# Dirichlet-to-Neumann comments on Troll Timers

• Why not use a standard chess clock when you can freely choose to allocate your time as needed, playing easy moves instantly and taking more time when needed ? It’s a bit sad if the important decision that decides the game has to be made on a 5 s clock at move 23 but you get the whole 5 minutes to contemplate your ruined hopeless position at move 25...

Besides real life mostly plays out like a chess game when you can allocate more time to a decision when needed. In fact, deciding which situations call for a longer time to think is a key chess skill and also a key life skill.

• I want to start by saying I’d be delighted to hear people try variations on troll timers and report back how that worked. My confidence here is closer to “how to spice a recipe” than “how to do a math problem” if that makes sense. You’re absolutely right that deciding what situations call for a longer time to think is a key skill, and it’s even a skill that I’m trying to build some foundation for in troll timers.

I think playing on a standard chess clock is going to teach something in the neighborhood of what troll timers are aimed at. Certainly one skill that I value is realizing you can stop, pause, and take some time to actually think. The failure mode that I see a lot and worry that standard chess clocks don’t solve is stopping the thinking process after the first idea or the first failure. To quote HPMoR:

“So figure it out,” Harry said. “I have confidence in you. Not total confidence, but if you can’t do it, tell me that, and I’ll try someone else, or do it myself. If you have a really good idea—for both the ridiculous story, and how to convince Rita Skeeter and her editors to print it—then you can go ahead and do it. But don’t go with something mediocre. If you can’t come up with something awesome, just say so.”

Fred and George exchanged worried glances.

“I can’t think of anything,” said George.

“Neither can I,” said Fred. “Sorry.”

Harry stared at them.

And then Harry began to explain how you went about thinking of things.

It had been known to take longer than two seconds, said Harry.

You never called any question impossible, said Harry, until you had taken an actual clock and thought about it for five minutes, by the motion of the minute hand. Not five minutes metaphorically, five minutes by a physical clock.

On a standard chess clock, taking five whole minutes to study the board and think about where this game might go is usually a poor choice. There’s a feeling one learns to notice inside yourself when you’ve hit diminishing returns and it’s better to put the clock back on your opponent. The intention behind forcing people to spend five minutes, yes the whole five minutes, you don’t get any of that time back by saving it so use all of it, is that it helps learn how to keep thinking. Sometimes the brilliant play is the seventh or eighth idea you came up with. Sometimes it takes a couple of minutes to get rid of your first knee-jerk reaction. If you know you have five minutes, then maybe you play around with taking the first whole minute to close your eyes, calm down, and then look at the board with a fresh mind.

There’s something in the space of letting people choose the turn that they need to take the long timer. Like you said, it’s sad if someone realizes that turn 23 is the crucial moment but doesn’t have the time to think it through. What do you think of Aphyer’s idea of offering a set number of tokens to spend and get longer turns? I tried something like that very early on but I didn’t try reintroducing it once people were a little more comfortable with the fast turns.

• That’s what they do in go and it makes more sense than a fixed pause after 25 moves. Or if you want to really force people to think for 5 minutes you could make it a 5 minutes every 5 moves—then you can use your 5 minutes to really map out your options for the next 5 moves before the next pause. And it may even be a good training for chess players, avoiding to waste time by redoing the same calculations move after move.