The Value of Time

To be really good at chess you just need to …


What does time in chess really mean? Well, the simplest way to think of it is just ‘what would happen if I got to move twice in a row? Or even more?’ When you force the opponent to move the way you want them to, you can gain time. For instance, if you threaten the queen with a pawn, the opponent has to move it. But what if your goal was to move that pawn twice? Attacking the queen gave you the first move ‘for free’ so long as the opponent did not gain the time back… so essentially, you get to move the pawn twice without interference. You ‘gained time’.

Let’s look at this situation:

I am betting some of you will see white’s killer idea immediately, but I’m betting you won’t immediately see how powerful it really is… So let’s just give it to you and talk about it: 20. d5.

Why is this so amazingly strong? Time, my dear Watson, time! d5 by itself doesn’t gain time, but what must happen next does: 20 … c:d5 is the only choice, which allows white to play 21. e:f5. Black has no time to repair his king side problems. Can you see why?

Black cannot recapture the f5 pawn! No matter what black does, white’s pawn – now advanced to f5 – will continue its march toward the black king. Black’s queen can get trapped in some variations, the b6 knight is lost (because it’s en prise) in others. In the end, by a slim margin, white has the time to open the black king position to attack. You might have fun looking through this game to analyze it from the start position til the end, as there are several little factors that give white more time.

It seems like every variation I tinkered with led to the same conclusion: once white gained time ripping these pawns apart, black was too far behind to catch up.

What would ‘catching up’ look like? The shelter for black’s king is ripped away, so to ‘catch up’ he’d need time to get pieces from the queen side moved to the defense of the king. Pause after move 23 … Kh8, for instance; how many moves will it take for black to move any knight close to his king? And *now* you know how far ahead white really is!

In particular, black’s 24. … Qh1+ sets the queen out of the game and allows white a free hand. (When the enemy places a piece without protection, attacking it gives you a tempo. When a piece is misplaced away from the action, it will take a move later to return… Both problems give you you the potential for an extra move for your plans.)

What happens if black plays 24. … K:g7 instead? What about 24. … d:e3, grabbing a piece, threatening check on f2 and leaving white’s g7 rook hanging? Amazingly, white still comes out ahead on time. On your own I encourage you to look at … d:e3 25. Rg8+, forcing … R:g8 26. h:g8(Q)+. Once again, in spite of Qh1 check or even the possibility of a rook taking on g8 and getting to g1 with check, white has a strong initiative against the naked black king.

Ideas like Q:e3 and lifting the d1 rook are good, and once the 1st rank check threats are handled white might aim for B:a6, reducing the game to a won ending. In many variations, white can get a rook to the 8th rank or force trades until nothing is left…

So – where did black go wrong? … f5 certainly seems suspect. I think black saw 20. d5 and simply underestimated how strong it would really become!

No discussion of time would be complete without a gambit – or at least a gambit story, so here’s a little ‘local color’ story:

Mike and Paul played a tournament game last year where Mike gambited a pawn, and allowed Paul to keep a passed pawn deep in his position. He gained time for his attack, which looked quite dangerous… but we never got to see the attack because Paul blundered a piece. After their game was over, Paul maintained his position had been OK, so the three of us stayed and analyzed it for hours, struggling to find the value of white’s attack, the win that just ‘had to be there’ due to white’s powerful looking initiative.

Paul found a defense every time – the gain of time from the gambit was nullified.

Against every idea we came up with, Paul found a thematic way to turn away the attack. In the end, the attack meant nothing because often – at the last instant – that rotten little pawn would spring to life, leap forward a square and threaten to queen!

The lesson is that time moves both ways…

Here’s a nice look at initiative in a less cluttered position:

Once you see how dangerous the initiative becomes for white, you are sure to value an extra move or two much more highly, even in positions where it seems that not much is going on!

I know one method for beginning to see ideas like this; we’ve already touched on it. Pretend it’s your move twice in a row. Maybe even three in a row. What could you do with those moves?

Once you have found some ideas this way, go back and apply real analysis to see how the opponent can stop your plan. (If your opponent got two moves in a row, could he stop your idea?) But try this even if you can’t make your fantasy plan happen so easily! If you don’t ever *see* the idea, you can never take advantage of it!

One more quickie: Black has given up material to gain time. The white queen has had her snack, but the price has been high, with an uncastled king, a lack of development and a ‘wandering’ queen vulnerable to threats. Threats are building, well, everywhere.

Seeing this you can certainly see how strong black’s game is. But look at the position from a few moves earlier… can you see white’s problems as clearly?

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