It's December and, once again, as usual, I'm stuck. We've just had two new programs released (and I'm still waiting for my copy of one of them) and the new annual databases are due out any minute. Believe it or not, this puts me in a bind. I can't start a multi-part series on a major program feature because it's bound to suffer a lengthy interruption when I preview the new stuff. I can't choose a lesser program feature to write about because it's a sure bet that it'll be something that's be changed in the new version (this has happened to me twice in the past). So I'm stuck.

I realized, though, that it's been a while since I've written on a non-chess-software topic. So I hope you'll indulge me as I provide a short article on something that has nothing to do with computer chess while I'm waiting for my copy of Fritz8 to arrive in the mail.

There's been a ton of talk in recent years about the changing time controls used in chess. Incremental time controls (a.k.a. "Fischer" controls) were introduced a decade ago and have become wildly popular in recent years, due no doubt to the fact that (in theory, at least) you need never worry about losing a game because your time ran out -- if you made individual moves fast enough, you could actually gain time on your clock rather than losing time.

Faster time controls are all the rage these days, too, particularly on the Interrant servers. "Bullet" chess, in which each player has just one minute total to make all of his moves, is a pretty popular form especially among younger players. The old grognards like me, however, often refer to this as "Nintendo" or "Pinball" chess because, to us at least, the games seem more like reflexive exercises as opposed to mental ones.

But one very interesting form of chess has become lost over the years; I know of only a mere handful of people who still play it. It's a form called Rapid Transit chess and it was enormously popular (especially in the large metropolitan chess clubs) back in the 1940's and 1950's.

Back then, it required three participants to play rapid transit -- two to play the game and a third to act as the game timer. In rapid transit, you have an allotment of x seconds to make each individual move. Here's an example of how it works. Two players agree to play a rapid transit game with a time of thirty seconds. White opens the game with his first move. The third player (the timer) looks at his watch and silently begins counting the seconds; Black has thirty seconds to make his move. If he hasn't made his move after twenty seconds, the player acting as timer starts counting backwards ("10...9...8...7..." etc.) to let Black know that his time is running out. When Black makes his move, White now has thirty seconds to reply, and so on. If a player fails to reply within the move allotment of x seconds, he loses.

The difference between rapid transit and blitz chess is in the method of time allotment. In blitz chess, you have x minutes to play the entire game, no matter how many moves the game lasts; in other words, the entire game has an overall time limit. In rapid transit, each individual move has a time limit. It doesn't matter how long the game lasts (twenty moves or a hundred); the individual moves are themselves timed. If you lose a rapid transit game on time, it means that you failed to move within thirty seconds (or whatever the agreed-upon time was) after your opponent has made his move.

As I said, this was a wildly popular form of chess back in the mid-20th century. It was all the rage for a few years in the New York chess clubs; Reuben Fine is said to have been an avid rapid transit player (in fact, you can play over some of these games which are to be found in old Chess Life issues and in a few books). But the craze died off somewhere in the 1960's; perhaps it was the Fischer influence (and his insistence on traditional time controls -- ironic in light of his more recent preferences) that did in rapid transit as a popular form of game timing.

But rapid transit wasn't completely forgotten. In the late 1990's, as a response to complaints by scholastic chess clubs (many of which work on strict time constraints, such as a one period study hall or thirty to sixty minutes after school), Yasser Seirawan started touting rapid transit as a possible solution. In the latter days of his magazine Inside Chess, Yaz ran ads for a new chess clock his company was producing -- a rapid transit timer. Advertised as a perfect solution for school clubs in a time crunch, the clocks were inexpensive compared to traditional chess clocks (about $10 a unit) as well as pretty durable (kids being the overzealous little beasts that they are).

Yes, I know it's a lousy pic, but it was taken in low light and it's only intended to illustrate how the clock is designed. The switch on the right has three settings: "Off" (of course), "10 sec.", and "30 sec." (which, as I'm sure is not coincidental, were the two most popular rapid transit time controls used in its New York heyday). You set the time control you want with the little red button. The first player moves and hits the large red button (and the clock beeps when the button is hit). The countdown begins; when there are only five seconds left, the clock beeps once a second as a sort of "final countdown". When time has run out, a loud siren-like alarm sounds to let the moving player know that he's lost the game.

This is actually a pretty cool little clock. I wish it was felted, had rubber feet, or a bit heavier (it tends to slide a bit when used on a smooth surface), but whaddya want for a measly $10? It does the job pretty well.

But, ultimately (even sadly), rapid transit didn't catch on again for a second go in the 1990's and the form seems to be again lost.

Why am I even mentioning this "lost" form of chess timing? In truth, it's because I've become something of a rapid transit addict. I acquired a couple of these clocks a while back (more on this later) and my kids and I play rapid transit a fair little bit. I've even played some offhand pub games using this timer -- it's a whole lot easier to explain to non-tournament players than the traditional chess clock (for some reason, nobody seems to get the significance of the little red flag) and, oddly, people who are very hesitant to play with a traditional clock have no problem agreeing to a game using the rapid transit timer (maybe it's just easier to understand -- in essence, the rapid transit timer is at its heart just a glorified egg timer).

Inside Chess is no longer in business, so you can't order these timers from them. But if you're interested in rapid transit chess, the time to start the hunt is now. Yasser wrote a beginner's (kid's) chess book a while back called Competitive Chess and bundled one of these timers with each copy of the book. The book and timer set was published by Becker and Mayer Books (a.k.a. Barron's), retails for $13.95, and the ISBN is 0-7641-7186-0. Here's the kicker: much of the stock can now be found in discount stores and remaindered book outlets; you can find the set there for about $3-$5. I had no interest in the book but bought two sets just for the timers: one for me and one for my kids. The timer runs on three watch batteries -- the batteries alone probably cost more than you'll pay for the book and timer. (And, before you ask, Chess Digest doesn't sell this set as far as I know, so please don't call us in your search for it. It was a mass-market commercial product so, if you don't have any nearby discount houses or book outlets nearby, your best bet is to have a place like Borders run an ISBN check to see if they can get it for you. And I did a couple of Interrant searches for it but failed to turn anything up -- sorry).

I doubt that rapid transit will ever again be as big as it was fifty years ago, but it's a really neat alternative form of chess and worth trying. In fact, I'd love to see computer software programmers add rapid transit time controls to the present suite of blitz, increment, and tournament time controls that the programs presently offer. Maybe then we'd see this interesting and fun timing method come back into something like a vogue.

Ah, you caught me -- this article did have something (at least tangentally) to do with computer chess after all!

Until next week, have fun!

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