A Layman's Guide to Match Officials

by ChessBase
10/4/2006 – The crisis in Elista was sparked off by a protest by Topalov, a decision of the Appeals Committee, its rejection by Kramnik and the subsequent forfeit of game five. But was the Appeals Committee empowered to decide on the matter, or take receipt of the protest in the first place? An experienced grandmaster explains the situation comprehensively in this important document.

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The Layman’s Guide to World Chess Match Officials

By GM Yasser Seirawan

Events in Elista and the recent ruling by the FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov that game five would be awarded by forfeit to Veselin Topalov have sparked an enormous number of letters and articles. In making his ruling, Ilyumzhinov referred to the legal issues behind his decision, and numerous messages therefore discussed legal points. In reading the many arguments put forward, I realized that even knowledgeable chess fans are not always fully aware of the various roles and responsibilities of chess officials. I therefore thought it would be helpful, for sorting out the unfolding events in Elista, to offer a layman’s guide to the roles and responsibilities of chess match officials. A proper understanding makes it easier to assess how, where and why things went awry in Elista.

We begin, logically enough, with the Chief Arbiter, whose prime task is to be an impartial referee and insure that the Laws of Chess are respected. In practice the Chief Arbiter’s duties have been expanded to responsibility for making sure that the playing conditions remain constant for each successive game. When the Chief Arbiter is absent from the stage, the Assistant Arbiter takes his place. The Chief Arbiter and Assistant Arbiter are employed by the Match Director.

The Match Director insures that the conditions in the match contract are fulfilled. These include proper accommodation for the players and their teams, appropriate conditions in the playing hall, proper staging of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, adequate facilities for spectators, a suitable media room for journalists, the schedule of play, the distribution of per diem monies, the proper awarding of prize money and much else.

The Match Director is supported by an Organizing Committee, whose members are assigned specific duties regarding, for instance, press releases, the official website, match commentators, programs/brochures, dinners for sponsors, etc.

Before the match starts, the players and their representatives, the Match Director, the match organizers and the Arbiters inspect the playing hall. The players try out their respective chairs, approving them for use throughout the match. They also approve the lighting, after which the Arbiter will note the agreed candlelight intensity so that it will be the same for all the games. They select the chess pieces, often after being invited to choose between a wide variety of sets. The Chief Arbiter will then watch over the chosen set like a hawk. They approve the clock, and the Chief Arbiter will make thorough tests of its accuracy throughout the match. Finally, all the parties will inspect their rest areas and bathrooms. Usually, each player will have his own bathroom, but often a common bathroom is provided. Once all the playing conditions have been settled, the Chief Arbiter will make sure that they remain constant for every game. Any changes to the playing conditions require the approval of both players.

The Appeals Committee is there to consider protests regarding decisions by the Chief Arbiter. For example, in a time-scramble a player may fail to keep a complete score. When a flag falls the Chief Arbiter may rule a forfeit, but in such a case players can file an official protest within two hours of the end of the playing session. The Chief Arbiter’s decision may be upheld or overturned by the Appeals Committee. Afterwards, any player still wishing to pursue the complaint may do so, as a last resort, to the FIDE President, who has the power to overrule the Appeals Committee. An important point is that once both players have signed the score-sheets the game is over, and there can be no further protest over its outcome.

As a hypothetical example, suppose that one day Vladimir Kramnik wakes up to discover that his car and driver have disappeared and he therefore has to take a taxi to the playing hall. Annoyed, he files a complaint and delivers it to the Chairman of the Appeals Committee. The latter should immediately reply, “Sorry this isn’t my job!” He should simply walk Kramnik over to the Match Director and leave it to the Match Director to settle the matter, who will no doubt do so with profuse apologies and prompt reimbursement of the taxi fare. Incident closed.

In principle, the last thing a Match Director wants is to receive a complaint from the players. He wants everything to flow smoothly all the way from the Opening Ceremony to the Closing Ceremony. If a player files a complaint, the first thing the Match Director will do is to consult the match contract to see if the subject of the complaint is addressed in a specific clause. If it is not, the Match Director will seek a compromise which suits the aggrieved party but also insures that the other player is not disadvantaged. Players unhappy with how the Match Director has handled their complaint can appeal to the Organizing Committee and, as a last resort, to the FIDE President.

With the abolition of adjourned games, protests by players regarding Arbiters’ decisions have been cut ten-fold. Indeed, they have become so rare that being a member of the Appeals Committee is nowadays a marvelous “job.” There is virtually no work, VIP treatment is assured, and there are often handsome honoraria for the whole outing. For the past decade and more it has become the practice of FIDE officials to hand out these cushy assignments, with the concomitant perks and rewards, to themselves and to other insiders.

In the days when I worked as a second to Victor Kortchnoi (1980-81) and to Jan Timman (1993), the players had input, and the power of veto, regarding the appointment of the Chief Arbiter and the Appeals Committee members. The players strove to pick a Chief Arbiter who hailed from a “neutral” country and who shared a common language with them. As members of the Appeals Committee they nominated respected and distinguished individuals. The hosts were usually allowed to choose an Assistant Arbiter, as well as one member of the Appeals Committee.

As John Nunn pointed out in his article on Elista, the members of the Appeals Committee for the Kramnik v Topalov match are egregiously ill-suited. Georgios Makropoulos is the Deputy President of FIDE, Zurab Azmaiparashvili is the Vice-President of FIDE, and both men are also members of the FIDE World Chess Championship Committee. It is as if FIFA officials were appointed as linesmen in a World Cup soccer game. There is an evident conflict of interest, and they have used their positions as FIDE officials to obtain paying jobs.

With this clear understanding of the respective roles and responsibilities of the match officials we can start to dissect events in Elista and see what went wrong. Firstly, though, I would stress that I have not been in Elista during the match and am relying upon the reports that we have all read. Another point to note is that hindsight is wonderful. It is not always easy to realize that a mistake has been made under the pressures of the moment. As Mikhail Tal would say about a post-mortem, “Finding the right move hours or days later is not the same thing as when you are down to seconds on a clicking clock.”

At some point during the first four games in Elista, Topalov and his team noticed that Kramnik would leave the stage and go to his restroom. Concerned by these absences, the Topalov team somehow received access to the video tapes which showed Kramnik going in and out of his bathroom on many occasions. (How and why Topalov’s team obtained access to those – private – tapes is not our concern here.) Silvio Danailov, Topalov’s manager, filed a complaint on behalf of his client regarding Kramnik’s behavior, casting suspicion of unfair conduct.

Now we come to the first mistake. The Chairman of the Appeals Committee, Georgios Makropoulos, agreed to receive the complaint. Given that Danailov’s complaint did not concern a decision by the Chief Arbiter, Makropoulos should have had nothing to do with it and should simply have referred the matter to the Match Director. From what I can best discern, that person is Valery Bovaev. On the official website, he is listed as Chairman of the Executive Committee World Chess Championship match 2006. (Whether he has any world chess championship match experience is another question.)

If he had received Danailov’s complaint, Bovaev would have, or should have, immediately consulted the match Contract. He would have known that the playing conditions had been accepted and applied for the first four games. He could have suggested that the players’ bathrooms would, from then on, have an attendant. Such a change would have required the approval of Kramnik and his team, but the whole matter could have been settled simply and amicably.

(Armchair attorneys have described the Topalov/Danailov complaint as invalid because it was filed more than two hours after game four ended, but this reveals a further misunderstanding. The complaint was not about a decision by the Chief Arbiter but about the behavior of Topalov’s opponent. Such a complaint can be made at any time.)

Having made a first mistake by taking receipt of the complaint, the Appeals Committee made a second mistake by issuing a ruling that Kramnik’s bathroom door should be locked. In this way the Appeals Committee unilaterally changed the playing conditions, which was a violation of the match contract because Kramnik had not agreed to the change.

Now the Chief Arbiter, Geurt Gijssen, compounded the first two mistakes by making a mistake of his own: 22 minutes after game five had been due to start, he pressed the clock and the game officially began. With hindsight it can readily be seen that Gijssen should have realized that the playing conditions had been changed without the approval of both players. Indeed, it was quite obvious to everyone that one player, Kramnik, was in his rest area, clearly protesting that his bathroom door was locked. In writing this passage I have been struck by a particular photo from Elista. It shows an earlier game in the match about to begin. Gijssen stands between the seated players with his palms open and appears ready to address both players with the familiar, “Gentlemen, are we ready to begin?” Clearly, when he started the clock for game five something was wrong. Kramnik was missing and he was certainly not ready to begin.

Instead of starting the clock, Gijssen should have called for a further delay to settle the issue of the bathroom. Indeed, he should have insisted that the playing conditions of the previous games be reinstated until both players were in agreement. If the issue could not be settled in a timely manner, Gijssen should have called the game an official time-out.

Once the clock had been started, the train wreck was in motion. The outcome was clear. Kramnik forfeited game five. Topalov signed the score-sheet, as did Gijssen. Kramnik did not. If he had signed it, the game would have been officially lost for him. Full stop.

It can thus be seen that the crisis occurred because the match officials failed to fulfill their respective duties properly. The FIDE President subsequently accepted the resignation of the Appeals Committee and took these responsibilities upon his own shoulders. In itself, this was a truly remarkable development when it is considered that the FIDE President is supposed to be the last resort for handling protests. I now understand that a new Appeals Committee is in place.

Clearly, the FIDE President was in an almost impossible position. His calls for compromise by the two players and their respective camps after several rounds of negotiations proved fruitless. Finally, he decided that game five should indeed be awarded by forfeit to Topalov. He faced a legal issue: There was a score-sheet signed by the Chief Arbiter awarding a forfeit win to Topalov. To my knowledge, it is unprecedented in the history of World Chess Championship matches for a forfeit win, signed by the Chief Arbiter, to be overturned.

Even so, I believe that the decision by Ilyumzhinov was a mistake since in effect it punished Kramnik for demanding that the same playing conditions as for the first four games should be maintained. However, we have seen that the administrative structure allows the Appeals Committee to overturn a decision by the Arbiter and that the FIDE President has the power to overturn the decision of the Appeals Committee. The fact that the members of the Appeals Committee had their resignation accepted is a clear confirmation that the Committee had over-reached its responsibilities and had made a faulty ruling. Logically, it follows that the Chief Arbiter made a mistake too and that, therefore, it was well within the FIDE President’s discretion to overturn the forfeit.

Kramnik made a noble sporting gesture by agreeing to continue to play, albeit under protest. All genuine chess lovers will be grateful to him for that.


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