So What?

GM smurfo
Apr 18, 2015, 6:46 AM |

For the past week, the chess world has been abuzz with reports of GM Wesley So's involuntary forfeit at the recent US Chess Championships. For the non-chess readers of my blog, the short version of the story basically goes like this: So, the number 8 player in the world, was essentially disqualified during his game against GM Varuzhan Akobian for a technical breach of the rules. The unusual infringement was for the use of notes during play; Wesley often writes motivational advice to himself ("Check your moves twice", "Don't get low on time", etc). However, ANY use of notes during a game is considered illegal under the FIDE international chess rules, and he had been warned many times over the past few years (and twice before in the same tournament) not to do so. After Akobian (who Wesley later referred to as a "former friend") brought the matter to the arbiter's attention, Wesley was forfeited, meaning an automatic loss.

To be honest, I was quite surprised that this story became such a big deal. For one thing, unintentional technical forfeits aren't that uncommon in chess, though note-taking is one of the more unusual reasons (one's mobile phone ringing or coming late to the game are the most common). Furthermore, in the same week there was a significant incident in the strong Dubai Open in which a grandmaster was actually kicked out of the tournament for using a mobile phone in the toilets to cheat during the games. This is a far more noteworthy event in my opinion, and is likely to have widespread repercussions for the chess world. But I digress. Comments about the So forfeit flooded my Facebook feed for days, with the remarkable feature that the incident completely polarised the chess community, including my grandmaster colleagues. Some threads would be filled with the opinions of some of the world's strongest players that So was a victim of a petulant complaint by his conniving opponent and a gross overreaction by a draconian chess arbiter. Others would unanimously support the view that So was a narcissistic rule-breaker whose disregard for the laws of chess could no longer be tolerated. There seemed to be none of my chess friends with any opinion in the middle.

I'm not going to take a stance here, but I will recount my own story of the time I was caught 'note-taking'. Many years ago, I was playing against the Australian club player Jason Hu. With a rating of 2100 or so, Jason is not a bad player, but I would normally be expected to win roughly nine games out of ten and was clearly better in this particular encounter, so much so that I was often wandering around the hall watching the other games during our match. This is pretty common among chess players when one's opponent is to move, but it is quite unprofessional when it is your own move and your time is ticking. In fact, as a reminder to myself, I used to note down on my scoresheet the amount of time I had 'wasted' by walking around while my clock was going. For example, say I made a move when my clock had an hour left, and went for a walk. If I came back to the board and it was my move with my clock reading 58 minutes, I would note down a "2" to remind myself that I had wasted two minutes of my own thinking time. If I noticed too many of these numbers, it was a signal that I needed to really start concentrating on the game and on remaining in my seat.

This practice had never proved contentious before, but in this particular game, Jason went up to the arbiter and made a complaint. We had one of Australia's most prestigious arbiters, Charles Zworestine - incidentally, a very good friend of mine - officiating. Charles did the right thing, and told me that I was technically breaking the rules, and that he had no choice but to tell me to stop. I - younger, rasher and more arrogant back in those days - was furious. In my mind, it was ridiculous that I should be practically accused of cheating for making notes about move times, especially as recording the clock times after each move is in itself legal. I was mad that the arbiter, a friend, would implement such a stance, and I was even madder at my opponent - a professional poker player - who, I was sure, had deliberately made the complaint to put me off. I played my next few moves quickly, slamming down the pieces at each turn. A dozen moves later, I blundered and soon lost, recording perhaps my worst defeat ever in terms of rating in Australia.

There was one significant consequence of this incident, at least for me. Although I still record my 'wasted time' on my scoresheet, and have never had any other complaints made about it, I did take a good, hard look at my reaction after the loss to Jason. In chess, players can find a plethora of ways to distract you before or during a game - some intentional, but oftentimes not. I don't know what Jason intended by the complaint, but does it really matter? And certainly Charles could hardly be berated for following the rules, given that this is the job of the arbiter. As a player, it really doesn't pay to take offence, both from a professional and a personal standpoint. What does it say about my mental toughness that being told not to write a number could cause me to completely lose the threads of a chess game? After this tournament, my new motto became "Don't sweat the small stuff", as my old trainer Manuel used to say. I've tried to adopt that attitude to my play ever since - sometimes unsuccessfully, but overall my results have certainly improved as a result.

I don't recount this story with any particular moral in mind, so don't read it as such. It's just a story. So what?


POSTSCRIPT: Since the forfeit, Wesley So won his next three games against three strong grandmasters, including against former World Championship Candidate Gata Kamsky and yesterday against current top-ten player Anish Giri. He is currently slightly better in his game against former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik as I write this.