A chess clock is a type of game clock designed to be used in time-controlled chess games. A classic chess clock is the simplest kind of game clock for two-player games and chess clocks are often used for go, draughts, and other games. A chess clock in its basic form consists of two clocks that are never allowed to run at the same time and a mechanism to start one clock when the other is stopped.
History and development
As early as the 19th century, players were getting fed up with people who spent too much time mulling their next move. In 1861 the first timed match was conducted (with hourglasses). By 1867 the London chess circuit, at the time the biggest of its kind, decided that it had had enough of it all and began using ordinary clocks to time players' moves. This soon became as tiresome as it sounds.
The first real chess clocks appeared around 1883. These clever devices were made of two pendulum clocks set side to side or back to back. When one clock was tilted by the player who had just made his move its pendulum stopped. The other clock, now being upright, started up again. The Fattorini clock, one of the best known designs from 1890, and designs like it were superseded by the Veenhoff clock, which was created in 1900 and remained the standard type of chess clock into the digital age.
The Veenhoff design was the first clock that a contemporary player would instantly recognise as a chess clock. For decades there was no other type of clock in widespread use. This clock is most commonly a wooden (often birch) box with two mechanisms and two faces on the same side. The top of the clock has no features other than two start-stop buttons. When one of these buttons is depressed, the clock on the opposite side starts. Between the 11 and 12 hour marks, there is a hinged, red "flag" positioned in such a way as to be lifted by the minute hand and drop when the minute hand passes 12. On the dial, usually near the 3 or 9 hour
mark, there is a small, red indicator that moves when the clock is running. This helps diagnose problems with the clocks and shows which clock is running.
Digital clocks came about during the 1970s. Several patents were filed between 1973 and 1977 detailing the function and construction of a digital chess clock. As technology became more refined and components became cheaper, building digital clocks that emulated the functions of analog clocks became feasible and the products became more affordable. However, it was not until well into the 1980s that digital clocks were really considered a viable choice. Not until 1994 did the world body give its blessing to any particular digital clock. Since then digitals have been used at every level up to and including world championship
The typical digital clock has an LCD display (or rather, a pair) very similar to that of any other clock. Controls depend on the clock's feature set and range from being no better than an analog clock to space-age contraptions that could probably play chess themselves and are harder to program than your average VCR. Some clocks and boards can be connected in order to let the clock detect moves as they're made. The punching buttons at the top are very diverse. Sometimes they have simple buttons on top of the clock. Sometimes these are replaced with a large, plastic see-saw switch that covers most of the clock. I've seen some with dome-shaped buttons in front of the display, and have even heard talk of touch pads. For real.
How to use a chess clock
Analog Veenhoff clocks are as simple to use as alarm clocks. You wind them up like any other clock. You set them to the agreed time by subtracting the allotted time from 12 o'clock. In order to pause both clocks, there is a position in which both top buttons are roughly halfway raised and neither clock runs. If you're using a simple digital clock, you would set it a bit like you would a stopwatch. For more elaborate digitals, well, you'll have to RTFM.
FIDE rules are specific about the way in which a clock is used in official matches. The clock is positioned by the arbiter next to the chess board and at its midpoint. By convention, black chooses which side of the table to sit at. Under more lax rules, black can choose which side to place the clock on, which typically means to his right. This is meant as a small compensation for black. This way, if players are right-handed, the black player's hand has a shorter distance to the clock. Handedness is important because the player by rule must hit the clock with the same hand with which he last moved a piece and after recording his move. While it's easy to move a piece with your non-dominant hand, writing down the move using the same hand is not half as simple for most people. Of course if the players are opposite-handed, everyone is happy. White's clock is started at the time agreed, whether white has shown up or not.
Once the game has started, the clock may not be stopped unless it comes to an end, or the arbiter is called to respond to a claim of a draw by rule or other situation that cannot be resolved by the players themselves. The player needs to take his hand off the clock when he's completed his move and may not keep the button pushed or let his hand hover over the button. Analog chess clocks are sturdy and can generally handle being smacked or sent flying even though the rules protect them from such abuse. Digital clocks are a bit more delicate and are likewise protected by statute.
Digital clocks have a definite advantage in the realm of advanced timekeeping. The late grandmasters Fischer and Bronstein as well as quite a few others devised all sorts of sophisticated, complex, and sometimes outright eccentric time controls. Analog clocks are not capable of simple automated tasks such as adding time for each move played. The most serious criticism of digital clocks stems from the fact that, while they're programmable to an extent that no analog clock could ever be, they are not adjustable on the fly and are rather obtuse when it comes to accommodating errors like moves that must be
retracted. Their problems tend to relate to operating it. As with most timepieces, the rule applies that the more complex it is, the less user-friendly it is.
There is a soft 'tick' that's not audible far past your table but can mean only one thing. Namely that you are--or your opponent is--a time-management patzer. As the curly end of the flag falls and briefly dangles both players glance at it, one for a moment longer than the other, knowing that it's over. A falling flag means death. And if your middle name is Zeitnot you learn to get used to a flag and a minute finger getting uncomfortably cosy with each other.
Even the sounds of operating the clocks are a world apart. As fas ar I'm concerned, an electronic beep means nothing and should be reserved for alarm clocks and watches. Sure, some people probably get off on having beeps telling them that they're running out of time but it's only the refs who have a real reason for
loving it. Even when pressing the switch, it feels different. A hollow plastic sliding sound doesn't even come close to the richness of the sound of real metal gears. It's the mechanical "crunk" of the button that tells you that the move has been made permanent and one more Rubicon of many has been crossed.
While chess likes to think that it's joined the modern era with fancy digital clocks, I feel like something has been lost without the ritual of winding up each clock and then carefully positioning the minute hand at the designated point. If you had a two-hour game, you would lovingly position the finger exactly where the flag fell and admire your precision. As for blitz with a digital clock, I pity da fool. Okay, so I never liked blitzing much but something has been lost there. Digital clocks are some sort of gentrification that really doesn't suit this form of clock-slapping intellectual savagery. Let's face it, when you have five minutes for the game you don't want a wussy plastic circuit-board contraption timing your moves. You want a sturdy clock because you know that no one's going to call you on clock abuse unless you send it flying.
A good, new chess clock will set you back about the equivalent of 50 euros (mechanical) or 65 euros (digital). While you're shopping for one, look no further than Ruhla, Germany. For many years, the Gardé clock and other Ruhla products were probably the only thing that East German industry could be proud of outside of optics. It's telling that they were one of the few eastern enterprises to survive German reunification. They even have a digital product line that's made to resemble a real clock (I don't want to like it but it does look nice). You might want to look a bit further afield if you also play other timed games, and fork over $100 or more for a reputable multi-discipline clock like the DGT and Chrono brands. If I were looking for one myself, I'd stick with what I pounded the hell out of the most in my misguided, chess-playing youth and get an old-school, mechanical Gardé.