Thank you for not smoking, and not shaking hands

by Alexey Root
4/17/2020 – Thirty years ago, because of health risks, the International Chess Federation (FIDE) banned smoking at its events. Since handshakes spread the coronavirus, should FIDE ban them when in-person chess tournaments resume? WIM Alexey Root considers the history and the future of smoking and handshakes.

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Secondhand Smoke

When I began attending chess clubs and tournaments in the 1970s, there were two things I could count on: cigarette smoke and handshakes. Usually, one or more men were smoking at the chess boards. And most players shook hands before and after each game. When I returned home from weekly Tacoma Chess Club meetings, my clothes and hair smelled like an ashtray because of secondhand smoke.

A History of Smoking in Chess

Long before I played chess in Washington State, players smoked at their boards. As I wrote in Prepare With Chess Strategy:

"Frank J. Marshall (1877-1944) was the U.S. Chess Champion from 1909 to 1936. He also founded the Marshall Chess Club in 1915. It is still in existence today in New York City. Marshall's opponent in the Pipe Game was Amos Burn (1848-1925), an English chess player and chess writer. The Pipe Game was played in Paris in 1900. Its name came from Marshall's annotations, which reference Burn preparing to light his pipe at the beginning of the game. Two moves from checkmate, Burn finally lit it."

Marshall himself annotated this game with a keen eye for the pipe of his opponent. 


Bill Wall's Chess Page lists several stories about "Chess and Smoking", including this one:

"At the 1927 New York International, when Milan Vidmar (1885-1962) put a box of cigars on the table before sitting down to play Aaron Nimzovich (1886-1935), Nimzovich hurried to the chief umpire, Geza Maroczy (1870-1951), to complain that his opponent was threatening to smoke. The umpire went to the table to check and told Nimzovich that Vidmar was not smoking. Nimzovich responded, 'I know he isn't, but he threatens to do so, and the threat in chess is more powerful than the execution.' Some stories say that Nimzovich's opponent was Bogoljubow. Another source says it occurred in Berlin and the opponent was Lasker."

In 1986, the Surgeon General of the United States reported on the dangers of secondhand smoke in The Health Consequences of Involuntary Smoking. In 1990, FIDE banned smoking at the boards for that year's Chess Olympiad. As the Deseret News reported, "One woman, Sweden's Pia Cramling, played on the men's team. And for the first time, smoking was banned."

Smoking in Break Areas

But smoking is not completely banned at FIDE events. Smoking is permitted in designated break areas. During his commentary on the 2020 Women's World Chess Championship (Game 7, Part 2, 3:18:00-3:22:00), FIDE Vice President Nigel Short gave two reasons for his proposal to eliminate all smoking at FIDE chess events. First, smoke breaks may be outdoors, where it's hard to monitor for fair play. Arbiters don't like visiting "the lung cancer zone." Second, smoke breaks during FIDE chess events present a bad image of chess to the International Olympic Committee, which is troublesome if FIDE wants chess to be in the Olympic Games.

No progress has been made on his proposal, Short told me via Facebook Messenger on April 8, because the chess world "has almost ground to a halt" due to the coronavirus.

Handshake Alternatives?

Although handshakes are in news headlines now because of the coronavirus, they also have been featured in chess news stories. One example was Short's handshake incident, which International Master Jovan Petronic brought to my attention. During our Facebook Messenger chat, Short recommended the handshake alternative of "Bowing, Japanese style!"

On April 9, I asked my chess friends on Facebook for their handshake alternatives. Bowing, thumbs up, Vulcan salutes, smiling, and waving were some of their recommendations. One handshake alternative, the elbow bump, became a viral photo during the 2020 Candidates Tournament.

The Director General of FIDE, Grandmaster Emil Sutovsky, emailed me on April 9, "Handshake is optional, but that's it at this stage. We will review it as soon as we approach it. So far we don't expect any OTB [over-the-board] event to take place before July."

The End of Handshakes?

On April 9, Sutovsky conducted a poll on Facebook about how players should greet each other when in-person tournaments resume. He gave four options, one of which was "shaking hands as in past." About half of his respondents voted for handshakes.

Grandmaster Maxim Dlugy posted on my Facebook wall, "Back to the handshake." Via Facebook Messenger, FIDE Chief Marketing & Communications Officer David Llada wrote, "I can't comment on behalf of FIDE on this topic. My personal opinion? Well, in a game of chess two human beings spend hours facing each other, fighting each other, and the only moment when they get to touch each other is at the initial handshake. From a psychological point of view, using this courtesy as a way to break the ice is kind of 'healthy.' It helps to release the tension. If we were to eliminate this brief contact, it would feel unnatural to me."

Although avoiding handshakes may feel unnatural, it may become the new normal. At five minutes into an April 7 Wall Street Journal podcast, Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the lead members of the Trump Administration's White House Coronavirus Task Force, said which human behavioural changes should persevere beyond the pandemic's peak. First, Fauci mentioned "absolute, compulsive hand-washing." Then Fauci said, "You don't ever shake anybody's hands. That's clear."


Karpov never liked smoke:

Alexey was the 1989 U.S. Women's Chess Champion and is a Woman International Master. She earned her bachelor’s degree in History at the University of Puget Sound and her doctoral degree in Education at The University of California, Los Angeles. She has been a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas since 1999 and is a prolific author.


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