clock?

The purpose of a chess clock is to keep track of how much time each player takes for their own moves. Using a chess clock is an easy way to make sure either player doesn’t go over the agreed time limit.

To make the best move, you’ll have to carefully consider, compare and calculate several moves in your head. For most chess players, this is no easy task and can take a lot of time.

Of course, you don’t want a single game of chess to go on forever. So before the game starts, both players agree on a time limit.

In classical chess games, both players have more than 1 hour for the entire game, so you have plenty of time to think at critical moments in the game.

However, in blitz, rapid, and bullet games the time limit is set much lower, so the players often have to play one of the first moves that they think of rather than searching for the absolute best move.

In these time controls it’s even more important to use your time wisely, because you can easily lose a won game by running out of time.

For more information, also read my article on the different time controls used in chess.

How does a chess clock work?

A chess clock consists of two clocks that are linked together. When one clock starts, the other clock automatically stops. So at any given time, only one of the clocks is ticking down.

After every move you make, you press your side of the clock to stop your time and start your opponent’s time.

Both analogue and digital (DGT) clocks can be used. But the DGT clock is more commonly used nowadays.

On a DGT chess clock you can see exactly how many hours, minutes, and seconds each player has left. When one of the players runs out of time, their screen will blink all zeros or show a flag icon.

The analogue chess clock works a little different. You can’t see directly how much time you have left. Instead, you run out of time when the minute hand of the clock passes the 12. Then the little red flag between the 11 and 12 position will fall and you lose the game.

DGT chess clock vs analog chess clock

Although the analog chess clock looks great, there are many advantages of using a DGT chess clock instead.

First of all, a digital chess clock is a lot more accurate. You can set exactly how much time each player has. While on an analog chess clock you have to eyeball it. Moreover, on a DGT clock you can quickly see how much time you have left, without having to calculate. This is especially important if you are low on time.

Secondly, most analog chess clocks can’t operate with special time controls such as move delays or move increments.

Thirdly, DGT clocks come with a lot of commonly used preprogrammed time controls, so you can quickly start a new game.

Finally, in most cases the DGT chess clocks are also cheaper than the analog clocks.

So if you are planning on buying a new chess clock, I would recommend going with a digital one.

If you don’t know what time delays and increments are, you can read my article on time controls in chess.

Chess clock rules & etiquette

Now that you know how the chess clock works, let’s look at the most important rules and etiquette when it comes to using a chess clock.

Some of these might seem obvious, but it’s important to be aware of them.

  • Black gets to decide where to place the clock. You can place the clock on either the left or right side of the board. Since most people are right-handed, most black players will choose to place it on their right side. Which means that the chess clock is normally on the left side for the white player.
  • Black starts the chess clock. Normally the chess clock is started after giving a handshake.
  • If you arrive late, your opponent or the arbiter may start the clock without you. This will give you a permanent disadvantage on the clock. Moreover, if you are very late (normally more than 30 minutes), the arbiter might declare a win for your opponent.
  • You have to press the clock with the same hand you used to make the move. So if you are low on time, you are not allowed to move the piece with one hand, and press the clock with your other hand.
  • You may write down the move after pressing the clock. You can also write down the move before pressing the clock, but this will only cost you extra time.
  • There is no obligation to remind your opponent to press the clock. If your opponent forgets to press the clock after moving a piece, you can use your opponent’s time to think about your next move. If your opponent doesn’t notice the mistake, you can wait until your opponent runs out of time, or you can simply make your move and continue the game.
  • You may pause the chess clock if you need the arbiter to intervene. For example, if your opponent played an illegal move, if you want to claim a draw, or if your opponent is trying to distract you on purpose.
  • You may not pause the chess clock for personal reasons. For example, to go to the bathroom, get a drink at the bar, or smoke outside.
  • A timeout needs to be claimed. When your opponent runs out of time, you do not automatically win. You need to point out to your opponent that he has no time left on the clock and claim the victory. Similarly, if you run out of time and your opponent doesn’t mention the timeout, you can keep on playing.
  • If you run out of time but your opponent can’t theoretically checkmate you, your opponent can only claim a draw. You can read more about this exception to the rules in our article about draws in chess.
  • You may stop writing down the moves if you have less than 5 minutes left. This lets you focus on the game, rather than spending your last precious minutes on tracking the moves. However, if you reach a time control, you’ll have to start writing down the moves again from that turn onwards.
  • If you checkmate before your opponent claims a timeout, the checkmate will count. So if you run out of time but your opponent doesn’t notice, you can simply keep playing and eventually checkmate your opponent. Your opponent cannot claim the timeout and victory after you have already checkmated, even though you ran out of time a while ago.

How do you play chess with a clock?

Knowing all the rules related to using the chess clock is one thing, but knowing how to use your time on the chess clock efficiently is a completely different beast.

There are often two types of beginners. The first type constantly makes the first move that comes to mind and hardly uses time to think at all. The second type tries to find the perfect move in every position, and ends up in time trouble before even reaching the endgame.

Efficient time management is a crucial when playing chess with a clock. So here are some tips to help make the most out of your time:

  • Think on your opponent’s turn as well. Don’t only think about your next moves during your own turn, but also on your opponent’s turn. If you can successfully predict your opponent’s move, you can already start thinking about a way to reply to it. Or you could use your own turn to make concrete calculations, and your opponent’s turn to think about the position in a strategic way.
  • Refrain from leaving the board too often. Waiting for your opponent can be boring. But if you leave the board and don’t notice your opponent making a move, you can quickly lose several minutes on the clock. Especially if your opponent stays at the board after making a move.
  • Don’t waste time on trivial decisions. In sharp positions you need to calculate concrete lines and every mistake can cost you the game. In these positions, it’s worth taking some extra time. However, most positions are not like that. In many positions you have the option of 3 to 4 good moves and there is no need to waste a large amount of time on finding the best one among them. Simply make any good move.
  • Don’t move instantly unless you have to. Even if you successfully predicted your opponent’s move and already though of your next move, it’s best to take just a few seconds to check the lines you calculated for any mistakes now that the position is on the board. You can prevent a lot of blunders this way.
  • Play at your own speed. Sometimes you come across a chess player that doesn’t use much time and makes almost all the moves instantaneously. Don’t feel pressured to match the same speed. You are entitled to use all the time on your clock, even if your opponent is playing much faster.
  • Set a time limit per move. If you often run into time trouble, you can set yourself a time limit for each move. Once you reach the time limit, you simply stop calculating and go with the move that seems the best. Of course, you want to make exceptions for critical moments in the game.
  • Prepare your openings thoroughly. Knowing some opening lines will not only guarantee that you get a playable position, it also saves you a lot of time in your games. How many moves of theory you need to know depends on your rating. If you are just starting out, there is no need to learn 20+ moves of theory for each opening like grandmasters do.
  • Make the most out of increments and delays. If you play a time control with increments or delays, you want to adjust your time management accordingly.

What happens when your chess clock runs out?

If you play over the board and run out of time, you lose the game. However, your opponent needs to notice that you have no time left and claim the victory. If your opponent doesn’t say anything, you can simply continue playing.

However, if you are playing online, you’ll lose automatically if you run out of time.

The only exception is, if you run out of time but your opponent doesn’t have enough pieces left to checkmate you with. Then your opponent can only claim a draw.

This rule is especially important for short time controls such as bullet chess or blitz chess.

If you want to know which piece combinations are enough to checkmate, you can ready my article on checkmates in chess.

When playing with classical time controls, it’s sometimes considered rude if you try to win on time in a lost position. Therefore, some players may resign before winning on time, although there is no rule forcing them to do so.

Why do chess players hit the clock?

Chess players hit the clock to stop their own timer and start their opponent’s timer. A turn is not finished until a player made a move on the board and pressed the clock. If a player forgets to hit the chess clock he may eventually run out of time and lose the game.

When chess players have enough time left, they will normally press the clock softly and try not to make too much noise. However, when chess players have only a few minutes or seconds left on the clock, they’ll try to move and press the clock as fast as possible. As a result, they may hit the chess clock rather fast and hard.

What chess clocks are used in tournaments?

The tournament organizer decides which type of chess clocks will be used. Normally, whatever clocks that are available will be used. However, there is a clear preference for digital chess clocks if available. For most official FIDE chess tournaments the DGT 2010 clock is used.