GM Joel on Winning Chances
By GM Joel Benjamin   
February 6, 2008
 Hi Joel,

I have a question regarding an "insufficient losing chances" issue from a recent tournament game.

White to Move

I was Black in the above position. My opponent in severe time pressure, stopped the analog clock and asked for time delay clock based on having insufficient losing chances.The tournament director granted his request. I protested this decision but it didn't help. Later I looked at examples at USCF website and found that I was probably right. Certainly not only a class C player (the criteria) but even a class A player could easily lose this position to me.

Could you please give your opinion on this matter? Did the TD make a wrong or right decision?

Thank you

Igor Nikolayev

Once upon a time, each time control was followed by another one.  Games extended past the scheduled round times or into the wee hours of the night.  Sometimes they were even adjourned, a practice doomed by the strength of today’s search engines.

Chess changed for the better with the advent of sudden death time controls, but the changes opened up a can of worms.  In the early days, players could claim draws on the basis of “insufficient losing chances” based on the criteria you described.  The theory behind the rule was that a player should not be forced to run out of time in a position that he could never lose on the board.  That kind of judgment call is often difficult for advanced players to make, but many directors are below the class C level and are patently unqualified to make these decisions.  In some cases, TDs awarded draws in positions that were lost even with best play.

The time delay feature has improved the situation.  Now the director does not have to allow the draw but can switch the game to a clock set with 5-second time delay (if a time delay clock is already being used, there is no need for a claim).  The rationale is that a minimum of five seconds per move should be enough to hold a trivially drawn (or in some cases superior) position. 

The rule is often misunderstood.  Some players make a claim that they have reached a “book draw.”  If the position requires any level of sophistication to find the drawing moves, the claim is invalid.  Some players think they can demand a delay clock to obtain enough time to prosecute a winning advantage.  For instance, a player with queen versus rook but less than a minute on the clock risks a time forfeit loss.  If that player asks for the delay clock, the opponent would be foolish to continue under those circumstances, but he can simply accept a draw.  The delay clock is only put on the game if the non-claimant objects to a draw and insists on continuing.  This often happens when a superior opponent has an inferior position.

So let’s consider your case.  I don’t claim to know every permutation of the rule, but I believe the director here had another option.  The position in question is way too dynamic for a claim to be proper.  In the first place, White has only one move (1.Rf4) to stay out of trouble.  If he tries to simplify (hoping to clear off some pawns) with 1.Rxf7+?? he is lost after 1…Rxf7—the g-pawn will queen if White tries to take anything.  Let’s follow the best play given by Fritz 8:

1.Rf4  Rxc2 2.Rg5 [2.Rdf5 g2] g2 3.Rf6 Rc4+ 4.Ke3 Rxb4 5.Rxg2 Ke7 6.Rh6
Position after Rh6

The computer evaluates the position at nearly a pawn better for White, though small mistakes along the way would bring that score down.  I’ve seen a lot of C players play endgames, and I do believe I could win this position against most of them.  But it’s a close call.

The position you sent me, however, is too tactical, even if these tactics are not exceedingly difficult.  White has a rook attacked, and another one en prise if the f2 rook gives up the pin.  Black has a lot of pawns left, two of them passed and fairly advanced.  I believe the director should have declared the claim premature and reserved the right to grant time delay if the position should clarify.

Even with time delay on, a lower rated player could be hard-pressed to score from the diagrammed position.  You didn’t say how the game turned out, but if you remember the continuation I hope you post a comment to my reply.  I would like to know, and I’m sure our readers would, too.