Armageddon at the US Women's Championship

6/9/2008 – At the 2008 Women's Chess Championship IMs Anna Zatonskih and Irina Krush tied for first, then played rapid and blitz tiebreakers, and finally a very dramatic Armageddon game, which Anna won in the last possible second. Irina has protested in an open letter that her opponent was making moves before she had completed her own. You can watch the scene in a forensic video – in slow motion.


The 2008 FKB US Women's Chess Championship took place in Tulsa, OK, from May 13 to 21. The final standings, at the end of nine rounds, were as follows:

# Player Title Rating Pts. Perf.
1. Krush, Irina IM 2479 2498
2. Zatonskih, Anna IM 2458 2500
3. Rohonyan, Katerina WGM 2309 6 2369
4. Abrahamyan, Tatev WFM 2239 6 2376
5. Tuvshintugs, Batchimeg WIM 2278 2327
6. Battsetseg, Tsagaan WIM 2254 2250
7. Zenyuk, Iryna WFM 2233 2172
8. Epstein, Esther WIM 2184 2 2037
9. Airapetian, Chouchanik WFM 2092 2 2048
10. Jamison, Courtney 1979 ½ 1836

A playoff was required between Irina Krush and Anna Zatonskih. After two game at 15 (+3) and two games at 5 (+2) were all split, a remarkable Armageddon game was started to determine the result of this grueling finale. The rules of this game called for one player to name the times (with black having draw odds) and the other to chose which color she wanted. No time increment. Irina ended up with white and 6 minutes, while Zatonskih had 4½ minutes and the draw odds with the black pieces. A tense game ensued and both players entered severe time trouble. Krush lost on time with 0:01 left on Anna’s clock! It doesn’t get any closer than that. Here are YouTube videos that captured the decisive phases of the final:

In the above YouTube video we get an overview of the 2008 US Women's Chess Championship, with a very nice jazz background, and interspaced with the drama of the Armageddon playoff.

Above is the highest quality video of the Armageddon we were able to find. In the second half Anna Zatonskih talks to friends and then to the public about the game.

Open Letter from Irina Krush

May 30, 2008

I would like to explain what really happened in Tulsa, which has so far been obscured by the final tournament report that you published.

Anna and I were tied at 7.5/9 points at the end of the tournament. We started our G/15 +3 second increment playoffs approximately fifteen minutes after my six hour, 106 move game against Rohonyan ended. We split these rapid games with one win each, then went into the blitz stage of G/5 + 3 second increment, which we also split with one win each.

We then proceeded to the final Armageddon game, that was to be played without increment. As the defending champion, I was told by the organizers that I had to choose how the time would be divided, and Anna would choose the color she wanted to play. I decided that White would be given 6 minutes, Black 4:30. Anna chose to be Black with draw odds.

The relevant part of the game is not that I had the initiative throughout, and maintained a winning position until the end. The relevant part is, of course, the clock, since I was deemed to have "lost" the title of US Women's Champion due to my time running out while Anna had 1 second left.

So, about the clock. Tom Braunlich, one of the organizers of the event, wrote in his report "At one point Anna had 2 seconds left compared to about 20 for Irina." This is a plainly incorrect appraisal of the time situation. Then Tom, in an attempt to explain how my 20 seconds ran out before Anna’s 2, wrote that "Anna’s draw odds were a big advantage here – she could blitz out moves hardly thinking (just moving the piece nearest to the clock), while Irina actually had to do something with her moves since she had to win." Unfortunately, this statement also has no basis in reality. Despite having a winning position, I didn't need to "do something with my moves" – all I needed to do was move quickly and the person with much less time would flag first. And, in fact, that's what I did. I moved instantly, as can be seen very clearly in the video you've posted of that game. I moved instantly, all the while having a significant time advantage until I got to 0 seconds while Anna had 1. How could this have happened?

First of all, let’s establish what the true clock situation was. Tom was certainly off in his estimate, but the essence of what he said was absolutely true: I had a large lead in time, let's say 8 seconds to 3 at one point, or as Anna herself says in her interview, “I realized that I had two seconds. I was so shocked that I am going to lose right now. She has six (seconds). I played Rb8-e8 because it was so close to clock.” So let's take 6 seconds to 2. Watching the video, seeing me move instantly, how could 6 seconds lose against 2?

And that's the crux of the matter. My opponent, seeing herself on the verge of losing on time, began playing moves before I had completed mine. She made her moves before I hit my clock, and as soon as I pressed the clock, it was punched back at me. That is how my lead in time was chipped away at, and this process began during the advance of Anna’s c-pawn, quite a few moves before the game ended.

If you really want to examine the action, in slow motion, here is the critical part of the Armageddon video in Windows Media format (WMV).

Note that you can use "View – Show enhancements" in the Windows media player to get tools that allow you to slow down the video or replay it frame by frame, in full screen mode, if you wish. The ultimate forensic tool. Other media players (e.g. Media Player Classic) also have slow-down functions. You can also replay the game, as far as we have been able to reconstruct it (the official version is incomplete), on our JavaScript board. – Editor

Obviously, making moves before your opponent completes theirs is illegal. Were it legal, White, having the “disadvantage” of the first move, would always lose on time to Black if the adversaries were to settle into the rhythm of Black using White’s time to move their pieces.

The sad thing is, no one stepped in as this was happening. No arbiter, no organizer, did anything to ensure that fair play was being observed in the final moments of the game. It was a free-for-all, where the person with the worse blitz habits “won”.

People have pointed out that I should have registered my protest during the game, or immediately after. Unfortunately, while I was certainly in disbelief as I watched my opponent complete 3 moves with her last remaining second and saw myself lose on time despite starting out with a large time lead, during the game and immediately after, I had no clear grasp of how she had accomplished this. It happened too quickly for me to understand, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen, and that it should be ignored.

An injustice that wasn’t brought to light at the moment it occurred is no less of an injustice. Moreover, in our particular situation, it is not an injustice that is difficult to redress. As no one in our tournament was in any way affected by our playoff, no games need to be replayed, no scores adjusted, no ratings recalculated- all that needs to be changed is the way the ending of this story is told.

It has been announced that Anna, by virtue of conserving 1 second on her clock, is the 2008 U.S. Women’s Champion.

I fervently dispute Anna's claim to the sole possession of this title. I do not believe that a Champion emerges through one second they have managed to keep on their clock through illegal means.

In my view, a winner of a tournament is someone who at some point, perhaps in some minuscule and barely perceptible way, lifts themselves above their competitors. I would be interested to hear any view that holds that Anna, through legal techniques, did anything to earn the title of Champion over me.

I’d also like to address my reaction at the end of this game, when I knocked a piece off to the side of the board before walking out of the room. This may seem like poor behavior to some, but I believe that my reaction was nothing compared to the aggression leveled at me by my opponent during the end of this game. Knocking off a piece and storming away had no power or intention to take away anything my opponent had been working for during this tournament. When my opponent moved on my time, however innocuous that may appear to be, I believe that she was committing one of the worst transgressions possible: depriving me, through unfair means, of the just rewards of my labor. That is where the aggression lies in this situation, and not in my expression of frustration and anger over being wronged.

I am pained that this incident has raised doubts about my sportsmanship. I have never in my entire career been accused of showing poor sportsmanship. I have never displayed any outward sign of anger or aggression at the end of a game, within sight of my opponent or spectators, or anywhere in the vicinity of the playing area. I have never failed to shake my opponent’s hand at the end of a game. I lost two games to Anna in the playoff, and both times I offered my hand in resignation, even though this isn’t even required protocol in blitz chess. And I have never been accused of cheating or violating my opponent’s rights in any way. I want this point to be clear: my reaction at the end of the final game had nothing to do with “losing” and everything to do with the way it happened and my perception of something unfair having occurred. And although the following piece of information is not entirely necessary as I feel perfectly capable of defending my sportsmanship all on my own, it is rather funny. Guess what Frank Berry, the sponsor and organizer of the US Championship, stated I should get an award for during his closing ceremony comments: that’s right, “sportsmanship.” Thanks, Frank.

I had hoped to resolve this matter in a friendly way, without being forced to voice my indignation in public. Four days ago, I wrote a letter to Anna explaining my position, urging her to study the video of our final game, and if she agreed with my conclusions about what happened, to write a few sentences for where she’d communicate her non-objection to sharing the title with me. In any case, I told her, I looked forward to hearing what she had to say. Unfortunately, I have not heard back from her, and since there is no guarantee that I ever will, I decided to go ahead and make my views known to the chess community.

What do I hope to accomplish through this letter? First and foremost, I want the truth to finally be relayed to the American chess public. As I’ve mentioned, the final tournament report that was offered to you was misleading, and I have yet to see a retraction of its false assertions. Secondly, I believe that to continue into the future, unthinkingly parroting that Anna Zatonskih is the 2008 U.S. Women’s Champion with no regard for how she “won” this title, is a travesty of truth and justice. I believe I have at least as much right to this title as she does, and I would like this right to be acknowledged. To this end, I am asking for responses to this letter from Frank Berry and Bill Goichberg, the President of the USCF. This event was held under their auspices, and I would like to know what they think of the results, given the evidence of what transpired.

I’d like to use this opportunity to say that despite the unsatisfactory ending of the Championship for me, this letter in no way expresses my feelings about the organization of the Championship as a whole. I had a wonderful time in Oklahoma, and wish to thank Frank and Jim Berry for their unwavering kindness and hospitality on all my visits to their home state, as well as to Tom Braunlich, who, in his capacity as organizer, was solicitous and helpful throughout the event.

To conclude, I will state that sharing the title would be an acceptable outcome for me, but I would certainly welcome any initiative to decide the title in over-the-board games, with real time controls that don’t degrade the participants into clock punching monkeys.

Irina Krush

Response to Irina's Open Letter (excerpts)

By Tom Braunlich on June 2, 2008

The bottom line for IA Frank Berry and Jim Berry, who were the directors present, is that no protest of the outcome was made at the time when something might have been done about it. Instead the protest came many days later.

Frank stated, "I'd have to say that by not raising an objection at the time Irina essentially agreed to the result by quickly walking out and not protesting immediately. Once agreed to it is next to impossible to over-rule... even in the face of video evidence that might show questionable bending of the rules. I was there to rule in case of an objection raised by one of the players. I'd have to say at this point the result stands as posted that night. It was wild... but who expected otherwise?"

Also, neither TD believed it was their responsibility to step in and stop the game during the time scramble. Here is what Frank noted about what discretion the director has in such situations:

"A few areas of the USCF rule book ( # 5 ) are appropriate:

11D1 Illegal move in sudden death time pressure: A director should not call attention to illegal moves in sudden death time pressure. (Both players could be seen making questionable moves in the video)

21D Intervening in games. The director's intervention in a chess game shall generally be limited to the following:
21D2 Correcting illegal moves observed. Correcting any illegal moves observed, unless time pressure exists...

21F. Player requests for rulings. A player has the right to stop both clocks to ask the director to rule upon a point of law, procedure or conduct. (This was not done by either player).

Since this was not a FIDE qualifier event we were going by USCF rules. ... "

Frank also has said (along with Larry Kaufman and Bill Goichberg, among others) that this experience makes it clear that if an armageddon playoff game is used is should include a short increment or delay, such as 1 or 2 seconds, to lessen the awkward effects of a possible mutual time scramble. Of course, if you did that you would have to greatly alter the relative starting times of white and black to re-balance the draw-odds equation.


(3) Making a Move — Is it illegal to move before the opponent punches the clock? Apparently not.

One thing that is clear to me from this controversy is how "unclear" the rules for making moves are. This has been a subject of much of the internet discussion following this event — was what Anna did on several moves actually illegal? From what I understand, the USCF rulebook doesn't address the question directly of moving before your opponent punches the clock. I think that the fact that this close final playoff game was videotaped has brought the issue to the forefront. When things like this happen in blitz tournaments it all occurs so quickly that it can hardly be appreciated.

The difficulty arises due to some ambiguity in the rules themselves, which define a move as not being made (or "completed") until the clock is pressed. You can’t make a move before the opponent completes his move (by pressing the clock). But does that mean you can’t start your move until then, or just that you can’t make (or complete) your move until then?

Here is some evidence from two highly respected directors who say that you can begin your move before the opponent presses the clock:

(1) FIDE Rules — This all was very recently addressed by the well-known International Arbiter Geurt Gijssen in his article on this month: As you can see, Mr. Gijssen interprets the rules (the FIDE rules, see USCF comments below) to mean that what Anna was doing was not illegal. You must allow the opponent to punch the clock before you complete your move, but you can begin your move (i.e. start moving the piece) before the opponent completes their move by pressing the clock.

This is not what many people believed the rule to be, including me. Many think you cannot start your move until the opponent has hit the clock. But when you think about it, such a rule would be very hard to enforce and there are many occasions in time trouble when this is inevitably what is done, due to the extremely fluid and fast nature of such play. As Gijssen says, "Can you imagine how many quarrels we would have in Blitz and Rapid games?" Is it really even possible to determine if a player has touched a piece before the opponent punched the clock? We are talking about small fractions of a second here during a time scramble. It is all happening so quickly, it seems impractical to require the player to not start his/her move until the opponent’s clock is punched. Is a player who “jumps the gun” by a tenth of a second really making illegal moves? You offer a queen trade, the opponent takes it; and immediately you follow with your automatic recapture before the opponent hits the clock, hitting your clock as quickly after them as you can. This is simply a very common thing. Gijssen's interpretation of the rule makes the punching of the clock the determining factor, something that is far more easily observable and verifiable.

(2) USCF Rules — Mike Atkins, one of America's most experienced tournament directors, supported this same interpretation with regard to USCF rules in his posting on the CLO forum after he viewed the video:
"I have directed hundreds of blitz tournaments over the past 15 years and helped write the new USCF Blitz rules that are a modification of the old WBCA rules. After watching the video several times, there was nothing illegal except for the piece being knocked over and not replaced. …

I clearly saw Anna making moves while Irina was moving and you can see Irina doing the same thing. This is not illegal. Both players were moving extremely fast. Top blitz players have to do this to survive. If they wait politely until the opponent has moved and punched their clock before moving, they will lose every time. Anyone ever see Hikaru [Nakamura] or Jorge Sammour-Hasbun play blitz? I've seen MUCH MUCH worse at major tournaments, with players moving so fast I couldn't keep up with them - I wish EVERY blitz game had a video as it clears up all arguments.

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