Fair play in chess

by Assi Philosoph
6/7/2021 – Imagine you play in an important online event and your opponent makes a move that is obviously a mouse-slip. What do you do? Do you use the opportunity to exploit the blunder and to win the game? Or do you allow your opponent to take the move back or do you offer a draw? What, do you think, is fair play in this and other cases? Assi Philosoph shares some thoughts.

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Fair (enough?) play

Last week, the FIDE World Cup Qualifiers ended and the best players qualified for  the World Cup 2021, to be held in Sochi, 10.7-6.8. The tournament was played in hybrid form, which means that the candidates from each country played in the same room, under a supervision of a Local Chief Arbiter (I was the one in Israel) and a Local Technical Arbiter. The playing was held in the online platform Tornelo, where some special features were added for this kind of event like, for instance, the option of a direct connection to Zoom, and a move confirmation button, to avoid mouse slips.

The confirmation move button was used by the players successfully during the two games of the classical time control of each round, but when reaching the tiebreaks, in case of a 1-1 result, the players understandably dropped the confirmation move button, since the time control was 10 min + 3 sec per move.

So, what happened?

In the third round of the competition, the match between Boris Gelfand  (52y, ISR) and Jerguš Pecháč (19y, SVK) ended in a draw after 2 classical games. So did the first game of the tiebreaks. But the second one reached the following position after 15 moves, with White to play:

Unfortunately, Gelfand played 16.Qb4 in this position, leaving the Queen en prise, which instead of being taken, was answered with a gentle draw offer by Pecháč!. Gelfand, who is well known for being a gentleman himself, was surprised and complimented his opponent. Following this subsequent draw in the tiebreaks, Pecháč went on to score in a must win situation after he drew white for the Armageddon game.

Gelfand was not the only one to compliment the young GM, as he was cited by many top players and organizers on different social medias as an example of fair play.

Boris Gelfand | Photo: Vladimir Jagr

I found the incident very interesting, and started to think about the meaning of it, and how we judge a fair play in chess, and sports in general.

Unlike cheating, we are talking about a case when the player went beyond the rules being "fairer than needed", and such cases are perhaps even more interesting to analyse, ethically speaking. Consequently, many questions sprang to mind:

Would the player have offered a draw if it had been the first of the two games, and he had been playing White?

Would he offer a draw in similar situation, but in classical time control, knowing the player has the option of using move confirmation button?

Would he offer a draw if he were playing against a player who is not a legend as Gelfand is? And what about if the legend was a controversial character?

Would the player do the same knowing that his opponent would not do the same for him?

Of course, when I ask these questions, they are not directed at Pecháč himself, but as an ethical discussion about what fair play in sports is. In order to have a wider perspective, let’s analyse similar cases. Actually, it’s impossible to discuss Pecháč’s case without remembering the Alexander Moiseenko-David Navara match from the third round of World Chess Cup in Khanty-Mansiysk 2011.

In the second game of the match, on the 35th move, Navara accidentally touched both pieces, the King on f7 and the Bishop on e7. Clearly his intention was to move the attacked Bishop after White’s 35.Qe2:

A short clarification with the arbiter and the opponent clarified the situation, and Navara was allowed to play with the Bishop. However, after six hours of playing and 79(!) moves after the incident, Navara played 114…Kc6 reaching  a winning position and…offered a draw!

In the press conference Navara explained:

"Any move with the King [in the 35th move] would lead to the loss of the piece, however, Moiseenko did not insist that I make a move according to the touch rule. I did not want to be referred to as an unethical chess player who managed to win in an unfair way, that is why at the end, having achieved the winning position, I offered a draw."

It is interesting to notice that the law of the game says that the player has to play with the touched piece only "if the player having the move deliberately touches …[the piece]", which was not Navara’s case, especially when both players and arbiter agreed it was touched unintentionally. Yet, Navara felt uncomfortable with the situation, and only after a long game when he reached a winning position, did he offer a draw, conceding a half point to his opponent. Like Pecháč he also went on to win in the tiebreaks.

Comparing with the Pecháč incident, this one is even more extraordinary, since the opponent, Moiseenko, was not harmed by any means. Navara’s winning position was a result of better play, differently from the first one, who reached a winning position after a mouse slip of his opponent. The comparison between the cases raises another interesting question: Isn’t a mouse slip part of the game, like arriving at time at the board, pressing the clock after making a move, and of course - playing well in order to win? Isn’t it all part of the "package" of being a good competitor?

As a great fan of the Brazilian football National Team, I remembered the following case:

In the 77 minute of the final match of the Football World Cup 1998 between Brazil and France, held in Stade de France,  the locals were leading by 2-0 when the French star Zinédine Zidane fell to the ground, supposedly injured, after being tackled by a Brazilian player.

Rivaldo, as an act of fair play, threw the ball away so Zidane could receive medical treatment.

Edmundo, a Brazilian forward, started to scream at  his compatriot Rivaldo for being "too fair" since the Brazilians were losing, and were desperate to score their first goal to keep the game alive.

In Globo TV broadcast, The Brazilian narrator, Galvão Bueno, asked the former National player Romário:

- "Is it time to throw the ball away, Romário?"

- "Of course not Galvão, there’s no room for that kind of action. There are only 15 minutes left, it is time to score a goal!" Answered the legend.

It is important to mention that no rule would have been violated if Rivaldo had kept playing instead of stopping the game. The Brazilians had all the right to keep the game going, just as Pecháč could have captured the Queen, and Navara could have moved the Bishop. Let’s not forget that in the 3 cases we are dealing with knock-out stages of the tournament, so there is not a peaceful solution, like a draw.

The motivation behind Rivaldo’s action is defined as part of Internalism in Sports by Simon, Torres and Hager in their book Fair Play:The Ethics of Sport, 2015. The authors describe that every sport has unique non written rules that the players respect as part of a consensus of their common sport. For instance, in golf, the players themselves report about a self-rule violation, without the need for an arbiter. It is a kind of agreement between all the competitors, and if this agreement is broken, it usually will be followed by a moral judgement towards the "lawbreaker".

In chess, we can think about shaking hands before the game, or sharing our scoresheet with our opponent so he can add the missing moves to his own score sheet, as parallel cases. And in football, when one player is injured the other team stop the game to allow his treatment (today the arbiter has the power to do so in serious injuries cases).

But what happens when this "internal consensus" is broken? And when is it legitimate to do it? There are no easy answers, and the decision can certainly change the course of the respective game. Imagine a script where Rivaldo didn’t stop the game and Brazil scored a goal in the very next attack, following another one in the injury time, and ended up winning the game in the penalty shoot-out, the tiebreakers. Would it make the victory "less moral"?

Notice that after Zidane received his attention from the arbiter, subsequent to Rivaldo’s fair play action, he stood up and kept running as if nothing had happened. More frustrating was the way the French team gave the ball back to Brazil (common act of retrieving the fair play), kicking the ball to the corner of the field, forcing Cafu, the Brazilian defender, to run more and spend extra energy on putting the ball back to the game. The aim was achieved - stopping Brazil’s momentum and reducing their chances of scoring.

An interesting question is what Rivaldo’s decision would have been, if he had known that Zidane was not really injured, and that France would return the ball in such an "unfair way"? It is ironic that Edmundo, who disagreed with Rivaldo’s decision, is known as "The Animal" in the Brazilian football, for his sometimes aggressive temperament. In this case, in post-factum analysis, it seems that he understood better the rules of surviving, instead of the "civilised" choice of Rivaldo.

Going back to our case, it is absorbing to observe how an action in the third round of the tournament influences our judgement for the next rounds, since it is impossible to judge other mouse slips without comparing them with Pecháč’s game. This means that the way we judge, or at least reflect about, these type of incidents has unavoidably changed, adding in a real time moral relativism  to the tournament. It consequently changes what we are used to facing regarding what is considered fair play, thus creating two different possible actions, capturing the hanging piece or offering a draw, when both of them appear moral.

In the 18th century, the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–76) claimed that our moral (relative) conducts are based on our emotions, so one can claim that the respect for Gelfand, and the empathy for his mouse slip had an influence on Pecháč’s decision. The action is even "more relative" considering that no one expected this kind of gesture, since this decision could have cost the player his qualification to the next round.

The moral relativism brings new questions to our scenario:If Pecháč’s action is a moral one, should we criticize the ones who don’t act in the same way? And if the answer is no, can we claim that the original action was "too moral"? Additionally, we can assume that if the player had needed the win, after a hypothetical loss in the first game, he probably would not have offered a draw.  And if the answer is yes, it would "stretch" moral relativism even more, maybe creating a new type of fair play - an "ultra fair play".

To conclude, it is always stimulating to have discussions about fair play rather than cheating, and we hope chess will continue to survive as a great way of competing, even facing technological challenges, pandemics and whatever might come, with the help of the great sportsmen we have.

As a chess community, we are dealing with a broad and new range of ethical issues which are constantly appearing, as online games have become part of the professional game since the COVID-19 pandemic started. Before, online tournaments were played specially for fun. Nowadays, new ways of playing have arrived, and with them new ways of cheating, but also new forms of fair play - the other side of the coin - as Pecháč’s gesture provides.


Highlights from the European Hybrid World Qualifier

Assi Philosoph has a Bachelor in Philosophy and a Master in Cinema from Tel Aviv University. He likes to explore chess from many different angles, such as writing, filming and of course playing. He is also a former deputy director of the Israeli Chess Federation. His favorite player is Tigran Petrosian.


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