Stephen L. Carter is best known to the chess community as the author of The Emperor of Ocean Park and more recently, Back Channel: A novel. (http://stephencarterbooks.com/) He is also a Bloomberg View columnist and a law professor at Yale.
Do chess wizards have to blindly follow rules?
Stephen L. Carter 12:11 a.m. EDT April 19, 2015
There’s a wonderful old British case involving a farmer named Lawrence Burr, who was stopped while driving a tractor along a public road. The tractor was pulling a chicken coop to town, where it was to be sold. For the purposes of the brief trip, Burr had fixed iron wheels to the underside of the coop.
The trouble was that the Road Traffic Act of 1930 required all “vehicles,” including “trailers,” to ride on pneumatic tires. A lower court held that the chicken coop was not a vehicle within the meaning of the act, but the King’s Bench, in Garner v. Burr, disagreed, holding that a trailer was “anything which will run on wheels which is being drawn by a tractor or another motor vehicle.”
The case comes to mind in the wake of last week’s contretemps over the decision of the arbiter at the U.S. chess championships to forfeit Wesley So, one of the highest-rated players in the world, during his ninth-round game against Varuzhan Akobian.
So’s offense? During the game, he scribbled little encouraging notes to himself on a sheet of paper. According to news reports, he was in the midst of a family crisis, and needed some bucking up. The trouble is that writing anything during the game, other than recording the moves on a score sheet, is forbidden by what are known, a bit pompously, as the Laws of Chess. And he had been warned before about doing so.
Across the Internet, game sites exploded. Fans leaped to the defense of the young genius, arguing that the rule itself was trivial nonsense (this descriptor was more colorfully put in some of the comment threads), or that the prohibition had never been intended to cover the sort of notes So was writing. The official, cried critics, should have let the matter go.
In a world governed by common sense and general standards, So’s defenders might have a point. The rule was adopted to rein in the habit of many players to annotate their scoresheets with reminders about variations they intended to play – a phenomenon at war with the game’s traditional understanding that players rely only on analysis and memory. Once upon a time, chess tutors taught their pupils to write down the move first, then visualize it on the board, and only then play it. This practice, too, the rules no longer permit.
So’s problem was an amalgam of several rules. Rule 12.3(1) provides: “During play the players are forbidden to make use of any notes, sources of information or advice, or analyse on another chessboard.” So had previously written notes to himself on his scoresheet, but Rule 12.4 reads: “The scoresheet shall be used only for recording the moves, the times of the clocks, the offers of a draw, and matters relating to a claim and other relevant data.”
Having been warned he was violating the rule, So switched to writing his notes on a separate piece of paper. But his opponent complained, bringing into play Rule 12.6: “It is forbidden to distract or annoy the opponent in any manner whatsoever.” In the end, Rule 12.8 was decisive: “Persistent refusal by a player to comply with the Laws of Chess shall be penalised by loss of the game.”
One can immediately see the analogy to Garner v. Burr. There the judges had to decide whether a chicken coop being towed behind a tractor was a vehicle within the meaning of the statute. Here the arbiter had to decide whether So’s self- encouraging words constituted “notes” or “advice,” or a distraction to the opponent within the meaning of the rule.
Over the years, the Laws of Chess, like the laws governing so many areas, have grown more complex. Tightly structured rules have replaced discretion. The result can be clarity, but sometimes at the cost of common sense. I’m not defending So’s decision to keep writing himself notes after being warned. My point is that it’s not obvious that we’re always better off when every rule is plainly spelled out and enforced to the letter.
Still, shed no tears for Wesley So, who recovered nicely, winning his next two games and finishing in third place. And even if the arbiter was right, So’s violation needn’t have been the end of the matter; the most tightly worded rule might leave room for discretion about the consequences of breaking it. Lord Chief Justice Goddard recognized this proposition at the end of his opinion in Garner v. Burr. The outcome of the case, he wrote, established the principle that anything traveling on wheels is a vehicle. The justices of the lower court were free to stop there without further burdening Burr: “The question of penalty, or whether they should inflict a penalty at all, is entirely for them: they have an unfettered discretion.”