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On Chess: Time rules the laws of chess

Chess clock
Andrejj | Wikipedia

Writing about the Rules of Chess, on the surface, seems to be a strange topic of discussion. After all, the last rule changes -- which included the enhanced powers of the Queen, En Passant and Castling -- have been defined for 500 years! You’d think that the rules of chess had been cast in stone, but you’d be wrong.

Remarkably, the rules -- or, more humbling, the “Laws” of chess -- are constantly changing. As long as the World Chess Federation or the USCF continue to sponsor a “Rules Committee,” you can be certain there will be “activists” among them who will want to rewrite the rules. (Preferably with accreditation, by name. Achilles appreciated immortality as well...) A typical case of “everyone knows best” can become a near scrum, like the end of the Super Bowl.

The root cause for much of the rules controversy can be squarely traced to the first-ever international tournament in London in 1851, where the newfangled, dual-faced chess clock was a featured novelty and part of a new definition of “standard chess tournament equipment.”

Previous to 1851, hour glasses had been widely used, with the passage of sand measuring minutes, tens of minutes or hours. The hourglass was a necessity to prevent those opponents gifted with acute sitzfleisch -- a German word to connote a player whom, in a lost position, sits and does not move, hoping to wear out his opponent. (Sitzfleisch translation: “sitting flesh.”) The idea behind the chess clock was to regulate the length of the game and allow for a schedule of playing sessions; and soon the clock became as meaningful to chess as checkmate.

On the heels of its introduction, rules committees were formed -- and they got busy with dozens of various time controls introduced over the ages. Classical chess, as well as Rapid, Blitz and Bullet chess, are all now considered unique forms of play and require a tweaking of the rules to accommodate each one.

Thanks to modern technological breakthroughs, analog clocks were eventually thrown in the dustbin. (Good riddance, I say, to those outdated clocks and their faulty flag mechanisms!) Digital clocks could now measure a player’s remaining time down to tenths of seconds.

Then Robert James Fischer inadvertently created a tidal wave of new rules when he introduced his idea for the digital age of chess time. Bobby’s idea wasn’t just to get rid of the acrimonious debates of a premature flag falling -- he suggested rewarding a player with bonus time for each move made, added to their allotted fixed amount of time. The “Fischer delay,” also simply referred to as an increment, is common in today’s competitive chess often awarding up to 30 seconds per move. Soviet Grandmaster David Bronstein proposed a “delayed time control” where the opponent’s clock wouldn’t tick down immediately, only after a prescribed delay of time had expired.

So let’s get this straight: Increments accrete; delays would not -- Right? Rules committees went into hyper-drive!

Witnesses of the “Ultimate Moves” event, held after the 2014 Sinquefield Cup at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, will recall a hysterical incident sure to go down in the annals of chess history.

Rex Sinquefield prepares to make a move as Grandmasters look on. Behind, from left, are commentator Maurice Ashley, Garry Kasparov, Yasser Seirawan and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.
Credit Lennart Ootes | Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis
Rex Sinquefield prepares to make a move as Grandmasters look on. Behind, from left, are commentator Maurice Ashley, Garry Kasparov, Yasser Seirawan and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.

CCSCSL benefactor Rex Sinquefield was paired up and alternated moves with the world’s greatest player, the 13th World Champion Garry Kasparov -- all that is Wise and Good and Great in chess, rolled into one incredible team. Then celebrating his 70th birthday, Rex had received a gift from Garry and a crowning moment of glory -- a one-square advance and pawn promotion to win the game on the spot! Rex found the move -- but his execution left something to be desired. 

Rex advanced the pawn to its promotion square, and his swap with a new Queen came after hitting his clock. According to the Rules (nay, the Laws!) of Chess: A promoted pawn cannot remain a pawn and must be replaced by a piece before hitting the clock. Rex’ beloved son Randy -- at the time, also his opponent -- was instantly overjoyed and eternally grateful that father Rex had given him the greatest gift all: Life! He immediately protested. 

Chief Arbiter of the event, Tony Rich -- coincidently, executive director of the CCSCSL -- was thrust into an ever-awkward position, though correctly ruled that Rex had made an illegal move. This meant that Rex and Garry -- all that was Wise and Good and Great in chess -- had lost the game on technical forfeit! For comparison, this is akin to throwing Bob Hope and teammate Jack Nicklaus out of the “Bob Hope Celebrity Golf Tournament” for a technical violation.

Pressing the clock has consequences and may cost you the game. But not pressing the clock? Your time will tick...

Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan is a four-time U.S. Chess Champion, ranked within the top-100 players in the world as late as 2007. Now retired from competition, Seirawan is a published chess author and journalist, as well as the star commentator for such elite events as the U.S. Championships and the Sinquefield Cup. He currently leads all programming as Resident Grandmaster of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.