Fair play and good manners in chess

11/4/2020 – What should an arbiter do if a player makes a horribly illegal move, which his opponent accepts, only to protest later? What if he sticks his hand out in what looks like a resignation, only to claim it was a draw offer? IA Tomasz Delega, Chairman of ECU Arbiters Council, gives us some sound advice. It is in the October issue of the ECU-magazine, which also has some Beth Harmon combinations from the Netflix series for you to solve.

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Article by IA Tomasz Delega, Chairman of ECU Arbiters Council

What is a fair play in chess and what are its limits? Or maybe there aren't any? This time, in the arbiter's corner, we present two cases bordering on the rules of chess, fair play and good manners. First case – in a blitz tournament, one of the players playing black has a completely winning position. He promoted a pawn into the queen, "checking" the opponent.

Unfortunately, by mistake he promoted his pawn into the queen of opposite color (the color of the opponent pieces). The opponent replied by king, escaping under the check. Having realized the situation, the black player tried to change "his" queen into a black piece, but the opponent didn't agree and called the arbiter.

The arbiter stated that an incorrect move has been made (promotion of a pawn into a queen of the opposite color), but since the opponent has not complained about it and another move has already been made, the game should be continued with the "bad" white queen. The black player resigned. This time we don’t ask if the arbiter did the right thing, but if the white player broke the fair play principles, seeing the opponent's mistake and benefiting from it?

In my opinion, it would undoubtedly be very noble if he let the opponent replace the queen, but on the other hand, chess is a game of mistakes, so if the opponent makes them they can be used. What do you think about it?

The second case – in a rapid tournament, the player playing white has an exchange up but the position is still so complex, that there is no clear way for winning. He has about a minute and a half left on the clock.

He made a move and his opponent having about eight minutes on his clock, started thinking and after about two minutes later held out his hand and said "Okay, I won't continue this".

The white player, a bit surprised, shook the opponent's hand and, convinced that Black has resigned, reported the win to the arbiter.

After making the pairing for the next round, the black player complained to the arbiter, that he has half a point less and his previous game ended in a draw. He claimed that White offered a draw and he agreed.

What should the arbiter do?

The mere handshake can be interpreted both as agreeing to a draw and also as resignation, although it does not mean anything in itself.

So it would be appropriate to interpret the words "Okay, I won't continue that", but what do they mean? They can also be interpreted in two ways, but I think if someone says they will not continue, it means resignation rather than agreeing to a draw.

The arbiter asked the players to reconstruct the position, which the white player did, and Black agreed that position is correct. Based on an unclear, complex position, the arbiters decided to change the result into the draw.

What do you think about it?

The lesson from the second case is that it is very important to be sure what kind of intention has the opponent before shaking his hand.

But how to do this in good way? I remember from my own practice when I reached out my hand to my opponent, who was a teenage boy, with the intention of resigning, and he asked loudly to the entire playing hall "do you resign", I felt very confused.

Combinations by Beth Harmon

The Netflix series "The Queen's Gambit" has been an unprecedented success. It was featured in countless articles in newspapers, magazines and news portals all over the world.

It has also been the number one hit in Netflix worldwide for over a week. The ECU magazine thankfully extracted three combinations from Harmon games for you to solve.


Try matching your wits against Beth. You can move the pieces on the diagrams to analyze. Too hard for you? The first combination is explained by Simon Williams here, and the second here. And the final position? Here is the solution.

The ECU E-Magazine October 2020 can be read online with interactive links here, or it can be downloaded from the ECU Website.

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Michael Jones Michael Jones 11/18/2020 07:39
I have seen the second scenario happen. In a league game, player A had had a winning position but blundered, and on seeing that he had done so, held his hand out without saying anything. Player B shook his hand, but thought he had resigned, whereas player A thought he was offering a draw. There was no arbiter appointed, none of those present were as familiar with the minutiae of the laws of chess as an arbiter would have been, and all of us were on one or the other of the teams playing the match, so not exactly neutral observers. Since they didn't agree as to the result, and unlike in the tournament situation we didn't need to start the next round, the most sensible solution would probably have been to tell them to keep playing from the last position reached, but neither of them seemed keen to do that, so we called it a draw based on other players' assessment of the position. The player who had thought he'd won the game was a bit annoyed, but chose not to contest the result.
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 11/6/2020 02:44
Your case is a good example of how art. A.4.2 of the FIDE Handbook ('Once the opponent has made his next move, an illegal move cannot be corrected unless this is agreed by the players without intervention of the arbiter') should be used. This was a clear case of misunderstanding, which both players agreed to correct without the services of the arbiter. Other players in the same tournament would have no reason to complain about it – which otherwise is a weakness of art. A.4.2, in my opinion.
By the way, this example reminds me of an – unconnected – trick. Suppose white plays queen to e6/7. Black, believing he is in check, plays Kg7-g8. Next, white takes the black queen on a6 with his queen. This kind of skulduggery happens. There have also been many white pawns on a2 that managed to promote in four moves. So there is reason to place your pieces exactly and to make sure your opponent does.
gwrtheyrn gwrtheyrn 11/6/2020 12:32
The solution provided to the 3rd Harmon position is -- not the best. Just saying.
adbennet adbennet 11/5/2020 04:39
I can't believe an IA of all people is asking about **these** scenarios as possible fair play controversies. So instead of stooping to consider them as serious questions, I will counter with my own real-life scenario. As an assistant arbiter at the World Open Blitz Championship in Philadelphia (run by Walter Browne's World Blitz Chess Association), I observed the following event in blitz: GM A played a queen check, in doing so he placed his white queen halfway between the squares f7 and g7. GM B instantly replied by capturing the white queen on g7. GM A spoke briefly, "My queen was on f7." GM B, without saying anything, quickly replaced the white queen (still in his hand) on f7, and moved his king out of check. In many rounds of blitz prelims and finals, the closest thing to a controversy in that tournament was nobody wanted to be paired against Kamsky.
Phillidor Phillidor 11/5/2020 07:56
@Frits Fritschy
Yes, the case of the 78-years old player who forgot to press the clock (taking into account all the other circumstances) could in my opinion very well be a sound example of using the 'Radbruch formula'. The point is that it's usage must be exceptional and here I can see exceptional circumstances. From any point of view it must be stressed that it was not the 78-years old player who would break any rule, so he cannot be punished (I think everyone should understand that, i. e. not to get ideas to rule a 0 result for him - this would just be wrong). It is however not so clear if the arbiter should be punished for the breach of the rules with some kind of disciplinary warning. I would be very hesitatant to do this mostly because of the Radbruch formula. Also, it could hardly be considered fair to wait for the opponent to lose on time. Especially in this case, so the arbiter's decision sounds very human to me and could very well be a good example when not to follow the rules too strictly. But again - it should be an exceptional case, as the arbiters naturally shouldn't walk around and ex officio intervene in every situation they would sense a little bit unfairnes.

We actually had a case when disciplinary proceeding were started against an arbiter because he (supposedly) followed the rules too strictly and consequently made a quite harsh decision (e.g. did not use the Radbruch formula). This I think is a little bit too much - it's hard to blame an arbiter for following FIDE rules, although they are sometimes vague and could be interpreted differently than just form the strictly literal point of view. This means that players shouldn't expect the arbiter to use the Radbruch formula, but should rather focus on describing what makes their case so exceptional. I believe many arbiters would not even consider using the Radbruch formula - and it's hard to blame then - but at least I think they should know it exists.
JumpingFrogs JumpingFrogs 11/5/2020 04:35
I wholeheartedly agree.
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 11/5/2020 04:02
Edit: Maybe it was supposed to say above that the black player claimed the white player did verbally offer a draw.
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 11/5/2020 04:01
Regarding the second case, it clearly says in the description above that the BLACK player held out his hand first. So how can he claim that the white player offered a draw? Obviously it must be interpreted as a resignation by the black player. Even if the black player wanted a draw, I think he needs to verbally say so? So I don't understand how the game could have been adjudicated as a draw, what the rationale could have been, and how the position at the board is relevant.

I had heard about such a situation when I started out playing chess and in a scholastic tournament, with several players and my coach watching the end of the game when I played a combination to completely win in an obvious position with very few pieces left, my opponent stuck out his hand, and I said "You resign?" which he assented. My coach later on made a comment that I was really engrossed in the game and lost track of what was going on (he didn't realize that I intentionally asked). I meekly agreed with him and have never asked for clarification since (also as a new player I didn't know it was customary to resign in such a fashion).
PhishMaster PhishMaster 11/5/2020 01:03
The first case, since the guy made an illegal move, regardless of putting the wrong queen, the result was basically the same...a loss, so not hard to go with that result.

The second case, if you say you "cannot continue this" you either resigned, or are trying something deceitful, and deserve a punch in the mouth. I would have counted it as a win.
Frederic Frederic 11/4/2020 11:33
You guys are right, it was a mate problem. It did not happen in a game. Beth's friends were trying to solve it, and she impressed them no end by giving the solution in seconds. The ECU magazine there was a comment for all three diagrams: "In this edition of the ECU E-Magazine we prepared for you three winning positions by Beth Harmon. White is on the move!" I have replaced the first caption on this news page.
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 11/4/2020 10:15
The next case might interest you. A friend of mine, arbiter in a team match about 25 years ago, noticed a 78-year player forgetting to press the clock just before the end of the first phase. He knew this player was very ill and was probably playing his last team game. He notified him of the clock situation, against the rules. Would this also fit into some equivalent of the 'Radbruch formula'?
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 11/4/2020 09:58
@strokaljo/lovuschka: you're absolutely right, as I don't see any move by white that doesn't win. Kasparov must have had a little lapse of attention if he has been asked for advice about this position being suitable for a world championship match.
strokajlo strokajlo 11/4/2020 08:15
Task in the first position actually should be: White to move and mate in three
Lovuschka Lovuschka 11/4/2020 07:57
The first Harmon position actually is a mate in three, not an endgame study.
Phillidor Phillidor 11/4/2020 06:48
I can only agree with Frits Fritschy suggested solutions of both situations, i. e. from the arbiters point of view. The second situation actually surprises me a lot, as I see it as a gross mistreatment of the situation by the arbiter. All circumstances show that the player who not only made (supposedly) unclear manner, but also verbal statement, should bear all consequences of his (supposedly) unclear demonstration of will. He shouldn't have profited from that and the game should be determined as a loss for him. The opponent could not be blamed for the (supposed) misunderstaning. It is undoubtely not a practice to offer a draw in a way like in this matter, but quite clearly rather a quite common manner of resignation.

On the other hand, the first situation actually raises interesting questions about legal philosophy (see 'Radbruch formula' and compare it with the preface of FIDE laws of chess - whole handbooks could be written about these issues, it is so interesting!). But in this case I can hardly symphatise with the unfortunate queen promoter in a way that he would be entitled to j'adoube his move. Once a similar thing happened to me - in a totally won position I promoted a rook into a queen (as I was thinking too quickly, one move in advance: pawn promotes, queen takes, rook takes...). We laughed with the opponent and she promptly offered me a draw, which I took. But if she said 'illegal move' I would totally understand it and naturally resign. This are blitz rules and they make sense. Time is a factor and it is frankly hard to say it's fair to judge blitz results from the perspective of the quality of the moves. So no need for such exceptions in blitz (bullet). A move made cannot be taken back. I actually think it's not even fair (or at least noble) from a player to claim having a 'legitimate' interest to correct his own mistake in such situation.
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 11/4/2020 04:08
Addition (the 2000 word limit):
Even if the black player in case 2 did press the clock, there would have been good reason to reward the game to the white player. As the Handbook says: 'It is forbidden to distract or annoy the opponent in any manner whatsoever'. It may have not been on purpose, but any other solution wouldn't do justice to the distraction caused by the black players' action. And as the next round's pairing already was made, other solutions (like continuing the game giving the white player extra time) were already impossible.
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 11/4/2020 02:23
The first case is very clear. The FIDE Handbook says: 'Once the opponent has made his next move, an illegal move cannot be corrected unless this is agreed by the players without intervention of the arbiter'. So the arbiter handled the situation correctly. Fair play is a personal decision and depends on a lot of circumstances not necessarily known to others. The rules explicitly make it possible for the player of the white pieces to profit from the situation, so no one else but that player has to say something about it. Blame the rules, not the player.
I think the 'unless this is agreed by the players' part of the rule is rather doubtful. Players in the same competition also are an interested party.

In the second example, I think the arbiter made a very clear mistake. Firstly, as the white player understood the offering of a hand as a resignation, I conclude the black player hadn't played a move on the board yet. However, if the black player's intention was to offer a draw, he should first have played a move, then offer a draw, and then press his clock. Secondly, connected with the first point, as the black player didn't press the clock, he presumably lost on time. That his intention was unclear, was solely his responsibility. Thirdly, that the arbiter made a decision based on the position on the board is outrageous in my opinion. According to the Handbook: 'The arbiter must not intervene in a game except in cases described by the Laws of Chess'. The players can be much stronger or weaker than the arbiter; the white player may have been good in blitz, or simply much stronger than the black player – why not weigh in this as well, when you have started intervening?

In short: let FIDE make clear rules, let the arbiter follow them, and leave fair play to the players – as long as that doesn't conflict with other players' interests.