How to Use Chess Clocks – Should I Buy a Digital Chess Clock?


I’m continuing my series of articles and videos for the absolute chess beginner. This post will be about chess equipment in general, focusing on chess clocks. I’ll have a little advice about how to use the chess clock and some advice on what kind of clock you should buy.

A standard item of equipment that every chess player should have is a chess clock (sometimes called a “chess timer” or “game timer.”) A chess clock is great for playing with your friends, especially if you want to play speed chess (a/k/a “blitz”). Speed chess games are usually played at 3, 5, or 10 minutes per side for the entire game. It’s a lot of fun, and good practice.

Blitz chess can be addictive, and it can also be bad for your chess if you don’t mix in slow chess (an hour or longer per side per game).

Do I Need a clock?

If you’re going to play in tournaments, you do need a clock. You can get by without one, but you will find yourself begging a clock off other players when your opponent shows up without a clock. Get your own clock; you’ll have a lot of fun with it and you’ll be prepared for tournaments.

By the way, a chess clock can be used for other games, and I’ve even read of chess clocks being used in a court of law to time the lawyers!

How does a chess clock work?

A chess clock simply has two timers, one for each side. After you have moved your piece, you push the button (or lever) on your side of the clock. This stops your clock and starts your opponent’s clock. After he has made his move, he pushes the button or lever on his side of the clock (“punches his clock”), which stops his clock and starts yours.

The clock will have an indicator for when the time has expired for one of the players. On the old-style mechanical clocks, this is a small flag that is raised by the minute hand as it approaches the top of the hour, and falls (theoretically) at 12:00:01. When the flag falls, you’re out of time and you lose. (Hopefully it’s your opponent’s flag that has fallen.)

The proper way to use your clock during a game is to make your move, then push the button (or lever) to stop your clock with the same hand that you used to move your piece. If your flag falls before your opponent’s, and you haven’t checkmated him, you lose.

Should I get a digital or analog chess clock?

Digital chess clock

It seems that these days, a digital chess clock is preferable to an analog clock for several reasons. First, the mechanical chess clocks work perfectly well, and you could get a lot of enjoyment from using one.

But there are several reasons you may prefer digital.


With the advent of digital chess clocks, the old mechanical timers are becoming outdated. Many of the manufacturers of mechanical chess clocks are either going out of business or discontinuing the manufacture of chess clocks.

As I was writing this update, I visited House of Staunton to see what they might have available in analog mechanical clocks. Although they had a good selection, several of the models were marked “not in stock.” It’s going to be increasingly difficult to get mechanical analog clocks in the coming years.


With the old mechanical clocks, the time is considered to have expired when the flag drops. This is a mechanical operation, and is not completely accurate. One is never sure near the end of the time control whether one has ten seconds or forty seconds. This was undesirable, but we lived with it.

With the advent of digital chess clocks, accuracy became a non-issue. One always knows exactly how much time is left before the time control.


A lot of chess tournaments now use time delay or time increments as part of their time control. This means that each player’s clock is either delayed for a certain time on each move before his time starts ticking down, or else a certain amount of time is added to his clock for each move he makes. This also means that one must have a digital clock in order to take advantage of the time delay or increment. Mechanical clocks can’t accommodate time delay or increment.

I have even heard that some tournaments require a digital clock. Be advised to check this before you enter a tournament.


As a consequence of these developments, mechanical clocks have become very much out of demand. Companies that make or have made mechanical chess clocks are either going out of business or stopping the production of mechanical clocks. And the price seems to be going up quite a bit. I bought the mechanical clock (which I still use) in 1974 for $24.00. As recently as a couple years ago, you could still get a good mechanical clock for not much more than that.

Good mechanical clocks are now being priced at $50.00 and up. There are several digital clock models available for less.

Whereas a mechanical clock is less accurate and won’t accommodate time delays or increments, it is also now more difficult and possibly more expensive to acquire. All in all, an inexpensive digital clock may be the best way to go for the beginning chess player.

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