A Hitchhiker's Guide to Chess

10/3/2003 – The nine-round Swiss tournament on the Isle of Man, with dozens of GMs and IMs, was marred by a "Bobby Fischer style withdrawal" by top seed Nigel Short after round one. We were curious to find out what happened and had to take lessons in the FIDE rules to appreciate it. Here's the inside story.

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The 12th International Chess Tournament, sponsored by Monarch Assurance, is taking place at the Ocean Castle Hotel (right) in Port Erin on the Isle of Man. This 9-round Swiss tournament runs from September 27 to October 5th 2003. The prize fund is £16,500.

The line-up includes 27 GMs, 16 IMs, 2 WGMs, 9 FMs, 1 WM and 1 WFM, representing 31 countries in all. Strike that – 26 GMs. One of the participants, former world championship finalist Nigel Short, withdrew after the first round. This is how John Saunders tells it in his On the tournament report:

"The sensation of round one was the Bobby Fischer-style withdrawal of top seed Nigel Short. Originally paired against Alexander Nosenko (2478m, UKR), his opponent didn't show up. This necessitated a re-pairing against another player whose opponent had not appeared – Oskar Bjarnarson (2261, Iceland). But Short was not prepared to be re-paired in this way, claiming that the FIDE regulations do not expressly allow re-pairing, preferring to take a full point default. However, a notice had been put up before the round clearly stating that re-pairings would be made in this way. It is a well-known and established procedure in swiss tournaments. Also, FIDE's tournament guidelines give arbiters a general freedom to set their own regulations as long as they are announced beforehand."


Nigel Short (right) chats with tournament director Dennis Hemsley (middle) and Air Marshal Ian MacFadyen, the island's Lieutenant Governor.


Lieutenant Governor McFadyen was due to make the ceremonial first move on Nigel board (1.e4). Since the opponent was not there Nigel suggested that he make it on the board of Vladimir Epishin (last year's winner) instead.

Why did he quit?

Since we had also read elsewhere that Nigel had left the tournament in prima donna fashion we called him to investigate. The normally brash Englishman was somewhat defensive, possibly because he was negotiating a settlement with the organisers (a day later we received the statement given at the bottom of this article). On one point he was quite emphatic: "Diva? Prima donna? I've been playing tournament chess for 31 years now, and been a professional for 21 years. This is the first time I have withdrawn from a tournament. Ever."

Since Nigel was not really forthcoming we spoke to other participants at the tournament. Witnesses confirmed that Nigel had sat at the board, with the move 1.e4 executed on it, for a full hour. After the prescribed time, and without his Ukrainian opponent Nosenko turning up, Nigel wrote 1-0 on his scoresheet (see picture above) and started to wander around the hall.

That is when the chief arbiter informed him that another opponent had been found, Oskar Bjarnason, an untitled 2260 player from Iceland. Nigel's new first-round game was to start immediately. The 2700-GM balked and insisted on seeing the FIDE rules which regulate this point. At that point, we are told, the arbiters invested a considerable amount of time checking the FIDE Handbook, which did not produced the desired result. Check for yourself:

FIDE Handbook, Section C, article 04.2 A, (Basic Principles of Swiss System Tournaments)

6. The final ranking order is determined by the aggregate of points won: 1 point for a win, 0.5 point for a draw and 0 point for a loss. A player whose opponent fails to appear for a scheduled game receives one point.

That is pretty unequivocal, but then the arbiters discovered that they were not playing under FIDE rules but under British Accelerated Swiss Rules which apparently allow this kind of pairing. It would seem slightly strange that a FIDE registered international tournament, where players attend to obtain FIDE ratings and compete for FIDE title norms, should not be conducted under FIDE rules. But what about providing the players with this important bit of information?

A hitchhiker's guide to chess

The attendees we spoke to did not know that the British Accelerated rules applied, or that this kind of re-pairing was possible. Subsequently they did find a notice to that effect posted somewhere in the hall, which Nigel should have seen. Actually this reminds us of the opening section of the immortal "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams, where an alien spaceship informs Earth that it is due for demolition on Thursday around lunchtime. The Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council explains that the outlying regions of the Galaxy require the building of a hyperspatial express route through the earth's orbit. "The process will take slightly less that two of your Earth minutes," say the aliens, in wonderful perfect quadrophonic sound with distortion levels so low as to make a brave man weep. "Thank you."

Naturally the people of earth are terrified and start protesting. "There's no point in acting all surprised about it," say the aliens. "All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department on Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you've had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it's far too late to start making a fuss about it now." [You can read the entire chapter here].

Well, Nigel apparently had not read the notice or lodged a formal complaint, so he left the tournament in a huff, immediately and on the next plane. After his return to Greece (where he lives) consultations and negotiations have led to a happy conclusion, as expressed in a statement provided by the sponsors:

It is common ground that:

1. The invitation to Nigel Short to play (which did not involve him completing the Tournament entry form) had not specified that the event was to be played under the British Accelerated Swiss Rules. Most International Swisses are played under FIDE Swiss Rules, which do not permit re-pairing if an opponent fails to appear within an hour of the commencement of the first round;

2. The British Accelerated Swiss Rules which have applied for many years in British Tournaments and do permit such re-pairing were not specifically referred to in the Tournament Entry Form nor were they drawn to his attention before he had handed in his scoresheet recording his win by default in the first round. An extract of the relevant rule was however displayed in the Tournament Hall but this was not observed by Nigel.

The dispute has been resolved by payment to Nigel of his appearance fee and expenses. An invitation has been extended to him to play in the 2004 event which, in principle, he would wish to accept.

Monarch Assurance will be reviewing the procedures for next year’s event to ensure there is no there is no recurrence of these problems.

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