How To Play Timed Chess: A Step-By-Step Guide

Many players learn chess in a casual environment. Often this is at home with a sibling or parent acting as teacher and thus, there’s no need for a chess clock. When we first start learning to play, there’s rarely a game that lasts longer than 15 minutes. But once you get further into the sport, you may start wondering how to master the clock before you start to play competitively? Well, this is what you need to know.

In this article, we’ll walk through a step-by-step guide for everything you need to know about playing the game under time pressure. We’ll talk about how you set a clock, the time standards in common use, the etiquette of using a clock, what you do when the flag falls on a player and how you can better manager your time in the game to keep as many seconds on your clock as possible, let’s take a look at that in closer detail.

How to play timed chess: A step-by-step guide -
How to play timed chess: A step-by-step guide –

How To Play Timed Chess

You aren’t obligated to play chess on the clock unless you play in tournaments and competitions. However, we’ve found it fairly useful to play timed chess even when playing casually and that’s because a.) it helps you get into practice for when you do need to use a clock and b.) it also keeps games at a manageable length without ruffling anyone’s feather at the table.

It’s bad form to harass an opponent about “getting on with it” or “just make a move for goodness’ sake” and the chess clock means that you never have to have that kind of conversation. So, let’s take a look at how to set a chess clock.

How To Set A Chess Clock

Not all chess clocks are created equally. The more you pay for a clock, the more features you get (as you might have read in the article on why chess clocks are so expensive here). But in general terms there are two types of chess clock:

  1. Analog chess clocks. These can only be used to count down a set number of minutes, if you wish to add time on at any point in the game, this must be done manually. Typically, when using analog clocks any added on time will come after players have exhausted x number of moves. Such as an extra 30 minutes after 40 moves. Setting these clocks is easy, wind them up (or put batteries in) so that they have power and then turn the dials on the back of the clocks so that the appropriate amount of time is shown on the face of each clock. Clocks are then started when the players begin by pushing the buttons on the top of the clock.
  2. Digital chess clocks. You will need to refer to the instruction manuals for these clocks as though they will usually offer a countdown mode, many offer additional functionality and the ability to add on time after a single turn or many turns can be automated. They tend to count down rather like the digital clock on a bomb in a TV program and again players start their clocks by either touching the buttons on the top of the clock or the touch sensors provided.

When an analog clock reaches the final minutes of the game it will lift the flag at the top of the clock face, and this will then fall when the time is completely expired. Digital clocks will simply reach the 0:00 mark and may, occasionally, flash the numerals at this point.

What Are The Time Standards For Chess Matches?

The time standards between games of chess can vary quite a bit. There is no mandatory length of a chess game. So, for example, a chess player in a bullet chess match will have 3 minutes or less available to them but the precise amount of time will be agreed between the players (or by the tournament rules) as will any time added on per move.

The same is true for Blitz chess (less than 10 minutes) and Rapid chess (less than 30 minutes) and though there’s no such thing as “slow chess” the standard chess played at the highest levels might as well be considered slow and the typical time on the clock at top tournaments ranges from an hour to two and a half hours or even more!

A “slow chess” match may also offer time added on after a certain number of moves or after each move. It is possible for a single game to last an entire day under these circumstances!

What Is The Etiquette Of Using A Chess Clock?

You may have noticed that chess clocks are not entirely convenient to use if they are placed on one side of the board – this is because we’d all prefer that our dominant hand was the one nearest the clock. The author, for example, is right-handed and thus, it’s easiest for him for the clock to be on his right.

However, it’s quite often the case that both players are right-handed and only one can have the clock where they want it. That means there is some etiquette involved in placing the clock and as white gets to move first, black gets to choose where the clock is placed.

If you have more than one chess clock that you can use (for example, both players have provided their own) then you must agree which one to use between the two of you. If you cannot, a coin toss should decide the matter – do not fight over a clock. It’s not sporting at all.

What Happens When The Flag Falls?

The game is not automatically over when a player’s flag falls. Their opponent must claim their victory. If they have not yet done so, the player with the fallen flag may continue to make legal moves. If they should land their opponent in checkmate during this process – the checkmate stands if their opponent has not claimed victory.

You claim victory by calling “flag” and drawing your opponent’s attention to their clock and then you may call the arbiter to confirm this.

One thing you must never do, however, is point out that someone else’s flag has fallen except in the instance that you are their opponent at that current moment in time. It is extremely rude and tantamount to cheating someone to do so.

How Can You Manage Your Time In A Chess Game?

If you want to make the most of your time and try to keep your clock from running down then we’ve got some tips for you:

  1. The more openings you know off by heart the better. If you don’t need to think about your first moves, then you will be able to save your time and put some psychological pressure on your opponent too.
  2. Try to plan on your opponent’s time. It’s tempting to stare out the window while your opponent is thinking but if you can anticipate what they’ll do and start to plan your response, you should be able to gain a time advantage.
  3. Don’t call your own flag. Seriously, until your opponent notices that the flag has fallen, you can keep playing, this is not poor sportsmanship, it’s how the game is designed. Go for a win or a draw.


With this guide you should now be clear on the benefits of using a chess clock and feel more confident in using one in a game. It’s always best to learn how to use the clock prior to attending a tournament, it’s all too easy to forget to use it the first few times that you play and you may find your opponent just sitting back and waiting for your flag to fall if you aren’t ready to push the button. Once you are used to using the clock, you will be ready to play other variants of chess, particularly speed chess in real life and you will find that tournament play seems a little less daunting a prospect.

Scroll to Top