But in the meantime, back to Canterbury, and specifically back to the controversy that emerged from the tenth round in the Major Open, and the game, if game it can be called, between Francis Rayner, the veteran Welsh Olympiad team member and pianist and Angus French, longstanding Streatham and Brixton Chess Club player and personal friend of the present writer. As well as declaring that interest, I should add that I was around 650 miles away from the University of Kent while the events described were happening, and while every effort has been made to establish the facts in order to write this piece, I'd be happy to accept any well-informed correction. But enough preface: to the narrative.
The Major Open functions as a qualifying event for the British Championship. There are various ways one can qualify for the Championship, but one of these is to attain a certain score in the Major Open. Any player who scored 7.5/11, or more, in the 2010 Major Open would have a place reserved for them in the 2011 Championship. There was also a first prize of £1000, a second prize of £500 and so on, down to £100 for fifth.
When the tenth round was drawn Angus, the long-time leader of the tournament, had lost to Caius Turner in round nine and the two of them shared second place on 6.5, half a point behind Paul Talsma and half a point ahead of six players on 6.0 including Francis Rayner. That's the players' positions relative to one another: but perhaps more important was their position relative to the magic score of 7.5. Angus, who had never qualified for the Championship, was a point off that target, so for him, a win would clinch qualification. Francis was a point and a half away, so for him, a loss would render qualification impossible.
Angus, who had the black pieces, arrived at the venue. The clocks were started and when the half-hour that represented the normal default time had elapsed, Francis had not yet arrived, though he did so very shortly afterwards. Angus claimed the game: Francis played his first move and pressed his clock. The arbiters conferred and declared that play should continue, a decision against which Angus then appealed.
It transpired that Francis had phoned, prior to the normal start time of the game, to say that he was going to be late. It is not 100% clear to me who he spoke to, nor what exactly he was told, nor on what basis he was told it - and so, though these things are of some importance, and in each instance I have a good notion, I won't pretend to know for sure. What is clear is that, for whatever reason, nobody communicated this information to Angus. He was not told that Francis had called. He was not told that he was going to be late, nor that this might result in the default time not being applied.
The consequence of this failure was that when that default time arrived, Angus had an entirely reasonable expectation that he had already won the game (and, not unimportantly, achieved qualification for the 2011 Championship). Moreover, his opponent, then arriving at the venue, apparently had a reasonable expectation that the game would be allowed to start. Clearly the two are irreconcilable.
Angus then had to submit his appeal in writing, which naturally meant that the game did not in fact continue. Nor did it do so while the Appeals Committee were considering his application. The Committee decided that Francis should not be defaulted, but that instead, he should be awarded a half point, while Angus should receive the full point. Among the consequences of that decision was that a game which should only have yielded a point yielded 1.5 to its two participants, something which, very understandably, did not entirely amuse all of their rivals for the prizes.
I don't want to paraphrase the Committee's reasons for making their decision, not having spoken to any of them or having the text of the decision to hand. For what it's worth I think they probably did their best with what, for reasons I'll enlarge upon below, I think was a stupid and impossible situation that should not for several reasons have arisen.
I'll also leave, for now, any discussion of the obscure but nevertheless comprehensible decision to pair the two players again in the eleventh round (though the comments box is available should other people wish to go into it) and I'll mention only briefly that that eleventh round game was a draw, which meant that Angus, with 8.0, came second in the tournament while Francis, with 7.0, missed out on Championship qualification by half a point and finished fifth, shared with five other players.
But what of the impossible situation which had arisen? As I've said above, I do not know exactly what Francis Rayner was told, nor who told him, nor the reasons for saying whatever was said. It appears that he was told that there would be no default: certainly he seems to arrived at the board under that impression and the decision of the arbiters not to enforce the default tends to back that feeling up. So does the decision of the Appeals Committee not to default him.
If he was told this, though, I do not think he should have been. It was certainly within the powers of the arbiters not to enforce the default: the relevant clause (under INFORMATION FOR COMPETITORS) reads
Default time:- Players arriving 30 (10 for Rapidplay) minutes or more after the start of a session shall lose, unless the arbiter decides otherwise. Repairing will normally be offered after that time.Shall lose, unless the arbiter decides otherwise. Or put more briefly, does unless it doesn't, or will unless it won't. It's a real crock of a clause, saying, effectively, nothing at all, giving neither competitors nor arbiters any guidance whatsoever as to what circumstances will cause the default to be applied, or otherwise.
However, let us try to offer such guidance, albeit retrospectively, and suggest what should have been taken into account. There are, of course, very different philosophies when it comes to the framing, interpretation and enforcement of rules, whether these relate to default times, or start times, or mobile phones, or players' behaviour, or any of a myriad of situations and circumstances that may arise during a tournament.
I probably tend to the stricter end of the spectrum in most instances, partly because I believe that that way, people know where they stand and partly because otherwise, I think people who manage to comply with the rules are penalised for doing so, to the benefit of people who do not. Be that as it may, I accept that not only are there legitimately differing approaches, but that the rules of this particular competition gave particular scope for different approaches to be taken.
However, my view is that no assurance should have been given to Francis Rayner (if indeed it was) that the default time would not be applied, because such exemptions should only be made in exceptional circumstances, and these would be circumstances which are wholly beyond the capacity of the player to anticipate. His reason for phoning was, as I understand it, that he had missed his train because a cashpoint hadn't been working.
Which to me, is not within a mile of good enough. It is really up to the player to get to the venue on time. It is up to him or her to anticipate that traffic jams may occur, that trains may be late or cancelled, that cashpoints may not always operate, that there may be queues at the ticket office. Ash clouds causing the cancellation of your flight? That would likely be good enough, provided that there is space to reschedule your game. Hurricanes, blizzards, plagues of frogs? Fair enough. But "the cashpoint didn't work" is about as good, as an excuse, as "the dog ate my opening preparation".
That may not be the most generous view ever taken. But why should it be? This wasn't a mid-table, end of season fourth division club match. This was the tenth round of the Major Open, with qualification for the country's most important tournament at stake. There was too much to play for it to be treated trivially, If, in the British Championship itself, in the penultimate round, on a high board, one of the players had phoned in and said they were going to be late, does anybody imagine that this would have been accepted and a default not applied? I do not think so. So is there really any reason for treating the qualifier for that competition so very differently?
I think Francis Rayner should have arrived at the venue under the clear impression that if he was not there within the stated time, he could expect, subject to appeal, to be defaulted. But he didn't. And if he didn't, if he was definitely and clearly told, by an arbiter, that this would not happen, then he was quite right to have the expectation that he would be allowed to play. Otherwise, the arbiter's word means nothing. But if that was the case, then plainly, for all sorts of reasons including basic courtesy, the player who was waiting surely had to be told. Angus wasn't.
This is incomprehensible to me. It blows my mind. I can imagine no good reason for it. None. Even if Angus left the board after thirty seconds and came back to it after twenty-nine minutes and forty-five seconds, I can imagine no good reason for his not being contacted. [EDIT: but see comment from John Saunders which may very well provide a good reason.] Nothing better than "gross incompetence", at any rate. At the very least, if a player is not at the board and can be nowhere seen - and these are very sizeable ifs - it is quite possible to leave a note on their side on the board saying something like
URGENT - MR ANGUS FRENCH, PLEASE GO TO ARBITERS' TABLE.
Is this not the case?
I appreciate that arbiters have many things to do, but I do not believe that in half an hour - or more, assuming that the call came before play began - it is impossible either to contact a player who is present either at his board, or elsewhere in the venue, or to leave him a note. I can only conclude that if he was not contacted it was because it was not considered necessary to do so.
If that's the case - and believe me, I'd be glad to be informed of any circumstances which somehow made it impossible or undesirable to contact Angus - then the arbiter responsible made a rod for their own back. Because they put two players in a position where they were entitled to expect opposite, mutually exclusive things, and they put the subsequent Appeals Committee in a position where they had no way of resolving this without being unfair to somebody.
To summarise. Francis Rayner called an arbiter, and asked if it was all right if he was late.
a. If they did tell him it was all right, they should not have.I would fault, and fault seriously, the phrasing of the rule relating to the default time, the decision (if such decision was made) to allow late arrival and - perhaps more than anything else - the failure to inform Angus.
b. If they didn't tell him it was all right, he should have been defaulted.
c. If they did tell him it was all right, they should have informed Angus French of the situation and of their intentions.
I wouldn't fault the Appeals Committee. What could they do? They could have told Francis that he was to be defaulted, but if he was given an arbiter's assurance, that would be very harsh. (If he wasn't, then he should have been defaulted, end of story.)
They could have told Angus to play, but given that he had done absolutely nothing wrong, and had arrived at the default time with every legitimate expectation that he had won the game, it would have put him in a completely unfair psychological position. He was present at the default time, his opponent was not and he had been given no reason to think that the default time would not apply.
They could have instructed the players to play, or they could have suggested that half a point be awarded to both players unless both were willing to play. That would have been possible. But that would have posed the problem of treating both players as equally responsible for the situation, whereas one had arrived on time and one had arrived more than half an hour late.
It's a common cop-out, in all sorts of situations, to wave one's hand and say "let's split the difference" regardless of whether all the parties concerned are equally responsible, and to my mind the Committee are to be commended, rather than criticised, for not taking that easy route. In the end they seem to have said that one player should have won on default, hence he gets a point: the other should have lost, but was unwisely told that he would not, so we'll give him half a point.
This of course, neglects the question of the interests of their rivals, who were penalised themselves, at least potentially, as a result of 1.5 points being awarded for a game when only 1.0 should have been available. In the event, I think the only adverse consequence from their point of view was that a five-way tie for fifth became a six-way tie. Although you could argue that had the Committee decided to split the point (which I think would have been wrong) the two players who shared third and fourth would have shared second to fourth with Angus instead.
Either way, it is an an absurd situation whereby 1.5 points have to be awarded for one game, actually or potentially penalising players in other games, players who have played within the rules and arrived within the stipulated time. This is why you have clear default times - so that everybody knows the rules. If you don't apply them, that is when you cause problems for everybody else. If you bend over backward to accommodate people who are late, you penalise other people as a result, people who have managed to comply with the rules. This is why it is weak, and wrong.
I would hope that lessons are learned, and that this doesn't happen again in the future. Specifically, I would hope:
- that the rules relating to the default time are rephrased ;
- that they are tightened, and that it is made clear that a player will in normal circumstances be expected to arrive within the default time, i.e. that the phrase "default time" has real meaning ;
- that on any future occasion where a player's reason for arriving late will or may be accepted, their opponent is informed as a priority ;
- that the concept of the 1.5 point game does not become commonly applied as a get-out clause to cover bad arbiting practice and decisions.
I've no desire to get on anybody's back about what happened, partly because I think it turned out all right in the end, partly because arbiters are people who give their time to enable the rest of us to play - and often do it for plenty kicks and little thanks. But at the same time, when there is so much at stake, there really cannot be this kind of circus. For some players, qualification for the British Championship might be a once-in-a-lifetime chance. That has to merit better practice than occurred last Thursday.
[Francis Rayner photo: Gibraltar Chess Congress]