When is Forfeiting a Game Justified?

by admin on April 11, 2015

Amazingly, two controversies in the chess world erupted in one day having to do with the same issue: forfeiting a player for writing things on his scoresheet that he shouldn’t.

Warning: All my reporting here is based on second-hand information. If there are any people who have first-hand information about either of these episodes, please tell us!

Incident 1: In the U.S. Championship yesterday, Wesley So was forfeited in his game against Varuzhan Akobian for writing notes on his scoresheet. Note-taking during games is strictly forbidden, of course. The accounts I’ve read said that So was warned twice before by the arbiter, although they didn’t say whether the warnings were in this game or previous games. It’s a little bit hard to believe he could have been warned twice in this game, since the game lasted only 6 moves. The notes merely said something like “Double-check and triple-check your moves.”

Incident 2: In the Aeroflot Open “B” tournament in Moscow, master Pavel Dvalishvili was forfeited (in a winning position against Orkhan Abdulov) for writing his moves down before he played them. Again, it appears that he received several warnings, or at least Abdulov complained to the arbiters several times, before the punishment was meted out.

The first incident has stirred up a big controversy on Facebook; the second one is not as widely known yet in the English-speaking chess world. Both of them happened just yesterday.

Just among my small circle of Facebook friends, it seems as if the majority think that the arbiter overreacted by forfeiting So. There are other options available to the arbiter to “wake up” the player to the seriousness of the infraction — for example, imposing a time penalty. Most of the commenters felt that jumping straight from verbal warnings to forfeiting the game was excessively harsh. Some people went so far as to claim that the arbiter, Tony Rich, was incompetent. On the other hand, one of my Facebook friends, Mike Zaloznyy, has stuck up for a strict interpretation of the rules and said that it is So’s fault for not paying attention to the arbiter. (BTW, Zaloznyy is also the one who brought my attention to the second incident.)

I think that the accusation of “TD incompetence” is pretty well shot down by the second incident, because at the Aeroflot Open the arbiter was Geurt Gijssen, perhaps the most famous chess arbiter in the world. And he reacted just the same way that Rich did, going from verbal warnings to forfeiting the game. Nevertheless, the writer of the article I’m getting the information from (Dmitry Kryakvin) felt that the penalty was shocking and he lamented the profusion of harsh rules that many players may not even know about (the “zero tolerance” rule for late arrivals being a particularly egregious example). To which I would say yes, but… If he got two warnings…

So how do you feel about these two incidents? Is forfeiting the game an appropriate penalty? In So’s case, does it matter that the notes were not moves but words? Does it matter whether they are written before the game or during the game? I actually have a personal reason for asking. Before every game, on my scoresheet I underline the move where the time control is (say, move 40) and in the margin, I write my time targets for moves 10, 20, and 30. Are these illegal notes? Another thing I have occasionally done (including twice at my most recent tournament) is to write “JDI” in the margin. This stands for “Just Do It” and it’s supposed to remind me not to waste time gathering courage to play a risky move: “Just Do It!” Is this an illegal note? I have wondered this many times, but I felt that as long as I wrote it on the scoresheet before the game I couldn’t get in trouble for it.

If this is cheating, what if “JDI” were the initials of some departed friend or family member, and I was playing the game in their memory? Would that be cheating?

In the second incident, I was quite surprised to hear that it’s no longer legal in FIDE tournaments to write down your move before making it. Kryakvin’s article points out that former world champion Mikhail Botvinnik actually recommended this for his students to slow them down and keep them from making impulsive mistakes. I don’t have any dog in this fight, because I don’t do it this way. However, I did once try Botvinnik’s method and I hated it. I found it so distracting to remember to write the move down first that it actually interfered with my thinking.

Jerry Weikel, who directed the Reno tournament that I just played in, has a few idiosyncratic non-FIDE rules for his tournaments. He announces them before round one. In particular he says that writing moves down before making them is okay if you are doing it on a conventional scoresheet, but not if you are using a MonRoi device. To me, that makes very good sense because entering the move on the MonRoi actually lets you see the position after you make that move. I don’t know why it is, but there is a huge difference between having to see it in your “mind’s eye” and actually seeing it with your physical eyes. The blunder I wrote about in my last post was a classic example, where after making the move I instantly saw what was wrong with it.

Anyway, under FIDE rules Botvinnik’s method has been illegal since about 2005.

I tend to be a stickler for following the rules, but being a stickler is not really fair when the rules are vague or people don’t know them. In these gray zones, I think that a verbal warning is a very reasonable idea. But I think that a second verbal warning may be interpreted by the player as a sign of weakness — that this rule doesn’t really matter. So from the psychological point of view, I think that the arbiter should start imposing penalties on the second infraction. The second time can be a time penalty (to show the player, “Look, I’m serious”) and then the third time it should be a forfeit.

P.S. Although it’s a completely separate issue, several people have posted links to this newspaper article on Facebook. Apparently So has been harassed by his estranged family during this tournament. And they have been aided and abetted by Paul Truong … a name that should be quite familiar to USCF members who know the whole long story of his (and Susan Polgar’s) being banned from the US Chess Federation. Very sad to see So getting mixed up with those guys.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt April 11, 2015 at 12:00 pm

I believe Tony Rich said during the broadcast that So was warned twice before earlier in the tournament. The second time it happened, he was told he would be forfeited if caught again. Whether that punishment is too harsh, I’m not sure, but if he really was warned yet persisted with note taking, it’s entirely So’s fault. With hindsight, perhaps the arbiter should have told So the second time that he would be deducting time (and not that he would be forfeited) but, having made the threat, when So was caught red handed again I don’t think Tony Rich had much choice. I also read that other GM’s had told So in previous tournaments that he shouldn’t be doodling on his score sheet because it technically a rules violation. Therefore, there’s really no excuse.

I feel bad for So because the rumor mill has been churning about some family issues he has had during the tournament. Unfortunately, though, the rules are the rules. I do think the punishment was a little excessive but Rich had left himself no option after already threatening So with a forfeit.

By the way, I don’t think that Akobian knew that So would be forfeited. He just wanted So to stop taking notes. Akobian may not have even known that So had been warned previously. I don’t attach any blame to Akobian and I saw some very unpleasant comments made about him on Chess 24, which were totally uncalled for.

I suspect that you could get away with this level of note taking in a USCF tournament, given that So wasn’t writing any actual moves down. However, in a FIDE tournament it’s another situation entirely and I hope So uses this as a learning experience.


weng siow April 11, 2015 at 4:27 pm

I am also not comfortable with Wesley’s family being aired but it is getting worse: see the latest Chessbase article where there is a reply from Paul Truong http://en.chessbase.com/post/what-is-wrong-with-wesley-so
and it seems that the family issue is notes simple as the newspaper article portrays. Looks like a struggle between “two mothers”. Also the Chessbase article with further information from the foster mother portrays Wesley as slightly eccentric in behaviour (am trying to avoid the “Au” word).
In addition, Paul Truong is not doing anyone a favour by now revealing that Wesley was basically kicked out of Webster U and the SPICE programme for repeated team violations. What are these?????
These just add fuel to the fire. Either you clarify or you don’t reveal at all.
All along most of us have sympathise with Wesley in his earlier struggles with the Philipines Chess on his transfer. We cheered him in the Millionaire Chess, supported his decision to “quit” Webster to pursue his dream and perhaps be one of the three challengers to Magnus (Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura being the other two), applauded him paying the transfer fee on his own to represent US Chess.

Now it seems that “feel good” narrative is being threatened ……
I am torn between whether this is a private affair or it is in the public interest to know and not a matter that chess fans are merely interested to know.

I think chess fans world over has a right to know. Just like I think chess fans should know the full story about Gata Kamsky’s father, Garry Kasparov’s mother. There are a lot of young chess players and parents looking at this story right now. If anything, it can be a story of what not to do.

BTW, IM Colin Crouch also supports your interpretation to some extent not he rule about notes: http://crouchnotes.blogspot.com.au/2015/04/the-so-rich-akobian-hispute.html


Robin Cunningham April 11, 2015 at 5:37 pm

First, it’s a shame for the tournament. I feel bad for all three involved. Here are my “three” cents:

1. If I exhibited the behavior the arbiter reported after being warned twice, I would expect to be forfeited and I would have no complaint.

2. It’s plausible and likely that So’s notes mean exactly what they say, but permitting his behavior invites abuse by others.

A related situation – a director has warned me twice that in time scrambles, I have a habit of using two hands when capturing a piece. It is totally unconscious, but I assume a forfeit is coming at some point.



jon April 11, 2015 at 7:08 pm

I’ve been watching as much of the National Championship as I can. I have nothing against Wesley So. He was interviewed (before the incident) by Maurice Ashly, and seems to be a nice young gent. This tournament had to meet not only USCF rules, but FIDE also I’m sure. The rule is pretty self explanatory. I do understand that he was not actually writing these notes on his score sheet, but had grabbed a second score sheet and was writing them on that. My opinion is this. These rules are there, and are, and should be, the same for everyone. Whether for me, a lowly class B player, or for those in the world’s top ten. If we are not going to enforce these rules, then why are they there? I had read that the arbiter did not have to even give So a warning, but he did, and I have heard that So got two warnings in this tournament. I can assure you that, If I was in his position, I would NOT have been writing notes. He should never have let it get this far, and should have heeded the first warning. For those that are mad at the aribter, maybe we should start a new sanctioning body. One that has no rules. Shucks, we could eat pizza, drink beer, arm wrestle, and have open carry and walk in with our AK47s strapped to our backs. If our opponent makes a good move, we could have a cage fight right there!
So, are players saying that, because he is Wesley So, he shouldn’t have to follow the rules? Tournaments already give special treatment to the top boards. Their set is up on a on a raised pedestal with a giant demo board and set behind them. I see nothing wrong with this, as these are the games folks want to follow, and it brings people in to the tournaments. But, do not tell me that the top players should be exempt from the same rules the rest of us have to obey. There will be no back of the bus in chess.
I haven’t watched todays games yet, but I hope Wesley is back in there fighting for his life at the board with a tough opponent, and I do not this against him. I may, if he whines and moans about being miss treated. Learn by this, man-up, and get back to playing the beautiful chess that you are so very capable of. You have a gift, and I want to enjoy your games!!


admin April 11, 2015 at 7:43 pm

Just a couple followup comments. First, as Weng points out, there was an article at chessbase.com that presents Truong’s side of the story. I think that they did the right thing journalistically to get both sides — in fact, it reflects badly on the local newspaper that they did not attempt to. At this point it is impossible for a bystander to say who is right or who is wrong, but obviously it is an unfortunate situation on top of the forfeit.

As for the forfeit in the Russian tournament, I stated incorrectly that it occurred on the same day. It apparently took place a week ago, and it was just Kryakvin’s blog post that came out on the same day as the So forfeit.


Mary Kuhner April 11, 2015 at 9:20 pm

Once you have warned someone that you will penalize them on the next infraction, you have to do it. Otherwise you lose all credibility.

I write my moves down before playing them. I had no idea it was not FIDE legal (though the last time I played in a FIDE tournament was way before 2005, so I guess I’ve never broken this rule). But I wouldn’t expect more than one warning, frankly.

If people are upset I’d suggest they focus on getting FIDE to change its rules, not on protesting the fact that they get applied. I’d be for dropping the no-lateness one myself. I’m not so sure about note-taking. Being able to write down sequences of moves could give you an advantage, especially if you are a verbal thinker. It is hard to think of a clear enforceable rule that stops that without stopping other notes, given that the arbiter may not know the player’s language or be able to decipher the player’s handwriting. Maybe it’s better just to disallow notes.


Joji April 12, 2015 at 7:37 pm

Weng Siow – I believe the article specifically asked for opinions on the forfeiture issue. You mentioned you are “torn” about airing here Wesley’s personal issues but it seem it did not stop you from adding your own speculations. The chess fans around the world does NOT have the right to know about someone else personal issues.


admin April 12, 2015 at 8:19 pm

Well, Joji, I was the one who brought up the family situation by mentioning the newspaper article, so I share at least some of the blame.


Mary Kuhner April 13, 2015 at 5:05 pm

FIDE has introduced several controversial rules lately and there seems to be uncertainty as to how, if at all, the player community can provide feedback. A number of people have presented evidence that the K factor for young players has been set too low. The forfeit rule that makes players lose a game for being a minute late seems universally hated. When I looked at a “differences between USCF and FIDE” page I found a couple more that surprised me–mostly that a game can be drawn with neither player making a claim, and in fact *is* drawn with fivefold repetition or 75 moves without progress. Don’t know how that rule is going to work in a tournament like the WA State Championship, which was FIDE-rated but certainly did not have an arbiter watching every board! Also, it is illegal to write your move first–unless you are claiming a repetition or 50-move draw, in which case you are *required* to write your move without moving your piece. That’s flat crazy in my opinion: at the point where you have written your move and not yet made the claim you are Schroedinger’s chessplayer, as no one can say if you should lose due to illegal writing or draw due to a claim you might make in the future! (In fact, if you are threatened with forfeiture for writing your move in advance, you should consider immediately claiming a draw: the false claim will cost you time but it might save the game, as now your illegal move-writing was actually legal.)


John Doe April 14, 2015 at 2:00 am

The rules are controversial only because they’re not explained. It’s assumed you understand them. If you don’t, just obey them.
It’s the same for chess moves, you don’t need to understand them to play them.


MaryKaye April 15, 2015 at 4:12 pm

A rule can be a good rule or a bad rule. The rules of chess have mostly stood the test of time well. (Computers did convince us to give up making exceptions to the 50 move rule for specific positions–that’s the most recent change to actual play that I know of.)

Rules for the conduct of tournaments are more recent, they have changed many times in just a few decades, and I think it’s completely legit to ask whether a given rule is good or bad for tournament players. This is skew to the question of whether players should follow the current rules.

It worries me that the member federations seem to have little say in FIDE rules changes or other policy decisions. Maybe I hear a biased, US-centric range of opinions, but I have seen very few supporters of the no-grace forfeit rule for lateness. Who wants to win because your opponent had car trouble or missed the way to the tournament hall? What I hear instead is people griping, but they don’t seem to know of any way to usefully communicate those gripes to FIDE. That’s worrisome, since the purpose of FIDE ought to be to regulate chess for the sake of chessplayers, and that requires feedback from chessplayers. I worry that instead external or internal politics and/or the requirements of financial backers are driving these decisions.

I’d rather not see a repeat of the split World Championships, and we seem dangerously close to that situation again.


jon April 15, 2015 at 6:17 pm

A tournament I played in last month did award a player the point as his oppoenent didn’t show up. But, he had to wait for ]one hour after the starting of the clocks.


Hal Bogner April 16, 2015 at 11:34 am

Rules enforcement can become rather controversial at times, and it can be difficult for an official to find the ideal blend of enforcing the letter of the law or – if it varies from the letter – the spirit of the law.

All involved now have more experience to draw upon for future occasions. My own view, as a USCF Life Master and as a FIDE International Arbiter, is informed first and foremost by believing that players come first, and the game itself matters more than the technicalities of the rules as codified at any point in time.

Whether GM So was intentionally flaunting the arbiter’s warning, or genuinely thought he had come into conformance, my own feeling is that a penalty of subtracting a significant amount of time from his clock would have been a strong next step, rather than moving directly to forfeiture of the game.

One other suggestion I would offer is that for an elite GM round robin of this nature, it may be helpful to have a Players Committee to review any appeal that GM So may have made, enabling his peers to have the final say as to the nature of his actions and the penalty to be enforced. A similar committee apparently did exist, and may have met over this issue – I have not seen reports regarding this – but I note that it consisted of one player from the event, one player from the concurrent women’s event, and one local GM who was not playing in the event. According to reports I have read, this was called an Appeals Committee, and it also lacked provision for replacing a potentially conflicted (due to involvement in the affected game) member; as a matter of good practice, all such committees should have two “alternate members” to replace members who may be conflicted in this manner. Finally, I have read opinions published by various arbiters (some holding the highest levels of certification) who advocate that all such Appeals Committees be comprised solely of official, and not of players; I cannot agree that this would be better than a committee of non-conflicted GMs who are fellow competitors in the event.


jon April 16, 2015 at 1:14 pm

GM Akobian was on the appeal committee, but was excused in this case, as he was So’s opponent. I think GM Ben Finegold was one of the committee members, and someone else filled in for Akobian.

Wesley So is now playing in the Shamkir tournament, along with some other big names. Anand, Carleson, Kramnik, Michael Adams, Caruana, and some others I am ot familiar with. I am hoping Wesley So has a great tournament and some fantatsic chess games in the event. This tournament starts in 13 hours from now (11:12 am Hawaii time currently).


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