Say it isn’t So, Wesley!

If you follow the tournament circuit, you undoubtedly know about what I am now referring to as “doodle-gate.” I use the word doodle, because that is exactly what Wesley did during a ninth round game at the United States Chess Championship in St. Louis earlier this month. An Arbiter declared Wesley’s game against Varuszhan Akobian to be a forfeit, giving the victory to Akobian after he complained about Wesley writing on a piece of paper, forbidden by FIDE tournament rules. What was he scribbling or doodling? Were they words that would turn the tide unfairly against Akobian? Absolutely not! They were merely a few self inspiring words, ” Double check. Triple check. Use your time.” Hardly a Machiavellian scheme to win the game. This has caused an uproar in the chess community and made tournament Arbiters about as popular as parking enforcement officers (those dunces that write parking tickets). My heart goes out to Wesley because, rules or not, I don’t think he did anything morally wrong. In fact, I think FIDE may want to reconsider their rule regarding this issue.

Chief Arbiter Tony Rich said that So wrote “words of general encouragement and advice” to himself on a piece of paper below his score sheet, which FIDE tournament rules forbid. Rich had warned Wesley twice before awarding the game to his opponent. Many chess players from around the world have taken sides on this thorny issue and Wesley So, proving what a decent human being he is, humbly explained himself on Facebook. While I think So received a punishment that outweighed the crime ten fold, the question arises, are the rules that govern tournaments in need of an overhaul? Should they remain as is? Why not take time off of his clock? This got me to thinking about governing rules or laws in general and when they become problematic.

There have been a number of well publicized cheating scandals in the chess world over the last few years. While the number of honest players far outweighs the number of cheaters, at least in over the board games, these cheating scandals have caused problems for honest players. An honest player who works extremely hard, putting in long hours of study and improving greatly for his or her efforts, can often look forward to being accused of cheating when they produce above average results at a tournament. What kind of culture rewards an individual’s hard work by suspecting them of cheating? The culture of black and white, Western culture!

In fairness to Arbiters and tournament staffs that run events, there is always the potential for cheating. The computer technology meant to improve our lives, has also made cheating an easily rendered reality. However, to accuse an individual of cheating should not be taken likely. To do so sullies a person’s reputation and in the end we’re only as good as our reputation in the eyes of others. The solution for putting an end to cheating is not an easy one and so far no one has been able to solve this problem to everyone’s satisfaction. Do we simply go through a full electronic body scan and sit naked at the chessboard? That’s not likely, for aesthetic reasons alone. The point is that there’s no immediate and easy solution.

I mention cheating because it’s an example of the plethora of problems chess federations around the world face today. The laws and bi-laws established in the past to make tournaments proceed smoothly should regularly be examined to see if they’re still valid today. In the United States, there are antiquated laws that make no sense. An example of this is the former Ice Cream law in the town of Carmel California. This city ordinance stated that it was illegal to eat ice cream on the main street of the town. Did I mention that there was an extremely popular ice cream shop on that street? Essentially, you could walk into the store, purchase an ice cream cone legally, walk out the door with cone in hand and become a criminal! Fortunately, Clint Eastwood became Mayor of Carmel and put an end to that law. I site this example because it exemplifies the idea that no rule of law can completely stand on it’s own merits forever. Of course, I’m not talking about laws regarding serious crimes such as murder.

To think that the rules that govern chess tournaments need not be reviewed and revised when necessary is unrealistic. A purist would say of Wesley’s actions, that his doodling was distracting. While I’m not a world class player by any means, my eyes are on the board, seeing only the position in front of me. Personally, I wouldn’t care if my opponent was formulating a cure for cancer on a cocktail napkin during our game. It’s about the action on the sixty four squares!

In fairness, Akibain had the right to complain. However, why not simply ask Wesley to stop, one human being making a simple request of another human being. If you know anything about Wesley So, you know that he is a polite, kind human being, not some wunderkind brat likely to laugh at your request. Chess tournament history is littered with stories of chess players literally insulting one another during a game, a much greater offense than inspirational doodling, with no forfeiture of the game for either party involved.

The Arbiter is trained to operate within the letter of the law but not trained to deal with the quirkiness of the human spirit and chess players can be a quirky bunch (which is why I feel so at home in the world of chess, more so than in the world of music). Serious chess players are a unique breed. They can be eccentric, outspoken, introverted and/or obsessed. The laws that govern tournament play only take into account the game and the environment in which it’s played. I say this because Arbiters need to be able to see beyond the black and white of the rule book, human nature. Again, why not take time off of Wesley’s clock?

What would happen if the FIDE rules changed and players were allowed to doodle during their games? Having a basic understanding of human nature, I could only image the chaos that would ensue. Some players might write unflattering comments about their opponents, making sure the opposition could see those comments. That would be an offense worthy of game forfeiture. However, Wesley’s words we simply inspirational. In fact, his opponent would have benefited from such inspirational words as well. I guess you could say that Wesley provided inspiration for both himself and Akibain.

Should Wesley have listened to the Arbiter? Absolutely! As much as I disagree with this ruling by FIDE, it is a tournament rule and you need to adhere to the rules. However, the punishment didn’t fit the crime. I’ve worked as an Arbiter and can tell you it isn’t easy. You cannot please both players when making a decision. As chess players we learn the games rules and mechanics or principles. Once we master the basics, we learn to think outside of the box, non mechanical thinking, which makes us better players. Shouldn’t a good Arbiter be an individual who, knowing the rules, thinks outside of the box to produce the best results? I challenge all Arbiters worldwide to be more creative and human in their rulings. Who knows, you might become more popular. Here’s a game by Wesley to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).