Chess Tournament Etiquette - dummies

By James Eade

Chess is supposed to be fun, but quite often people take it very seriously. When you play Mr. or Ms. No Fun, you should know the do’s and don’ts of chess etiquette.

Chess etiquette is especially important in tournament chess. In a serious encounter, both players are staring at the board for hours at a time. Your hypersensitive opponent will surely notice a raised eyebrow, and a sneeze may cause someone to go into shock. Heaven forbid that you’d have a nervous tic or a habit of drumming your fingers or humming (mostly) to yourself. Chess players have complained about all these things and more.

You may properly address your opponent during the game only to offer a draw. If you have a complaint, the safest course of action is to bring it up to the tournament director. If the game is only for fun, use common sense — but above all, avoid distracting an opponent who’s thinking about a move.

Chess at these levels is an incredibly tense activity, and players get no physical release. Even otherwise placid individuals have been known to lose their cool over a real or imagined infraction. The best thing to do is just play for the fun of it, but even then it’s important to know the basics.

Calling your loss

Chess coaches regularly instruct beginners to never give up and always play out the game to checkmate. “No one ever wins by resigning,” they say. Although this point may be true, sometimes a loss is inevitable, and wasting your opponent’s time when you both know you’re doomed is just plain rude.

When to resign

If you’re hopelessly behind in material or face imminent checkmate, you may as well start another game. Over the course of your lifetime, you may spend hours hoping to save one or two completely lost positions when instead you could be spending that time starting over from scratch. Moreover, you rarely — if ever — learn anything from these types of hopelessly lost positions. You’re much better off spending your time figuring out where you went wrong and then trying not to get into that mess again.

Your opponents may possibly enjoy seeing you squirm, and not mind continuing on. More likely, however, they’ll be annoyed that you don’t know when to resign and may refuse to play with you anymore.

The bottom line, however, is that resignation is a personal decision. You should never resign just because your opponent wants you to, but you should resign when you objectively decide that you have no way to save the game. After the conclusion is inevitable, you may as well shake your opponent’s hand and go your merry way.

How to resign

Just as important as knowing when to resign is knowing how to resign. The formal method is not to throw your hands in the air and start crying, but to tip your king over on its side. This action is a universally recognized surrender. Then it’s important that you extend your hand to congratulate your opponent — this show of sportsmanship is a valued ritual in chess. It demonstrates that you have at least a touch of class.

Many players shake hands after the game but then undo the goodwill gesture by complaining that they should have, by all rights, won the game themselves. “If I’d just done this, instead of that, it would have been curtains for you,” they sometimes say. This talk is just childishness. Far more effective is to ask, “What would you have done if I’d played this instead of that?” This approach accomplishes a couple of things:

  • It acknowledges that your opponent’s opinion, by virtue of the victory, may have some validity.
  • It allows you to listen to your opponent’s ideas. You’re much better off picking your opponent’s brain in this manner than trying to explain away why you lost the game.

Sometimes both you and your opponent will spend considerable time discussing the game. Chess players call these post mortem sessions. Try to be respectful during these sessions and concentrate on learning — not proving a point. You’ll make many chess friends if you follow this advice.

Offering a draw

If you’ve determined that you can’t checkmate your opponent, and if you don’t think your opponent can checkmate you, you may want to verbally offer a draw (or a tie). Offering a draw under any other circumstances may be considered annoying, and your opponent may report you to the tournament director. What’s worse is that the draw offer may be accepted or rejected, and you may still get scolded. In other words, if you make an improper draw offer, your opponent has the right to accept it and complain about it.

Under tournament conditions, you may make a draw offer only after you’ve made a move and before you’ve started your opponent’s clock. Never offer a draw to your opponent on his time. That behavior is a breach of etiquette, and repeated offenses may cause you to lose the game by forfeit.

If you make a draw offer without making a move, your opponent has the right to ask to see your move and then decide whether to accept or reject your offer. Repeated draw offers may be considered annoying, so wait until the position has changed substantially before making another offer.

If the exact position on the board (with all the same conditions — for example, castling privileges and en passant opportunities) is about to be repeated for the third time with the same player to move, you can claim a draw without asking. Of course, to do this, you must have a complete written score of the game to prove your claim. However, you must do so before making the move that would repeat the position for the third time, because the claim must be made on your own time and a tournament director must witness the move.

Being careful what you touch

One of the touchiest subjects in chess is the touch-move rule. This rule simply means that if you touch a piece, you must move it — if doing so is legal. If you touch a piece that has no legal move, you’re free to move any other piece. The move is considered complete when you take your hand off the piece.

Sometimes one player claims that the other touched a piece, and the second player denies doing so. If witnesses are nearby, the director may be able to make an informed decision. In the absence of witnesses, the claim generally isn’t upheld on the first complaint. If you accidentally bump a piece or knock one over, you should say, “I adjust” and replace the dislodged piece.

Furthering the touch-move rule, a frequent cause of complaints is the hand hover. The hand hover occurs when a player positions his hand over a piece and leaves it there. The hand hover is a distraction, and you shouldn’t do it — so goes the warning by José Capablanca. You should never obscure your opponent’s sight of the board unless you’re in the act of moving, so don’t reach for a piece until you’ve decided to move it.

Straightening your pieces

Sometimes a pawn or a piece may not be resting completely on one square or another. You’re allowed to adjust that pawn or piece — or even a whole bunch of them — but only if you do it on your time and if you warn your opponent first. The French phrase j’adoube (juh-doob; “I adjust”) is considered to be the proper warning, but it’s also okay to use the English translation.

As long as you’ve issued the j’adoube warning, the touch-move rule is temporarily waived. Keep in mind, however, that you can’t say “j’adoube” or “I adjust” after you’ve touched a piece!

Saving snacks for later

Generally, it’s considered improper to eat or drink anything at the chessboard except for water or coffee. Of course, if you’re playing in your own living room, all bets are off. The home team determines the ground rules in that case.