Over-the-board chess for online players

By Andrew Medworth, Hendon Club Captain
Thursday 11 November, 2021

As the relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions allows over-the-board chess to resume, we’re increasingly being joined by a new group of players: people who have picked up the game during lockdown, perhaps inspired by Netflix’s miniseries The Queen’s Gambit. Every chess club I know is being approached by people who have played a lot online over the past couple of years, and are looking to take their interest further!

These players already know how to play chess – often very well, especially at faster time controls – but may not be at all familiar with the mechanics of the game as it is played “offline”. I’ve already met so many people like this over the past few weeks that I wanted to write something to help people who know how the pieces move, but want to know what to expect when they start playing “OTB” in a serious way.

In this article, therefore, I try to explain the aspects of the rules and conventions of chess that are most likely to be unfamiliar to this type of audience. I hope it will give more people confidence to give OTB chess events a try, and feel like they know what to expect!

First, the obligatory caveat: my only qualification to write this article is that I’ve participated in most types of OTB chess event that are common here in the UK, and I’ve been a captain in the Middlesex League for several years. I’m not a qualified arbiter, and this article isn’t intended to be a substitute for the official Laws of Chess or an excuse to start an argument with a trained professional!

With that out of the way, let’s get started!

Do I really need to know all this?

This is a long article, and some readers must be wondering if they really have to memorise it all before playing OTB chess!

The answer is an emphatic no: there are plenty of experienced players who won’t even be familiar with everything I cover here! All you really need to know is the following:

  • Respect your opponent and be considerate towards them.
    • In particular, don’t touch the board, pieces or clock when it’s not your turn to move.
    • When it is your turn, don’t touch a piece unless you intend to move or capture it, unless your opponent is aware you want to make some adjustments.
  • If in doubt, ask the arbiter for help.

The rest of this article is just detail and tips, so if you want to plunge in and figure things out as you go, feel free!

However, I do think these are details that can be quite helpful in some situations, and it will eventually pay to know. Also, there are some people who really like to be well-prepared. So here we go!

The Laws of Chess

My first recommendation is to have a quick read of the official Laws of Chess, so you know how to find authoritative information on this subject. They’re not terribly exciting, but quite readable, and answer a lot of common questions!

This article is based on the latest version of the Laws at the time of writing, which came into effect on 1st January 2018, and can be found online here. The Laws are updated from time to time, so it’s worth checking the latest FIDE Handbook to find the latest ones (for some reason they bury them right at the end, so scroll down).

The Laws are structured as a series of numbered “Articles”. Articles 1–3 and Article 5 talk about the basic rules of the game, which I’m assuming you already know.

Article 4, “The act of moving the pieces”, is one of the most important for our purposes here. Then, Articles 6–12 cover things like the clock, the recording of the moves, and how to handle various situations.

At the end, there are some Appendices, which cover special types of chess, like rapid and blitz, and then some Guidelines covering some other special cases, like Chess960.

Slower time limits

For most of this article, I’m going to be assuming we’re talking about standard time limits, as opposed to rapid or blitz. A lot of our events at Hendon, including the Middlesex League and the Club Championship, are classified as standard chess.

The definition of a “standard” time limit is one where the total time per player plus 60 times any increment is at least 60 minutes. For example, 45 minutes plus 15 seconds per move is a “standard” time limit, and so is 60 minutes each with no increment. (If that number is more than 10 minutes but less than 60, we’re talking about rapid, while if it’s 10 minutes or less it’s blitz.)

Standard time limits are much slower than what people typically play online. This makes a big difference to the “feel” of a game, and it takes a lot of getting used to if you’ve come from online blitz!

I’m not going to write much about time management here, because I’m terrible at it, but it’s a major skill in OTB chess. You want to be using the vast majority of your time in every game (unless you can win more quickly of course!). If you lose with a lot of time left on your clock, that’s a sign you are playing too fast. On the flip side, if you are constantly getting low on time and making mistakes because you have to play too fast later, you have the opposite problem!

Longer time limits require you to manage your energy. Bring a bottle of water to the game with you (for very slow games, I bring at least a litre!). Ideally you don’t want to be super-hungry or have low blood sugar during the game, but be careful with sweet snacks and energy drinks: if you start on those, you probably need to keep consuming them for the rest of the game, otherwise the sugar crash will really hurt you!

It helps to be in a good general state of health and fitness too: the brain is a physical organ. This is especially true if you’re going to play in a tournament with more than one standard game per day. (I find two per day to be my absolute maximum: if I play in a tournament with three games in a day then I almost always take a bye in one of those rounds.)

Handshakes

At UK events, it’s historically been conventional to shake hands before the start of the game and again after the end, just as a sporting gesture, but it’s not a hard requirement of the Laws. In the COVID era, people may be less willing to shake hands than before, and that should be respected.

Just greet people in whatever manner feels right under the circumstances, and don’t be deliberately insulting, and everything will be fine!

Moving the pieces

When you play online, all you have to do is move the pieces on screen: the computer keeps track of the clock times and the moves automatically. In OTB chess, you have to do a bit more work!

The following is the correct procedure for making a move:

  1. Wait for your opponent to press their clock. (If your opponent’s clock is still running then it’s not your turn to move yet.)
  2. Write down your opponent’s last move on your scoresheet.
  3. Think about and decide on your own move.
  4. Make the move on the board, with one hand.
  5. Press the clock with the same hand, in order to stop your clock and start your opponent’s.
  6. Write down your move on your scoresheet. (I consider it a good habit to write down your clock time as well, to keep track of how you’re using time during the game, but it’s not required.)

The real no-no here is making a move with two hands, or using your other hand to press the clock, as that gives you a time advantage over someone who is following the rules properly. (Obviously allowances have to be made for players with disabilities – see the section later.)

When you press your clock, your move should be 100% complete, and the board should be completely ready for your opponent. For example, if you knock over or displace any pieces in the process of making your move, you need to restore them on your own time, before pressing your clock.

The exact procedure above isn’t required by the Laws: for example, for some reason you are allowed to make your own move before writing down your opponent’s, as long as you have written down your last move. But I prefer to keep it simple and consistent.

Technically you’re supposed to press the clock with your hand, not for example a captured piece. But I see people doing that all the time, and I tend not to mind, as it doesn’t really seem to bring any advantage.

How strict you have to be about this procedure depends on how serious the game is. If it’s serious enough that you are writing down the moves, you probably need to be following it pretty closely. In more casual games, people will let you get away with more. But it’s good to get into the right habits. Even if you’re not writing the moves down, try to move with one hand and press the clock with the same hand. It should soon become “muscle memory” and it will start to look wrong when people aren’t doing it!

There’s no need to say “check” when you put your opponent’s king in check. They are expected to notice on their own! Some people find it annoying when their opponent says “check”, so I would advise you not to do it. Giving check should be just like any other move.

When promoting a pawn, you can do it in various ways (Article 4.6). Personally what I tend to do is put the new piece (normally a queen) onto the promotion square and then remove the pawn. Tournament sets now generally include a spare pair of queens, which are placed by the side of the board in case they are needed, but this isn’t universal. It’s very rare that the piece you want can’t be found from among the captured pieces, or from some other set in the playing area.

When castling, move the king first, then the rook (one hand remember!). If you move the rook first, it creates completely unnecessary confusion as to whether you intended to make the rook move only, and whether you’re allowed to proceed with castling. Moving the king first avoids all ambiguity.

Touch-move

For some reason, the “touch-move” rule, which basically says “if you touch a piece you have to move it”, seems to be one of the most famous in chess: lots of people have heard of it even if they’ve never played a serious game!

There’s no such rule online: you can click round the board as you please, and what happens on your computer stays on your computer! But over the board, the purpose of these rules is to prevent a player from distracting, confusing or annoying their opponent by fiddling with the pieces.

The exact rule in Article 4 is worth reading in full, but there are a few golden rules that will keep you safe:

  • Don’t touch any of the pieces or the board if it’s not your turn to move (i.e. your clock is not running).
  • If you want to adjust any pieces, e.g. to centre them on their squares, do it while your clock is running, and make sure your opponent is aware of your intentions before you touch anything. You don’t have to say the traditional French “j’adoube” – in fact I would avoid that in UK events, as your opponent might not understand. Personally I say the word “adjust” while looking my opponent in the eyes to make sure they’ve understood. If they don’t get it, I explicitly ask “is it OK if I adjust some pieces?”. Don’t touch anything until they’ve acknowledged this.
  • In other circumstances, don’t touch any of your pieces unless you intend to move it, and don’t touch any of your opponent’s pieces unless you intend to capture it.

The touch-move rule does not cover clearly accidental contact, so for example if you happen to brush a piece by mistake on the way to another one, that doesn’t count. However, if there’s any ambiguity, touching is considered to be deliberate, so try not to leave any room for doubt.

Offering a draw

The key thing to know about draw offers is that they are part of your move. The correct procedure is:

  1. Make your move on the board
  2. Ask your opponent if they would like a draw
  3. Press your clock
  4. Write down your move on your scoresheet as normal, and add an “=” sign to record the draw offer

As Article 9 makes clear, draw offers at other times are still valid, but can cause confusion. Don’t offer a draw when it is your opponent’s turn to move, as it can be distracting.

A draw offer can’t be withdrawn, and is valid until the opponent accepts it, orally rejects it, or touches a piece with the intention of moving or capturing it.

If your opponent offers you a draw when it’s their turn to move, but hasn’t moved yet, you should generally ask them to make a move first. They can’t withdraw their offer, and waiting for their move gives you more information without taking any options away from you. If they make a good move and you still want to accept the draw, you can still do that. But you never know, they might blunder, in which case you can play on!

(The only edge case here is if the opponent gives immediate checkmate. Players don’t tend to offer draws when they have a mate in one available, but if this does happen, I recommend you accept the offer and shake their hand as quickly as you can!)

In theory, the organisers of an event can forbid draw offers altogether, or forbid them before a certain move. However, this almost never happens in amateur events, because people don’t generally make boring short draws in those events. People are turning up because they want to play a game of chess!

Draw offers should never feel irritating or distracting. If a draw offer has been rejected, it’s impolite to offer one again until some moves later, or unless something major has changed.

In a team event, like a league match, generally speaking you should consult with your captain, or at least check the current match situation, before making, accepting or rejecting a draw offer. The best course of action in your particular game may not be best for the team. For example, if you have a worse position and your opponent has offered you a draw, it might not be best to accept it if the team is losing: there may be little more to lose for the team by playing on. Conversely, if you have a better position, it might be best to accept a draw offer, if it would seal victory for the team without risk.

Resigning

The Laws just say “the game is won by the player whose opponent declares he resigns”. Exactly how a player is supposed to make such a declaration is left unspecified. Saying to your opponent “I resign”, and/or tipping your king over, are the most common ways.

In my experience, a lot of people resign just by stopping the clocks and extending their hand for a handshake. Most of the time it’s pretty obvious from the position what’s going on! Maybe they’ll also say “well played” or something like that.

If it’s at all unclear what your opponent is doing, feel free to confirm that they’re resigning! It’s important both players are in agreement about the result (see dedicated section below). This is almost always the case, but the rare situations where one player thinks they’re accepting a draw and the other thinks their opponent is resigning can be very frustrating for everyone to deal with!

You can resign even if it’s not your turn to move. This isn’t common, but your opponent is unlikely to mind (unless they’re about to put a particularly beautiful checkmate on the board!).

Scoresheets

The need to write down the moves of the game on a scoresheet is one of the big differences between OTB and online play! Online, of course the computer records the game for you.

First tip: bring a pen! Better still, bring at least two pens, so you have a spare. When I’m captain for a match, I try to have a supply of cheap biros for players who need to borrow one, but it’s bad form to rely on that!

At the start of the game, you need to fill out the header of the scoresheet, with the names of the players, the date, the name of the event (e.g. the team names if you’re playing a match), and the board number (if any, which there usually is).

Moves should be written down for both sides throughout the game as they are played.

If you have less than five minutes on the clock, and the per-move time increment is less than 30 seconds, you are no longer required to write the moves down. (This remains true even if an increment causes your time to climb above 5 minutes again later.) If you’re playing a time control which gives you more time at a particular move number, then you must start recording again after that move number, assuming that boosts you above 5 minutes again.

If your opponent has been keeping score during the period you weren’t, you should copy the missing moves from their scoresheet as soon as reasonably possible. It’s also an option to hand off your scoresheet to someone else (e.g. a captain, club-mate or other spectator) when your time gets low, to keep score for you.

If there is an increment of 30 seconds or more per move, you are required to keep score throughout the game.

One of the challenges a lot of players have keeping score is that they’re not accustomed to working out the coordinates of a square. If you’ve always relied on a computer to do this for you, it might take a moment’s head-scratching to work out what a square is called! Some players find this harder when they’re Black and the alphabet goes backwards from left to right!

Some boards have the coordinates written along the sides, but not all. If you do rely on this, make sure the board is the right way round before the game starts! Generally, though, it’s best just to practice: it won’t be long before you can immediately say the coordinates of a square when someone points at it. Playing through a game from notation on a real board is one way to improve rapidly at this.

At the end of the game, make sure your scoresheet clearly records the result of the game, and the reason for that result (e.g. checkmate, resignation, draw agreed, stalemate etc).

Scoresheets are purely for the purpose of recording the game, and are not to be used as any kind of aid to thinking or memory. It used to be allowed to write down your move before making it, and some older books advise doing that, in order to force yourself do a final blunder-check. This is now explicitly illegal – though oddly, there is still one situation where players are expected to write down a move before making it, namely when claiming a draw by threefold repetition (see below).

The clock

The chess clock is another big thing to get used to when playing OTB chess, as online the computer just tracks your time, whereas now you have to deal with a new physical device!

All clocks have two time displays to show much time each player has remaining, and some sort of lever or pair of buttons, such that when a player presses the button on their side, it stops their clock and starts their opponent’s. But besides that, there are a lot of different designs.

These days, most chess events use digital clocks, which are battery-operated and show the time remaining for each player in numbers, typically on a LCD display.

However, some clubs still use clockwork analogue clocks, where the times are shown with hands on a traditional clock face. These have a “flag” (usually a bit of red plastic) next to the 12 that gets pushed up as the minute hand approaches 12, and then drops once it reaches it, to give a clear indication when time has run out. This is where the expression “flag fall” comes from.

Digital clocks have big advantages: they are quiet, accurate, can tell you which player ran out of time first, and can support a wider range of time limits, such as ones involving increments. They are a bit more complicated to set up and adjust, but that’s mostly the arbiter’s problem.

For players, there are a few aspects of digital clocks that take some getting used to, and can vary from clock to clock. First, here’s a picture of a chess clock to illustrate some of the points below.

DGT 2010 chess clock: a common type used at Hendon!
DGT 2010 chess clock: a common type used at Hendon!

How to pause and resume the clock

With digital clocks, there’s usually a pause/unpause button somewhere on the front: in this case it’s the middle button in the blue row at the bottom.

The player with the Black pieces should press this button (with their own clock button pressed down) to start White’s clock at the beginning of the game. It can be pressed again if there is a need to pause the clocks during the game, or to stop them at the end.

(With analogue clocks, you typically half-press both clock buttons, so that neither is fully pressed down.)

Display units

Not all clocks always show hours, minutes and seconds all the time. Many common types of clocks only show two numbers at once: either hours and minutes, or minutes and seconds.

Usually it’s obvious which is which from what the numbers actually are, and how they tick down when the clock is running, but often there are subtle signs as well: for example the display might show a colon “:” between the numbers in one case, and a full stop “.” in the other. Some clocks automatically switch from hours-minutes to minutes-seconds when time falls below a certain level, such as 20 minutes.

In the above example, the left display is showing hours and minutes (since it’s still above 20 minutes), while the right display is showing minutes and seconds (since it’s dropped below 20 minutes).

Increments

When you’re playing a time limit with increments, typically that increment will be 15 or 30 seconds. If the clock is only showing hours and minutes, you won’t generally see the increment being added on until a few moves into the game, which can be confusing.

One thing worth knowing is that increments are applied even on the first move: for example, if you’re playing 60 minutes plus 15 seconds per move, then when the game starts, both players should have 60 minutes and 15 seconds on the clock. Therefore, if it shows “1:00” (for 1 hour) at the start of the game, it should stay at “1:00” for 15 seconds, and then drop to “0:59”. If there wasn’t any increment, it would drop to “0:59” straight away.

Multiple periods

When you’re playing a time limit with multiple periods (e.g. 60 minutes each for the first 30 moves, then 15 minutes extra), it can be a bit confusing what happens when you move from one period to another.

With the old analogue clocks, you’d just stop the clocks after 30 moves, and manually wind them both back 15 minutes. With digital clocks, the time periods are typically pre-programmed, but clocks usually don’t count the moves, so they don’t know when to add the 15 minutes on.

What normally happens is that the extra time is added to both clocks after either clock has hit zero. Typically there is also some indicator of which period you’re currently in, e.g. some sort of bar or pip on the display that moves across. In the case of the clock in the picture above, a big flag symbol appears on the clock of the first player to hit zero, like this:

Clock with flag showing on right display
Clock with flag showing on right display

This indicates that the player on the right has hit zero time, and both players have had 15 minutes added to their time. You just have to make sure your clock doesn’t hit zero before the specified move.

Before, during and after the game

The clocks should be placed and set up by the arbiter before the game. Players normally shouldn’t pick up or move the clock, especially during the game, and should only touch it for very limited reasons:

  • To start the clock at the beginning of the game
  • To press the clock to complete their move
  • To pause the clock if assistance is needed during the game, or at the end of the game.

If any time adjustments etc are needed, the arbiter should make them.

Once the game is over, stop the clocks immediately, to preserve the clock times at the end of the game. For example, if your opponent resigns but doesn’t stop the clocks, stop the clocks yourself at once. This is especially important if it’s your turn to move, because otherwise your clock will keep running down, and it might be hard to prove you didn’t run out of time if someone disputes it later.

Recording the result

In online chess, the server automatically records the result of your game for you. Not so over-the-board!

You should always make sure the result of your game is known to the event organiser before you leave the playing area.

If you’re playing in a team match, make sure your captain knows and has recorded it on the match scorecard. (Often, each captain will have their own match scorecard; if so then it’s a good idea to make sure the same result is recorded on both!) If you’re playing in a tournament, make sure the result is known to the arbiter.

In most tournaments these days, scoresheets have a carbon copy attached; both players' scoresheets should be signed by both players and the top copies handed in to the organiser. You get to keep the carbon copy. Handing in both scoresheets is the responsibility of the winner, or if the game is a draw, by the player with the White pieces.

A few tips here:

  • Make sure both scoresheets clearly record the same result! Don’t sign a scoresheet that doesn’t have a result clearly written.
  • You only have to sign the organiser’s copy, not your opponent’s. Tear off the top copy before signing, unless you want your opponent to have a copy of your signature!

In club matches, scoresheets won’t generally have a carbon copy: there will just be a single sheet. Once the result is recorded on the match scorecards by the captains, that scoresheet is yours to take home with you, so you can analyse your game afterwards. In these cases you don’t need to sign the scoresheets after the game.

The arbiter

In a tournament, there will normally be dedicated arbiters who you can ask for help. These people should be impartial and knowledgeable about the Laws of chess.

The Laws give arbiters surprisingly wide discretion, to decide on things like accommodations for disabled players, punishments for infractions and so on. The most basic Law of chess is: the arbiter is always right! If in doubt, ask them for help and they will steer you in the right direction.

In a league match, there is normally no neutral arbiter present. In this case, the two team captains are expected to act jointly as arbiters. Obviously this can prove challenging, because team captains are not neutral! Also, they are often playing their own game and thus aren’t paying attention to other games.

If captains can’t agree, they can appeal to the league controller, but this rarely leads anywhere useful, as that person was almost never present. Thankfully this happens very rarely in practice.

Anti-cheating measures

For better or worse, we’re living in a world where computers play chess better than even the best humans. This has its benefits, but it opens up opportunities for people to cheat.

This used to be pretty much an online-only problem, where people were playing in the privacy of their own rooms, but now that even pocket-sized devices run very strong chess engines, those days are over.

The Laws (Article 11) forbid you to have any electronic device with you in the playing area, unless specifically approved by the arbiter. However, in practice most events allow such devices, provided they’re completely switched off and stored in the player’s bag, somewhere they don’t access during the game.

If a player is found to have a device on their person in the playing venue, or if that device makes a noise of any kind, the standard penalty is that the player loses the game immediately, so it’s quite severe.

The best-organised tournaments these days have anti-cheating measures, including arbiters with metal-detecting wands who stop games to scan the players at random.

That’s still pretty rare though, and doesn’t happen at any Hendon events, so people are basically on the honour system to turn off their mobile phones and leave them in their bags throughout the game. If you often leave the playing area or use the bathroom when it’s your turn to move, and it isn’t obvious you don’t have a mobile phone on you, it’s going to attract suspicion.

Any concerns should be reported to an arbiter.

It’s important to end this section by saying that in practice, I don’t think cheating is a problem in OTB chess, at least not in the kind of UK amateur events I’ve played in. I’ve never played an OTB game where I’ve suspected my opponent of cheating, and I don’t know anyone who has. The increased difficulty of cheating OTB, plus the added risk to your reputation when you are competing under your own name (and face!) and can’t hide behind an online login, are more than enough to deter cheating in all but the most extreme cases.

So don’t let worries about cheating put you off or spoil your experience: just know the rules and be aware of how you can avoid suspicion.

Rapid and blitz

The main way in which rapid and blitz are different from standard chess is that you don’t have to record the moves on a scoresheet. But pretty much everything else applies.

These days, there are electronic boards which will automatically record the moves for you when connected to a computer, but unfortunately these only tend to appear in elite events: I’ve never played on one myself.

Disabled players

Quite rightly, arbiters have wide discretion to vary the rules to accommodate players with disabilities.

There’s an entire Appendix of the Laws that deals with adjustments for “blind and visually disabled players”, but more generally, Article 12.2.6 says the arbiter shall “take special measures in the interests of disabled players and those who need medical attention”.

Such adjustments can take many forms, including having someone else write down the moves on a player’s behalf, allowing a player to call out moves to their opponent or an assistant so they can make them on the board, and all kinds of other things.

I’ve seen blind people play chess, I’ve seen people without arms play chess, I’ve seen people with cerebral palsy play chess… it’s wonderful to see, and there are very few limits!

The vast majority of the time, when you play someone with a disability, they will have long experience of the accommodations that will be made and will have agreed them in advance with the arbiter.

Either the arbiter or the player themselves will explain to you how that particular game will be different from others you might have played. Just pay attention, and be glad that you are participating in one of the most inclusive activities human beings have yet devised!

Miscellaneous situations

The following situations happen in a minority of games, but are still good to know about.

The opponent forgets to press their clock

A move is not complete until it is executed on the board and the player has pressed their clock. If your opponent makes a move but does not press their clock, their move is not yet complete, and you are entitled to wait until it is. You certainly should not move yourself until your opponent has completed their move by pressing their clock.

To be sporting, my personal practice is, the first time in a game my opponent forgets to press their clock, I will gently remind them to do so. I might do it twice, especially if I think the person is new to OTB chess. If they continue to forget, I will just use their time to think about my move (as long as their move is legal, they can’t change their mind about it, due to the touch-move rule). Sometimes the opponent will eventually realise they have forgotten, and press their clock, in which case their move is belatedly complete and the game continues.

If not, I can either wait for their time to run down, or if I don’t want to do that for whatever reason, I wait until I don’t think I can get any further benefit from thinking on their time, and then remind them again and immediately make my move, starting their clock again.

Bad behaviour by your opponent

Just like online chess, if you play OTB chess for long enough, you will unfortunately encounter some bad behaviour from an opponent sooner or later.

I don’t want to give anyone ideas, but in OTB chess, I’m talking about things like banging the clock or pieces loudly, eating noisy food, tapping on the table, shaking their leg so the table or floor shakes, making a draw offer on every single move, and so on.

Article 11.5 makes it crystal clear that players may not “distract or annoy the opponent in any manner whatsoever”. Article 11.1 forbids players taking “action that will bring the game of chess into disrepute”.

Obviously we shouldn’t be over-sensitive, but if your opponent’s behaviour is distracting or annoying you, the chances are it’s not OK.

The first thing to do is to politely ask the person to stop. Quite often, people don’t realise what they are doing; they will apologise and stop. Often the players concerned are young, inexperienced and nervous, and if nobody tells them what is acceptable behaviour, they won’t know. If that applies to your situation, please be firm but kind.

If a polite request isn’t sufficient to stop the behaviour, you should call the arbiter. There thankfully isn’t too much “gamesmanship” or trouble-making in chess, but it does happen. Explain to the arbiter what is happening, and that your polite objections have not resolved the problem.

If your opponent denies the behaviour, and nobody else noticed it, the arbiter may not be able to intervene immediately. But they will likely watch your game for a while, to see what’s happening for themselves. In any case, it’s important to make arbiters aware of your concerns, because it’s important to make sure that persistent offenders get a reputation.

The circle of chess organisers is not large; they soon come to know who the trouble-makers are, and will tend to pay special attention to their games. I select players for most of the Hendon teams, and I won’t select people who I think are going to give the club or the game a bad name: it’s all the deterrent that’s necessary in most cases.

Thankfully most chess players are lovely and this rarely comes up, but it’s good to know what to do if it does.

“Flagging” and the two-minute rule

Experienced online players will be intimately familiar with the concept of “flagging”, where a game is played using a time limit with no per-move increment, one player has much less time than the other, and their opponent plays any old moves as quickly as possible to make the first player’s flag fall.

This can result in a player losing a position which is objectively perfectly sound, or even winning. In online play, this is generally considered “part and parcel of the game”, so players may be surprised to learn that in OTB chess, there are rules to prevent such “unjust” losses. Those rules can be found under “Guidelines III” of the Laws (“Games without increment including Quickplay Finishes”).

The Laws say these Guidelines only apply to standard and rapid games, not blitz. They only apply in an event “if their use has been announced beforehand”, but this is often done in some obscure corner of the event rules. If in doubt as to whether these Guidelines apply to an event you’re playing in, ask the arbiter.

There is well-established precedent that these Guidelines apply in the Middlesex League (if increments aren’t being used), so they are worth knowing about for Hendon players.

“Guidelines III” applies to the “quickplay finish”, i.e. the last period of the game where you aren’t going to get any more time and have to finish the game with whatever you have left. This is the part of the game where “flagging” may occur!

The first relevant part is III.4, which says if it’s your turn to move and you have less than two minutes on your clock, you may request that an increment of five seconds per move be introduced for both players. This constitutes a draw offer; if the opponent accepts the draw, the game is over, otherwise the arbiter has to decide whether to agree to the request.

In the Middlesex League, this decision usually falls to the home captain, who will often refuse, either because they need to vacate the venue by a fixed time of night, or because they’re using analogue clocks which don’t support an increment, or because they don’t know how to adjust the clocks to introduce the increment, or (perhaps most likely) because they’ve never heard of the rule!

If the arbiter does refuse, then III.5 kicks in, which says that if it’s your turn to move and you have less than two minutes left, you can claim a draw before your flag falls, by summoning the arbiter and asserting that your opponent “cannot win by normal means”, and/or “has been making no effort to win by normal means”. The Laws define “normal means” as “playing in a positive manner to try to win; or, having a position such that there is a realistic chance of winning the game other than just flag-fall”.

If the arbiter agrees with the claim, the game is immediately declared drawn. The arbiter also has the option of postponing their decision and watching the subsequent play to see if it supports the player’s claim, or rejecting the claim and letting the game continue.

I absolutely hate it when someone claims under this rule when I’m a captain, because it’s so subjective: what does a “realistic chance” or a “positive manner” mean? We’ve consulted professional arbiters for their opinion in past cases, and received different answers as to what they would do!

For me, the lessons here are:

  • If at all possible, play with increments, as this avoids the whole issue coming up.
  • If you’re playing without increments, you’re in the quickplay finish, you don’t think you can win in the time you have left, and you’re worried about losing on time, then it’s worth knowing (a) that if it’s your turn and you have less than two minutes left, you can ask for a 5-second-per-move increment to be introduced at the cost of a draw offer to your opponent, and (b) failing that, you can claim a draw on the grounds that your opponent can’t win by “normal means” or is making no effort to do so.
  • If you want to claim under this rule, do it early (i.e. as soon as possible after your time has dropped below two minutes). Otherwise, if the arbiter wants to postpone their decision, they may not have enough time to make a proper judgement, in which case they will rule that you have lost on time.

Illegal moves

If your opponent makes an illegal move (including completing the move by pressing their clock), immediately stop the clocks and call the arbiter. On no account should you make a move of your own, as this can make things hard to fix.

If a player does this for the first time during a game, they are penalised by two extra minutes being added to their opponent’s clock. If the player makes a second illegal move during the game, they forfeit that game.

Some players aren’t used to this rule, because there used to be a rule that an illegal move loses immediately. Never mind: this is for the arbiter to sort out. Just stop the clocks and get their help.

Threefold repetition

Most players will be aware that a player can claim a draw if the same position comes up three times in a game. However, in OTB chess, such a draw has to be claimed in one of two very specific ways (see Article 9.2):

  • If it’s your turn to move and the current position on the board has appeared for at least the third time, you can pause the clocks, call the arbiter and claim a draw straight away. This is the simplest.
  • If it’s your turn to move and you want to make a move which will bring about a position for the third time (and claim a draw in the process), then you first write down your move on the scoresheet (bizarrely, this is the only case where you are allowed to write your move down before making it), stop the clocks, call the arbiter, and declare that you intend to make the move and want to claim a draw.

In order to count as the same position, the same player must have the move, and the set of legal moves available must also be the same (including castling rights, en passant captures, etc).

Strange though this is, it hardly ever comes up in practice, because most of the time, when a position repeats, both players are well aware of it and are happy with the draw, in which case a draw can simply be agreed and there is no problem.

The above procedures only have to be used when forcing a draw on an unwilling opponent, which typically only happens when the opponent wants to play on but doesn’t realise the position has repeated three times. This typically means that the repetitions have come some distance apart in the game, rather than a simple shuffling back and forth of pieces, or maybe (more amusingly) they were trying to repeat the position to “show their dominance” or whatever they think the “Russian school of chess” tells them to do, but they miscounted and repeated one time too many!

(The other scenario where it’s important to claim a threefold repetition properly is if there’s a ban on draw offers at the current stage of the game. If draw offers aren’t allowed before move 40, and there’s a repetition at move 30 and neither player wants to play on, then they don’t get a draw unless one of them claims correctly! However, as mentioned above, such draw-offer bans are extremely rare in amateur events.)

Overall, this is another example of a situation that comes up fairly rarely for amateurs, but it’s worth knowing what to do if it does.

Conclusion

I hope you have found this a helpful introduction to over-the-board chess, and I wish you success in your games!