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GM Joel on the Backhand Toss Print E-mail
By GM Joel Benjamin   
January 15, 2009
Hi Joel,

Thanks for your comments regarding "checkmate etiquette".  My question this time regards the nuances for the toss for color.  This does not occur all that much in Swiss tournaments, but in round robin events like quads.  In quads, players have one white, one black, and the third round is typically a toss for color.  I know the conventional wisdom is that players put one white pawn and one black pawn in each hand, and with the hands closed, the other player picks one of the hands.  I have always preferred to do a coin toss.  Some of the time, I do win the coin toss, and most players would naturally take the white pieces, not me.  I feel in chess, we always have to remain unpredictable, and in the coin tosses that I win, I had mostly taken the black pieces.  One tournament organizer and director had tiebreaking systems since most of the time, we were playing for trophies, and the last tiebreak would be whoever had two Blacks in the tournament.  That was my motivation for taking the black pieces.  However, I was told years later that the rules had changed, and if I won the coin toss, I would have to take White.  I totally disagree with this rule.

 Let me give an analogy. I don't remember what year it was, there was the NFC Championship game where the New York Football Giants were up against the Philadelphia Eagles, and the game went into overtime, so a coin toss had to be done to see who would get the football first.  Since it was a windy day at Giants Stadium that day, the Giants won the coin toss, and elected to play defense first and force the Eagles to battle against the wind.  Naturally, they could not move the ball, and the Giants got the ball and eventually won the game. I feel that the psychology behind the coin toss could be applied to chess as well.  I would like your opinion, if this rule should be changed again to allow players to be unpredictable even in coin tosses for color. 

David A. Cole, USCF Life Member, Franklin, NJ


Maybe my next question will be about adjournment strategy.  As you say, toss for color virtually does not exist anymore.  Colors are always assigned in last rounds of Swiss system events, and even in quads, the director often conducts the toss himself at the beginning of the day (this at least lets the players know in advance what colors they will have throughout). 

As much as I love sports analogies, I think you have apples and oranges here.  In football, the coin toss is indeed about the choice to receive the kickoff or have the wind at your back.  In chess you are simply picking a color.  That is why the process is generally conducted with one white pawn and one black pawn.  You don’t win the right to choose White; you assign yourself White by picking that pawn.  We typically call this “winning” the toss because most people feel playing White is advantageous.

I don’t think I’ve been able to keep up with all the rule changes over the years, and I admit to not even owning a current rulebook, but I think the experts out there will back me up on this one.  In any case, if you want Black for the last round, I suggest you use your extrasensory perception to “lose” the toss by pointing to the hand with the black pawn.