Too late to leave?

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FIDE - never too late to leave"In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock," said Harry Lime in Orson Welles' The Third Man. In FIDE, for twenty years they lacked democracy and love for chess, and what did that produce? The zero-tolerance rule.

For the first time since Toiletgate, chess has managed to make the ChessVibes editors really angry. And, as usual, it had nothing to do with chess but with politics, rules and regulations. We are talking, of course, about the ludicrous, disproportionate forfeiting of Li Chao and Wang Yue for arriving a little too late for their second rapid game in round 3 of the World Cup in Khanty-Mansiysk.

What’s interesting in the discussions on this site and others, is that a lot of people actually agree with the measure taken against the Chinese players. Never mind tolerance, exciting competition and great chess – rules are rules and they simply must be complied! To us, it’s a bit surprising that usually sensible and intellectually developed people like chess players can be so strict and narrow-minded, especially in a situation where reason and the will to solve problems in an intelligent (rather than bureaucratic) way, seem to be called for.

We do not want to discuss too deeply the facts of the case of Li Chao and Wang Yue, in part because there is a lot of speculation and unclarity about their statements and what exactly happened during their smoking-break. For instance, it's not at all clear whether the players were actually warned that the games would shortly start, as Chessbase stated. Also, as GM Onischuk has pointed out, it's practically impossible for any player to figure out when exactly his game is going to start (apparently, it just depends.) There also was no message board, or a beeper (as Onischuk has suggested) or (our own suggestion, based on the tradition at the Corus tournament) a gong before the games are due to start. All this now makes the whole matter unbearably bureaucratic.

More importantly, we think the facts are completely irrelevant in this matter. It’s the zero-tolerance rule itself (in fact any zero-tolerance rule) that we have problems with.

Interestingly, the question almost nobody seems to ask in the case of the zero-tolerance rule for arriving late is: is the strictness of the rule balanced against the severeness of the problem it tries to solve? In other words: is arriving late (while your clock is ticking) such a big problem that it justifies the strictness (loss of the game) of the measure?

Here’s a little quiz for proponents of this particular FIDE rule: what would you say if your boss made a new rule stipulating that any employee (including you!) who arrives just one minute late at work, does not receive his monthly salary? To our mind, this is not an unfair analogy: Wang Yue and Li Chao – we can regard them as employees of FIDE - lost a lot of money – more than a month’s salary for ordinary people, we bet - for arriving just a few minutes late. All the work, the preparation, the hours spent looking for novelties – all gone in two minutes. (We know the players lost "only" one rapid game, but the shock effect must have been terrible.) Would you really say that’s a fair deal?

Now, we don’t know about you, but although we think it’s important to be at work on time, and though we usually manage this, we would consider it to be extremely stressful and uncomfortable when we absolutely HAD to be on time every day for fear of losing an entire month’s salary. Still, this is what all chess professionals have to do: they HAVE to arrive at ‘work’ on time every single game. And for what?

Li Chao and Wang Yue

Li Chao and Wang Yue on the left | Photo Galina Popova, courtesy of FIDE



This is another mysterious thing: why is it so important to be on time for a chess game anyway? At work, it’s perhaps because of a meeting, an appointment, or because you have agreed to make 8 hours a day, or simply because all your colleagues also start at that time. In all cases, others suffer from your being late – but in a chess game, you only have to deal with your opponent, and he actually benefits from your being late: he wins time with it.

The thing is, this latest FIDE-hobbyhorse is directly related to the well-known incident, on January 2, 1998, when FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch had to wait ten minutes for the arrival of Anatoly Karpov for his final against Anand. It seems that Ilyumzhinov desperately wants to impress the IOC by showing how well everything is under control in the world of chess.

Actually, we do think it’s good etiquette to arrive at a decent time for your game, but the beauty of etiquette is that the message of respect it contains is precisely in the fact that it’s not compulsory. After all, if something is compulsory, it’s not a matter of effort but of obeying a rule, and this has nothing to do with respect but with fear of violating the rule and being penalized for it.

The only sensible reason for having the players sit behind the board for the first minutes of the game is that they can be properly photographed. Still, great pictures can still be made these days during the round, thanks to the improved quality of silent digital cameras. Besides, one can still make excellent pictures if the player does arrive a little late, as has been shown countless times in the many decades when players could still arrive fashionably late.

Finally, the zero-tolerance rules in general are often counter-productive because they do more harm than good. As is noted many times in literature, applying zero-tolerance seems to ignore some basic aspects of human standards, such as open communication and accountability. In an article called Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools, published in American Psychologists, December 2008, the American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force concluded:
An extensive review of the literature found that, despite a 20-year history of implementation, there are surprisingly few data that could directly test the assumptions of a zero tolerance approach to school discipline, and the data that are available tend to contradict those assumptions. Moreover, zero tolerance policies may negatively affect the relationship of education with juvenile justice and appear to conflict to some degree with current best knowledge concerning adolescent development.
The problem with FIDE is that they seem to lack this kind of reflections on important matters. How is it possible that arguably the two strongest players of the past decade can play a game while deliberately refusing to shake hands, with arbiters, arms folded, are watching, but two ambitious, well-meaning chess professionals get kicked out of the World Cup for arriving a few minutes late for their rapid game, harming noone but themselves?

This really has to stop. FIDE is systematically destroying not only the dreams and hard work of two promising players, but also the entire structure and beauty of tournament chess, which has worked fine for over 150 years. Like Swiss clockwork.
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