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Monday, April 9, 2012

Chess Clocks

       This month’s Chess Life had an interesting article on the death of the analog clock.  It seems these clocks have gone the way of the buggy whip.  In fact there are now some organizers who do not allow the use of analog clocks at all in their tournaments.  I find that sad.
       On one forum somebody posted his new analog clock was “…soooo noisy!!! Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. I would never have gotten it if I knew it was going to be like this.” Another posted, “I can't imagine getting used to this.” 
       In the old tournaments I always thought sitting in a room full of ticking clocks was relaxing, something like watching tropical fish.  Also it was much easier to use a clock then.  You set it with one extra minute (e.g. 40 moves in two hours, the clock was set with time to expire in 121 minutes.) and when your flag fell you lost.
       Learning to set a digital clock these days is almost as complicated as learning the rules of chess and understanding the time limits is something I still haven’t mastered.  Not that it really matters because I don’t play OTB.  The whole mess came about, allegedly, to eliminate adjournments because players had access to chess engines with which to analyze adjourned games.  Personally I think that’s nonsense. 
       First, in the old days GMs had seconds, or in some cases teams of seconds, who would analyze their games then go over the results with them.  Nowadays a GM would use an engine in an adjourned games only as a blunder check to make sure he didn’t miss anything obvious.  I can’t imagine a GM relying totally on engine analysis of his ending!  Second, in your typical weekend Swiss full of average players, they aren’t going to remember reams of engine-generated analysis any more than they can remember reams of opening analysis.
       When I played OTB I can only remember 3 or 4 adjourned games.  In one, against a 2300 rated Soviet master, it took me about half an hour to realize I was going to lose the R&P ending so I resigned without resuming play.  In another one I had a Q vs. my opponent’s Q&P and an IM helped me analyze it because my opponent was one of his rivals and he wanted to make sure I didn’t mess around and lose; I held the draw.
       I think the real reason to avoid adjournments was to make it easier on the TD’s.  Or else the nitpickers got involved.  You know, the same people who determined that writing down your move before you played it was somehow consulting notes. 
       It used to be players and spectators alike complained about the inordinate length of games so that’s the reason chess clocks were invented.  In 1834, during several matches between La Bourdonnais and McDonnell, time was not an issue. According to George Walker, three-fourths of one entire game “was spent in dwelling and pondering and strategizing”. Many of the games lasted long, long hours but the exact duration of each move was not recorded. Walker once timed La Bourdonnais at fifty-five minutes for one move, but then said that “McDonnell was incomparably the slower player”. In 1843, several impartial onlookers described a match between Howard Staunton and Pierre St. Amant as a test of physical endurance rather than a chess match. Their 21st match game took 66 moves and 14½ hours.
        In many cases there seemed to be a deliberate attempt to wear out the opponent and an average game lasted nine hours and with the rise of competitive chess the question of fairness came up: should a player be allowed to take enormous amounts of time? As much as two hours and 20 minutes was spent by one player over a single move at the London tournament.
       Shortly after the Staunton matches, the French player Alexandre Deschapelles severely criticized both players and suggested a maximum time limit in the event of a return match. After the first international tournament was held in London in 1851, a flood of criticism against the slowness of play caused an anonymous contributor named A. Cantab to write: “Let each player have a three-hour sandglass at his elbow and a friend on either side to turn it. While the player is thinking, the sand must be allowed to run; while his opponent is thinking, his glass will be laid horizontally on the table and the running suspended”. Howard Staunton and other prominent players agreed .
      Another proposal, by German master Baron von der Lasa, was to use two watches and note the time consumed on each move by each opponent. This was popular in Europe because the sand glass had proven to be problematic. Temperature and humidity both had effects upon the sand so there were variations in accuracy from location to location and match to match.
        In 1867 the Paris International Tournament imposed a fine of 5 francs, payable to the tournament committee, to be paid for every fifteen minutes over the time limit of ten moves per hour. Fortunately by 1883 the chess clock had been invented.  It was a “tumbling” clock invented by Thomas Wilson of Manchester. It consisted of two pendulum clocks on opposite ends of a balance beam. The advent of time limits added the element of pressure and was a significant factor in drawing spectators to matches.  Games could still take a long time, so they were often adjourned after 6 or 8 hours. The first clock I remember in the late 1950’s was the Solara:

It was a small, finely made clock that was made by inserting wristwatch works into a wood block cut for the small-sized works. These days finding one of these clocks is rare.  This is the clock I remember seeing used in the Tahl-Botvinnik matches and other international tournaments. 


According to The Chess Museum Jerger went out of business in the 1970’s when the owner committed suicide. For many years, this clock was the clock used in Germany.  The clock had superb works, a beautiful inclined wooden case, smooth button action, and a large face. One of the best. I still have mine.


This ubiquitous clock was very popular.  They were extremely rugged.  The first chess club I belonged to had about a dozen of them that were often used in 5 minutes games by the members and they withstood merciless hammering (the clocks, not the members.)


The German Alpha clock  was handmade in Western Germany until about 1990.  This was the first clock I owned and it was extremely well built but it had two problems.  First the flag did not rise as the minute hand approached 12 o’clock; it just suddenly dropped when time expired.  Also, the only way you could guesstimate how much time you had left was to lean down and peer at the minute hand and try to estimate the time remaining by how much white space appeared between the minute hand and the 12 o’clock mark.  I partially solved that my having my father put his woodworking skills to use and mounting it on a wedge shaped piece of wood so the clock tilted back slightly; it helped.

I also owned a Pal Benko Clock in the early 1960’s.  It was a piece of junk marketed by Benko and apparently not too many were made. I have never seen it offered on ebay and had a really hard time finding a picture of one on Google.  The one I had was has a cheap wood case (pine?) and the glass front rattled because it was so poorly fit.  I had to shim it up.  In the first tournament where it saw use, right in the middle of a game, I heard a loud snap and an unwinding noise when the mainspring broke.   
My most cherished clock is an old Soviet clock dating from the 1950’s that I purchased from a Latvian player for $60.  I’ve seen them go on ebay for $200 or so.  The clock is BIG; it measures 11” long x 5.25” high and 2.75” deep with 3.5” faces…and it still keeps perfect time.  It’s not good for anything but nostalgia and I wouldn’t think of parting with it!

When it comes to houses, furniture and cars, I want new but when it comes to chess sets and clocks, I prefer the old.

1 comment:

  1. Returning to OTB play after a near-20 year absence, I recently purchased a DTG digital clock. Like you, I found learning to set (program!) it a formidable task. But then we're the older generation. In a world where kids are practically born with a mouse in their hands, and 5-year olds have no difficulty downloading and mastering new apps for their smartphones, the digital clock offers little challenge to the digital generation.