The Winning Academy 17: Fast or slow?

by Jan Markos
1/31/2023 – Time is important when playing chess. The time that the players have on the clock, but also the dynamic pieces and pawns develop during the game and that dictates whether to play fast or slow. Jan Markos knows how to use such dynamics to your advantage. | Photo: Michael Hofmann, Kitzingen., CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

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When playing a game of chess, you should be sensitive to two different forms of time. There is the time remaining on your clock that decides how quickly you should take your decisions.

But there is also another form of time: the pace of the chess game itself. In some positions (we usually call them "tactical") the position transforms quickly and abruptly, and the chess time flows swiftly, as a spring running down in a mountain slope. In another positions (we usually call them "strategical") plans of both sides unfold in a slow, steady pace. The time flows naturally and steadily, as a river in a mountain valley. And there is also a third type of positions (we call them "fortresses") the chess time seems to stop, and the game resembles a frozen lake. No real change is taking place.

However, things might become even more interesting. Sometimes White wants the game to evolve quickly, whereas Black would prefer a calmer pace. And sometimes Black plays extremely slowly, because he knows that White cannot improve his position at all, and all he can do is sit, grind his teeth, and wait.

It is a subtle art to be able to decide whether you should speed up the matters on board, or whether you should rather prefer an unhurried approach. Fast or slow? Decide for yourself in the following four diagrams!


Let us start:

Kasparov-Petrosian, Bugojno 1982, White to move:



White is dominating all over the board. All his pieces are excellent, whereas Black is only half-developed. Therefore, most of club players would try to find some fireworks to end up the game quickly and in style.

However, a direct win is difficult to find. Petrosian is passive but solid. Therefore, Kasparov decided for a different approach that is both slow and delicate.

White played 21.a3!, stressing that Black has absolutely nothing to do. Petrosian answered with a meaningless 21…Kg7 and Kasparov played 22.b3!. White’s plan is simple: to push a3-a4-a5, chasing the b6-knight away. And he can afford to be slow, as Black is almost immobile, fully dominated.

No fireworks needed. Black resigned a few moves later. Please remember: If your opponent has no way to improve his position, your slow play is extremely unpleasant for him.

Here's the complete game:




In the following example, the situation is very different.

Carlsen-Nakamura, Moscow 2013, White to move:


Carlsen is an exchange up, but his king is far in the corner, his rook has little to do and almost all his pawns are vulnerable on white squares. Moreover, Black has three forceful methods of counterplay: to attack the b3 pawn, to organize the c5-c4 break and to move his king to d6. The World Champion understood that he has no time to slowly improve his pieces. The position needs a radical, swift action.

Therefore, he played 36.d6!, activating his bishop and depriving the Black king a safe road to the centre. The game quickly turned into a tactical skirmish, in which White had the upper hand.

Please remember: If your opponent has a clear plan that plays almost itself, you might want to radically change the character of the game. A bold action is called for!

Here's the complete game:




Let us have a look at a second example from Kasparov’s praxis:

Kasparov-Short, Sarajevo 1999, White to move:


Again, this position contains a certain danger for White. His c3-pawn is isolated, and Black wants to implant his knight to c4. After that, the positional advantage of Black would be very stable and difficult to tackle.

Therefore, Kasparov realised that he should act quickly. He did not waste time for an automatic castling and started to play powerful forcing moves instead. The game continued

13.Bg5! Qc7 14.Nb5! Qc5 15.c4! Qxc4 16.Rb1

The situation has changed. Now Black is a pawn up, but his queen is vulnerable and all White’s pieces are very active. Kasparov went on to score a fine victory.

Here's the complete game:




Sometimes, playing slow is the best way how to maximize your winning chances. This is the case of many small advantages. Often a position is not good enough for a direct win, but still good enough to annoy and torture your opponent endlessly. In the following example, I was the one being tortured:

Vajda-Markos, Slovakia 2017, White to move:


White is undoubtedly better. He has got more space and a safer king. But how to proceed? There is no clear solution to this riddle. Vajda therefore started to shuffle his pieces, creating various small threats. More than 30 moves later, the position looked approximately the same.


However, up to this point my energy resources and my time on the clock were critically low. I collapsed after a few more moves, unable to resist any longer the slow torturing strategy of my opponent.

Here's the complete game:



There are some more rules that might you help to decide whether you should play slowly or swiftly, e.g:

  1. With a pair of bishops, a patient approach is often the best. With every exchange the power of the bishop-pair will increase, as there will be more room for them on the board.
  2. With a space advantage, you again often might go for a patient, unhurried pace. Your opponent might experience problems to organize his forces in a cramped position even if he gets all the time in the world. There is simply not enough space for all his pieces!
  3. In the opening, you should almost always act very fast. Once the armies are full developed, the game often slows down.
  4. Position with pawn asymmetries tend to be faster than positions without them.
  5. Fortresses are much more common than you would probably think. However, most of them are extremely simple and appear in deep endgames.

The inner time of a chess game is a fascinating and almost unexplored topic. I am sure that asking a simple question "Should I play fast or slow?" might help you find you the correct solution in many difficult at-the-board situations.


Jan Markos is a Slovakian chess author, trainer, and grandmaster. His book Under the Surface was the English Chess Federation´s 2018 Book of the Year. His last book, The Secret Ingredient, co-authored with David Navara, focuses on the practical aspects of play, e.g. time-management over the board, how to prepare against a specific opponent, or how to use chess engines during the training process. Markos was the U16 European Champion twenty years ago. At present he helps his pupils from several countries to achieve similar successes. Apart from focusing on the royal game, he is also the author of several non-chess books, focused on critical thinking, moral dilemmas, and phenomenology.