Ok, we set the clocks so that the weaker player gets 15 minutes on the clock, and the stronger player gets only five. In theory, that gives the weaker player three times as much time to think, which should be an advantage.

Except that the stronger player can use the weaker player's time to think. OK, the weaker player has "extra" time to think out a response to the stronger player's last move, but the stronger player can be thinking about the same possible responses (and more). When I am the stronger player (seldom), I can usually anticipate the weaker player's response, plan my countermove, etc., all on the other player's time. If a computer were the stronger player, this advantage might be even more pronounced, because a computer can "think" in nanoseconds.

Apparently, this is not the way things work (yours truly aside)? So how does a time advantage confer a meaningful advantage to the weaker player? Is it necessary to force the stronger (human) player to "look away" from the board during the weaker player's turn so that the stronger player doesn't benefit from the weaker player's time?

  • 1
    Time odds are viable when difference in playing strength is not that big. GM can play vs FM 5:15 and the game will be nearly equal, provided they both leave the opening with equal position -> some tactical opening that requires calculation or something like that, if it requires knowledge (like isolated queen's pawn and similar ) then that is a whole different matter... Otherwise, it is pointless as weaker side will be obliterated anyway... Nov 18, 2014 at 16:19

2 Answers 2


Indeed, you can think on your opponent's time. However,

  • Your opponent may make a move you didn't expect
  • Your calculation may be slightly worse because you had to see one ply farther
  • Even if he played a move you expected, you may have been looking at four possible moves of his, so you only spent 1/4 of your thinking time on the move he actually made
  • If he played his move relatively quickly, you're thinking on your own time basically from the start

As you point out, having less time doesn't give you as big a disadvantage as it might first appear. However, it is still a real disadvantage. If you think the penalty is not great enough for a given match, just increase the time difference.

  • The way you describe it, a time advantage would be a "real" advantage to a player of EQUAL strength (which is my experience). But the advantages you listed attenuate if your opponent is, in fact, weaker than you.
    – Tom Au
    Nov 18, 2014 at 16:18
  • The disadvantage is less if your opponent is weaker, yes. It is still a disadvantage. If 15 minutes to 5 isn't giving you a competitive game, try 18 to 2.
    – dfan
    Nov 18, 2014 at 16:21
  • In my experience, five minutes is the "irreducible" mininum. When you get down to two, you get into "frictional" issues involving piece-handling, etc. Put another way, if I have five minutes, extending my opponent's time from 15 to 20 doesn't do much for him because I can think on his time. But if it's say, nine minutes to three, then I have problems because of "piece handling" issues. The reason that "it might be me" is because I am poorly coordinated, so reducing my time to 3 minutes hurts me more than most. But I think fast, so increasing my time from 5 minutes to 10 doesn't do much.
    – Tom Au
    Nov 18, 2014 at 16:30

This question raises a couple of topics:

  1. What is the minimum amount of time per move a player needs in order to avoid blunders, displacing the pieces, fingerfehlers, etc.

  2. When the time handicap is considerable, how do you prevent the stronger player from profiting from the weaker player's time?

  3. Is there a rating (or rating gap) beyond which additional time (or a larger handicap) makes no appreciable difference to the outcome?

Q1. Analyzing the blitz games of GM's, I've found (unsurprisingly) that they're significantly more vulnerable to blundering at 3 minutes a game. This is true for both the eventual winner and the loser, suggesting that neither morale nor satisfaction with one's position is solely responsible for this tendency. It also occurs (typically) multiple times per game.

I have a collection of games played on ICC at different time controls, and I noticed that the same players use both sets of time controls. This might be a valuable testing ground for the effect of time controls on game performance (at least, as reduced to blunder occurrence rates). But, no conclusions yet. I would expect to find the same is true; although it likely varies by player, there is probably some minimum time control at which blunders begin to appear with frequency and/or magnitude that dominate the play of the game.

Q2. I might suggest that the stronger player be distracted. On ICC, on Wednesdays (currently), an International Master with the handle Voja plays a simultaneous display against his opponents. Nominally, their time control is 3 minutes + 3 seconds delay, while his is 1 minute plus 1 minute delay. As in most simuls, he makes a move and goes on the next board/game. So, he is not able to think about Game 20 while selecting moves for Games 21-30 and then Games 1-19. He only gets to think once he returns, and that's when his clock starts again. His opponents, however, have the clock time to make their move, but then they get to try to anticipate his move and think ahead until he returns to the board. Lower rated players (1700 ELO and up) are often able to beat him with this kind of time handicap. (Of course, once the number of opponents has been whittled down to a few and he's returning more quickly to each board, the 3/3 control begins to take hold, and there's no borrowed time anymore).

Q3. I would suspect that below a certain rating, say 1500 ELO or so, certain critical aspects that may develop in a position are not visible to the player. So, no amount of additional time will help them find the right move. Potential discovered attack, decoy, and trapped piece tactics that are one or two moves away seem to fall into this category, in my experience, but that's subjective (so far).

I think the evidence that some 1700 players can beat an IM at blitz on ICC when the time controls are substantially weighted in their favor answers the question about gap; below 1700, they don't seem to be able to do this. (The ELO gap involved is around 600 ELO.) In that situation, it may not make a difference for them to have more time.

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