Welcome to my discussion of flagging in chess. I will be primarily talking about flagging in online chess. Since flagging occurs very rarely in over-the-board (OTB) chess, I will only mention it in passing. First of all, what is flagging? A ‘flag’ is literally claiming that your opponent has forfeited on time. ‘Flag’ can have a slightly different meaning, which is to play to win on time. I will be talking about the latter (although it is normally discussed as ‘flagging’ or in the past tense, ‘I flagged him’).
This only comes into play if your opponent is low on time. The typical flagging technique is just to play normal moves or possibly more careful/safe moves in the hope that your opponent runs out of time. Of course, this should only be done if there is no increment, as otherwise your opponent can acquire a good amount of time back very quickly and possibly exploit your imperfect play.
Flagging in Internet/Online Chess
Some online players believe that flagging is disrespectful and will even throw profanity at you if they become the victim of it. My personal view is that flagging is a perfectly legitimate technique to resort to if you cannot match your opponent in the position on the board. I am backed up by both Kasparov and the Internet Chess Club (ICC) help files. Kasparov, in the press conference after winning the last game on time against his old rival Karpov (in their match in Valencia, 2009), said that he would have preferred to win by playing the games out, but “the clock is also part of the game”. The ICC help file also commends my view, saying “there is nothing wrong with winning on time. It is part of basic chess rules.”
There are enormous advantages to employing the technique of flagging. Firstly, it will provide you with countless wins in games that you would have lost or drawn; or in some cases, it will provide you draws (if you have no material to checkmate) when you would have lost. I have even beaten a number of grandmasters in 5-minute using flagging. In my view, the great feeling that you get from winning a game is not detracted by the fact that you won on time.
Secondly, although this is sort of a secondary effect of winning more games, is that you will gain countless rating points. I often say to my friends that my blitz/5-minute rating would be at least 100 points lower if I didn’t flag people.
So, how do you master the art of flagging? I think it requires two main elements. First, you need to be able to predict your opponent’s moves well and to spot tactics relatively quickly. This can be learned with practice. I am more positionally/strategically-inclined, so seeing quick tactics is not my cup of tea. Nevertheless, I think with practice, I have improved considerably in that department. My second point is that you need a good mouse. This point is absolutely vital. If you have a shoddy mouse, you will notice that you will lose a large number of games on time in which you were winning. On the flip side, a good mouse will allow you to win countless games on time, even if you are completely losing. A wireless mouse isn’t absolutely necessary (I don’t have one), but I assume it in a tiny bit better than a normal one; if you’re using a connected mouse, make sure you don’t get the wires tangled as this loses precious time!
Now, let’s look at several other factors that contribute to flagging:
Premove is a feature on premium chess servers (including Internet Chess Club and ChessBase’s PlayChess) which allows you to pre-prepare a move that will be played automatically no matter what your opponent plays (unless your move is illegal or becomes illegal after your opponent’s move). On the ICC, a premove only takes 0.1 seconds off your clock, and “appears” as a red arrow. This is much more seamless than the old technique of hovering your piece over the square and releasing as soon as your opponent moves. In a time scramble, premove can save crucial time. Of course, it has its repercussions, especially if your opponent plays something unexpected.
What does this mean for flagging? Premove becomes very useful if a player is low on time. This makes it somewhat harder to flag other players. Picture this – someone only has 5 seconds left, that means they can theoretically premove another 50 moves. If you and your opponent are both low on time and you have premove but your opponent doesn’t, this is considered a major advantage. But really, it doesn’t effect the technique of flagging too much, as I have found through countless blitz games.
Timestamp is a feature available on ICC and I believe a similar feature is offered on PlayChess. First of all, lag (short for “latency”) is when your computer is delivering information to a server slower than usual. Timestamp is “a system that eliminates the effects that lag has on your clock” in online play. This means that you won’t be disadvantaged if your connection is slow. Any time that is apparently lost through lag is readjusted so that you do not lose any time. On ICC, you can use the command “ping (username)” to find out lag details about that player. Latencies of 0-300 milliseconds should be considered normal.
Tipping your opponent over the edge
If your opponent has less than 20 seconds left on the clock, there are some tips I can recommend. First of all, the assessment of the position hardly matters any more as your opponent will likely lose on time. You should make sure your king is safe so that your opponent doesn’t checkmate you before he runs out of time. Often, trading off pieces (especially queens) will lessen your opponent’s ability to create an initiative, but you shouldn’t trade too many pieces as your opponent can premove more often in say, a king and pawn endgame. Another strategy may be to suddenly go on a kamikaze attack, forcing your opponent to think, although I haven’t tried this. When my opponent has less than 1 second left (WARNING: Do not try this if your opponent has more than 1 second), sometimes I like to throw in an absolutely random check that simply loses the piece that is delivering the check. This has the affect of hopefully sufficiently distracting your opponent to lose on time. If you have king and queen vs king, and you are low on time too, often I like to go round and round in circles with the queen, trying to force your opponent to run out of time, rather than playing progressively towards the checkmate.
Flagging in OTB Chess
In OTB chess, flagging is much less effective due to increments. It is customary that the black player chooses where to place the clock. Make sure you choose the side of your “good hand” when you are black. It would also be helpful to have quick and non-stubby hands (which I lack in both departments), but that is something I cannot give much advice on.
Flagging is a perfectly legitimate technique to win a game with. Please note that sometimes people find it disrespectful. Personally, I have saved countless games and rating points using this strategy in online chess and I think you should too!