Family, Memoirs.

Chess tournament etiquette: Performance art?

Several chess writers have mentioned a German ‘book’ entitled Instructions to Spectators at Chess Tournaments, which was comprised of three hundred blank pages followed by the phrase “Shut Up!”

This piece of performance art (the performer is the reader of the book) brought to mind an experience my son Jon and I shared years ago at a chess tournament.  Jon had an early interest in chess, and starting in the fourth grade, played in multiple chess tournaments, the only member of the Wiebe family to compete in chess, even if only for a few years.  I took him to his last tournament, and joined the ranks of fussy parents watching their children anxiously from the sidelines.  In his second game, after perhaps ten moves, I noticed that Jon had just placed his opponent in a discovered check situation.  I was excited for him, because discovered check can be a lethal tactic . . . only, he and his opponent had not “discovered” the check!  (This says something about the level of grade school chess).  His opponent made a move without getting out of check, a gross violation of chess rules, and Jon was preparing to make his next move, both still oblivious of the situation.  What is a spectator at a chess tournament to do?  What is a parent to do?

The wrong thing, of course. What I did was to approach the boys and point out that they were in a discovered check situation.  This attracted the mother of Jon’s opponent, who was immediately suspicious of my behavior and motives, and said so in an unfriendly tone.  She seemed uninterested in the actual chess dilemma, but our “discussion” in turn attracted a tournament official, who came over, and, in the course of the next ten minutes, did his best to determine the problem, somewhat calm the mother, glare at me, and sort out the game so that it could continue.  He backed them up to the discovered check situation, and play was resumed.  Jon’s opponent was in trouble anyway, but this clearly rattled him, and he suffered a rapid and ignominious defeat at the hands of Jon.  He left the hall in tears, and his mother corralled the same tournament official and cried foul, in particular because she was sure I had deliberately rattled her son.  I belatedly had the sense to keep my mouth shut during this protracted and angry tirade.  The official finally produced a rather Solomonic decision, wherein he awarded a win to both boys; this worked, since it was a round robin tournament.  During all of this, I said nothing; I felt badly for the the poor little boy, who was clearly mortified by all of this, and who was too upset finally to play in the next round of the tournament.  The tournament director graciously allowed him to finish his final two matches when he had recovered from the brouhaha.  As for me, I felt chastened by it all; the tournament official finally pulled me aside at the end, and told me in a kind but firm way that had I just told him about the problem instead of talking to the boys directly, all of this would probably have been avoided.  Had I read the “Instructions to Spectators at Chess Tournaments” prior to this event, I would have been armed with sufficient knowledge to have just kept my mouth shut from the inception, and let the right person do the talking.

Not long after that incident I saw the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer”, which had a very telling and ruefully funny scene; in an ongoing children’s chess tournament, the tournament’s director had ALL of the parents removed from the gymnasium where the games were being played, because a few parents  were behaving in a more overbearing manner than the worst Little League parents; the parents were banished to another room and locked in, out of sight from the games themselves, and had to be content with a ten year old boy bringing them occasional updates.

Perhaps the art of chess tournament etiquette, particularly for children’s chess, is to remember who is performing, who is playing.  Even though my own behavior was relatively innocent, in the end it had the same effect as overbearing Little League parents: my emphasis should have been on the children’s experience, rather than the specifics of the chess rules; from that vantage point, it would have been much easier to find the path to the tournament official, and to a better outcome for the players.

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