Armageddon decider – more reader feedback

6/24/2008 – How does Anna Zatonskih feel about her sudden-death win of the US Women's Championship earlier this year? What do other readers think about the comments that have been made on the subject? The letters keep pouring in, and even BitTorrent inventor Bram Cohen, who once beat Irina Krush, has weighed in with a proposal for a new blitz clock.

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Armageddon controversy

The Armageddon playoff game to determine the winner of the US Women's Championship continues to generate a lot of feedback. Also the key players have been speaking out. Before we start here, again, is the video of the key moments of the game that decided the 2008 US Women's Championship.

This 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. 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.

Anna Zatonskih on the Armageddon game

Probably this is not the best way to determine the winner but this is how the rules were set up. Jim Berry flipped the coin and Irina had to choose the time. She chose 6 minutes for white and 4½ for black. After the game my husband told me playing white would have been a better choice since they had a time advantage and we had no draws yet in our match anyway! However, I chose to play with the black pieces and don’t regret it all, especially that they brought me the final victory.

I started the Armageddon game not very successfully and was in a worse position, which especially managed to increase Irina’s time advantage. With good defense I survived till the severe time pressure where we both had less than a half of minute.

Close to the end of the game Irina knocked her rook over and never put it back. The USCF rules say: “If, during the course of a move, a player inadvertently knocks over one or more pieces, that player must not press the clock until the position has been reestablished.”

I remember my very fast thoughts at this point: If I will press ‘pause’ and claim win or extra-time based on illegal actions… I will lose on time! The “Pause” button is a very small one on the front of the clock. So I only had 2 seconds and I didn’t have a time to do it! I know Irina didn’t do it on purpose but I had to move my rook as fast as I could. I didn’t see any other choice for me.

Irina pointed out (in her Open Letter) that I started couple of my moves before she pressed her clock. I’ve always liked to watch on YouTube how strong chess players play blitz. I was amazed how they can make good decisions in just a fraction of a second. During those games players with a 2600-2800 ratings and even world champions occasionally moved before their opponents pressed the clock. This is a common thing in blitz games.

Susan Polgar also didn’t see anything unusual and wrote that “[she] played in countless blitz tournaments and this looks like a normal blitz game to me. I do not see anything unusual and I do not think that either player was doing anything “illegal” on purpose.”

I think most of the chess public is aware of the circumstances surrounding the Armageddon game, which ultimately crowned me as the 2008 U.S Women’s Champion. I understand Irina is upset at losing the title and I would have been upset had I lost. When there is only 1 second left on the clock, the result is determined by the strength of one's nerves and luck. On this occasion my nerves proved to be stronger and luck was on my side.

Overall I agree with Irina that a better system is possible to determine future champions in the next championships. However, prior to the U.S. Championship 2008, all participants were made aware of the rules and regulations under which this event was to be played, and everyone agreed to those rules. Arbiters, officials, committees were in place to enforce those rules and maintain fairness.

I would like to thank Irina for a good fight on the chessboard and wish her luck in her future chess career.

More letters from our readers (selection)

Callen Mascarenhas, Seattle
I don't think a competition of such high stature should be judged through a Blitz match. The tournament is high-pressure as it is. And to decide the final game in a Blitz match sounds senseless, to say the least. The game should rightly be replayed under normal chess conditions, not even rapid.

Stan Schwab, Wilmette, IL, USA
The playoff format in the US Women's Chess Championship was stupid because this was not the US Women's Blitz Chess Championship. The result should be cancelled and the two finalists should play some number of normal games to determine the US Women's Chess Champ in a fair way. As Forest Gump would say "Stupid is as stupid does." And when it comes to chess, there's a lot of it in the world of chess and the world outside of chess.

Jaime E. Fernandez, Wichita, KS, USA
Your article on the US Championship tiebreak misses a number of key points including i) blitz tiebreaks have been used in top level tournaments in the past without generating controversy, ii) blitz has its place in chess tradition and has been played competitively at the highest levels, iii) some of the game's greatest were outstanding blitz players and played blitz competitively, Tal and Fisher being highlights, iv) it is a well established form of chess, and chessplayers know that blitz ends in a time scramble more often than not, so there was nothing really new or surprising for experienced chess players and fans in the game in question, v) the rules were published in advance, and by accepting them, the players knew that at the very end, it was possible that the championship would be decided in a blitz time scramble. Tal and Fisher played blitz competitively, so why not Ms. Krush and Santonskih?

K. Sueya, Hyderabad, India
I am a avid blitz chess player. I would like to say to Irana: grow up and learn to accept results irrespective of how you feel. If you found there was a illegal move made by your apponent you should stop the clock and call the arbiter. Slamming the pieces is the worst of it. I am glad your not the US champ because you do not have the grace to be a champion. There are many experts who wrote that moving pieces in the opponent time is not illegal, so first learn the rules before you call your opponent names and demand the title.

Nickola Schober III, Twin Lakes, Wi, USA
Everyone is talking about the match. The incomplete moves, etc. Only one person said exactly what I saw also. What about knocking another player's piece off the board? Yes the white rook. There are rules about this. And on the other hand I also agree with many of the respondents. Blitz is an aweful way to decide a championship, unless it is a Blitz tournament. If it's a tie after regulation then it should be a tie. Due to the fact that both players are not competing against an even course as in golf where both players must play the same hole on the same course, they are unequally pitted against each other with one person "handicapped" by being black. Football would be the closest thing. A coin toss to determine who will get white and who will get the time. Does that really equal out the playing field. After all, in football one person gets to decide if he wants the wind to his back or kickoff for overtime with a vast majority of the wins (80% at last count) going to the team who wins the toss. If you need a tiebreaker, then the field must be even. Otherwise: it's a tie.

Daniel O'Dowd, Carlisle, England
What strikes me is that people are suggesting the games could be played on computer; some questions occur. You would have to prevent pre-move, but you couldn't prevent hovering any more than you could prevent it realistically over a real clock. That would surely bring the whole thing crashing down for a start. And what about mouse slips? Surely if a blitz game is unethical as a final decider, so should such a piece of bad luck as this. So 2 solutions for this avenue come to mind.

1. Play the game on a real board, but hooked up to Fritz, as in normal top-level matches, having that clock alone as the arbiter. Players may move as soon as the opponent has finished their move (not before), because the comp would automatically deduct the relevant time due to sensor ability. Problem with this, is if technical failure occured, you'd be screwed.

2. Nobody has advocated the idea of lightning deciders! Blitz is primarily used because of the long and drawn-out nature of matches after the event, or infinite rapid games. A blitz game will last about 10 minutes at most, (well 30 if we use the standard definition at its max) but a lightning game with say, 15 seconds per move could last no more than 20 minutes realistically. It would allow a far smoother way to play, and if I'm honest, I can't see any downsides.

Charles, Orlando, FL, USA
You know, you could even make the argument that in some cases Armageddon playoffs are even illegal. There was at least one participant in the (male) U.S. Championship with severe physical disabilities. If he shared first, how would they do an Armageddon?

Bram Cohen, the inventor of BitTorrent, wrote about the Armageddon game on his blog, and interestingly proposed a new and improved Blitz Clock:

"The US women's championship ended in a disaster of a blitz game. One player got in severe time trouble and started moving her pieces before the opponent had hit the clock, thus managing to hit her clock almost instantly after her opponent did. She eventually won on time in a lost position.

On top of being messed up, this is clearly against the rules. In an unusual move, a protest was lodged, and there was some official response, although it basically amounted to 'we never enforce that rule', which is true. I can tell you from experience that (1) it's completely impossible to simultaneously play blitz chess and audit whether your opponent is waiting to touch their pieces after you hit your clock, and (2) bullying the clock is completely rampant, in fact it's one of the core skills of experienced blitz players.

I'd like to propose a new technical solution to this problem. In addition to the regular two buttons on a chess clock, two more are added, and the rule is that after your opponent hits their side of the clock you have to hit the secondary button on your side, then move your piece with the same hand, then hit your main button. This would be very easy to audit, especially with an electronic clock which enforced the appropriate state machine, and it would completely eliminate the clock bullying bullshit which dominates the blitz world.

This would be a great piece of technology for blitz tournaments. Of course, it's completely absurd to use a blitz game as a tiebreak for a regular time controls tournament at all, much less a championship. Trying to clean that up looks fairly hopeless though – the current state of chess titles is comparable to the situation in boxing, and there are no signs of things getting better.

A little piece of trivia: I once won a game against Irina Krush. That isn't as impressive as it sounds, though. She was eight years old at the time.

Andrew Pressburger, Toronto, Canada
Chess is the only sport I know of where management of the timing mechanism is left in the hands of the participants. Should they receive special training in wrist action as well in chess theory (perhaps with the added bonus of switching to table tennis)? Bad enough as it is to decide results on penalty kicks or extra-point serves, they are at least part and parcel of football and tennis, respectively. Has clock punching anything to do with the game of chess?

Just one more point. There was some criticism of Anna Zhantoski adopting a dubious tactic by making her move before her opponent completed hers. But what about the constant sleeve pulling by Irina? Was that not blatant distraction to the action occurring on the board? Maybe the ladies should dress for these encounters in more functional clothing than the long-sleeve fashion-plate apparatus displayed (and utilized) by Miss Kush.

Alternatively, why not just share the prize money between the winners instead of engaging in such gratuitous stupidity that can please only those used to skate boarding and other instances of extreme nonsense from California?

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