Features Jun 7, 2015 | 4:16 PMby chess24 staff

The psychology of time trouble

Time trouble is one of the most common problems tournament chess players face, with all of us at one time or another falling into the trap of using it as an excuse for games we lose. Carlos Martínez, a Spanish psychologist specialising in chess, explains some of the psychological factors behind it and how we can learn to combat them.

Ivanchuk is one of the elite players most prone to time trouble | photo: Bilbao Masters


Much has been written about the factor of time in chess and how it influences play or, more specifically, decisions we take and the eventual outcome of the game. Amid all the chess literature on this theme I’d highlight Jonathan Rowson’s book, The Seven Deadly Chess Sins. In the chapter devoted to the sin of perfectionism, the author analyses the causes that lead players to get low on time. He says something that’s highly worth keeping in mind:

My bottom line, however, is that it is not always ‘sinful’ to run into time-trouble and we shouldn’t always blame ourselves for doing so. What is important is that you realize just how important a part of the game the clock is […] It may be helpful to see it as one of the four dimensions of the game, to be treated with as much attention as the other three. 

There are two issues to highlight from that quote:

  1. Time trouble isn’t always a genuine problem. There are extremely complicated games where you need to carry out very concrete and exact calculation and that leads to consuming a lot of time. Similarly, you sometimes come to a decisive moment in a game and have to analyse a move very carefully. That may, once again, require you to use up a lot of time.
  2. Look on the clock as a dimension of the game. On many occasions it’s just not enough to understand, plan and calculate well in positions – you also need to carry out all those procedures relatively quickly. The clock is an inherent part of the game and strongly influences it. It’s therefore very important that if time trouble becomes a constant feature in your games you should become aware of that and work on it.

The goal of the current article is to describe and reflect on some of the causes of time trouble and to propose some strategies that will help you to work on improving that aspect of your game.   

Time trouble: a reassuring excuse

Regardless of the level it’s very common to encounter players who have difficulty managing their time adequately. That handicap leads them to commit errors in a game they had under control, or even won, and time is then often used as an excuse or justification for the result. The process, to generalise and sum up, is as follows: a player starts to consume more time that his opponent looking for better plans, ideas and moves in a position. As the game goes on, he begins to get low on time but his position is clearly better. He barely has any time left when the decisive moment comes and overlooks a blow from his opponent – for instance an intermezzo – or makes a miscalculation. He loses the game or, in the best case scenario, makes a draw. And, from that point on, he uses the lack of time as a justification – he played better than his opponent and claims that if only it wasn’t for time trouble he would undoubtedly have gone on to win. As if time and managing it well wasn’t a fundamental part of the game and one required for success. This process, with myriad variations, occurs all the time.

The clock didn't always defeat Ivanchuk...

I don’t intend to demonise time trouble or argue it always represents a problem, but if you get into constant time trouble you should ask yourself whether that highlights factors you can recognise, train and improve. Those factors might be of two types: technical and psychological. The technical factors have to do with chess itself, with knowledge and how you apply it in practice in particular positions. There are chess situations during a game that we can later look back on with some clarity. The psychological factors, however, are much more “silent” and frequently occur without our knowledge of them or without us recognising their importance. The first step is therefore to identify them – to become aware of our thought processes and observe sincerely and honestly what goes on in our minds during a game, and particularly at key moments. Only on that basis will we be able to generate solutions and find specific areas we can work on and improve.

Other psychological factors

Another frequently encountered psychological factor which causes or intensifies time trouble is a player’s lack of confidence. In the classic book, The Psychology of Chess, GM Yuri Averbakh writes:

My own experience shows that a lack of time isn’t usually due to an inability to allocate time sensibly but a character flaw linked to indecision; in practice it’s usually about hesitation. A chess player doesn’t get short on time because he doesn’t know how to allocate it, but because he’s not sufficiently sure of himself, he doesn’t trust his calculation and, therefore, he checks the same variation again and again.

Although you could refine that statement a little, Averbakh clearly points to psychological factors and not a mere inability to manage the clock. A lack of confidence can usually be recognised in two different ways: 

  1. Ask a player directly to relate his thought processes during a game. The appearance of doubts in analysis and/or taking decisions is one indicator of a lack of confidence.

  2. Constant time consumption over a series of moves. This can be seen when a player consumes minutes on each of a series of consecutive moves which, in essence, are not critical to the outcome of the game.

Some characteristics of a lack of confidence are: doubts about the openings we play, uncertainty over the evaluation of positions, overestimation of the possibilities of our opponent and pessimistic or negative thoughts about the outcome of the game. Training specific visualisation exercises or “easy” tactical/technical exercises can help us increase our confidence during games.

Another important psychological factor that leads to time trouble is fear of your opponent. This fear mainly arises when you play against a superior opponent, or against a player you have a negative score against. You try to play a good game where you commit no mistakes. You carefully and scrupulously analyse each of your moves, trying not to miss anything. To put it another way: you adopt a more rigid process of thought and play, losing a certain freedom and creativity in the analysis and evaluation of positions. Maintaining a constant state of alertness involves an enormous expenditure of energy (fatigue) and, moreover, uses up a lot of time (tension). But what if you play chess without trying to demonstrate anything to anybody? And you play chess to enjoy it? And you fully enjoy the game and the ideas and calculations you carry out?

If there’s one person above all others who provoked fear in his opponents it’s Garry Kasparov! | photo: Battle of the Legends  

Finally, I’d like to point out another key factor which was already referred to at the start of this article: perfectionism. Jonathan Rowson writes:

Perfectionism manifests itself as the desire to find the best move on each and every occasion […] Perfectionists thus strive to play chess not as the chess-player they are, but as the chess-player that they assume themselves to be when they are most perfect.

In The Psychology of a Chess Player Krogius also refers to this. He mentions analytical doubts and writes:

They occur when you insist on finding the best, unique and exclusive move in each position. That causes a reasonable variation not to seem sufficiently effective; you want to find something more convincing.

There are players who try to punish any move of their rival which strikes their eyes and understanding as “strange” or “extravagant”. That’s what Rowson calls the moraliser. This type of player, or what I’d call mental strategy, inevitably ends up consuming excessive time trying to find the opponent’s error and the fitting punishment. Such a way of thinking generates tension while contemplating and taking decisions at the board and will lead to the unproductive use of precious time. No perfect game exists (although seeing some of Magnus Carlsen’s you might doubt that), and therefore you shouldn’t play to punish your opponent according to a perfect model. The game consists of resolving problems that arise. You’re not a superior being with supernatural powers but a player trying to show his best chess, giving meaning to what happens in the game. 

In conclusion

Although time trouble is a common phenomenon and generally results from only a few factors, it’s still very much a personal matter. Realising which of your own character traits cause or intensify it is the first step towards understanding and training to avoid time trouble.


  • The Seven Deadly Chess Sins: Jonathan Rowson
  • Psychology in Chess: N. V. Krogius

Other recommended reading

  • Chess for Zebras: Jonathan Rowson
  • Chess Players’ Thinking - A Cognitive Psychological Approach: Pertti Saariluoma
  • Practical Chess Psychology: Amatzia Avni
  • Chess Psychology - The Will to Win: William Stewart  

Carlos Martínez

Carlos is a psychologist and expert in Gestalt therapy. At the moment, he's working with the Valencian and Spanish Chess Federations on programs for the technological advancement, assistance and support of players in championships in Spain, Europe and the world. If you want to contact him, email him at: carlosmartinezpsi@gmail.com

Do you have any particular issues involving chess psychology that you'd like to see Carlos or one of our other experts tackle? Please let us know in the comments!

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