Playing by the Rules
a commentary by Russell Black
Chess is not a "play fair and win" sort of
game. At least that is what I tell my students each and every week. Of course,
this is only true from a certain point of view. The best chess players are
certainly masters of the swindle, the con, and the sneaky tactical shots needed
to win the game. We all strive to leave our victims broken, bleeding and
moaning in agony, looking for any and every opportunity to toss them in front
of a speeding semi-rig (metaphorically speaking), while patting ourselves on
the back for our ingenuity.
All of this "unfair" imaginary blood letting
takes place, however, within the context of a game that is played according to
a certain set of rules. These rules are absolute. Pawns don't move like knights
and you can't castle your king if you move it prior to castling, etc. The rules
of the game must be followed or you are not playing chess. I don't know what
you'd call it, but it would not be chess. Even though chess is not a "play
fair" game, it must be a "play by the rules" game.
This brings us to the subject of those rules outside of
the actual game itself, the rules observed by players who compete against one
another in a tournament setting. These rules are not specifically part of the
game, but exist so that some sense of order can be maintained in a competitive
arena. They are rules more of behavior and ethics than of how chess is
When you sit down to play a game of chess with a friend,
over a bowl of chips and sodas on a quiet Saturday afternoon, the game is
rather low key. I doubt very much that we would force our best friend to move
the first piece touched, or hold them to time limits or worry about a retracted
move (I do, but then I'm a cold, heartless beast).
Tournament chess, on the other hand, is and should be
"chess for blood." These events usually have nothing more at stake
than a trophy or a title (some people actually think these are important - go
figure), but that's not the point. They are sanctioned events, gladiatorial in
every sense of the word, and are governed by certain rules of decorum and
etiquette. Violators risk the wrath of the dreaded TD (tournament director). In
OTB (over the board), this happens in real time, on the spot, and the purveyor
of bad behavior can be immediately placed on the rack and tortured. But what
about correspondence play?
We have rules over in CC (correspondence chess), as well.
They are a little more complicated to follow and some of the rules actually
contradict each other at times, but there are rules none the less. Absolutes.
The problem in CC play is that many of these rules go ignored by both players
and TDs alike. The question is, "Why?" Is it the fact that we never
see our opponent? It is because CC play seems more relaxed than OTB? Is it
because some of us resemble the Morlocks from H.G. Well's "The Time
Machine"? Or is it the case (this is probably correct, so pay attention),
that we as players must become the "rules police"? If my opponent
fails to reply within the fourteen day time limit, who is responsible for
enforcing it? If my opponent sends a move which can't be played, who charges
him a penalty of five days? The answer is that I do, not some TD. Maybe this is
the reason why so much of the "bad" CC behavior goes unpunished.
These are the days of Generation X and "it's not my responsibility."
When you run to the TD in an OTB game with a misconduct charge, he plays the
heavy, he gives the opponent the boot. In CC play, you are the one taking up
the mantle of Dirty Harry. I believe deep down that this makes a large number
of players uncomfortable. Most of us are taught to "be nice" and to
"play well with others." Avoiding conflict and arguments is the rule
of the day. Sometimes, it is far easier to overlook an opponent's indiscretion
than it is to apply the penalties. Of course, that's no excuse! And some of the
TDs are simply not that supportive. No excuse there either. So, the problem in
CC play is twofold:
- Players who break the rules and go unpunished,
- Players and TDs who don't enforce the rules.
Let's take a look at a few of your typical "rule
breakers" so you will know them by their actions.
First there is Mr. Newbe. This individual is
"new" to the tourney scene. Fresh from single match play and armed
with a minimum 2000 rating, Mr. Newbe is not a rule breaker on purpose, but
will make mistakes based on a lack of experience. On Start Date, Mr. Newbe will
be flooded with moves and will always be scrambling to catch up. Mr. Newbe was
not prepared for the demands of a twelve player section, so have some
compassion for him and explain the rules of play gently. We need Mr. Newbe or
it will be just us old timers playing in our bathrobes.
Next we have Mr. Oops. This player, by accident or
design, just can't seem to get it right. He sends you moves that don't make
sense and always with an "Oops I'm sorry
" attached to his
reply. One or two mistakes can happen to anyone (don't I know it), but Mr. Oops
makes a career of it. Again, this could be a well meaning player who is just
disorganized, so respond gently but firmly and when too many mistakes have
passed under the bridge, inform the TD and see if that helps.
Another player is Mr. Ostrich. This guy will play for a
while then bury his head in the sand and you will never hear from him again.
The "silent withdrawal" of a player who, for whatever reason, is not
polite enough to say, "I got in over my head and I can't continue."
Who knows why Mr. Ostrich enters a tourney in the first place? We never hear
Now we come to the real villain of CC play, Mr.
Timeshifter. This person likes to change the time on the clocks at every
opportunity. You can spot him easily because he never tells you the "time
received" on his reply. He just gives you his "time used" (you
are lucky sometimes to get that), and always takes twice as long to move as
everyone else. Now I'm not deriding slow play (actually I am, but who's paying
attention?), but does it take twelve to fourteen days to make a move? The rules
don't make matters any better with this "received today is zero days until
tomorrow midnight" nonsense. In OTB when the clock is punched, time's
ticking. In CC play the clock doesn't even start running for two days! Mr.
Timeshifter now gets eighty days to make ten moves (rather than 60). He will
save time for the first ten to fifteen moves then slow play down to a crawl.
Mr. Timeshifter will force you to send repeat after repeat after repeat. He
will always dance right at the edge of losing on time, and will complain loudly
if you penalize him. Mr. Timeshifter has several excuses for his actions, and
most of them revolve around the idea that he never got your card/email, or that
he sent his reply weeks ago and it must be lost. There is one good thing about
Mr. Timeshifter, he usually doesn't play a great game. He misses the best moves
even with all the extra time he has at his disposal. Maybe that is his real
excuse after all.
Does this sound cynical? Maybe, but I've seen these guys
time and time again for the last thirty years. They breed more of the same. I
stopped competitive play over twenty years ago because of what I've termed the
"Fischer Complex." Now, I respect Bobby Fischer's brilliance on the
board and value his games even to this day, but I never agreed with his
"behavior." The delaying tactics, the prima donna attitude, the
obnoxious and rude treatment of others, etc. And it seemed to invade chess
players like a virus back then. Most of the players in my area wanted to be
Fischer, but since they could never match his brilliance in play, they more
than made up for it with attitude. Being rude and overbearing became an art
form. After a few years of trying to deal with this, I gave up competitive
I recently returned to tournament play and I thought that
after twenty years this bad behavior would have died out by now. To my
surprise, it still lives and is being perpetuated by chess players who have
very little to offer the chess world other than attitude.
The old saying, "All it takes for evil to flourish
is for good men to do nothing," is certainly true. If we, as players,
allow an opponent to get away with bad behavior, then we are just as guilty of
the behavior as they are. It's the player's responsibility to see that his or
her game is played on the up-and-up. It's also the responsibility of the TDs to
do their jobs when a problem rears its ugly head. There is no excuse for a TD
who, once being notified of a problem, is lax in dealing with the situation.
Just remember, you are not only a player in a CC tournament, but an official
with the responsibility to adhere to and apply the rules of play.
I suppose that we, as a community of players, are
ultimately responsible for this sad state of affairs. We never truly said that
bad behavior was wrong. We put Fischer up on that pedestal and hung the
"hero" title on him. We never punished our own "chess
children" for their bad behavior and have found out that in sparing the
rod, we have indeed ended up with spoiled chess brats. Now we expect them to
"play by the rules" after we told them that breaking the rules was
the height of excellence. What should we do with the mess we've created?
The way to deal with these issues is rather simple, Play
By The Rules! If your opponent breaks a rule, inform him of it. If a penalty is
due, then apply it. If your opponent disagrees, he can always take the matter
to the TD for a final ruling. Any error in play, a typo, a wrong move, should
be capitalized on and you should use it to your advantage. You should use all
available "legal" means and materials to help you win games. These
"legal" sources vary from tournament to tournament, but there is one
constant - the best CC players are the ones with the most knowledge.
One final thought. Considering that we want to see chess
as an Olympic sport someday, maybe we should think about how we look to others.
No one would stand for Olympic competitors breaking rules. Athletes who do so
are usually thrown out and their medals confiscated. Rude behavior may work for
professional basketball players (I guess when you make $3 million plus a year
you have the right to be obnoxious), but it has no place in the sport of chess.
If we ever hope to gain Olympic status for our "Game of Kings," I
think we all should start to grow up and "play by the rules" once
more and treat chess as an honorable endeavor. We should be as royal knights,
jousting to gain the favor of our peers, not as whining, sniveling brats who
Maybe this is why the world at large views chess as just
a trivial game. If we, who play it, don't take it seriously, why should anyone