Kindred’s Special: History of the Chess Clock and Enrichment of the Joys of Chessplay

The history of game play goes back centuries.  I am not concerned with the official views expressed about when games were invented or by whom.  But I do think about human development of brainpower that sought relief from the drudgery of existence in those ancient times when man had to plan and work in effort to slay animals for food.  They discovered spears, axes, bows and arrows from their natural surroundings.  They also discovered fire which might have originated from lightning strikes which ignited dry brush and wood twigs.  It was early discovered that friction created heat when applied to dry brush, needles from pines by use of  wood sticks rubbed earnestly together or against stone would soon produce a flame.  Later on flint was discovered making the process much easier.  All this time, labor was intense.  Hunters had to provide meat and gather berries that often took them on journeys from their campsite.  About this time, they decided that they needed some relaxation and fun.  Some of these games related to their hunting skills and use of horses. Thus, sport competition was introduced.  Weather and time of seasons was another factor especially in creating mental forms of recreation.  (This history is based upon my own thinking  for what comes next.)

Writers tend to write history once a game is created.  When was it founded and where?  Who created it?  Popularity had to be a reason, too. I suspect most games evolved much the way mankind grew through knowledge and necessities.  Thus, such board games like backgammon, chess and draughts (checkers) came into being and the use of language and writing.  The initial forms of play and equipment likely became altered through man’s and womanly imagination to include the elite and wealthy using their wit to bring about improvements as the games spread throughout the known world.

Historians have traced chess and draughts back centuries.  The earliest writings by scribes, kings, queens, and traveling merchants have afforded us the written history of game play.  The rules of play varied over centuries, too.  Man at some point, maybe as late as the 1700 to early 1800s, looked for  ways to improve the enjoyment of chess.  Their matches and tournaments were extremely lengthy as some individual contests lasted for many hours due to procrastination of one or both players.  So, they decided to adopt the use of a hand-glass which gave each player an equal share of sand in the glass which had a circular narrow point in the middle. Each base bore the color of the pieces. Player awaiting the first move picked up the glass and set his side on the base which was usually the table which started the sand to flow from the player on the move.  Once a move was made, the glass would be turned upright starting the time being used by the opponent.  A rather cumbersome explanation but that whole event was done many times and probably wore out both players by the end of the game.  It was hardly a solution.

Inventors began to think about this problem of time and how to improve it.  Thus came about rather crude and perhaps even slightly poor quality efforts but held the basic idea of making a timer that would allow a convenient way to administer the time for both players.  This design was for two clocks secured to a board and having each clock run from two separate stop levers in a seesaw movement connected by an arm that when one lever was lowered, it would start the opponent’s clock and stop the time clock of the player just moved.  Both clocks could be stopped by leaving the two sides evenly balanced.  Windup clocks would be used with faces large enough for easy sight of the time remaining.  One problem existed.  On approaching a pre-determined time limit for each player to make a given set number of moves, the question was just how to determine when a game would result in what became known as a time forfeiture.  Some wise inventor created the idea of each clock having a flag which would rise when the minute hand began   to rise up to the hour twelve and fall. The hour hands were uniformly set at a designated hour at the start of play. Normally game limits allowed were slow, usually 20 moves per hour which meant the minute hand would pass over  twelve o’clock twice.  On the second time around with five minutes remaining on a clock to reach twelve o’clock, the flag would then fall either causing a time forfeiture or the game to be continued at a later date having reached the allotted time control.

This made chess as well as draughts to become popular at clubs and for tournaments.  Forty moves each side, given two hours each, for years became the standard time-control.  The experimentation for accelerated play of faster controls brought about the popular fifty-move limit which meant that games were likely to be concluded within the four hour time control.  This became the norm and benefit for TDs because of the introduction of the Swiss-system  event for open tournaments.  The chess-clock really made possible many speedier events with the introduction of blitz (1-5 min.), 10-seconds a move which was common during the 20s through 40s, and added faster time-controls, and fast chess (15 min. to 25 min. games)especially in youth tournaments but gaining wide acceptance in major competitions among the elite.

It has proved a boon to clock makers and a number of them began to make digital timers with devices never before considered and with various types of materials for beauty and dependability while keeping the price for players competitive and reasonable.


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