Chess Terms


Almost every competitive endeavor needs a referee, and chess is no different. Every chess tournament has at least one arbiter or tournament director to manage the play, rule on disputes, and ensure a successful event.

What Do Arbiters Do?

According to the FIDE Arbiters’ Commission’s Arbiters’ Manual 2021, an arbiter has four main responsibilities:

  • Ensure that laws of chess (rules) are followed
  • Prevent cheating
  • Act in the “best interest of the competition”
  • Observe the individual games

Arbiters must know every possible tournament format (round-robin, Swiss, etc.), how the rating system works, the regulation of chess titles, and the standards that must be met by the boards, pieces, tables, and clocks. It is also up to the arbiter to decide when a player has lost on time or made an illegal move, or a draw has happened on the board. And that all only scratches the surface.

Why Are Arbiters Important?

You could, in theory, hold a chess tournament without an arbiter, but it would be like holding a sporting event without referees or umpires. Like with referees, however, arbiters prefer to go unnoticed. Their visibility often goes up when a controversy arises.

Who Can Become An Arbiter?

There are over 14,000 official FIDE arbiters. FIDE also bestows the title of international arbiter. Arbiters are often very strong players themselves, even former top-10 players in the world such as GMs Salo Flohr and Yuri Averbakh.

Lothar Schmid, 2005
GM Lothar Schmid (seen here in 2005) was the arbiter during the famous 1972 world championship match between GMs Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. Photo: Hylmar Mockel/Wikimedia, CC.

Given the complexities of the job and its sometimes thankless nature, it is no surprise that arbiters are often good players. 

But you don’t need to be a GM to be an arbiter. After all, there are 1,700 GMs, only one-eighth the number of arbiters. It is more important to be modest, patient, and perhaps most of all, always attentive to detail. An arbiter has to be more familiar with the rules than a player does!


Now you know what an arbiter is, what they do, and who they are. You encountered a lot of chess terms in reading about this important job, so visit our Chess Terms page and gain an arbiter-level understanding of our favorite game’s unique terminology!

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