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Chess Etiquette (Why Was He So Mad at Me?)
In This Chapter
- Knowing when and how to resign
- Offering a draw
- Respecting the touch move rule
- Hovering your hand
- Adjusting a pawn or a piece
Chess is supposed to be fun, but quite often people take it very seriously. When you play someone like that, you should know the do's and don'ts of chess etiquette. Chess etiquette is especially important in tournament chess.
In a serious encounter, both players are staring at the board for hours at a time. A raised eyebrow will be noticed by your hypersensitive opponent, and a sneeze may cause someone to go into shock. Heaven forbid that you would have a nervous tic or a habit of drumming your fingers or humming (mostly) to yourself. Chess players have complained about all of these things and more.
You may properly address your opponent during the game only to offer a draw or to say check or checkmate. If you have a complaint, the safest course of action is to bring it up to the tournament director. If the game is only for fun, use common sense -- but above all, avoid distracting an opponent who is thinking about a move.
There is a famous story about one grandmaster complaining about another who kept an unlit cigar next to the chessboard. "It's a no-smoking tournament," the former complained to the tournament director. The director, quite rightly, pointed out that the cigar was unlit. The grandmaster insisted, however, claiming that his opponent was threatening to smoke! There is at least some basis in the chess world for this absurdity, because we have a saying that the threat is stronger than the execution!
Chess at these levels is an incredibly tense activity, and there is no physical release. Even otherwise placid individuals have been known to lose their cool over a real or imagined infraction. The best thing to do is just play for the fun of it, but even then it's important to know the basics.
Beginners are coached never to give up and to always play the game out to checkmate. "No one ever won by resigning," they are often told. Although this may be true, a few other considerations are important to bear in mind.
When to resign
If you are hopelessly behind in material, you may as well start another game (see Chapter 3 for a discussion of material). Over the course of your lifetime you may spend hours hoping to save one or two completely lost positions when instead you can be spending that time starting over from scratch. Moreover, you rarely -- if ever -- learn anything from these types of positions. It is much better to spend your time figuring out where you went wrong and then trying not to get into that mess again.
It's possible that your opponents enjoy seeing you squirm and that you are merely playing into their hands by continuing on. More likely, they will get annoyed that you don't know when to resign and they may refuse to play with you anymore.
I quit going to one club in particular because the players there kept playing on in hopeless positions. I would find myself driving home well after midnight week after week. If the members knew when to resign, I might still be playing there.
The bottom line, however, is that resignation is a personal decision. You never resign just because your opponent wants you to, but you should resign when you objectively decide that there is no way to save the game. After the conclusion is inevitable, you may as well shake your opponent's hand.
How to resign
Just as important as when to resign is how to resign. The formal method is to tip your king over on its side. This is a universally recognized surrender. It is then important to extend your hand to congratulate your opponent. This show of sportsmanship is a valued ritual in chess. It demonstrates that you have at least a touch of class.
Many players will shake hands after the game but then undo the goodwill gesture by complaining that they should've, by all rights, won the game themselves. "If I'd just done this, instead of that, it was curtains for you," they might say. This talk is just childishness. Far more effective is to ask, "What would you have done if I'd played this instead of that?"
This approach accomplishes a couple of things. First, it acknowledges that your opponent's opinion, by virtue of the victory, might have some validity. Secondly, it allows you to listen to your opponent's ideas. It's much better to pick your opponent's brain in this manner than to try to explain away why you lost the game.
Sometimes both you and your opponent will spend considerable time discussing the game. Chess players call these post mortem sessions. Try to be respectful during these sessions and concentrate on learning -- not proving a point. You will make many chess friends if you follow this advice.
Offering a Draw
If you have determined that you can't checkmate your opponent, you may wish to offer a draw (see Chapter 6 for details on a draw). Under tournament conditions, you may make a draw offer only after you have made a move and before you have started your opponent's clock. Never offer a draw to your opponents on their time. That behavior is a breach of etiquette, and repeated offenses may cause you to lose the game by forfeit.
Offering a draw under any other circumstances may be considered annoying, and your opponent may report you to the tournament director. What's worse is that the draw offer may be accepted or rejected and you may still get scolded. In other words, if you make an improper draw offer, your opponent has the right to accept it and complain about it.
If you make a draw offer without making a move, your opponent has the right to ask to see your move and then decide whether to accept or reject your offer. Repeated draw offers may be considered annoying, so wait until the position has changed substantially before making another offer.
If the position is about to be repeated for the third time, a draw may be claimed. You must do so before making the move that would repeat the position for the third time.
Food and drink . . . and chess
Generally it is considered improper to eat or drink anything at the chessboard except for water or coffee. Of course, if you're playing in your own living room, all bets are off. The ground rules are determined by the home team in that case.
My worst experience with food at the chessboard came in my very first big tournament in New York. It was the last-round game and whoever won the game would clinch a sizable prize. My opponent came to the board with a sloppy meatball sandwich and proceeded to get the sauce all over his hands. He then decided to adjust all of my pieces covering them with the sauce.
I was too inexperienced to complain and too young to shrug it off. Instead, I let it affect my play, which is what my opponent had hoped would happen, and managed to lose rather badly. Needless to say, this was a severe breach of chess etiquette, and I should have complained to an official at once.
One of the most touchy subjects in chess is the touch move rule. This rule simply means that, if you touch a piece, you must move it -- if it is legal to do so. If you touch a piece that has no legal move, you are free to move any other piece. The move is considered complete when your hand is removed from
Sometimes one player claims that the other touched a piece and the second player denies doing so. If there are witnesses, the director may be able to make an informed decision. In the absence of witnesses, the claim is generally not upheld on the first complaint.
Did Kasparov cheat?
During one tournament game against Judit Polgar, Kasparov made his move and seemed to take his hand away from the piece for a split second. He then moved the piece to another square. The shocked Polgar did not make a claim, but later indicated that she thought the champion had indeed taken his hand off of the piece. Kasparov denied doing so.
However, the game was being videotaped, and a careful review of the tape showed that Kasparov did in fact let go of the piece. Unfortunately, there is no instant replay in chess, and no protest was possible after the game was concluded. If even world champions break the rules, what hope do the rest of us have?
The Hand Hover
A frequent cause of complaints involving the touch move rule is the hand hover. The hand hover occurs when a player positions his or her hand over a piece and leaves it there. The hand hover is a distraction and should not be practiced. Don't reach for a piece until you've decided to move it.
No less a player than Capablanca (see Chapter 19) warned against the danger of using the hand hover. He claimed that it interfered with your thought processes and that it was to be discouraged.
J'adoube and Such
Sometimes a pawn or a piece may not be resting completely on one square or another. It's permissible to adjust that pawn or piece or even a whole bunch of them -- if it is on your time and if you warn your opponent first. The French phrase J'adoube is considered to be the proper warning. This means "I adjust" in English, but it is also proper to use the English translation.
As long as you have issued the warning, the touch move rule is temporarily waved. Keep in mind that you cannot say "J'adoube" or "I adjust" after you have touched a piece!
The worst losers in chess history
Mike Fox and Richard James, in their delightful The Even More Complete Chess Addict, nominate the following three candidates for the title of worst loser in chess history. In their own words:
In third place, former World Champion Alexander Alekhine, a notorious temperamental loser. At Vienna in 1922, Alekhine resigned spectacularly against Grünfeld by hurling his king across the room.
In the silver medal position, another famous loser, Aaron Nimzovich. At a lightning chess tournament in Berlin, he said out loud what all of us have at one time felt. Instead of quietly turning over his king, Nimzo leapt onto his chair and bellowed across the tournament hall: "Why must I lose to this idiot?" Not nice, but one knows the feeling.
But the gold medal, plus the John McEnroe Award for bad behavior at a tournament, goes to the lesser-known Danish player (reported in the Chess Scene) who lost as a result of a fingerslip involving his queen. Unable to contain his despair, he snuck back into the tournament hall at dead of night, and cut the heads off all the queens.