Monday, March 19, 2007

Sound and fury

On Saturday I had an experience, playing chess, that I never wanted to have - but one which I knew I was bound to have sooner or later. It didn't involve my losing disastrously. It didn't involve losing at all. It didn't involve missing a win and having to settle for a draw. The result wasn't the problem - in point of fact I actually won the game, and I won it quickly. That was, in its way, the problem. Winning in the way I did involved my being put in a position where - for reasons entirely beyond my control - there was no way of doing the right thing. I won the game: but other than that, I couldn't win.

The match was played between Casino Jaque of Huesca and UGT Aragón of Zaragoza, in the team championship of Aragón, in the penultimate round, with both sides in danger of finishing in the relegation zone (or having to face a play-off to stay up). I played on the top board. My opponent, Jesus Gracias Suarez, had the white pieces and the game began thus:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4 Nf6 5.Ng5!?

This was the first and only point in the game at which I paused to think. I decided to play 5...Ne5 (which, as it happens, is possibly weaker than 5...d5) but just as I reached out to move the knight, my opponent's mobile phone went off. This, as I understand it, means the automatic loss of the game. Not knowing the Spanish word for "claim" I said "es la partida" ("it's the game"). My opponent looked to his captain, who, though I couldn't follow precisely what he was saying, told his player that this was indeed the case.

Mr Gracia wasn't at all happy, and a conversation with his captain took place outside the playing room, after which he came briefly back to the board, told me that he would not have claimed the game and left without signing his scoresheet. Which left me shrugging my shoulders, saying "¿qué podría hacer?" ("what could I do?") and feeling uncomfortable.

It always leaves a bad taste in the mouth when a game is decided by the disqualification of one of the parties. It's always an uncomfortable situation. But it shouldn't be. It should and could be done in a straightforward manner and accepted by all parties. There are rules laid down: everybody is used to them and knows what they are. There should be no problem. No controversy.

One may, of course, let them pass - in casual and unimportant games. But in serious games it's unwise to do so. Life is difficult enough as it is without introducing unnecessary ambiguities. I'm a stickler for the rules, in that sense. Games should start on time, moves should be recorded properly, all these sorts of things should apply as is set down. Not perfectly and not exactly. But they should apply: they shouldn't just be flouted, because if rules are ignored then nobody knows when or whether they should actually be applied. In general, if people know where they are, then the potential for controversy is reduced. If responsibilities are set out and understood, then the potential for ethical ambiguities is similarly lessened.

Now I should reiterate that this was a match, in a team compeititon - and a crucial match at that. I therefore had, in my opinion, a responsibility to my team-mates to claim the game, just as I would have a responsibility not to play for a win where a draw was required. (Or, as it happens, just as I had had the responsibility the previous week not to play for a draw in an inferior endgame, because the team were a point down and mine was the last game to finish.) If I'd not taken the win - and we had gone on to lose the match and found ourselves relegated - that would have been my responsibility. I had no reasonable alternative.

But that, in truth, is not my defence for claiming the game. My defence is that I shouldn't have to provide a defence. A game that is lost within the rules should be claimed within the rules without anybody making any fuss about it. It is a player's responsibility, to make sure his or her mobile is switched off before a game. It is a captain's responsibility, to ensure that their players are reminded of this. It is not the responsibility of the opponent to overlook it. There is nothing to talk about.

Should one similarly overlook it if a piece is touched and then the player regrets it? Or if a flag falls? Of course not - and one is not expected to. We learn from our earliest days in chess that "touch-move" always applies and we learn from our earliest days in competitive chess that when the flag falls the game is over. These rules exist and are applied so that games take place in proper conditions. Nobody would ever attract adverse comment for insisting that they be enforced. I see no meaningful difference where the rules involving mobile phones are concerned.

Another point. If a game is continued after one player could have claimed it, the conditions are not equal for both players. One player is in the position of having been able to claim a win: that will prey on their mind, just as it preys on your mind if you miss a win, or if you are offered a draw and do not take it. But the other player has nothing to lose: reprieved from their loss, they no longer have anything to worry about. The pressure is all on the innocent party. Therefore the player who broke the rules is in an advantageous position in relation to the player who did not. Is that not an absurd situation? Is it not precisely to avoid that situation that we have rules in the first place - and why we enforce them?

I didn't much enjoy claiming a win in the circumstances that occurred on Saturday. I play chess to win, but I don't play just to win. But I would always claim the win in these circumstances, for the several reasons I have set out above. As I say, I am not setting out a defence, precisely because I believe no defence is necessary: this piece serves, perhaps, merely as a discussion of the issues, one that can be referred to in the future, if and when the situation recurs. But it is not a defence, because none is required. I would be angered by the suggestion that it were - and if anyone should tell me otherwise I will respond. Not with a defence, but by deploying a vocabulary that I have acquired in Spanish but will not reproduce on here.


Anonymous said...

I agree.

What was the reaction of your teammates - were they thankful? What was the match result?

I also think the rule is too harsh, especially for amateur chess. It's just too easy to forget to turn your mobile off and then, when it rings, you've wasted possibly a whole day and you may feel as though you've let down teammates. I think a warning for the first ring and a loss for the second would be a better rule.


Anonymous said...

Also: Was there an announcement before the start of the match to remind players of the mobile phone rule?


ejh said...

No, there wasn't - and that's the problem in my opinion. I think league rules should oblige captains to remind their playes of this, thereby making the responsbility plain. In fact I can remember suggesting this casually in relation to Surrey League rules.

I don't know what my teammates thought and if anything I suspect they would not have claimed it. This is partly a Spanish thing - rules tend to exist but aren't enforced unless they're trivial. I find this very hard to adapt to. Part of the reason for this is that I think it stores up trouble.

I think the rule is a good one. It may of course be that having worked for years as a librarian I find it very easy to remember to turn off my phone! But it really ought to be second nature to players now and I'd suggest that if it isn't, it's partly because the rule hasn't been enforced.

My side won the match 4-0.

ejh said...

Incidentally, when I say "claim" I don't really mean it. As far as I'm concerned the game is just over, there's no "claim" involved. This is precisely so that the innocent party is not placed in an invidious position.

Anonymous said...


I'm totally with you on this one. I was once playing in a tournament when on the board next to me, some way into the game, I heard, "are you going to enforce the 'touch move' rule?" I was truly shocked.

I'd claim a win if my opponent's phone rang in any circumstance regardless of how many moves had been played.

I disagree. It is infact very easy to remember to turn your phone off when you need to. I do it myself every time I go to work, go to the theatre or cinema, every time I go into a library, every time I go into a lecture, every time I play chess etc etc etc.

I do agree with you that many people seem to find it hard. As I see it, it's only difficult if you're rather self obsesses or think your right to have your phone on is more important than everybody else's right to have some quiet.

A Warning for a first offence would only lead to more noise.

Anonymous said...

I've noticed that when a phone rings in an environment where it should have been turned off (e.g. lectures) it's always the same people who find it hard to 'remember'. i.e. it's not the remembering that's the problem but the person themselves.

Similarly, it's always the same people who are stuck in traffic or suffer delayed trains/busses and end up late.

Secondly, I've always found the "I wouldn't 'do x' so you shouldn't" argument somewhat weak. It's just another way of saying, I'm thoughtless and disrespectful so you should be too.

Off with their heads I say. A defaulted game is too good for them.

Tom Chivers said...

Have you ever worked out why people who are always late are always late? It's so that if you're late as well, they avoid wasting their time waiting for you.

ejh said...

I tend to thing that it's because they've never learned to be on time, they kind of take it as natural and normal.

It's also possible that like disorganised people in general, they don't really appreciate that other people who are less disorganised have to put in extra effort to compensate.

Anonymous said...

It happened in a county match recently to someone who I know is team-oriented and considerate. The incident affected his sleep for several days.


Anonymous said...

you're exactly right. What you're saying is they think because they are routinely late everybody else is too. Also they think their time is more important than yours i.e. they are self centred.

This, I'm saying, applies to people who are routinely late. I will concede that occasionally, although much less rarely than the routinely late would have you believe, even the most punctual of people will be late due to circumstances beyond their control.

As above, I will conceed that occasionaly even the most thoughtful person will forget to turn off their mobile phone when they should have done so. However,
(a) this is infinitely rarer than the routine offender who can't be bothered to consider the impact of their behaviour on others
(b) when it happens they are concerned about it - viz your comments - and are most unlikely to argue that it is unfair they be defaulted as Justin's opponent did.

Anonymous said...

Another example -

the happily now ex S&B player who turned up for a league match 5 minutes after the default time and argued (loudly and for a long time) that he should be able to play anyway on the grounds that it was 'only' 5 minutes after the default time. Persumably he thought the Surrey League rule book named him specifically as being able to come to a game 300 seconds later than everybody else.

Again, anybody can be late. Some people rarely are. Some people complain bitterly when rules that apply to everybody are applied to them.

It's because they think they're special and different.

ejh said...

Funnily enough, I was going to cite defaults for being late as an example in the posting.

As it happens, games here almost always start late (though they won't at Benasque). Mind you, they always seemed to in Surrey league matches too.

Which I don't mind if it's only three or four minutes, but the problem is that when you get used to the rules not being enforced, it means people then start conplaining when they are.

When people think that the rules don't apply to them they usually use some phrase like "I know it's the rules, but you could use come common sense" which in context means "I know it's the rules, but they shouldn't be applied to me because I don't think of myself as a rulebreaker".

ejh said...

Incidentally, regarding Angus' example of the county player, I strongly sympathise but I suspect the sleeplessness involved in letting down one's team-mates would also arise in the event of a blunder, for instance. I've frequently lost sleep after playing badly. It's not really to do with mobiles per se.

And >I'll tell you what - I bet the player concerned didn't complain about the default. The complainers are nearly always, as Jonathan says, the people who think the rules don't apply to them.

Anonymous said...

I'm not going to give up my weekend/evening not to play a game of chess.

Anonymous said...

But then we have a team policy (in the London League) to be generous (within reason) with default times, and of course the mobile phone thing doesn't apply.

Anonymous said...

One of the Oppo's phones went off in a Herts League match last night. There is no default rule. Offender is normally unsure what the rule is so at least they rush out of the room and come back extremely apologetically. Same thing should happen in all public places imo- I hate mobiles! Some blokes mobile went off about 5 years ago in a packed London League room. He answered it and conducted a conversation at normal volume for about a minute. Gormally was in the room and didn't look too pleased. Thought he might deck the offender, but obviously decided to save his energies for higher rated players:)


ejh said...

Isn't Nigel Davies supposed to have done much the same in some important game - and not seen anything wrong with it?

As a librarian I can vouch for how difficult it always is to explain to people that if your mobile goes off and you then rush out of the room, this is actually disturbing people even though you then hold most of the conversation outside.

I can't believe the Herts League has no default rule. The problem will keep recurring and keep recurring until there is a rule and it is respected.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the original post (by and large). This reminds me of a match I saw a couple of months ago where what should have been the stronger team turned up having left their board 1 (highest graded player in the division I think) behind, leading to a default. This might have been survivable had he not then phoned his captain to ask what the hell was going on... (and if the captain had switched his phone to silent).

An elegant way to lose 2 points, in a sense.