Peter Zhdanov
6 July 2022

Playing in Your Opponent's Time Trouble

Let’s say you have enough time on the clock while the opponent is down to a few minutes or even seconds. What are the best ways to take advantage of this situation?

Rule 1: don’t play for cheap traps. Typically, people are fully focused when they are low on time. Therefore, they are unlikely to miss a straightforward one or two-move trick unless it’s deeply hidden in a maze of alternative variations that also require calculation.

Rule 2: avoid falling into the “flagging” mode. This sin is especially typical of people of the older generation who used to play without the Fischer increment. Remember that in modern chess, the games are usually played with a 30s/move increment, making it much harder to flag a person. The recommendation is to take your time and proceed as normal. After all, having more time is an advantage, and you should make use of it.

Rule 3: give the opponent a choice. If possible, don’t force matters and avoid making obvious moves that are easy to anticipate. If the opponents have nothing prepared against your move and are forced to make a choice between different continuations, they are likely to go wrong, or a least burn a lot of precious time on finding the right path.

Tip #4: if possible, keep the position complicated. Unless trades offer you a distinct advantage, keeping more pieces on the board is usually desired. Firstly, most captures can be made automatically, earning the person a 30s increment in classical chess and possibly helping reach the time control sooner. Secondly, with fewer pieces on the board, it is usually harder to blunder something.

Tip #5: exploit the “knee-jerk” reactions. For example, in one of my games in the Chigorin Memorial against an experienced IM, I made a useful move h3 in his time trouble, basically inviting him to monkey my decision and to play h6. He went for it only to discover that this move turned out to be weakening in one of the lines that I was going to execute. By provoking him to fall for that stereotypical reply, I made the tactical operation even more beneficial for me.

For the sake of accuracy, when I was analyzing the game with an engine after the end of the tournament, I discovered that there were better ways to convert my advantage, and my opponent could have defended better. Nevertheless, my decision proved smart in practical terms, allowing me to score a quick victory.

Tip #6:  if your position is bad or lost, stir up complications. You have nothing to lose, while there is a chance that your opponent might not be able to calculate the variations correctly in time trouble. This recommendation is generally beneficial but even more so when your partner is in time trouble.

Tip #7: in an objectively drawish position, you may try to repeat moves a couple of times to provoke your opponent into going all out to play for a win. This tip works exceptionally well in positions where playing for a win is the wrong strategy, and the opponent is tilted and higher-rated than yourself. Of course, this strategy may backfire if misused. Namely, opponents who are happy with a draw will be glad to repeat moves quickly, gaining some time thanks to increment and making you think about what to do next. Therefore, this method requires a lot of practical experience and having a read on the mindset of your opponent.

In a recent online blitz game, I got this position as White. It is my move. How would you assess it?

Objectively speaking, it is a draw. Black can’t activate the king since I am threatening a rook check, promoting the a-pawn. Similarly, my king has to watch out for a breakthrough on the kingside by Black. I was very low on time, and the opponent started more or less shuffling the rook back and forth along the a-file. I played sanely for a while but then had a blackout that was caused by lack of time, desire to win and the fact that I believed my position was better at some point before. Losing objectivity and my mind, I went for 49.Kb5??, trying to run with the king to the a-pawn and promote it. How did Black punish me for this?

Black blitzed out 49…f4!, which is a natural breakthrough that takes some effort to miss. My king is too far to stop the black pawns, and I am nowhere in time to support my a-pawn. As a result, Black obtained a queen shortly and won comfortably. This was a painful loss and an instructive example from a psychological point of view.

As you can see, my recommendations were more of a general type and didn’t mention any tricks you can pull off specifically in online blitz. These shenanigans probably deserve a separate article. Alternatively, you can find books on playing chess online, such as GM Hikaru Nakamura’s “Bullet Chess: One Minute to Mate”. Or, if you are interested in blitz tips from a legendary Soviet master and hustler, you may want to check out “Winning at Blitz: A Fun Guide to Blitz Chess” by Genrikh Chepukaitis.

I wish you the best of luck in your games and hope that these tips will help you score some memorable victories and boost your rating!  

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