THE IDEAL CHESS CLOCK?
by Jorge Amador
I was interested to read Bill Smythe's critique of electronic chess clocks and the subsequent discussion in other posts. Because I have an analog clock and USCF rules mandate that digital clocks with a time-delay feature are preferable to mine, I have been forced to use a number of different digital clocks in recent years. Here are my observations.
1) The displays on most digital clocks feature big blinking dots and large numerical readouts that keep changing as one's time decreases. I can understand why many people might consider this attractive, but I find the blinking dots and changing numerals to be highly distracting out of the corner of my eye, to the point where sometimes I simply have to avert my gaze.
2) I like to get up during the game and walk around in order to relax and to clear my head. In such cases it is very useful to be able to see from a distance (and especially from behind the clock) whose move it is, so that if my opponent has made a move I can rush back to the board. This is not a problem with any mechanical clock I have ever seen: the plungers are
located on top of the clock case and one can easily notice that one plunger is higher than the other, from any angle and at distances up to several yards.
With one exception (which I shall get to below), in the case of digital clocks it is difficult or impossible to tell whose move it is unless one is sitting at the board or standing near it. Some clocks are designed in such a way that one just can't tell whose move it is from behind the clock. (Which, incidentally, is also annoying when you're watching somebody else's
game and all the other spectators are already on the side of the board where the clock's turn indicator is visible.) Other digital clocks feature levers so small that one cannot see from a distance which of them is pressed; still others have dim red lights on the plungers that are equally difficult to discern in a brightly lit playing hall from more than a few feet.
3) Unlike Bill Smythe, I have not found the character vs. background contrast on the digital displays to be inadequate. Indeed, I would not mind it if they had less contrast, so that the blinking dots would not be so distracting. But I do find that in mounting time pressure it takes a fraction longer to interpret the numbers on a digital display than it does to see the minute hand on an analog face in relation to the 12 o'clock position.
4) Finally, the digital clocks that I've seen all appear to light up or to start flashing or even beeping when one player runs out of time. I consider this contrary to the spirit of the laws of chess, which to my understanding indicate that it is the opponent's responsibility to notice a time forfeit without outside help or prompting.
Because I have grown tired of being forced to aquiesce to the use of these poorly designed digital clocks in lieu of my beloved Jerger, I have been looking for an electronic model free of such basic flaws. After several months of searching, I believe that I have found the (almost) ideal model: the Gardé electronic chess clock.
With its squarish shape and Spartan exterior, this timepiece will not win any awards for beauty, but it does seem to address neatly all my practical concerns about digital clocks. It has both an analog face for immediate comprehension of the time remaining, and a digital readout for precise accounting of the seconds left when so desired. The display is small and
unobtrusive, so neither the blinking asterisk nor the bar graph serves to distract. When a player's time runs out, his flag falls for the opponent to see or to miss as his own internal level of alertness would permit. And it is the only electronic clock I've seen which retains the traditional top-of-the-case plungers with clear differences in relative height when one or the other is pressed, so that I can tell whose move it is from far away and from any direction.
The Gardé clock is not perfect, of course. As Bill Smythe points out, the analog hands dart from minute to minute instead of moving along smoothly. But then, I rely on the hands to give me an immediate impression of the time left; when I want exact knowledge, I can read the digital display. In a tournament setting I would, however, warn my opponent about the way the hands move.
Nor is the fact that the hands do not stop squarely at every minute marker a problem for me -- it is the electronic system, and not a spring device, which keeps track of the time and controls the movement of the hands, so that when the digital readout reaches zero, the minute hand moves forward and makes the flag fall even if the hand had appeared to be a little before or after the one-minute marker. There is no question of a hanging flag falling sooner than one might have expected.
I do concur with Mr. Smythe's suggestion to tell my opponent to watch the digital display and not the hands when he gets down to a couple of minutes, but I see no reason to dramatically stop the game in the middle to say so -- just a reminder at the start of the game will do nicely, helping to avoid acrimonious time-forfeit disputes.
To me these are minor drawbacks, not fatal flaws. My main complaint about the Gardé has to do with the difficulty in programming it. The instruction manual reads like an English translation of Japanese directions by a German (the clock is made in Germany). It took a training session with an experienced Gardé user, my friend Steve Coladonato, to discover how to activate the time-delay feature. And neither of us has yet figured out how to deal with long games. The Gardé clock can be set to recognize one primary time control and only up to two secondary time controls. Because our club has (thankfully) resisted the trend toward sudden-death controls, this could become an issue in games going into the fourth time control.
Perhaps we could reset the clock to start as if it were a new game, with the time left to each player entered as the new primary time control.
But that's a bridge we will cross when we get to it. In the meantime, I will use the Gardé and happily walk around the playing hall in the knowledge that I can tell whose move it is wherever I may be in the room, while enjoying all the benefits of precision electronics and of both analog and digital displays.
Editor's comment: I disagree with point 4, "Finally, the digital clocks that I've seen all appear to light up or to start flashing or even beeping when one player runs out of time. I consider this contrary to the spirit of the laws of chess, which to my understanding indicate that it is the opponent's responsibility to notice a time forfeit without outside help or prompting."
My view is
reflected in the rule 42B of the rulebook: "Signaling devices.
A clock that calls attention to the fall of the flag with a special noise or
light is both legal and highly desirable, providing it causes no disturbance to
other players. The prohibition against anyone but the two players calling
a flag down does not apply to a clock, which can carry out this function
thoroughly and impartially. Likewise, a clock in which the fall of one
flag prevents the other flag from falling is both legal and desirable, avoiding
the possibility of the both-flags-down draw of 14G or 16T."