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Response to Irina's Open Letter Print E-mail
By Tom Braunlich   
June 2, 2008
2008 Frank K. Berry U.S. Women's Championship
 To Irina Krush, Anna Zatonskih, and all Championship Participants,
This is a response to the Open Letter published in Chess Life Online a few days ago from Irina Krush which protested the outcome of the final playoff game of the 2008 FKB U.S. Women's Championship in which a wild time scramble occurred and Anna Zatonskih was declared the winner on time by a mere one second margin. I am writing this on behalf of the Championship Organizing Committee, whom I consulted about the issues raised. (The organizing committee consisted of Frank K. Berry, Jim Berry, and me. Bill Goichberg and John Donaldson also contributed to this reply.) Although I wasn't in the room myself, I have consulted with several witnesses who were there, and others, and I had a long discussion about it with Irina on the phone.
I think it is clear that the committee, and most people who have seen the video, sympathize with Irina’s grievance. A playoff that ends in a time scramble like this is never going to have a satisfying result. This experience calls out for the USCF to determine and create guidelines for an optimum system of playoffs for important titles — identifying the best available playoff option to use in certain circumstances (i.e., depending how much time is available for the playoffs, etc.). Guidelines for when to use playoffs as opposed to mathematical tiebreaks or declaring co-champions would also be nice. I am writing the article on the Championships for Chess Life, and plan to detail this issue there as well as to cover this controversy.
The playoff system used in this tournament was similar to ones that have been used before for other important events. It should be noted that the intended playoff methods were communicated to the players long in advance and there were no objections.
First, let's discuss the technical aspects of the protest itself before discussing its "fairness" beyond the technicalities. Irina's basic complaint was that the final game was not decided on the board but instead was a clock-punching race in which Anna can be seen on the video starting to make her move before Irina punches the clock on several occasions. Irina calls this both illegal and unfair. (See the addendum after this letter for some interesting discussion on the legalities of this. It is a separate controversy by itself that has been sparked by this event.)
The bottom line for IA Frank Berry and Jim Berry, who were the directors present, is that no protest of the outcome was made at the time when something might have been done about it. Instead the protest came many days later.
Frank stated, "I'd have to say that by not raising an objection at the time Irina essentially agreed to the result by quickly walking out and not protesting immediately.  Once agreed to it is next to impossible to over-rule... even in the face of video evidence that might show questionable bending of the rules. I was there to rule in case of an objection raised by one of the players.  I'd have to say at this point the result stands as posted that night. It was wild... but who expected otherwise?"
Also, neither TD believed it was their responsibility to step in and stop the game during the time scramble. Here is what Frank noted about what discretion the director has in such situations:
"A few areas of the USCF rule book ( # 5 ) are appropriate:   
11D1  Illegal move in sudden death time pressure: A director should not call attention to illegal moves in sudden death time pressure.
(Both players could be seen making questionable moves in the video)
21D Intervening in games. The director's intervention in a chess game shall generally be limited to the following:
21D2 Correcting illegal moves observed. Correcting any illegal moves observed, unless time pressure exists...
21F. Player requests for rulings. A player has the right to stop both clocks to ask the director to rule upon a point of law, procedure or conduct. (This was not done by either player).
Since this was not a FIDE qualifier event we were going by USCF rules. ... "
Frank also has said (along with Larry Kaufman and Bill Goichberg, among others) that this experience makes it clear that if an armageddon playoff game is used is should include a short increment or delay, such as 1 or 2 seconds, to lessen the awkward effects of a possible mutual time scramble. Of course, if you did that you would have to greatly alter the relative starting times of white and black to re-balance the draw-odds equation. Heretofore this has normally not been done for armageddon play, but perhaps it should be.
Another appeal Irina made was to fairness or justice, regardless of the protest being late. She implies in her letter that Anna's play was unfair, that even though technically it was allowed to stand with no objection, and even though Anna may not intentionally have been trying to be unfair, nevertheless it caused a situation not worthy of a sporting result. This is sticky territory, and I hesitate to discuss it since both Irina and Anna are my friends and I’d like to keep it that way.
Irina’s protest is understandable, but two counter-arguments need to be mentioned in response. First, it is unclear if what Anna did on these moves is actually illegal (see addendum below, in which experienced TDs argue it is not). But even if it is, it also has to be said that it can be seen from the video that both players made technically questionable moves during this wild scramble. At one point Irina knocks over a rook and does not pick it up, which is illegal, and a few more moves occur after that.
On this issue, none of the eyewitnesses I've talked to said that they witnessed anything they considered inherently unfair. 
"I did not witness anything that would have led me to think the result of the game should not stand at the time, had a complaint been lodged in a timely fashion," said one 2600-rated witness.
 "The biggest thing is neither side played fairly, as Krush knocked a rook off the board and didn’t fix it as well as Zatonskih's moving before Krush hit the clock," said another player who was a witness.
 So — how can one say this — perhaps one might say that the "unfairness" existed on both sides? But, let's face it, this kind of thing is what commonly happens in a mutual time scramble with no increment in the cases that both players go "down to the wire" like this. Pieces start flying, hands move in a blur, etc. It is to be expected, which is why it is to be avoided. To illustrate this, imagine this thought experiment: Suppose everything happened just as it did except that Anna was the one who lost by one second. Later on when she sees the video she might then have protested that the result was unfair because Irina made an illegal move when she didn't replace a knocked-over piece. I think people would have been sympathetic with her as well in such a case.
 A better word than unfair perhaps is just plain "unsatisfactory." The "blame" for the unsatisfactory result, if it goes anywhere, should perhaps mainly go to the format for the playoff, which allowed this possibility to occur. Again, this can perhaps be fixed in the future but is difficult to try to adjust after-the-fact.
I have three short “addenda” to add on related issues, which I will put following the end of this letter, including:
(1) Sportsmanship
(2) Correction — The Time Status
(3) Making a Move — Is it illegal to start your move before the opponent punches the clock?
With deepest respect and regards,
Tom Braunlich
On Behalf of the Championship Organizing Committee.
(1) Sportsmanship
In her letter, Irina says she was pained to be accused of bad sportsmanship. I don't know anyone who was there who thought that way about her. I know that I don't. We all were well aware of how tense the situation was. Her reaction was entirely human and even rather restrained, considering the stressful circumstances. I hope no one believes otherwise.
(2) Correction — The Time Status
There has been a lot of confusion about what the time situation was at the start of the time scramble. The original report I quoted in the CLO article that evening, which was that Anna had 2 seconds vs. Irina “about 20” seconds, was completely wrong, as was my speculation about how Irina could lose such a big lead.
Another new report I have from a witness is that the time was Anna 8 vs. Irina 12 just before the scramble began. Apparently (from the other reports) it proceeded then to 3 vs. 8, then 2 vs. 6, then 1 vs. 0.
(3) Making a Move — Is it illegal to move before the opponent punches the clock? Apparently not.
One thing that is clear to me from this controversy is how "unclear" the rules for making moves are. This has been a subject of much of the internet discussion following this event — was what Anna did on several moves actually illegal? From what I understand, the USCF rulebook doesn't address the question directly of moving before your opponent punches the clock.
I think that the fact that this close final playoff game was videotaped has brought the issue to the forefront. When things like this happen in blitz tournaments it all occurs so quickly that it can hardly be appreciated.
The difficulty arises due to some ambiguity in the rules themselves, which define a move as not being made (or "completed") until the clock is pressed. You can’t make a move before the opponent completes his move (by pressing the clock). But does that mean you can’t start your move until then, or just that you can’t make (or complete) your move until then?
Here is some evidence from two highly respected directors who say that you can begin your move before the opponent presses the clock:
(1) FIDE Rules — This all was very recently addressed by the well-known International Arbiter Geurt Gijssen in his article on chesscafe.com this month: (See http://www.chesscafe.com/geurt/geurt.htm — question two.)
As you can see, Mr. Gijssen interprets the rules (the FIDE rules, see USCF comments below) to mean that what Anna was doing was not illegal. You must allow the opponent to punch the clock before you complete your move, but you can begin your move (i.e. start moving the piece) before the opponent completes their move by pressing the clock.
This is not what many people believed the rule to be, including me. Many think you cannot start your move until the opponent has hit the clock. But when you think about it, such a rule would be very hard to enforce and there are many occasions in time trouble when this is inevitably what is done, due to the extremely fluid and fast nature of such play. As Gijssen says, "Can you imagine how many quarrels we would have in Blitz and Rapid games?" Is it really even possible to determine if a player has touched a piece before the opponent punched the clock? We are talking about small fractions of a second here during a time scramble. It is all happening so quickly, it seems impractical to require the player to not start his/her move until the opponent’s clock is punched. Is a player who “jumps the gun” by a tenth of a second really making illegal moves? You offer a queen trade, the opponent takes it; and immediately you follow with your automatic recapture before the opponent hits the clock, hitting your clock as quickly after them as you can. This is simply a very common thing.
Gijssen's interpretation of the rule makes the punching of the clock the determining factor, something that is far more easily observable and verifiable.
(2) USCF Rules — Mike Atkins, one of America's most experienced tournament directors, supported this same interpretation with regard to USCF rules in his posting on the CLO forum after he viewed the video:
"I have directed hundreds of blitz tournaments over the past 15 years and helped write the new USCF Blitz rules that are a modification of the old WBCA rules. After watching the video several times, there was nothing illegal except for the piece being knocked over and not replaced. …
I clearly saw Anna making moves while Irina was moving and you can see Irina doing the same thing. This is not illegal. Both players were moving extremely fast. Top blitz players have to do this to survive. If they wait politely until the opponent has moved and punched their clock before moving, they will lose every time. Anyone ever see Hikaru [Nakamura] or Jorge Sammour-Hasbun play blitz? I've seen MUCH MUCH worse at major tournaments, with players moving so fast I couldn't keep up with them - I wish EVERY blitz game had a video as it clears up all arguments.
 The rules concerning the clock are:
6.) Except for pressing the clock, neither player should touch the clock except:
6a.) To straighten it.
6b.) If a player knocks over the clock a penalty may be assessed.
6c.) If your opponent’s clock does not tick you may press his side down and re-press your side; however, if this procedure is unsatisfactory, please call for a director.
6d.) Each player must always be allowed to press the clock after their move is made.
6e.) A player should not keep a hand on or hover over the clock.
6D and 6E were at question here. Despite moving very fast, I did not see either player violate 6D and both players were following Rule 4 - Both players were using the same hand to move and hit the clock. It’s really difficult to hover over the clock with one hand and move with the same hand at the same time, I didn't see that happening either. …"
Others in the forums have argued against this interpretation, and I will let them determine what is correct here. It seems to me that at least it needs some clarification. I’m not a tournament director, but if the above interpretation is correct, my humble suggestion for a clear way to explain the technicalities of a move would be something like this:
You begin your move by touching a piece. You are now committed to moving that piece somewhere, if it can be done legally (the “touch-move rule”).
You are committed to a move by releasing the piece on a new square. The move cannot then be changed, even if you have not yet pressed the clock.
The move is completed when you press your clock (thus starting the opponent’s clock).
You cannot complete your move (i.e., press the clock) before the opponent has completed his, nor can you interfere with his move or his ability to press the clock.

May - Chess Life Online 2008

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