Carry on up the Armageddon

by ChessBase
9/7/2008 – 'Armageddon game', 'Sudden Death' – these terms may attract the attention of the general public - but what a let-down when they find that no physical violence is involved. John Saunders, editor of British Chess Magazine, looks back at two cases that raised controversy and searches for less frenzied alternatives. Could chess even be the powder-keg for real-life Armageddon? Be very afraid...

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Carry on up the Armageddon

By John Saunders

“And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon.” (Revelation, 16, 16)

“The game is drawn when a position is reached from which a checkmate cannot occur by any possible series of legal moves, even with the most unskilled play. This immediately ends the game, provided that the move producing this position was legal.” (FIDE Laws of Chess, Article 9.6)

“‘If the law supposes that,’ said Mr. Bumble... ‘the law is a ass – a idiot.” (Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist)

“It’s a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham.” (Woody Allen, Bananas)

My apologies for starting this piece with a close juxtaposition of sacred and profane, but the above quotations are relevant to what follows. Actually, by reading them carefully, you could probably work out exactly what I am about to write, skip the rest of the article and go and do something more useful. But stay with me...

Armageddon is mentioned just once in the bible and refers to the place where the last great battle between Good and Evil takes place. Its modern-day name is Megiddo and it is said to have been the site of many battles in ancient times. In modern parlance it is used as a metaphor for a fierce, cataclysmic struggle between two opposing camps. In a chess context, an Armageddon game is a one-game play-off used to decide a one-to-one match where White receives more time than Black – typically six minutes to Black’s five, or five minutes to Black’s four – but if the game ends in a draw, Black is considered to have won the match.

Terms such as ‘Armageddon game’ and the very similar ‘Sudden-Death’ in a sporting context have a lurid fascination for the general public. A few years ago, I was invited onto a sports discussion show on BBC Radio to explain exactly what was meant by an ‘Armageddon game’. That was the only reason they wanted me there. I outlined the concept, more or less as above, and was greeted by what I can only describe as a general air of disappointment around the table. Having made my contribution, the discussion moved on and I was soon ushered from the room; evidently my views on such vital matters as Wayne Rooney’s broken metatarsal, or Freddie Flintoff’s ankle (or whatever the topic was) were not required.

The interesting question is: what had the radio people imagined an Armageddon game to be? Chessplayers attired in a full set of armour, attacking each other with broadswords and maces? Or some variation on a Bond theme where the players sit above hatches which, on the delivery of checkmate, suddenly burst open and drop the loser into a pit of vipers? Or even a couple of blokes alternating between making chess moves and bashing each other’s brains out in a boxing ring. Oh... sorry... that one has already been invented and implemented, hasn’t it?

For the non-chess people on the radio show, I have the feeling that discovering the real truth behind the Armageddon game probably generated the same level of disappointment they felt when they first learnt that grandmasters earned their title by winning lots of high-level chess games rather than being initiated via some dark, Satanic ritual presided over by mysterious people in pointy hats. Anyway, I’ve learned my lesson – next time I’m asked such a question, I will give the public exactly what they want to hear: “... and if the match is still tied after 12 games, Anand and Kramnik will strip to their jockey shorts and mud-wrestle for the title.”

Armageddon finishes have proved to be talking points on two occasions in the past few months, both in major women’s events. First, there was the spectacle of Anna Zatonskih and Irina Krush armageddoning for the US Women’s Championship, which has already been reported here and endlessly debated on the web.

ideo footage of the Armageddon match at the 2008 Women's Chess Championship, where IMs Anna Zatonskih and Irina Krush tied for first, then played rapid and blitz tiebreakers, and finally a very dramatic final tiebreak game, which Anna won in the last possible second.

Then, the current Women’s World Championship and the shoot-out between Monika Socko of Poland and Sabina Foisor of Romania, which came down to K+N v K+N and a black flag fall which has also attracted a lot of publicity. The original arbiter said “draw” because White could not force a win. But White appealed and the appeal committee took note of Article 9.6 (see above) which makes it clear that the possibility of mate takes precedence over its likelihood. Hence, as Socko could win from the flag fall position with a legal series of moves, she was awarded the game.

Watch the final Armageddon game between Sockov and Foisor and the discussion with the arbiters. Much of it is in Russian, but there are passages in English that make the arguments comprehensible.

Before we go on to think about the rules, did anyone have a close look at the moves played at the end of Socko-Foisor? The final minute or so can be watched as part of this report on ChessBase. One thing that nobody else seems to have mentioned so far (apart from me on my BCMBlog) is that Foisor could have forced a draw in the final sequence. I reconstructed the game from the video. The following diagram shows a position which arose just before the end.

The game proceeded: 1.Nd3 Ke6 2 Nc5+ Kf5 3 Nd3 Ke4 4 Nb4??... amazingly, Black didn’t snap off White’s knight with 4...Nxb4 which would have given her the draw she needed to qualify, but played 4...Kd4?? 5 Nc6+ Kc5 6 Ne5 Kd6 7 Nd3 Nf6 8 Nf4 Nd5 at which point Black lost on time. In truth, it is very hard to see the actual moves played but I’m pretty sure they were as above.

I do hope poor Sabina Foisor doesn’t watch the video as she will be kicking herself for missing a ‘draw in one’. Of course, she has nothing to reproach herself for. It is almost inevitable for a non-incremental game to end in this sort of madhouse. When both players are down to their last few seconds, it is more about thumping the clock than looking at the board and thinking about your moves. The rules of chess fly out of the window, pieces get knocked over or are placed on the edges of squares, arms are everywhere, the players can scarcely see the board... of course, an arbiter cannot be expected to do anything about this mayhem as it completely impossible to police what is going on.

So, for my personal view of these non-incremental finishes, I refer you to Woody Allen’s wise words above. Of course, an increment doesn’t solve all problems, particularly when we consider proper chess – the real stuff, played at the rate of one game a day. For my views on this, I refer you to numerous issues of British Chess Magazine (quick advertising break... the world’s oldest chess magazine, founded 1881, available from a website near you – but back to the article) where I have regularly lambasted FIDE for their stubborn adherence to the form of chess I have nicknamed ‘FIDE vapidplay’ – the sterile and insipid time control based on 30-second increments which has dealt a fatal death-blow to the endgame. But I am straying from my main point.

What to make of the blitz rules as applied in an Armageddon game? From a pure reading of the rules, the Socko-Foisor appeal committee got it right. FIDE’s blitz rules (Appendix C) make it quite clear that Article 10.2 (all the stuff about claiming a draw when your opponent isn’t trying or cannot hope to win) are expressly excluded.

The appeal committee appears to have acted fairly, but what to make of such a rule? I’m inclined to refer you to the quotations of Mr Bumble (and Woody Allen again) for my answer to this question. And do we really need an Armageddon game anyway? One can perhaps see a use for it in minor events where there is very little time available to find a winner. But they are playing the Women’s World Championship, for big money, in Nalchik and they have a whole day set aside for the play-offs. Why not play pairs of blitz games (with small increments) ad infinitum? It wouldn’t be that long before a result other than 1-1 was achieved, surely?

OK, so let’s say we do away with Armageddon and set up the equivalent of the tennis final set – it goes on as long as it takes, in pairs of games. Why not? That’s really a rhetorical question but I’m going to digress slightly and tell you why I think most tournament organisers don’t do this and insist on a set finishing time. BCM readers may already be familiar with this as it is my refinement of Yusupov’s (or was it Kavalek’s?) first law which now states that time controls are chosen for the convenience of the officials. How is a suitable time control chosen? Easy: first decide on the time when you want to have dinner. They then work back to a start time in the middle of the day but not before one o’clock – this is a concession to the players, as it is the traditional time by which a grandmaster might reasonably be expected to be out of bed.

We now have our formula which is ‘PS = EAT – GUT’ – standing for ‘Playing Session’ = ‘Esurient Arbiter Time’ minus ‘Grandmaster Up Time’. All they need to do then is decide on a time control which spans the hours between GUT and EAT. A modern digital clock allows all sorts of options. The important thing is that the time control should be as different as possible from those used at other similar competitions, thus demonstrating that the officials of this tournament are innovative, decisive and free-thinking. Of course, the adoption of incremental time controls does sometimes mean that the odd hors d’oeuvres or starter course may be delayed, but the the abolition of adjournments means that dessert, coffee and biscuits need never again be rushed. Oh, you thought adjournments were abolished because of computers? Don’t be silly: they did away with them because people charged with officiating at adjournment sessions missed one too many puddings.

Sorry about that digression, but it helps to explain what I think the thinking is behind the choice of time controls and tie-breaks. Back to Armageddon... an English grandmaster made a sensible suggestion to me – why not have one or two second increments for Armageddon games? I guess this might be seen to favour Black a tiny bit but it doesn’t seem unreasonable. What do readers think? But I still don’t like the idea of a single-game finish very much, particularly as other fairer methods seem perfectly practical. While I think of it, readers can perhaps help me solve a couple of Edward Winter-style questions. Who first coined the phrase ‘Armageddon game’? Where was it first implemented?

At this point I had a scary thought... what if it wasn’t Socko-Foisor, round one of the women’s world championship, but Kramnik-Anand, final deciding game of the biggest and most prestigious chess title match this side of the millennium? Big Vlad tries to beat the great Indian with K+N v K+N and Vishy’s flag falls (a bit of a novelty in itself)... anyone fancy being on the appeal committee for that one? Normally, as we know, being on an appeal committee is one of the most desirable and best-paid jobs in chess, but knowing that whatever decision you made would infuriate countless millions of people might take your mind off your fee and the edge off your appetite. I checked the regulations for the world title match and, yes, there at the end of the list of tie-breakers, there is provision for the ultimate Armageddon game, six minutes plays five, no increments, winner takes the world championship title, while the loser ... presses the nuclear button? Don’t forget, it’s Russia versus India – maybe the Armageddon game will finally live up to its name.

About the author

John Saunders, 55, graduated in Law and Classics from Cambridge University in the mid-1970s. He has a Welsh father and Scottish mother, hence should be referred to as 'British' rather than 'English'. He claims that his most outstanding achievement was making the lowest score on bottom board for Wales, the country which finished last in the 1997 European Team Championship. In the late 1990s he successfully plotted an escape from a very long term of imprisonment (20 years) as an IT professional, changing career to chess editing and writing. In 1996 he founded BritBase – the first (and much-imitated) national database of game downloads. He became the BBC Ceefax teletext service's chess columnist in 1998 and editor/webmaster of 'British Chess Magazine' in 1999. In the past he has been the webmaster for the 4NCL and the English Chess Federation (for whom he also once edited their house magazine 'ChessMoves'). In 2007 he wrote and had published a richly-illustrated hardback book for beginners – "How to Play Winning Chess", ISBN 978-0754817123 – available at an extremely reasonable price from many online stockists. So far he has failed to persuade the manager of his own company's chess shop to stock copies.

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