LIFESTYLE The Chess Master: Mistress of Game Time

10 min

You may have noticed that chess has been in the air lately- from a hit TV series to the resulting flurry of journalism about the sport (that’s right, according to Olympic Committee rules and regs, chess is technically a sport!). But while this iconic game of logic and strategy seems to be having a renaissance of sorts, the fact is it’s been rather popular the world over... since somewhere around the 6th century. 

His move by Albert Frans Lieven de Vriendt (1843-1900)

With the earliest known version of the game originating in India under the Gupta Empire, this military-inspired pastime has, ironically enough, spread across the globe via war, conquest, and imperial strategy. From India, it spread to the Persian Empire, where ‘Shah Mat!’ became the rallying cry for ‘the king is dead!’. Does ‘Checkmate’ sound familiar? With the Muslim conquest of Persia, chess first appeared in the Middle East, and thence on to Europe and Russia. 

But the influence of Monarchs and Emperors on the game doesn’t stop there – it wasn’t until the ruthlessly powerful Queen Isabella of Spain made her mark in the 15th century that the Queen would become the strongest piece on the board. And just to hammer home the sheer popularity of the game over a millennium after its inception? The second book ever printed in the English language was titled “the Game of Chess”.

So how did Chess become the game we know and love today? One of the most significant changes came with the introduction of time limits. With a mind-boggling 10^120 unique chess games possible (just to put that in context, there are probably about 10^79 electrons in the entire universe) it’s perhaps no surprise that chess matches used to drag on a little. 

In fact, a famous chess strategy before time limits was simply to wear out your opponent. Like any great fight, you could win simply by staying in the ring, without surrendering to fatigue.  Championship games that lasted over 10 hours weren’t that uncommon; one match in 1843 between Howard Staunton and Pierre St. Amant took more than 14 hours. Spectators fell asleep in their chairs, and awkward pauses had to be taken for rations and refreshments. Clearly, something had to be done – and so entered the era of strict time limits, which continues to this day. 

The Chess Game by Charles Bargue (19th century).

In 1852, ‘sand glasses’ (similar to an hourglass) were rolled out, to measure time for each player’s move.  An infinitely better experience for the audience, timed games not only required less physical stamina, but made for keener, sharper play that tested players’ strategic abilities and quick-fire logistics.  But while sand glasses were better than no restriction at all, the flow rate of sand through the tiny aperture can in fact change with the weather, making it difficult to maintain fair play.  Not to mention the player error – whether intentional or unintentional – of turning the glass the wrong way up! 

During the late 1800’s, chess tournaments took off, with the first official World Chess Championship being held in 1886. The 20th century brought great developments in chess theory and the founding of the World Chess Federation (FIDE). And With the rise of organised competition, came the first tailor-made chess clocks to time each player’s turn. After years of slow evolution, in 1900 the classic chess clock (including two dials fitted with a button for each player) emerged. When player one pressed their button, their clock stopped and player two’s clock began counting. The invention was described in Scientific American as: 

“Two similar small clocks, mounted side by side on a wooden platform. Behind the clocks a mechanism is installed, designed to be set in action and to stop according to the movements of the players. It consists of a long double lever, pivoting at the middle on a support fixed to the platform and is furnished with a button at each of its extremities… When pressure is applied on one of the buttons of the lever, the corresponding balance is disengaged, while the other continues locked until the other extremity of the lever is depressed.”

Heuer Chessmaster

But just how is time a literal ‘game changer’? In game theory terms, chess is a competition of “perfect knowledge” , in that everything is visible to each player. Nothing is kept secret or hidden (apart from your opponent’s decision-making) which would add elements of guesswork or chance. As in physics, it’s what’s known as a ‘deterministic system’ – i.e., your action determines the outcome, there’s no fate or fortune intervening behind the scenes. What’s more, there’s a complex mathematical structure to the game (with about 10⁴³ possible legal positions). But compress all this information into a limited period of time (and therefore thinking), and things get interesting.  Wild heights of calculation, strategy, and inspiration – not to mention seizing opportunities created by an opponent’s mistake – have to be made with the clock ticking. 

« Not all analog chess clocks are beautiful, but all beautiful chess clocks are analog. »

 Chess Life

First released in the 1960’s and 70’s, Heuer raised the game further with its elegant Chess Master chess clock. This stylish design was the model to be seen with on the chess scene – with two variations, in a dark aluminum frame or a beautifully-crafted wooden frame. Now one of the most highly collectible vintage chess clocks, the beautiful Chess Master features an unusually high-quality analogue movement that, with good maintenance, is still reliable 50 years on.  Chess Life may have said it best: “Not all analog chess clocks are beautiful, but all beautiful chess clocks are analog.”

The current renaissance of the game among young people (particularly younger women), and the impact of the recent tv series, have brought a certain glamour or ‘je ne sais quoi’ back to the world of chess. According to the New York Times, sales of chess clocks are suddenly soaring, with “Online auction sites [recording] a 215 percent increase in sales of chess sets and accessories since October … Vintage set sales have increased seven times, as have sales for chess clocks and timers, which are up 45 times since last month.”

Happy statistics for those budding chess masters – and mistresses – out there; just make sure your chess clock is a perfect match.