Revisiting Time: Competitive Use of Clocks

I’ve noticed a recent uptick in the community conversation on the use of chess clocks at competitive events, when clocks are relevant for play, what happens upon time expiration, and even what it means to use the clock. After attending a recent GT I saw first-hand several misconceptions on the use of clocks and a stigmatization of them that, in my opinion, should not be warranted as a community. As a result, I thought it was a good opportunity to revisit a perennial topic and refresh the discussion from one competitive player’s view on the use of clocks and why they’re important.

We Shouldn’t Fear the Clock

In my prior Start Competing article on this topic, I discussed the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of clock use – if you’re not familiar with the use of a clock I highly recommend reading. To briefly review, clocks ensure that both players are approaching the game on an equal footing. In a competitive setting where the game itself is time-limited, an individual player’s time is as important a resource as army points, command points, or any other finite aspect or ability in the game. This is an important idea to both understand and internalize – a player’s time during a tournament game isn’t separate to the game, it’s fundamental to it.

However, many players or community observers’ have been given to an assumption that clock use has a stigma to it. It’s often viewed as an additional skill separate from the tournament game, a penalty, or a presumption that use a clock of is a marker of unskilled play. But this could not be further from the truth and as a community we need to start internalizing that, whether we use a clock at a table or not, we are in fact on a clock. Tournament rounds end. They are timed and events run on a schedule. Whether you ensure equitable distribution of that time or not at the table and in the game will not remove the fact that you are, de facto, on a clock. This is not unique to tabletop gaming, it’s fundamental to almost all competitive endeavors – sporting, hobby, or otherwise. Actions taken in a competitive environment are usually always under time pressure – a play clock, shot clock, pitch clock, or the underlying idea itself of a clock in chess. Competition as we understand it is inherently tied to timed actions.

In the context of competitive play, the expectation of the clock being ‘extra’ in competitive table-top gaming is counter to what we commonly take for granted or intuitively understand about time and skill in other competitive settings.  And the form of that separation in expectations can take many forms; whether it’s a player being scared or intimidated to play on a clock and thus avoiding it, a player believing that it’s ‘extra’ to the game itself, or it can be a skilled player stating that they don’t need a clock to play, and thereby implying that the clock is something necessary for a lesser-skilled opponent. The truth is that it’s neither. It’s fundamental to competition in tournaments and unless we understand that and internalize it as a community, we’ll continue to struggle with difficult questions of what is and should be good practice with a clock.

Is it Sporting to Provide an Opponent with more Time?

More than anything, I find the lionization of a player being generous with their time as an example of excellent sportsmanship to be equal parts fascinating and troubling. Whether or not a player grants additional time to an opponent in a competitive environment should be free of a moral judgement for a few reasons:

  1. The context of the game, as discussed previously, is one in which time is a fundamental resource to be managed by each player. It’s as part of winning or losing the game as making the correct decisions on the table.
  2. As each player’s time is their time, a player who times out on the clock should not have any expectation of their opponent to give them additional time. Nor should anyone else.
  3. It would be hard to see a tournament player acting similarly with any other resource like victory points as uniquely sporting. It would most likely be viewed, I think rightly, as foolish.

Those who openly advocate for giving time for a player who has clocked out on their own time often look to the idea that “they would not want to win that way”, but that fundamentally misses the point. By ascribing moral agency to a player who judiciously managed their time while their opponent has clocked out, we are effectively telling that player that it is their duty to make up for their opponent’s deficiency in time management skills.

The game in this environment is ultimately a series of social contracts between individuals who have a shared understanding of the rules of competition. To my knowledge, the competitive game has no expectations that one player is obligated to provide a handicap to a lesser skilled opponent. As a result, I do not believe individuals who take the view that “they wouldn’t want to win that way” would ever bat an eye if their opponent showed up to the table with a poor list, deployed their models carelessly, or made bad decisions at the table. By ascribing sportsmanship to a player for granting time, we are both removing their opponent’s singular agency for their predicament and placing a unique burden on the player whose time remains. The moral ambiguity is a result of the fundamental misunderstanding of what time is in the setting. Who would ever consider a basketball player a good sport who intentionally turns the ball over to their opponent after that opponent violated the shot clock?

What About Clock-Abusers?

A common challenge to clock adoption, particularly among newer or inexperienced players, is the fear of being taken advantage of on the clock. I don’t want to downplay this, it’s real and it’s a valid concern. However, as we’ve discussed, time and clocks are as fundamental to the game as range and rulers. Abuse of the clock is no different than abuse of any other measurement. It’s bullying and/or cheating, and while it does occur, it is not nearly as common as many people expect. Moreover, the best way to protect yourself from these abusers/cheaters is understand the use of the clock and be practiced with it so you can maintain appropriate standards of gameplay – just as you would with the game’s rules. At a game’s outset, clearly articulate your intended use of the clock with your opponent, be consistent, and stick to your guns. This game is a social contract, reinforce it with your opponent at every opportunity so that there is no ambiguity. When something stands out to you as inappropriate, talk about it and keep each other honest. This is all a part of tournament play, and it’s not of any lesser importance than any other element. Nor is it something you master and never revisit – competitive play is an adventure, not a destination.

Final Thoughts

The reality of competitive table-top gaming is that it does not exist in a bubble. Most of the problems we may encounter as a community have been solved in other competitive environments and/or accepted as common practice. Our closest analogue is probably competitive Chess, and in that environment no one would think twice about using a clock or what happens when a player clocks out. The standards have been set, they are known, and we should look at these and other examples and ask ourselves, “Why haven’t we internalized these lessons yet in tabletop gaming?”. The tournament organizing community and how they establish and enforce a standard practice for time has an outsized role to play, but the players also need to push for these standards. Inconsistency can create confusion, being clear and concise right up front about time management rules in player packets should be an expectation, and if it’s not players need to take it upon themselves to bring it up and/or demand clarity.

Finally, it does not matter whether you’re playing for the top table of a tournament or the wooden spoon. Time is still relevant. No one at a lower table would be expected to agree to, “there is no need for us to use a ruler”. Similarly, we should not expect players to automatically agree to, “there is no need for a clock”. It isn’t a mark of shame or penalty, it’s simply a part of the game. If the players agree to not play on a clock, then great! That’s their individual prerogative to do so – and so is choosing to use a clock as an individual pursues bettering their own skills in a competitive environment.

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