Tag Archives: chess clocks

Time for a New Clock?

This essay has been printed in the 70th Anniversary (September 2016) issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

Note that all prices listed in the review are from uscfsales.com as of mid July 2016. The in-text links do not go to USCF Sales but to Amazon (with the exception of the Vtek), and so prices may vary widely.

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Each year the Delegates to the United States Chess Federation meet at the U.S. Open. Among their many duties are the consideration of various motions, some of which deal with changes to the Official Rules of Chess. Some of these changes are minor and of little practical consequence for the majority of players. Others, like the rewriting of Rules 5E and especially 5F – passed at the 2015 Delegates Meeting and enacted on January 1st of this year – warrant closer attention.

Rule 5F deals with the ‘Standard Timer,’ enumerating the criteria by which a chess clock can be considered tournament legal. You can find all of the details online at uschess.org, but the bottom line is this: analog clocks, while still legal, are on the way out. They don’t allow for delay time, now assumed standard, or increment (5E), and digital clocks are to be preferred to analog clocks in all cases (5F4).

Every active tournament player should own a digital clock, but which one? Two traditionally popular manufacturers – Excalibur (Gametime II) and Saitek (Chess Competition or ‘Blue Scholastic’ clocks, Competition Pro) – have ceased production. The venerable Chronos clocks are still generally available, although they have been hard to come by in recent years, and programming them remains a challenge even for seasoned users. [1]

The good news is that a slew of new clocks have come to market, with options and price points to appeal to every type of chess consumer. Which one is best, and for whom? There is no single answer to this kind of question, but readers should be well-equipped to make educated buying decisions by the end of this article.

Modes and Methodology

One of the difficulties in assessing the features of competing clocks is the terminology. What’s the difference between delay, Bronstein, and Fischer modes? What’s the difference for the practical player?

The U.S. Chess Federation rule book differentiates between delay (pause) and increment (added) time modes (Rules 5, 42), and it recognizes two types of delay. Most American players are familiar with simple delay, where a player’s clock does not begin to decrease for a specified amount of time (usually five seconds) after pressing the clock.

With Bronstein or ‘add-back’ delay, invented by former World Championship Challenger David Bronstein, clock time begins to decrease when it is a player’s turn to move, and the time used, up to the specified delay, is added back when the player hits the clock. US Chess rules consider these two forms of delay to be mathematically equivalent.

Fischer or ‘bonus’ mode, named after its inventor, the American World Champion Bobby Fischer, is usually described in America as an increment. Time is added to a player’s clock with each completed move, although some clocks (notably DGTs) also add the increment time when a player’s clock first starts. In both cases, and in contrast to delay, a player can accumulate more time than she started with via the increment.

Current US Chess rules do not specify which type of delay is preferred, although simple delay is the de facto standard. FIDE prefers Bronstein delay. The clocks under consideration in this article will vary as to how they implement both delay and increment, and I will note these differences accordingly.

My analysis is drawn from extensive hands-on investigations and over-the-board play. I have also lent some of them out to friends and students for their inspection and comments. In what follows I first offer descriptions of all the clocks ordered by manufacturer, and I conclude with a series of recommendations for different types of players. All clock prices are drawn from the USCF Sales website as this article went to press.

DGT

Digital Game Technology, or DGT, is perhaps the leading purveyor of chess technology in the world. Based in the Netherlands, DGT manufactures the e-boards and e-pieces used to transmit moves to the web at all the biggest events, and they also produce a full line of clocks.

Broadly speaking, we can divide DGT’s product line in two: a scholastic segment (1001, Easy, Easy Plus) and a tournament segment (2010, 3000, NA). The scholastic clocks are tournament-legal but lack certain features that more serious players would expect; this is reflected in their relative cost. The tournament clocks, while slightly more expensive, possess a full range of features and settings. Let’s have a closer look at each model.

The DGT 1001 ($29.95) is a small clock designed for the beginner. It lacks delay and increment, and it can only be set for one time control – for G/90, say, instead of 40/90, SD/30. The tradeoff is that it is incredibly easy to program. You just press the plus or minus buttons on the top of the clock to change the starting times, hit the play button, and you’re off. My youngest student, age 8, managed to correctly set it within a minute or two of opening the box.

The Easy ($34.95) and Easy Plus ($44.95) share a unique housing and profile: they are shaped rather like an index card folded longways. The Easy comes in three different colors and the Easy Plus in just one, and both clocks can only be programmed for one time control. What distinguishes the two is their ability to handle delay and increment. The Easy lacks these functions, while the Easy Plus can be set for simple delay and increment. These clocks seem the sturdiest of the DGT line, and I found them fairly easy to set.

While the 1001, Easy, and Easy Plus are all limited and perhaps best for beginning or scholastic players, the DGT 2010, 3000 and North American (NA) are robust clocks suitable for all playing conditions and time controls. Because of the similarities between the 2010 and NA, I will treat them in tandem before turning to the 3000.

The 2010 (unavailable through USCF Sales; $85.95 at Chess4Less) and North American or NA ($49.95), like the Easy and Easy Plus, share a common housing and are physically identical save their color. What separates them is their feature set. The NA was specifically designed for the North American market, with settings and timing modes commonly used in American tournaments. The 2010 features Bronstein delay and increment along with other time settings like byo-yomi and count-up that are used in Go and Scrabble. Both can be set for up to four time controls.

The 2010 and NA are programmed in the same manner. Users select from presets – thirty-six in the case of the 2010, twenty-three in the case of the NA – listed on the bottom of the clock, including a number of adjustable options. I found the setting of both clocks to be quick and intuitive, although I have to admit that I struggled until I actually read the LCD and configured seconds instead of delay time! Blitz fans, however, will lament the fact that you have to pick the clock up and turn it off/on to reset it for each game.

The 3000 ($109.95) is DGT’s top-of-the-line clock. It’s the one you see in use at major events like the U.S. Championship, the Sinquefield Cup, etc., because when connected to a DGT e-Board broadcasters can transmit both moves and move times to the Internet. The 3000 is the only DGT clock to allow for simple delay, Bronstein delay, and increment, and it’s the only clock I’ve seen that shows seconds on the display in all time controls and timing modes.

The 3000 comes with twenty-five presets along with five manual settings that can be saved for future use. It is set in much the same fashion as the 2010 and the NA – both of which it resembles, save the slightly larger LCD – but the 3000 also allows users to choose timing methods from a list on the display. This makes its programming very simple. You do have to pick up the clock to reset it, as with the 2010 and NA, so players primarily searching for a blitz clock might look elsewhere.

OmcorChess

OmcorChess is a chess manufacturer from Mexico, and the GameTimer 960 ($44.95) is their first clock on the American market. It is so new, in fact, that my review model was the first of its kind that I’d seen.

The shape and size of the clock are similar to that of the higher-end DGT clocks, and like them, the GameTimer 960 uses a rocker arm. It is also set in a similar manner, with fifty-eight timing options (printed on the bottom of the clock) available, including simple delay, Bronstein delay, and Fischer increment along with byo-yomi and Scrabble options.

One important feature of the GameTime 960 is its utility for Chess 960 players. [2] Users can press the 960 button and a random 960 starting position will appear on the display. Unfortunately the GameTimer manual is very poorly translated, so I was not able to fully grasp all the dimensions of this feature. The clock also comes in a USB equipped version, allowing users to display clock times on a computer screen.

On the whole the GameTime 960 seems feature-rich and fairly well-built, although the rocker arm feels less secure than do those on DGT clocks. I did find the location of the delay / increment countdown to be unfortunate, as it appears in a spot on the display that would be natural for a seconds counter.

VTek

The VTek 300 ($149.95 at chesshouse.com), produced by VisualTek Inc. in conjunction with Shelby Lohrman of American Chess Equipment, is an American-made clock that boasts a unique feature. It is fully menu driven, with a series of options and suboptions accessed through a dedicated line of text on the LCD display.

The VTek has the largest footprint among the clocks reviewed here, and it is also the heaviest of the bunch. Available in multiple colors, the VTek has a metal housing with mechanical push buttons and LED move indicators. The manual suggests that there are 36 preset time controls available, along with a dedicated ‘create new’ option. Simple delay, Bronstein delay, and Fischer increment modes are available, but oddly enough, controls for Bronstein time are found under an increment settings menu.

There is no question that having a full text menu is helpful in correctly setting the VTek, and the fact that user preferences are set globally (FIDE style, USCF style, etc.) is an interesting innovation. It did take this long-time Chronos user some time to learn the button combinations needed to navigate the menus, and for some reason, you can’t specifically turn the move counter on or off. This last quirk might be corrected with updated firmware, something that VisualTek intends to make available to its users through a mail-in service.

Z-Mart

ZmartFun, a Miami-based company, offers two clocks that are perhaps the most direct challengers to Chronos’ market share. The ZMF-II ($59.95) has a plastic case and a bright LED display, while the ZMF-Pro ($99.95) is housed in metal and has two large LCD displays. Both are equipped with touch-sensitive buttons, and both share an identical set of menu options and settings.

There is a bit of a learning curve to setting ZMF clocks, and I had to refer much more closely to the manual than I did with the other clocks under review. Still, setting the clock is not onerous, and I found it simpler to learn (if memory serves) than was the Chronos. Users have three preset option slots available to them, and stock time controls and preferences can be edited and saved as new presets for future use. Both clocks feature simple delay and increment settings along with byo-yomi and Scrabble modes, and blitz fans will love the fact that the clock can be reset with three clicks of the central button.

There is a touch of iconoclasm about these clocks. The ZMF-II is the only clock on the market to use colorful LEDs for display panels, and the ZMF-Pro shows clock times with large numbers that fill the display. Both depart from the usual norms of chess clock design. I’ve found that players are divided on the ZMF-II, with some loving the bright LEDs and others (including me) finding them distracting. I’d not seen the ZMF-Pro before receiving my review clock; when I used it in a blitz tournament, I found the oversized numbers jarring and put it aside after the first game.

Recommendations

After all of this, the question remains: which of these new clocks should you buy? The answer is… it depends.

Let’s say you run a scholastic program or after-school chess club, and you’re not running US Chess tournaments regularly. In this case it would make sense to buy multiple inexpensive clocks, even if they lack features like delay, increment, or multiple time controls. The DGT 1001, Easy, and Easy Plus would all be logical choices, with the Easy being the best compromise between price and build quality.

At $49.95, the DGT North American is an outstanding choice for the majority of US Chess players, and I think it the best value on the market today. The NA is sturdy and reliable, and it has every feature that an American tournament player could need. The Omcor GameTimer 960 would also serve most players well, although I’d like to see it used more widely before recommending it, and blitz fans might turn to the ZMF-II for their blitz and tournament needs.

If you are looking for the best clock available, and money is no object, there are only two choices. The DGT 3000 and the VTek 300 are both fantastic. They are well built, easy to set, and feature-rich. If pressed, I would pick the 3000 because of the lower cost and the expansive display, but I’d resent being forced to choose!

I have used all of the clocks mentioned in this article over the past few months, but I keep coming back to three for over-the-board play: the DGT NA, the DGT 3000, and the VTek 300. Each of these clocks would serve you well for many years, and each one receives my full recommendation.


[1] It should be noted that the author tried to contact the manufacturers of the Chronos clock as part of this review on multiple occasions, as did industry intermediaries on behalf of the author. No response was ever received.

[2] Note that DGT also produces a 960 capable clock, the DGT 960 ($39.95), but its small size and design make it less than ideal for serious tournament play. As a portable game timer, however, the DGT 960 might make sense for many players, especially those interested in 960 chess.

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Chess Holiday Buying Guide: Part I

I’m beginning a new tradition at Chess Book Reviews this holiday season.  I know that it can be a real challenge for the non-initiate to determine what to buy for the chess player in their lives.  Well-meaning loved ones choose the wrong things with the best of intentions, and how can we blame them?  There’s so much chess swag out there, and if you’re not obsessed by the game, it’s easy to go wrong.  It’s my fervent hope that chess players the world over receive better-chosen gifts as a result of these three blog entries.  (Such hubris, John.  Such hubris!)

The first rule of buying for a chess player is this: unless they are a chess set collector, never buy them a themed chess set.  They look cute, and who doesn’t love Homer Simpson as the White King, or the Aztecs and Mayans battling it out over 64 squares?  The only problem is this: they can’t be used in tournament play.  Both USCF and FIDE rules have very specific regulations for boards, pieces and clocks.  In my experience – and again, if your loved one collects themed sets, ignore this – the novelty pieces and boards are set on a shelf in the closet, rarely to be visited again.

If, however, you want to give your friend chess equipment, consider giving them a digital chess clock, especially if they only have one of the old-fashioned mechanical ones.  (Older players are likely to still have and use these, in my experience.)    The advantage of a digital clock is that it allows for time controls that include either delays or increments, both of which are becoming standard in modern chess.  I can recommend two:

  • The Saitek Mephisto Competition Clock, which costs about $40 at Amazon.  This is the ubiquitous ‘blue clock’ that one sees at scholastic tournaments.  It’s extremely durable and fairly easy to program.  I coach a high school team, and this is the clock we use.
  • The DGT North American Chess Clock.  I have less experience with this clock, but others have recommended it to me, and I have used it successfully in rated play.

Most serious chess players will already have equipment, so chess books and software are the best choices for the real aficionados that you are buying for.  In this remainder of this first installment of the Buying Guide, I’m going to talk about chess GUIs.  In the second, I’ll talk about databases and engines, and in the third, I’ll recommend a number of books for different types of players and different age levels.

I think owning and using the right chess software is very important for the serious chess player.  There are a few main software publishers out there, but for anyone who isn’t Russian, I’d highly recommend using the ChessBase family of programs.  I’ve been using ChessBase programs and data – and here I’m dating myself – since the days of DOS.  I honestly believe that any serious player who is not using ChessBase to study and analyze is at a competitive disadvantage.

There are three components, as it were, to chess software.  First, there is the GUI.  This program allows users to reads and writes chess data.  Engines plug into the GUI, allowing users to get the computer’s opinion on various moves and positions.  You can play against some, but not all, GUIs.  Second, there is the database itself, which is indexed by player, opening, ending, or any of a host of other criteria.  The best databases are professionally curated and contains deep notes to some of the games contained in the data.  Some data also comes with audio or video training embedded within it.  Third, there is the engine.  An engine is the bit of software that allows the computer to analyze a position or game.  Most engines require a graphical interface (GUI) for ease of use.

ChessBase offers buyers all three components or elements of a complete chess software package.  I’ll talk about each in turn.

GUI: There are two choices for GUI within the Chessbase family.

ChessBase 12 is a complete database package, allowing users to read and write data in a nearly limitless fashion.  You can plug engines into the GUI to help with analysis, and there are various abilities to access online game data embedded in the GUI.  Users can export their games to text files, epubs, or to webpages hosted by Chessbase with one click.  It can read all of the training programs and DVDs produced by Chessbase, and the GUI also includes the Playchess.com software, which is Chessbase’s online chess playing site.

ChessBase 12 is the gold standard for chess software, and if you can afford it, it would be a fantastic gift for the chess player on your list.  There are three different packages out there, with the main difference being that the Starter package comes with a game database stripped of annotations, while the Mega includes them.  I don’t think the Premium package is worth the extra cost, but your mileage may vary.

Amazon has the Starter package for approximately $160, while the Mega package is about $260.  You can also download the program directly from ChessBase for about $140, but be aware that (1) you won’t get the game database in the download, and (2) the download version does not come with a membership at Playchess.

Deep Fritz 14 and Houdini 4 are another type of GUI from Chessbase.  They can read and write ChessBase databases with some limitations; as compensation, you can play games against the engine and GUI, which you can’t do in ChessBase 12, and the GUI will automatically analyze your games if you wish.  (For me, playing against the engine is far too masochistic an enterprise, but It can be useful to play out special positions against the computer for practice.)  These GUI comes with a smaller game database, but one that is entirely sufficient for most players.  Most importantly, Deep Fritz 14 and the stronger Houdini 4 include the engines for which the GUIs are named.

It’s harder to manipulate data in Deep Fritz or Houdini than it is ChessBase 12, and there are far fewer data indices or ‘keys’ available to the user.  Still, unless you’re doing heavy duty database work, you can do everything you need to do within Deep Fritz or Houdini.  I have both and use both.  If pressed, I’d probably choose ChessBase, even with the extra cost.

Deep Fritz 14 is available at Amazon, and costs approximately $80.  Houdini 4 Standard, which runs on up to six cores, is $99.95, and Houdini 4 Pro is  $115.95 and runs on up to 32 cores. Naturally you can also download these programs directly from Chessbase itself:  Deep Fritz 14 is about $80, Houdini 4 Standard is $90 or so, and Houdini 4 Pro is $115.

Note that the author of Houdini also sells the Houdini engine (without a GUI) on his website.  I’ll talk more about the pros and cons of each engine in Part II of this Buying Guide.