Touch move again

by admin on March 19, 2016

Leave it to Hikaru Nakamura to give us another lesson in how not to play chess. That is, literally, how not to pick up the pieces and move them. Last year, he taught us not to castle with both hands. (You might remember that in an Armageddon playoff game with Ian Nepomniachtchi, he did the two-handed castle and won, and the Russian’s protest was denied because it came too late, after the game.)

This time, in the World Championship Qualifiers tournament in Moscow, Nakamura was defending a difficult rook-and-pawn endgame against Levon Aronian. At one point Hikaru touched his king, clearly and deliberately, and then realized that moving the king would be a game-losing blunder. At that point he lamely said, “J’adoube,” and Aronian called over the arbiter. The arbiter ruled in Aronian’s favor, and if you watch the video there is no doubt that the ruling was correct. Nakamura moved his king and resigned a couple moves later.

Time once again for a refresher on the touch-move rule. The key points are: 1) If you want to touch a piece without moving it, you have to say “I adjust” or “J’adoube” first. 2) If you touch your own piece without saying “J’adoube,” you have to move it (if there is a legal way to do so); if you touch your opponent’s piece without saying “J’adoube,” you have to take it (if there is a legal way to do so). 3) If you move the piece and let go, that is your move. If you have not let go, you can still change your mind and move it to a different square. 4) If you have clearly touched a piece inadvertently (e.g., knocking it over as you reach for another piece), you are not compelled to move it.

Of course, this last proviso creates a gray zone, but that’s where common sense and sportsmanship need to come into play. The touch-move rule comes up probably at least once a month in the kids’ chess club that I run. “You let go of the queen!” “No I didn’t!” Usually in such cases, I remind them that this is a chess club, not a tournament, and they are playing a friendly game. In such a case I tend to allow the kid who allegedly touched the piece to do something else instead. I haven’t yet had to deal with it in a tournament. (I only run one tournament a year, and the kids who play in the tournament are way more careful about touching pieces than kids in chess club.)

I think the more fundamental issue is one of sportsmanship. If you don’t practice good sportsmanship when it’s easy, you won’t be able to do it when it’s hard. To me, that’s why Nakamura reacted the way he did — trying to get away with “adjusting” the piece.

Looking back through my old posts, I found that I wrote about touch moves once before, in this post from 2011. It’s well worth reading again, because the same issue of sportsmanship arises. A kid playing in his third USCF tournament (and only his ninth rated game ever) is beating a GM. He adjusts his opponent’s pawn on h3, but without saying anything. The GM realizes that the kid has a way of capturing on h3 (a suicidal move) and demands that the kid do it.

The GM was acting within the letter of the rules. You can’t find fault with him there. But he was also not acting in the spirit of good sportsmanship. The sportsmanlike thing to do would have been to realize that the kid didn’t know about the “J’adoube” rule, to realize that there is no way a kid who has been playing on a 2500 level would want to take that pawn, and he should let the incident pass and tell the kid about the rule after the game.

How many GM’s would do this? In the first round of a weekend tournament, when a loss will probably cost them a chance at first prize? As I said, if you don’t practice sportsmanship when it’s easy you won’t be able to do it when it’s hard. So the GM failed the test, and maybe discouraged a promising young kid from playing tournament chess.

I’ve been fortunate enough not to have any touch-move controversies in my tournament career. The closest call, maybe, came in 2006 in a game of great personal importance to me. It was a game against a class A player whom I will not name (because he’s innocent!), and it was the first-ever appearance of the Bryntse Gambit in an OTB tournament.

Dana Mackenzie – NN

1. e4 c5 2. f4 d5 3. Nf3 de 4. Ng5 Nf6 5. Bc4 Bg4?! 6. Qxg4! …

This queen sac is the defining move of the Bryntse Gambit.

6. … Nxg4 7. Bxf7+ Kd7 8. Be6+ Kc6 9. Bxg4 e5

This may actually be the best move. But the followup is not.

10. Nf7 Qh4+? 11. g3 …

bryntse trapPosition after 11. g3. Black to move.

FEN: rn3b1r/pp3Npp/2k5/2p1p3/4pPBq/6P1/PPPP3P/RNB1K2R b KQ – 0 11

Black now played a move that I can only write as “11. … xg4.” He snatched my bishop as a prequel to taking it with his queen… and then he froze. Presumably that was when he saw that 11. … Qxg4?? would be met by 12. Nxe5+, winning. This is, like, the basic trap in the Bryntse Gambit.

There my opponent sat, holding my bishop in his hand, for the longest time. It was at least five minutes, perhaps closer to ten. I can’t imagine what he was thinking about all that time. It was clearly not an inadvertent touch — he had my bishop in his hand! There is no other piece that can take the bishop. He has to take it with the queen. So there is literally nothing, from the chess point of view, to think about. I can only think that during those ten minutes he was trying to decide whether he could somehow get away with bending the touch-move rule. Maybe a Nakamura-style “J’adoube”? Maybe if he sat long enough, I would get up and leave the board, and he could put the bishop back? Fortunately, I had a friend, Jeff Mallett, who was playing in the tournament and happened to see the incident, and just sort of hung around our board in case a dispute arose and I needed an eyewitness.

In the end, my opponent did the right and the sportsmanlike thing. He completed the capture, I played the knight check, and he resigned. The Bryntse Gambit had won its debut game.

Of course, this is just a historical footnote, because the very next day I got my second chance to play the Bryntse Gambit. This time it was against an International Master named David Pruess. If you’d like to know how that one turned out, go to

What about you? Do any of my readers have any favorite stories about the touch move rule? Have you won or lost any games as a result of it? Have you seen any disputes, and if so, how were they resolved?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim Ratliff March 19, 2016 at 2:48 pm

It makes you wonder what the rationale for the current touch-move rule is in the first place. A natural conjecture: to prevent a player from using physical piece movements as an aid to mental visualization. But that conjecture doesn’t fare too well: Being able to move a piece to many squares before letting go (“If you have not let go, you can still change your mind and move it to a different square.”) does seem like an aid to visualization. And merely touching a piece (without picking it up off its square), which currently triggers touch-move enforcement doesn’t seem to be an aid to visualization at all.


Mary Kuhner March 21, 2016 at 6:15 pm

A young local player knocked his rook off the board with his elbow and resigned, as any move of the rook would have been fatal. When he told the story online he was deluged with restatements of what you say above….he took it pretty well, and at least he’ll know next time.

I have a lot more stories about people who abuse the “adjust” rule in other ways: I particularly remember the person whose otherwise ordinary chess set had knights with peculiarly distinct, staring eyes, and who would say “I adjust” and then turn your knights around so that they were staring at you….

In yesterday’s tournament I noted that if my opponent was surprised by a move, such as a sack, he’d invariably say “I adjust” and nudge the offending piece. Not at all a problem, but an interesting “tell”–could get him in trouble in a match.


Todd Bryant March 22, 2016 at 10:31 am

I’ve had two touch move episodes in my chess career.

The first was about 10 years ago in a G/30 at the Fells Point Chess Club in Baltimore, MD. After defending a bad but maybe drawn position, I got into time pressure and picked up a piece, moved it and hit the clock–not noticing that I had left my king in check. Now, this is embarrassing enough for any serious chess player (I was ~1800 at the time). My opponent stopped the clock and received his two minutes. But, I was genuinely shocked when my opponent pointed out that I also had to move the piece I’d moved illegally! I was totally unaware of this restriction, but the TD verified it. In fact, USCF rules clearly state:

11D. Illegal move. If, a player completes an illegal move by pressing the clock, in addition to the usual obligation to make a legal move with the touched piece if possible, the standard penalty specified in rule 1C2a applies (i.e. two minutes added to the opponent’s clock).

So I had to jettison a piece and resigned shortly after.

The next incident came about five years later, also at the Fells Point Chess Club. Again, I’d been defending a miserable position all game after blundering into a lost position in the opening. This time, however, it was my opponent who slipped into time trouble and left his king in check. I stopped the clock and claimed my two minutes. When play resumed, my opponent grabbed a different piece, when I heard “uh uh! you have to move it, you have to move it!” It was the TD, pointing out that my opponent had to move the piece he originally touched (again, a nonsense interposition that lost material).

So, almost an exact mirror of my first touch move run-in. But here, the TD jumped in and made a claim on my behalf (which was totally incorrect)–and I think had he not done so, I honestly would have forgotten that my opponent still had to move the piece he touched to make his illegal move.

I will never forget this detail again!


Jeff Mallett May 15, 2016 at 1:55 pm

I vaguely remember this happening to me once also. I grabbed a piece to capture, then realizing it was a bad move. Only in my case, there were several ways to capture, so I then starting considering how I was going to the capture. My opponent was objecting, so I explained that I knew I had to capture it; however, in the end I think I made my capture without much thought, because he was upset like he wanted to find the TD, so I wasn’t getting a chance to really think in any case.

But one of my worst experiences in chess came when I visited a chessclub near Arlington, TX for the first time. Right when I got there, they were starting a blitz tournament, so I joined at the last moment. I was the strongest player and was crushing some B-player in every possible way, and then he even left his king in check. I immediately took his king — the custom everywhere I had played for claiming the win — whereupon he informed me that I’d just lost, and the club members pointed out to me a copy of a blitz organization’s rules on the wall. Not only was taking an opponent’s king specifically declared a game-losing illegal move in the posting, it accompanied by a diatribe by the organization’s leader (an American GM) vowing to stamp out the monstrous practice. All well and good, except it was clear that my opponent had purposely left his king in check, just so this would happen! Well, he got the win, but I never had any urge to go to that particular club again.


admin May 15, 2016 at 3:01 pm

Hmm, I wonder who that American GM was! I think I can get it in one guess.

I had a somewhat comparable experience during my semester abroad in Russia, only everybody involved handled it better. I entered a blitz tournament and did not realize that they played touch move. After I tried to retract a move, a discussion ensued in which I said that I wasn’t used to playing touch move in blitz. The tournament organizer said that I could play the way that I was used to, but then I said that I wanted to play according to the same rules as everyone else, and I would just take my lumps. Which I did! I think I ended up scoring one draw and twelve losses, but at least it was a moral victory for sportsmanship.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: