Rules of Chess Conduct

Rules of Chess Conduct

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Trent D asked:

I’m considering a big move from Internet chess to a real over the board tournament. Are there rules of conduct or polite behavior that I should know about?

Dear Trent:

I’ve discussed aspects of this in a past article (see my article archive), but I must admit that there’s a lot more to say on this topic. Though one isn’t supposed to disturb the opponent, players still do so in ways that vary from personality quirks to overt illegal behavior. Over the years, I’ve seen players touch a piece, realize the intended move is bad, and move something else (denying that they ever touched it). I witnessed one well known chess personality write a note on a piece of paper and thrust it at the opponent under the table – it read, “If you win, I’ll beat you to a pulp.” And one young lady that I was teaching wrote a note (after hanging a Knight … the opponent was taking her time to make sure it was okay to chop it off) and pushed it into the opponent’s hand under the table – it read, “Please don’t take my piece, my father will beat me if you do.”

Come to think of it, I suddenly remember an opponent of mine sending me a note under the table too! I was losing badly to a strong player at the NY Open, and suddenly I felt something pressing into my thigh. I moved back, looked down, and there was his hand with a note in it! It read, “Silman, I love watching you drool in despair as I crush you like the bug you are. Suffer, you idiot! Suffer!” My first reaction was to leap across the table and grab the guy by the throat, but I managed to contain myself and I did the correct thing – I gave the note to the tournament director (he warned my opponent … I had hoped for something a bit more Draconian).

Memories are flooding back. I’ll illustrate a few “borderline” situations that occurred to me at Lone Pine 1976. It was an amazing event – one would think that wins over V.Pupols, Nick de Firmian, John Fedorowicz (which, oddly, led to two private analysis sessions with World Champion Tigran Petrosian – another story for another time), and Tim Taylor would be the highlights, but the human element completely transcended mere chess results.

The “fun” started in the very first round when I was paired with World Champion V. Smyslov (I had the white pieces). I was delighted to get the chance to play this chess giant. The pairing was posted the day before, so I had a full evening to prepare. Various friends offered to help me get ready, and at first I accepted since Smyslov played a huge assortment of openings. And then I somehow got a sudden, all encompassing insight – I KNEW what he was going to play: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6 5.Bd3 g6. He had never played 5…g6 before, and at that time it was thought to be a positional blunder that only the most untested beginner would do. My friends, who thought I was surely under the influence of something, calmly explained that he wasn’t going to play this way, and that it was absurd of me to think he would suddenly turn into a 500-rated player. But I insisted, told them all to go away, and promptly looked in a book for the refutation. As it turned out, one line was given in the book, with White having a near decisive advantage. Satisfied, I went to bed with no doubts that all this would come true.

The next day saw us facing off, the clocks were started, and we both blitzed out the first 8 moves: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6 5.Bd3 g6 (I knew it!) 6.Nc3 Bg7 7.Be3 Nc6 8.Nb3 d5. I don’t remember what that refutation was, but his 8…d5 was a new move. After 9.exd5 exd5 I began to think and, as if he was bored, he got up and walked about the tournament hall. Finally I tossed out 10.Bc5, he walked up to the board, refused to sit, looked at things for about 30 seconds, replied 10…b6, and walked away again. And so it went – he never sat down at the board again. To make matters even worse, he completely outplayed me.

9.exd5 exd5 10.Bc5 b6 11.Ba3 Nge7 12.0-0 0-0 13.Ne2 Qc7 14.c3 Ne5 15.Nbd4 Nc4 16.Bxc4 dxc4 17.Qa4 Bd7 18.Qb4 Rfe8 19.Qd6 Qb7 20.Rfe1 Nd5 21.Nf4 Nf6 22.f3 g5 23.Nfe2 Nd5 24.Qg3 h6 25.Qf2 b5 26.Ng3 b4 27.cxb4 Nxb4 28.Rxe8+ Rxe8 29.Ndf5 Nd3 30.Qd2 Qb6+ 31.Kf1 c3 32.bxc3 Bb5, 0-1.

When I finally resigned, he was still standing for the handshake, and then he turned and walked away (this game created a huge surge of interest in 5…g6, and was published all over the world as an example of “how White should not play”). Clearly, refusing to sit down for the whole game was humiliating and can possibly be construed as psychological warfare. But I took it another way: I was nothing more than a fly to be squashed and he didn’t need to sit down to do it. Fortunately, I managed to get past the self-doubts and do quite well in the subsequent games (as mentioned earlier), until I was paired with another legend, M.Najdorf!

I was Black, and didn’t have any problems at all: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Be7 5.e3 0-0 6.Bd3 b6 7.b3 Bb7 8.0-0 Nbd7 9.Bb2 Ne4 10.Qe2 a6 11.Rad1 Bb4 12.Nb1 Bd6 13.Ne5 f5 14.f3 Ng5 15.Nd2 c5 16.Nxd7 Qxd7 17.dxc5 Bxc5 18.f4 Nf7 19.Nf3 Qe7 20.Nd4 Nd6 21.cxd5 Bxd5 22.Rc1 a5 23.Nc2 Ne4 24.Rfd1 Rfd8 25.Bc4 Nf6 26.Nd4 Rac8 27.h3 Bxc4 28.Rxc4 Rd5 29.Kh2 Re8 30.Qf3

Here my clock was ticking and I took a moment to look at my opponent. I was thinking, “Wow, I’m actually playing Najdorf! And I’m doing fine! How cool is this?” And then he looked at me, our eyes locked, and he screamed, “Why are you looking at me little boy? Why are you looking at me?” 

Everyone in the tournament hall turned their gaze on our board, and I freaked out and quickly tossed some move – any move! – out so I could leave and avoid further humiliation.


When I returned, I realized that I had hung my face. Sure enough, this time he looked at me, flashed a huge smile, smashed down 31.Nxf5! and that was that. The rest was quick and painful: 31…Qd7 32.Nxg7 Rxd1 33.Nxe8 Qxe8 34.Qxd1 Qg6 35.Qf3 Nd2 36.Qa8+ Bf8 37.Rc8 Nf1+ 38.Kg1, 1-0.

I was more than a bit hysterical, but Najdorf was having none of it. He walked over to me, patted me on the back, put his arm around me as if we were old friends, and said, “I had that same position 40 years ago! Anyway, let’s go for a walk and look at the other games together!” It was impossible to remain angry at Najdorf.

As you can see, anything and everything can happen at a tournament, and extreme cases should be promptly reported to the director. However, most other cases of odd behavior should be tolerated and even enjoyed. When all is said and done, the best thing you can do is just sit back, buckle your seatbelt, and enjoy the ride.

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