Do Chess Arbiters Intervene Too Much?

Do Chess Arbiters Intervene Too Much?

| 60 | Amazing Games

As we discussed in the previous article, people love chess for a variety of reasons.  Our favorite game is a sport, art, science, fight and more, all at the same time!

One of my favorite features of chess was well described by the great Emanuel Lasker: "On the chessboard, lies and hypocrisy do not survive long."

Do you remember the opening words of The Lion King ?

Yes, from a very young age we all learn that unfortunately life is not fair and chess is like a breath of a fresh air in this unfair world. It doesn't matter if your opponent is bigger than you, stronger than you or wealthier than you. If you play better chess you'll win! Or at least that's what I thought when I just started playing chess. Unfortunately, a third person slowly but surely started to overshadow the fight between two opponents. I am talking about chess arbiters.

There was a chess joke in my youth that the best chess arbiter is one who is invisible during a tournament. Indeed, if after such a tournament the players are not even aware who was chief arbiter, it means that there were no unpleasant incidents or conflicts during the event. Long gone are the times when arbiters did their best to assure that the chess spectacle goes uninterrupted.

Spassky vs Fischer in the 1972 world championship. Photo via  via nsarchive.
Spassky vs Fischer in the 1972 world championship. Photo via via nsarchive.

Do you remember the start of the famous 1972 world championship between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer?

With his constant demands, Fischer put himself into a difficult position where arbiters could just stop the match and declare Spassky the winner, especially after Fischer didn't show up for the second game. Yes, they would have followed the rules, but the chess world would have been robbed of one of the most interesting events in the whole of chess history. Therefore we should applaud the FIDE president Max Euwe for saving the match. 

It was a dramatically different decision of another FIDE president, Florencio Campomanes, that started a very dangerous trend. When Campomanes stopped the world championship match in 1984-85 between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov, Campomanes cited his concern for the two players' health, as they had been playing for half a year. Both players immediately denounced this decision and expressed the willingness to continue the match, all to no avail.

I am not going to discuss the FIDE president's reasoning, since there were too many variables there. Wikipedia even mentions sources claiming that Campomanes was a KGB agent. One way or another, the motto "the show must go on" suddenly got an  addition in the chess world: "if we allow it!" 

One of the biggest stories of the FIDE Grand Swiss tournament was the situation where two games played on adjacent boards had 19 identical moves. IM Daniel Rensch produced a great video about these games:

It was a real comedy to see the super-GMs copying one another's mistakes until the games went separate ways after the arbiter made a decision to move the game Alexei Shirov-Yu Yangyi to a different room. Here I am not questioning if this decision was legal, since the chief arbiter of the tournament has a lot of experience and knows the rules very well. My only question is why.

My favorite dentist used to say that the best tooth is the one that was never touched by a dentist. Any doctor's intervention should be made only if the lack of action would lead to a bigger evil. I am not an expert in medicine, but I can tell you that it is absolutely true in chess. Any arbiter's intervention changes the natural flow of the game.

Here is a good example:

There is no question the arbiter was absolutely correct to remind Kasparov about his obligation to write the moves.

Garry Kasparov in 2017. Photo: Maria Emelianova /
Garry Kasparov in 2017. Photo: Maria Emelianova /

I just want to emphasize Kasparov's words:  "By arguably following too strictly the letter of the law, Gijssen almost changed the course of chess history."

Let's get back to FIDE Grand Swiss tournament. I can be completely wrong here, but I don't see any damage if the twin games would have continued uninterrupted. Of course it would have been a totally different case if one of the players specifically asked the tournament director to intervene, but as far as I know, there were no claims or requests coming from the players. 

To prove my point that "the grass was greener" in the past, let me remind you of a very similar situation that became known as "The Argentinian Tragedy."

Here is how one of the main participants of the story, Efim Geller, remembers it in his book Application Of Chess Theory:

Several times in my career situations have occurred which are known by the name of "twin games." This was the case when in the 19th USSR Championship two games were played, between Geller vs. Flohr, and Petrosian vs. Smyslov, which up to a certain point were identical. In one of the rounds of the 1956 USSR-Yugoslavia match the games Geller vs. Karaklajic and Averbakh vs. Ivkov coincided, and at the international tournament in Budapest in 1973 the same happened in Geller vs. Karpov and Hort vs. Hecht.  Finally, the present game had simultaneously two "twin brothers": Keres vs. Najdorf and Spassky vs. Pilnik—a unique instance in the history of chess! Subsequently it received the name the "Argentinian Tragedy."

All three games reached the following position:

Geller remembers this moment:

And here something unexpected occurred. The point was that at this moment Spassky and Keres were still deliberating over whether to sacrifice the knight on e6, and their opponents Pilnik and Najdorf were observing our game and animatedly discussing something. Then Najdorf came up to me and very brusquely, interrupting my thoughts, declared: "Your game is lost; all this has been analyzed by us!’”

But at that point Geller had already seen the winning move. Once it was played on the board, both Keres and Spassky followed.

Here are all three games:

In his monumental book My Great Predecessors, Kasparov wrote in his annotations to the game Fischer-Tal 1959 that at that time it was customary to turn any annotated game into a poem. 

I really like this approach since it makes chess richer. "Argentinian Tragedy," "Opera Game," "The Immortal Game": Remove any of them and chess would have lost a page of its illustrious history. We have just witnessed how one of such pages was ripped off at the Isle of Man. 

More from GM Gserper
How To Play Decisive Games

How To Play Decisive Games

Are You Better Than A Grandmaster? (World Cup Edition)

Are You Better Than A Grandmaster? (World Cup Edition)