If you were this old man playing chess against a young boy, what would you have done?
I’m going to tell you a true story about an old man and a young boy (age under 10) who played a game of chess in a competitive tournament where prize money was at stake. I’d like you to think about the odd situation that occurred, while looking at it, with empathy, from different points of view:
- the old man
- the young boy
- the boy’s parent
- the tournament director, whose job is to enforce the official US Chess Federation rules of tournament chess
- the bigger picture of the chess community
- the biggest picture of life lessons
Given the whole story, do you think that what happened was right? Is there something you would have done differently if you had been one of the actors in the story? In particular, what would you have done as the old man?
Let’s call the old man Mr. M, the boy B, the tournament director T.
In the beginning of the second half of a long tournament, Mr. M and B were paired against each other. Neither had been doing too well in the tournament up till that point, but there was the rest of the tournament to go, and anything can happen in a long tournament. Mr. M on paper had the highest US chess rating of their shared class division going into the tournament and so was the favorite to win. B was a young newcomer to chess who had only been playing for half a year but was improving rapidly.
It turned out during the game that B played extremely well, outplaying Mr. M. The position was complicated but B had an advantage. B thought he spotted a winning move, and carelessly (still being young and impulsive, unfortunately) picked up one of his pieces in order to make the winning move, but in mid-air realized it was not going to win.
The touch-move rule in chess is one of the most important rules that exists in serious tournament chess. If you touch your own piece with intent to move it, or touch an opponent’s piece with intent to capture it, then you have to complete your move using the touched piece one way or another.
Violating touch-move is very common among young chess players in a casual setting, and therefore a critical bad habit to break, as B learned the hard way in this game.
Where to move it?
However, since B was still in mid-air, he did not have to complete the move he was going to play. He did have to complete some legal move using his touched piece, which he still held. At this point, he intended to put the piece back on its original square, as is legal to do so, to think of what move to make with the piece.
Unfortunately, in confusion, B accidentally released the piece on a random other square rather than the original square. This was really bad luck because the move that was thereby determined by the release.
The old man’s decision
Since Mr. M knew as well as B did that B did not intend to release the piece on the absurd square it was released at, he decided to allow B to return the piece to the original square in order to make a different legal move. Very charitable!
But then Mr. M suddenly changed his mind and said the accidentally determined move had to stand. The tournament director was called and ruled that according to the rules, indeed the move had to stand: the piece was released on a legal square.
B’s parent did not contest the ruling, because it was by the book, and the result was that Mr. M captured B’s piece and quickly won the game, because the rest of the game was nonsensical given the nonsensical move B was forced to play.
Given this information, how do you feel about what happened? Rules are rules, but Mr. M had the power to insist on strict enforcement or to overlook the unintended violation, and originally intended to let it go.
My first reaction when learning about this story was anger that Mr. M had changed his mind like that. If Mr. M had taken one course of action or the other, without suddenly changing his mind, I would have been OK with that. Either be forgiving or play by the book, but be consistent!
My second reaction, was from the point of view of what this incident meant for B in the long run. I had some conflicting feelings:
- I felt bad about B being forced to lose an important game in which he was playing some of the best chess he had ever played in his life.
- I was annoyed that B still hadn’t mastered “touch-move”, and felt that he needed to learn a lesson that would help him avoid such carelessness in his future chess tournaments, and this was a legitimate case of his learning an important lesson.
- I worried about how B would feel about this loss, given that he had started off the tournament pretty badly and was just getting his momentum back by the second half.
But this wasn’t the whole story. The other thing Mr. M did when explaining why he changed his mind was that he wanted to win the game and the tournament (recall that he was in a worse position against B, and hadn’t been doing so well in the tournament despite being the highest rated player in the section). So his concern wasn’t about strictly enforcing the rules; presumably if he already had a tournament win locked up and this game didn’t “matter”, he would have been “charitable” and allowed B to continue.
Does this change how you feel about what happened?
For me, Mr. M’s justification made me actively dislike him. At the same time, maybe B learned an additional life lesson in this tournament, that adults will do whatever is in their own interest and any generosity offered may be contingent on whether it impacts their own interest.
The end result
Some rounds later, the tournament was complete. It turned out that Mr. M won all subsequent games he played in the tournament, and therefore won the tournament, along with the prize money for first place, $500. He achieved his goal, fulfilling his justification for being firm in his game against B. So from his point of view, he made the right decision and got his moment of glory.
B bounced back from his disaster and also won his remaining games, and ended up with a pretty successful tournament overall. You could say that although it was unfortunate that his touch-move slip might have cost him first place, he learned a lot about taking touch-move seriously and about recovering from unfortunate incidents during a chess tournament. So from B’s point of view, he probably learned a lot more from Mr. M’s adherence to the rules than if Mr. M had been too nice.
Although I don’t like how Mr. M went about what he did, the end result seems actually optimal for everyone involved. Or was it?
I’ve written in the past about some life lessons I learned from chess as a child. I’m curious how B will look back at his incident later in life.
- Life lessons I learned from a lunch recess chess game at age seven
- Why I am grateful that my father never let me win a chess game against him