The Riki Rules – The Definitive Chess Clock Article

by Riki Hayashi

This article has been a long time coming. I think I may have thought it up over two years ago, and I've certainly been talking about it since last year. The subject of chess clocks rears its ugly head every time someone writes a tournament report about getting screwed out of winning a match due to a slow opponent. "If only I had one more turn, I would have won," being the most common lament. The forums for these articles bring suggestions to call a Judge much earlier in the match as soon as you think the pace of play is too slow. The forums also give rise to the clarion call for the chess clock.

Very briefly, a chess clock is a device that can count down two separate times. The two timers are never running at the same time and hitting the clock (or more correctly a button on top of the clock) will switch whose clock is running down.

MTGO (Magic Online) uses a chess clock style timer, and is probably the number one reason that many players think such a thing would be possible in cardboard Magic. The MTGO clock is a marvelously designed toy that sets an unreasonable standard for us cardboard folk. Every time you click "Ok," (or press F2) priority is passed to your opponent. Your clock stops and their clock starts to run down. If you run out of time on your clock, you automatically lose the match.

I guess that's what people want implemented in cardboardland. Let's get one thing out of the way. I've always been opposed to the idea of chess clocks. However, if nothing else, I am a pragmatist who believes in trying something out before dismissing it. So I tried it out for myself. I bought a chess clock online. Let's start there because it's as good a place to start as do-rei-mi.

I bought the very basic digital Saitek Competition Game Clock for just under $30 US. Further up the food chain, there are $50-100 clocks with lots of features. Bought in bulk, the cheapest clocks I can find are about $15. For that price, we are talking very basic, analog clocks with no frills and no bonus features to mess around with–just two clocks and two buttons.

Who is going to buy all these clocks? Giving that responsibility to the players would never work for so many obvious reasons, so it would fall upon each individual Tournament Organizer. Your local TO would have to pony up front for whatever their expected attendance is.

Let's take my local B&M, Drom's, as an example. For FNMs, the turnout ranges between 20 and 30. The most we ever had was 43 for the M10 Prerelease. We could round up to an even 50 and say that Drom's would want to have 25 chess clocks at the ready for any given tournament. At the cheapest price, they would have to plunk down $375. That's not an exorbitant cost, but it also isn't trivial for a small store trying to make ends meet.

Moving up the PTO level, we had 273 players for States one year, so 300 players and 150 clocks is a safe ceiling. That's $4500. Whew. And remember, that's for the bulk rate bottom-of-the-line clocks. Not knowing a thing about the money side of the PTO business, I know that my TO would not be pleased if he were forced to make such an investment.

GP Boston had 1502 players. If no one dropped by round four, that would have meant 751 chess clocks to run the main event. At $15 per clock, that comes to something mind-bogglingly astronomical. [Did the math later and it is $11,265. –Future Riki] And that's before considering any backups. Wait, back up. Backups? I mean, these things are going to break. People are hitting them for crying out loud. Running an event with the absolute minimum number of clocks is a recipe for disaster.

Of course, it's all well and good if you can accurately guess what attendance will be. The conservative estimates for Boston were around 900. The crazy people were guessing around 1200. Yeah, right! 1200 for a Magic tournament! And then we were completely blown away. I've seen tournaments deal with table and chair shortages. These large convention centers tend to have extras of those sitting around somewhere. Even product shortage can be dealt with to some extent. The strange cyber-rumor that there wasn't enough M10 available to run the GP (who spreads these malicious lies?) was overblown. There was enough product set aside for 1600 players, plus more for side Drafts, which could have been absorbed into the Main Event.

But what would have happened if the TO only had enough clocks for 1200 players, the original "yeah right" estimate? Convention centers don't exactly have extra chess clocks sitting around, and going out to buy more at 10 am on Saturday would have been difficult. I phoned around to several game types stores and kept striking out and finally had to buy my clock from some distributor in Texas. These things aren't exactly sitting around on the shelves of Wall-Mart. The point is, if we had been forced to run with chess clocks at Boston, and we only had enough for 1200, that would be that. The event would cap, 302 angry players would mill around, maybe play some side events (without clocks!), and it would be a general PR disaster. Thus, events would have to have substantial numbers of reserve clocks on hand to avoid such circumstances. Will recent attendance records, it's hard to say what such a reserve would need to be, and again that just means more money sitting around ticking away in most cases.

Related to the cost issue is the theft problem. You might wonder what kind of depraved soul would want to steal a chess clock from a tournament. Well, I used to wonder what kind of depraved soul would want to steal a laminated table number from a tournament, until about the third event when you just expect to be missing a few table numbers at the end of the day (table number 69 almost never makes it through the day). Chess clocks would become an easy target for a "souvenier."

There are two possible solutions to the theft problem. The first would be to tie the clocks down to the tables somehow, maybe with some kind of locking mechanism. That's more money being thrown into this, so TOs would probably favor the second solution, players turning in the clock at the end of each round. If the clocks are getting turned in, they also need to be distributed at the beginning of the round. That means either Judges handing them out, or players picking them up at the main stage. Do you see where this is going? In small incremental steps, these clocks are adding costs here and delays there, making the overall tournament experience a little more tedious and a little less fun. And we haven't even talked about the game play yet.

So what about the game play? For the past few months I've been sneaking in clock games here and there with various people. Sometimes I have been an observer, but mostly I've been playing, trying to get a feel for how this might work in a tournament setting. One interesting match between myself and LSV even got recorded on camera. I don't feel the need to talk about it in depth because I think it speaks for itself. Feel free to comment on it below.

Riki vs LSV

The first thing you can throw out is the fear of having to hit the clock for every technical priority pass, of which there are a minimum of eight every turn when nothing is played and no attack is declared (upkeep, draw, first main, beginning of combat, declare attackers, end of combat, second main, end). Every player immediately shortcuts to basically just hitting the clock at the end of their turn only. That this happens without any discussion beforehand means that it is a natural shortcut, which makes sense because that is how we play normally. No one sits there and says "Upkeep. Pass priority. Draw. Pass priority. First main I play a land. Pass priorty. etc." It's tedious to type and just as tedious to play that way. If you have something to do during a time that normally gets shortcut, you will stop your opponent and say so: "Done with my turn. During your upkeep, I cast [card]Mistbind Clique[/card]." Here you would either retain priority on the clock past the end of your turn, or else hit the clock and your opponent would hit it back in their upkeep. Simple enough.

Things get a little more complicated with in turn priority passes. When you cast a spell, you have to pass priority for it to resolve. Most people did not hit the clock, even when I responded with a [card]Cryptic Command[/card]. The same thing typically happened during combat. Very few people would pass priority on the clock for blockers to be declared or combat tricks to be played.

When I was watching two other people play, I would point out when one of them missed an obvious priority pass, usually the end of their turn. But when I was playing, I would simply wait, and wait, and wait. As part of the experiment, I wanted to see what would happen if I played it as if the clock controlled me instead of the other way around. Hence, if my opponent did not pass me priority via a clock hit, I would simply stare at him. After ten to twenty seconds of staring, my opponent would usually catch on, say "Oh, right," and hit the clock.

But what might have happened if my opponent hadn't realized he was still on the clock? What if, instead of staring at him, I flipped through the cards in my hand pretending to mull over a play? How long could a player sit there doing nothing, or pretending to think while on the opponent's clock? It's a bit obvious at the end of someone's turn. If you don't go through the beginning of turn sequence (untap, draw, play a land), your opponent is going to raise an eyebrow, but there are plenty of strange ways to steal time off of your opponent's clock.

One notable case came up when I was playing against Sean's [card]Warp World[/card] deck. We counted up our permanents and shuffled them up. Sean finished shuffling and presented his deck to me first for a cut, while I kept on shuffling and shuffling and shuffling. This was all on his clock because we were on his turn, and resolving his spell even. But there I was shuffling for Warp World on his clock. I kept shuffling for about fifteen to twenty seconds longer than Sean before he caught on and hit the clock, at which point I immediately presented.

I was being very blatant about these actions. When Sean looked at me, I would always give him a very knowing tilt of the head towards the clock and he would say, "Oh, dammit," and hit the button. However, if I had so desired I could have dragged on my shuffling for much longer, perhaps with some idle chatter about what our decks might spit out from the Warp World, or on LSV's latest video.

The issue of shuffling also raises the question of whose clock should be running during the pre-game time. We are both sideboarding and shuffling and mulliganing, so it isn't fair for either clock to run down. I don't think there is a function that lets both clocks run down. That means that during the 50 minute round time, each player should actually get less than 25 minutes each. How much less? I do not know. That would be a problem for a much more in depth study to solve.

And what happens if both players miss the clock? Let's say my opponent passes the turn to me without hitting the clock and I don't notice. I take my turn, perhaps a particularly long one of two minutes, and when I go to pass back, I notice that the clock has been running down on his timer. This is a problem that can never happen on MTGO, but could easily surface IRL, accidentally or possibly even intentionally.

Very probably a Judge would get involved at that point--and do what exactly? There is no way of knowing exactly how much time was used on the wrong clock, and I don't think my clock has an easy "time set" option. Maybe that's where the analog would be superior, since you could just wind them back or forward, but again how much? And finally, this would necessitate some kind of Clock Mismanagement penalty to be written intot he IPG.

I think this was my most startling revelation in the experiment: while the chess clock might stop Slow Play, it would actually encourage all kinds of subtle Stalling cheats.

I'll say it again: Stalling would become more prevalent.

Stalling is already one of the most difficult cheats to catch. It looks a lot like Slow Play, and a Judge needs to read into the player's motivations for playing slowly. Hardcore Stalling doesn't take place until the end of the round, usually with around ten minutes left in the round because that's when people start to realize that time may be an issue in the match. But if you play with chess clocks and have an MTGO-like mandate that a player loses when they hit 00:00, people will begin looking for edges in seconds right off the bat.

I don't think we can ignore the barrier to entry that chess clocks would be to many people either. Magic is already a very complicated game. A lot was made of the M10 rules changes being for the benefit of entry level players. While some of that was overstated, I can tell you from experience that plenty of potential players can get turned off by the complexity of the game during their early development. Chess clocks would just add to that problem.

The average PTQer–you, me, Zaiem–can handle playing with a chess clock. The below average PTQer, or worse yet the brand new PTQer, would completely fail in the face of these diabolic machines. Have you ever tried explaining the specifics of the stack and priority to these less experienced players? It's not pretty; there's a reason they got rid of damage on the stack. Judges would be called upon to explain a lot more things to players that previously got swept under the carpet. It wouldn't just be Judges either. You players would have to explain more things to your opponents like why exactly you're hitting the clock at that particular time during combat. (And yes, my clock has a pause button that could be used to wait for the Judge to arrive. However, that opens up some potential for abuse with people using that time to think more about their play, something that is already a concern, but would become magnified with chess clocks.)

There's also the stress of playing under the clock. When I sat down for my first game with the clock, it reminded me of my first PTQ ever. I was nervous as heck back then; my hands were actually shaking. Everyone I played with expressed similar feelings of anxiety. It's a natural feeling, the same way you feel nervous when you are taking a timed exam (or even untimed exam for all you Judge candidates out there).

I was surprised. I came into this with a very negative attitude towards chess clocks. I was afraid of the "hitting the clock eight times per turn" problem. It turns out that shortcuts work just as well with clocks as without, and people find a way to play Magic. However, being able to play competently with chess clocks is a far cry from endorsing them for competitive play. The logistics involved in implementing chess clocks on a mass scale make them a daunting proposition. They might solve some problems, but they would create a lot more. Some events simply wouldn't be able to afford them for one. There would be inconsistent clocks from one event to another. New policy would have to be written both from a simple tournament management standpoint and from a Judge/penalty standpoint.

Chess clocks are not the promised land. Those of you who think they are need to sit down and play a match with one. It won't take you long to discover a lot of what I've outlined here, that the costs far outweigh the benefits. For me, the biggest negative is that chess clocks take the fun out of Magic. I could never get comfortable when I was playing. I was always on edge, waiting for my opponent to pass priority, so I could quickly go about my turn without wasting a second.

If someone in the shop asked me a rules question, I would brush it off and ignore it, not wanting to waste time on my clock. While good time management is a skill that is tested in tournament play, the clock being right there can really put you on pins and needles. Maybe this is something that more experience would help me get over. Certainly MTGO don't sweat the clock too much once they get used to it.

And finally, for those of you who think we should just run all tournaments on MTGO instead, who was going to pay for the 1502 computers at GP Boston?

I hope you enjoyed this article. It probably isn't truly definitive, but given that I haven't seen anyone cover the issue to this depth, I think I went over some new ground. I encourage you to continue the discussion in the comments below. Next week, I will be talking about another experiment. As you read this (if you are reading this on Saturday when it is first published), I am battling at a PTQ where my mission is to call a Judge every time an infraction is committed. The over/under is at three calls per round. Tune in next Saturday for the results. Until then, this is Riki Hayashi telling you to call a Judge (every time).

Rikipedia at Gmail dot Boston
Risky on efnet and most major Magic forums
Japjedi47 on AIM