Tempo in Chess
or "How to get more moves than your opponent"

"Every move played disturbs the balance of time, force, and space but not always in equal proportion or direction. It is possible to give up something in one element while gaining 'adequate compensation' from the other two. This underlying interaction mechanism is what makes sacrifices possible."
    - Bruce A. Moon

Introduction

If you're familiar with the rules of chess, you understand that the white pieces move first, then black, then each with alternating turns until one person wins or the players draw. So, you might be asking yourself, how exactly do I get extra moves if we keep taking turns? Well, before you start thinking this is a discussion on how to distract your opponent while you change the position around surreptitously, let me state that it's how you move that causes your opponent to waste moves and thereby you gain some, should you remain aware of certain rules.

Tempo is a major factor in all aspects of chess, and therefore should be addressed in three separate sections, one each for the opening, middlegame, and endgame. In each section you will find examples of play where one side uses tempo to gain some kind of advantage. Hopefully, armed with this knowledge, you will find your tempo management improves, and your play overall will be the better for it.

Note on Diagrams: The positions herein are all taken from real games played over the board by various masters. In the interest of completeness, the games themselves appear at the end of this writeup. Chess games are not copyrightable, only the annotation of games is, and all annotation in this writeup is solely mine.

Opening

Tempo plays a vital role in the opening, and lack of understanding of the concept can often cause you to lose before the game really gets started. The first thing to remember is that white moves first. That's a tempo gain in itself, and subsequently why players at the grandmaster level are usually satisfied with a draw when they have black. It is also important not to make pointless moves in the opening, since your opponent (assumedly) will be developing and demanding control of the center, and you presumably don't want him or her to gain an advantage. The more pieces you can unleash in a short period of time equals the more quickly you can rally an attack, and the more likely you are for a fast tactical win. This is the key idea of gambits, which we'll cover now.

What if I told you you could get an extra move as early as the third move of the game? What would it be worth to you? A pawn? Let's hope so, since that's precisely what gambits are. Offering up the sacrifice of a pawn in order to get open lines and a lead in development. For this example, we'll use the Alapin-Diemer Gambit (ADG), since it has already been sufficiently noded, and if you wish a more thorough treatment, you can read more about it.

Please note, the quality of this game is terrible, and it was chosen only on the basis of the fact that it is very illustrative of the concept I'm explaining. In Diagram 1 we see the starting position of the ADG. Play continued with 3. ... dxe4 4. Nd2 Nf6 5. f3 Nd5 6. Qe2 Nxe3 7. Qxe3 exf3 8. Ngxf3 Be7 9. Bd3 Nd7 (see Diagram 2). As you can see, black wasted three moves bouncing his knight around to capture the d3 bishop and then burned another capturing the gambit pawn on f3 and the results are higly visible and devastating. White now has all of his pieces off the back rank ready to charge either flank with vast maneuvering space, a half-open e-file, and still has control of the e5 square with his remaining advanced pawn. Black, on the other hand, has wasted so much time that he has nothing to show for the first 8 moves but a developed bishop and a slightly advanced pawn. As you can plainly see, some of the old opening maxims like "Don't move the same piece more than once in the opening" and "Don't capture an inactive piece with an active one" are not to be totally disregarded, as they have their basis in tempo. In this game, rather than gaining some space and a tempo by offering up the pawn, white gained immensely from his opponent's strange moves.


                         Diagram 1: After 3. Be3
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |BR |BN |BB |BQ |BK |BB |BN |BR | 8
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |BP |BP |BP |   |   |BP |BP |BP | 7
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |   |   |BP |   |   |   | 6
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |   |BP |   |   |   |   | 5
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |   |WP |WP |   |   |   | 4
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |   |   |WB |   |   |   | 3
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |WP |WP |WP |   |   |WP |WP |WP | 2
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |WR |WN |   |WQ |WK |WB |WN |WR | 1
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                      A    B   C   D   E   F   G   H
                           Moreno - Agullo (2002)
                               Black to Move
                        


                         Diagram 2: After 9. Bd3
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |BR |BN |BB |BQ |BK |   |   |BR | 8
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |BP |BP |BP |   |BB |BP |BP |BP | 7
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |   |   |BP |   |   |   | 6
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 5
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |   |WP |   |   |   |   | 4
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |   |WB |WQ |WN |   |   | 3
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |WP |WP |WP |WN |   |   |WP |WP | 2
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |WR |   |   |   |WK |   |   |WR | 1
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                      A    B   C   D   E   F   G   H

                           Moreno - Agullo (2002)
                               Black to Move
                        

Middlegame

In the middlegame, tempo gains are typically more subtle. Often, they involve maneuvering a piece to a favorable location with check or another threat which causes the opponent to move to a less favorable position or simply waste a move outright. In modern grandmaster play, moves for position or tempo are often so subtle that they require intense study to understand. So in the interest of clarity, we'll jump back 150 years to illustrate middlegame tempo with the help of the original master of tempo, Paul Morphy.

While this particular game barely gets into the actual middlegame, it contains the right "middlegame" ideas throughout, and can also be reinforce the ideas given of tempo in the opening. In Diagram 3 we see the beginning of trouble for black with a threat to the black queen in response to a threat to white's c3 knight. Even a chess novice will realize that there's no comparing the two threats. There is an old chess maxim that says, "don't bring your queen out too early." and while it's not always strictly true, this is a great example of why you should consider it carefully before throwing her out there on move 2.

The game continued1 with 5. ... g6 6. Bd3 Qxg2 7. Rg1 Qh3 8. Rg3 Qh5 9. Rg5 Qh3 10. Bf1 Qe6 11. Nxd4 Qe7 12. Ne4 h6 13. Nf5 Qe6 14. Nfd6+ Bxd6 15. Nxd6+ Kd8 16. Bc4 Qe7 17. Nxf7+ Kc7 (see Diagram 4). Now white has been charging out and attacking this whole time, and black has done nothing but misplace his king and shuffle his queen all over. After 18. Qd6+ Qxd6 19. exd6+, black has nothing at all to show for his trouble and is about to lose as a result. This game demonstrates that if you threaten a superior piece (such as the queen, or the king), it has to move somewhere, and you get to move again after that happens. In this very extreme example, that's all it takes to win. In a normal game, it's still a gain of tempo.


                         Diagram 3: After 5. e5
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |BR |BN |BB |   |BK |BB |BN |BR | 8
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |BP |BP |   |BP |   |BP |BP |BP | 7
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |BP |   |   |BQ |   |   | 6
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |   |   |WP |   |   |   | 5
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |   |BP |   |   |   |   | 4
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |WN |   |   |WN |   |   | 3
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |WP |WP |WP |   |   |WP |WP |WP | 2
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |WR |   |   |WQ |WK |WB |   |WR | 1
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                      A    B   C   D   E   F   G   H
                         Morphy - Mac Connel (1849)
                               Black to Move
                        


                        Diagram 4: After 17. ... Kc7
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |BR |BN |BB |   |   |   |BN |BR | 8
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |BP |BP |BK |BP |BQ |WN |BP |   | 7
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |BP |   |   |   |   |BP | 6
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |   |   |WP |   |WR |   | 5
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |WB |   |   |   |   |   | 4
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 3
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |WP |WP |WP |   |   |WP |   |WP | 2
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |WR |   |WB |WQ |WK |   |   |   | 1
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                      A    B   C   D   E   F   G   H
                         Morphy - Mac Connel (1849)
                              White to Move
                        

Endgame

Tempo is most critical in the endgame. Even a single loss or gain of tempo can often decide the result of a game. There are already a few writeups that cover several key tempo-related endgame ideas, so rather than duplicate the previous effort of myself and others, I'll provide some links to the appropriate places. You can read about triangulation, opposition, and zugzwang in their respective nodes. For this example, I'll demonstrate a concept that is tempo critical, but probably does not warrant a writeup of its own: Pawn races.

In this example (see Diagram 5), we won't look at how the game was actually played, but instead at the overlooked winning move. In the actual game, Browne played 39. ... f5? and snatched a draw from the jaws of victory. However, had he moved his king to d5, the game would have been his. With 39. ... Kd5, black would have accomplished two things. Most importantly, he would have blocked white's running space to catch his f-pawn, but he also avoided the tempo wasting check that Kc5 followed by b4+ would have incurred (which would have been enough to lose, incidentally). Now black can win the pawn race (tempo can also be critical for arriving at the queening square) and the game.

                         Diagram 5: After 39. Kxa5
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 8
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |   |   |   |BP |   |   | 7
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |BK |   |   |   |   |   | 6
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |WK |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 5
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 4
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |WP |   |   |   |   |   |   | 3
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 2
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 1
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                      A    B   C   D   E   F   G   H
                          Ljubojeciv - Browne (1972)
                               Black to Move

In Closing

Hopefully, by this point, you will have a greater appreciation of the role tempo plays in the game of chess. It can mean anything from a gain of a small positional advantage to total victory, depending on the game. Keeping tempo in mind as one of the primary factors in your chess games will allow you to see time wasting moves in the play of others as well as being able to use tempo to your own advantage.


Complete Games

  • Moreno Tejera, E - Agullo Sanchez, V C00
    Albox, España , 2002

    1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Be3 dxe4 4.Nd2 Nf6 5.f3 Nd5 6.Qe2 Nxe3 7.Qxe3 exf3 8.Ngxf3 Be7 9.Bd3 Nd7 10.0-0-0 Nf6 11.Ne5 0-0 12.Rhf1 c5 13.dxc5 Qa5 14.Nb3 Qxa2 15.Bb5 a6 16.Bc4 Rd8 17.Rxd8+ Bxd8 18.Qd4 Be7 19.Kd2 Qa4 20.Nxf7 Bd7 21.Ne5 Rd8 22.Kc1 Bc8 23.Bxe6+ 1-0

  • Morphy, Paul - Mac Connel, James C40
    New Orleans, 1849

    1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Qf6 3.Nc3 c6 4.d4 exd4 5.e5 Qg6 6.Bd3 Qxg2 7.Rg1 Qh3 8.Rg3 Qh5 9.Rg5 Qh3 10.Bf1 Qe6 11.Nxd4 Qe7 12.Ne4 h6 13.Nf5 Qe6 14.Nfd6+ Bxd6 15.Nxd6+ Kd8 16.Bc4 Qe7 17.Nxf7+ Kc7 18.Qd6+ Qxd6 19.exd6+ Kb6 20.Be3+ c5 21.Bxc5+ Ka5 22.Rg3 b5 23.Ra3# 1-0

  • Ljubojevic, L - Browne, Walter B95
    Amsterdam, 1972

    1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Nc3 a6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 Nf6 6.Bg5 e6 7.Qf3 h6 8.Be3 Nbd7 9.Be2 Qc7 10.Qg3 b5 11.f4 b4 12.Na4 Nc5 13.e5 dxe5 14.Nxc5 exd4 15.Bxd4 Bxc5 16.Bxc5 Qxc5 17.Qxg7 Ke7 18.Qxh8 Bb7 19.Qxh6 Bxg2 20.Qg5 Qxg5 21.fxg5 Bxh1 22.gxf6+ Kxf6 23.Kd2 Be4 24.Bd3 Bxd3 25.cxd3 Rh8 26.Rf1+ Ke7 27.Rf2 Rh3 28.Kc2 a5 29.Rd2 Kd6 30.Kb3 Kc5 31.Ka4 Kb6 32.d4 Rh4 33.b3 Rh3 34.d5 exd5 35.Rxd5 Rxh2 36.Rb5+ Kc6 37.Rxa5 Rxa2+ 38.Kxb4 Rxa5 39.Kxa5 f5 40.Kb4 f4 41.Kc4 ½-½


1 I highly recommend going over all of these moves. If you cannot follow it in your head, grab a board or some software that allows you to enter a game and play through the moves given. To achieve the full effect of the example, you really need to see all of these moves.


Resources:
ChessBase 8.0 used for culling game scores.


Thanks go to 00100 for asking me to write something explaining tempo in chess since I use the term so often in my other chess writeups.

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