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Move First, Write Later, A New Year's Resolution? Print E-mail
By Macauley Peterson   
October 2, 2006
New fall fashion rule: Match your monroi to your clothes. Photo Matthew Fouts by JS

A small change to one sentence of USCF Rule 15a, could require players to change their tournament habits big time, starting January 1st. At last month’s USCF delegates meeting (PDF Summary) in Chicago, voting delegates passed a Rules Committee proposal to change the third sentence of Rule 15a. Instead of, “The player may first make the move, and then write it on the score sheet, or visa-versa, the new version reads, “The player must first make the move, and then record it on the score sheet” (emphasis added).

According to David Kuhns, chair of the Rules Committee, there are two reasons for the change:

  • The rule now complies with FIDE Law which requires moves to be played first. (Fide Laws, Article 8.1)
  • If using an electronic score sheet with a diagram, recording the move first might be construed as using a second board for analysis (that is, seeing the result of a move prior to making it.)

This rationale begs two questions:

1) Is it always good for the USCF to match FIDE’s rules?

Steven Immit, who directs upwards of one hundred tournaments per year, says no, in fact, “a lot of FIDE rules are stupid!” He thinks that USCF rules regarding the proving of a win on time in a time control are superior to FIDE’s rules, which allow arbiters to determine or call a loss on time. The U.S. rule regarding castling is also far more sensible, according to Immit. FIDE Laws describes the process of castling such that the king must be moved prior to the rook. Immit describes this as a rule that, “serves no other purpose than to make disputes.” The USCF allows either piece to be touched first.

Nevertheless, assuming for the moment that standards are a good thing, and that discordant rules between FIDE and one of its member federations ought to be kept to a minimum, there remains a second and more pressing question:

2) Why should the introduction of electronic score sheet technology require a rule change for players who have used, and will continue to use, ordinary paper score sheets?

When using a diagram-based electronic score sheet, the visual feedback confers nearly the same advantage as using an analysis board. Under the old rule, a player could see the outcome of his or her move before committing that move to play. In a tournament game, there are good reasons to disallow this practice. But few would argue that simple written notation of a move on paper yields the same benefit. While some debate the point, writing a lone candidate move has never been widely held to constitute analysis, even in grandmaster events.

Most adult players already make their move on the board before writing it down, in which case the rule's new phrasing will have no impact on their own customs, yet many players, particularly scholastic players, have long done the opposite. It is common practice for scholastic coaches to recommend that young beginners write their moves first.

Sunil Weeramentry, executive director of the National Scholastic Chess Foundation says of the practice, “it makes quite a lot of sense – it’s one way to control the impulsive player…We’re concerned that [the new rule will] be taking away one of the best ways known for getting the kids to slow down.”

Writing first can also aid coaching, as FM Kevin Bachler explains on the Illinois Chess Association forums. Writing first, he notes, “helps to ensure that [children] do a better job taking notation because it forces them to be more methodical.”

Coaches often site Alexander Kotov who, in his classic book, Think Like a Grandmaster, advocates, as an axiom, writing the move first.

Given the preponderance of experienced coaches who not only approve of, but actively teach their students to write first, not to mention the tournament players who are accustomed to playing this way, enforcement of the new rule is likely to be very gradual.

According to Weeramantry, at the August delegates meeting, “the entire NY delegation was against [the rule change],” and, he continued, “I’m not going to enforce it in any of my tournaments.”

USCF President Bill Goichberg, who was among those opposed to the rule change says, “any TD should be allowed to opt out, if giving notice before the tournament.” Events held under the auspices of Goichberg’s Continental Chess Association, in fact, will do without the new requirement, for players using paper score sheets.

Other directors, such as Matt Phelps, of the MetroWest Chess Club in Massachusetts, intend to take a progressive enforcement approach. Phelps writes, “I personally believe a warning should be the only penalty for a violation of the new rule for at least a year; then a warning followed by the standard two minute penalty would be appropriate.”

Players are, of course, free to change their own behavior, but several members acknowledge on the USCF Forums that kicking the pre-move notation habit can be tough. Tournament director and player Polly Wright jokingly writes, “I've been trying to break the habit of writing [my] move first, but I'm not very consistent. Am I going to have to penalize myself when I'm playing in my own tournaments?”

Part of the dissension over rule 15a stems from the way the proposed change came about. In January, USCF Executive Director Bill Hall concluded negotiations with MonRoi Inc., a privately held Montreal based company, to endorse its Personal Chess Manager and Tournament Manager line of products.

According to a January 26th USCF memo from Mr. Hall, in exchange for an official USCF endorsement, MonRoi agreed to a revenue sharing arrangement with the USCF amounting to 1% of all U.S. revenues for the Monroi product line, plus an initial advertising commitment.

It was not immediately recognized that a rules issue would arise as a result of the endorsement. Rules Committee member, Tim Just explains, “the USCF made the Monroi "official" equipment before they contacted the Committee. The Committee chair, [David Kuhns,] revised the rules to address the concerns brought about by this device. The members reviewed the changes. We, as a committee, had no plans to change any of those rules for any other reason.”

Kuhns notes that FIDE changed its rules following, “numerous complaints of players recording a move, crossing it off, recording a second move, crossing it off, etc.” The USCF rule change, however, is not directed at curbing this, more questionable, behavior, nor has such behavior been epidemic in USCF events, according to any organizer contacted by Chess Life.

It’s not yet clear to what extent electronic score sheets will be embraced by players and organizers. The devices remain prohibitively expensive for most consumers. Initial feedback, however, has been positive. Despite opposition to the rule 15a change, Goichberg argues, “there is a lot of potential in Monroi in future years as the device makes publicizing major tournaments easier, and its price is likely to come down, leading to many more sales. It's especially nice to have a lot of GM scores...GMs tend to not hand in scores and the organizer is often left with all the games from the weaker players in the Open Section and few of the top games that are really interesting to the public.”

As far as changing the rules, some members will likely continue to grumble. John Hillery of the Southern California Chess Association bluntly notes, “I haven't heard of any groundswell of demand among the players for [15a] to be changed. Until there is one, the players ought not to be inconvenienced to accommodate a new gadget that a handful think is 'really cool.'”

Officially, a "TD Tip" is in effect on Rule 15a until further notice, which states, "please do not impose serious penalties if a player violates this change. Issue a warning, and inform the player of the rule change." That may well be the last word for some time to come.

Macauley Peterson is a writer and filmmaker from Amsterdam Avenue in New York. He is currently in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, studying filmmakers, and you may write to him at www.MacauleyPeterson.com