Just the Rules: Do We Need A New Flag Fall Rule?

Tim Just, CLO columnist


It seems strange to call that row of zeros on a digital chess clock a “flag fall.” The term is left over from the days when analog clocks were the standard. Those timers had actual tiny flags that dropped, or fell, when a player had used up the allotted playing time. 


Analog Clock


Flag falls in the digital universe are not much of an issue. When the allotted playing time has run out, your chess-playing website’s programming automatically makes that call for you. The same can’t be said for games over the board.   

A US Chess Tournament Director getting involved in a game without being asked is rare indeed -- only the players can make a flag fall claim. TDs have to wait to come onboard until (if) the claim is disputed. Then there could be a lot of hoops to jump through. In fact, that was a topic for two of my earlier columns: Flag Falls Part One and Part Two.  

The International Chess Federation, FIDE, gives its onsite officials (arbiters) a bit more wiggle room when it comes to flag falls. FIDE arbiters are allowed to call the flag, and can end the game. They can even take notation for the players that are banging out moves. Can we apply that kind of wiggle room to OTB US Chess? In my honest opinion: maybe.  

There is something of a precedent in US Chess. About the only time a TD can jump into the fray is if both flags are down and no time forfeit claim has been made in the final time control period. At that point, the game can be declared a draw by the TD (rule 14G2). Otherwise, without some external intervention, the two opponents might play on, and on, and on ... 

Since there is a rule that allows only the two players to make a time forfeit claim (rule 13C1), changing that regulation should be a simple matter to also allow the TD to call the flag. Unfortunately, it is not that simple—is it ever? Consider the following:  

Situation 1: In a marathon game, you and your adversary have been pushed to the limit. For every intricate move, a complicated countermove, and both of you have made liberal use of nearly all of your allotted time. Ultimately, your flag falls first, but your opponent does not notice and no claim is made. So you keep on shuffling your chess army around move after move and, finally, your opponent’s flag falls too. You make the draw claim: two downed flags equal a draw! You have turned a goose egg into half-point gold! 

•    If a TD is allowed to call the flag, then you would lose the moment your clock runs out of time. You would lose the ability to play on until your opponent’s time runs out, and thus any chance to make your double-flag draw claim. Zero would be your score, not the half-point for which you had aimed.   

Situation 2: In a game using a classical time control, you have a lot more time left on your clock than the woodpusher sitting across from you. Though their flag eventually falls, their final moves of the game happen faster than lightning, and you have not been taking notation for many moves in the end. With the time you have left -- before your own flag falls -- you fill in the missing moves on your scoresheet, before you claim your point.  

•    If a TD is allowed to call the flag, then you would have no chance to catch up on your missing notation. Because all notation must stop once the flag fall claim is made, your scoresheet would not be usable to verify your claim. An accurate scoresheet is imperative to making a time forfeit claim in classical time control game. 

If the US Chess rule-makers allow the TD to also call flag falls, then both of the aforementioned situations need to be addressed. Given that our members are now pretty used to the online software making that same claim, the door has been opened to giving our TDs the same discretion.  

Any thoughts?  



Tim Just is a National Tournament Director, FIDE National Arbiter, and editor of the 5th, 6th, and 7th editions of the US Chess Rulebook. He is also the author of My Opponent is Eating a Doughnut & Just Law, which are both available from US Chess Sales and Amazon/Kindle. Additionally, Tim recently revised The Guide To Scholastic Chess, a guide created to help teachers and scholastic organizers who wish to begin, improve, or strengthen their school chess program. Tim is also a member of the US Chess Rules Committee. His new column, exclusive to US Chess, “Just the Rules” will help clarify potentially confusing regulations. 

The free, updated US Chess Rules (Chapters 1+2 + 10 +11 from the 7th edition rulebook) are now downloadable and available online. Past “Just the Rules” columns can be viewed here. Plus listen to Tim when he was a guest on the US Chess podcast “One Move at a Time.” 


It's been a while since I read the rulebook, but as I recall, there are instances where a director will not allow a game to continue because it has reached an end. For instance, if a player is in checkmate, but continues to play and nobody notices except the director, would he or she not stop the game? I think the rule is that a director will not allow an illegal move to be made, so moving while checkmated would be illegal.

So if a player is out of time and has lost the game, I think a rule can safely allow a director to call it (provided it can be enforced equally throughout the tournament).

However, if the player merely has to have made a prescribed number of moves and may not be out of time, I don't see how a rule can allow a director to interfere unless it is clearly stated how a director would have certainty that the prescribed number of moves have not been made.

As to the instance in which a player who has lost on time hopes to gain a draw by playing on until his opponent also flags, perhaps double time forfeit should be considered a loss by both players. If there are too many draws in chess, is there a need for a silly exception to get a draw after having already lost the game?

If the Arbiter is calling the flag fall, the need for a complete scoresheet is irrelevant as FIDE doesn’t have the same rule and need for complete scoresheets

That & other flag rules

Allowing TDs to call time could be helpful. Or at least allowing them to pause to determine it. I'd also allow them not to, per the witness-only exception rule, and eliminate burden of them being required to.

Requiring scoresheets for flag falls is a pain though, because if the opponent isn't writing their moves, then there's really some sort of inequity in requiring the claimant to claim (except maybe in a first/second/etc time control). In a sudden death last time control situation, the clock should be sufficient and the scoresheets not necessary ("should" here meaning it'd be desirable for the rules to change).

A problem more frequently run into is the common DGT NA clocks not being "standard" for increment as the clocks freeze and do not keep running. This somewhat obscure rule, and the draw on both flag falls rule, can cause a player feeling cheated out when a flag drops. It's very simple to say that the owner should have known, but that can be...overly simplistic, and one player after discovering clocks should continue to run may feel cheated out. It's far from common knowledge of the typical DGT NA owner. To alleviate that, I'd allow freezing on flag fall as an acceptable standard like FIDE. Some clocks would freeze, some wouldn't, black still chooses equipment, and we just accept a non freezing clock as standard also, and still allow draws on 2 flag falls. Either-or-both. Allowing it would reduce headaches to TDs(Do I award time and switch the clock? Do I rule flag? Etc)

The USCF should be in line with FIDE. Why do we need to have different, corny rules? All it does is cause confusion at tournaments with foreign players. It also leads to different rules in the "Open" section (or any section that is FIDE rated) than in "Other" sections. For example, K+N vs K+N+B+P+P+P - Second guy's flag falls. If there is a legal sequence of mate moves, the guy with K+N wins. Another scenario: WRa8, WQb7, WRc6, WPh2, WKh1, BBf3, BRg2, BKh7. Black's flag falls. It should be a draw because there is no legal sequence of moves where White can win, so why should White win? Only legal move is 1...Rg7#.
When your clock runs out, you lose. Why should it matter who calls it? Here's another problem with USCF rule. I have White, you have Black, my flag falls, Black's friend (observing), says "Jake - call flag", and Black only then looks and calls flag. Now what? If the rule is I lose when my flag falls, period, no matter who calls it, it's simpler! EVERYTHING about FIDE is simpler.
Another case - WKe6, WBc1, BPe7, BPh7, BKg8, White to move, Black's flag has fallen. It is a LOT easier to find ANY mate than it is for a 1200-rated director (I have seen many of them) try to figure out if it is a FORCED mate, which it is! 1.Bh6 Kh8 (only legal move) 2.Kf7 e6 (or 2...e5) 3.Bg7#.
All of these shenanigans would go away if the United States would get with the rest of the world and have a consistent set of rules.
ANOTHER case - I had this happen before. I was Black. White plays a8 and hits the clock. I hit the clock back on him and demand promotion. That gives another 5 second delay for the same move! FIDE, I stop the clock and call illegal move, at which point he MUST make it a Queen and I get 2 minutes. Then, in that same game, he makes an illegal move. I call it, get 2 minutes (FIDE - he would now lose). A few moves later he makes another illegal move. I get 2 more minutes (by now, the FIDE game would be long over). He makes 1 more illegal move in his scramble before losing on time to my 6 bonus minutes. I was winning anyway, but still, too many stoppings of the clock, too many director calls.
Yet another problem. We need consistent rules on Notation! FIDE is clear cut! You cannot write a move before you make it. PERIOD! USCF is all fuzzy. You can write the move and then make it, or make the move then write it. It does not say anything about forbidding erasing a move, and it is very fuzzy on what constitutes notes. I get NUMEROUS cases of "Opponent Writes Bd3 - Sit and think - Cross out and write Nf3 - sit and think - cross out and write O-O-O, and 5 minutes later, he castles Queenside. Now as I see it, this is note taking. What is a crossout? One slash? Complete coloring over the move? Say, I wrote Nf3 2 moves ago, how about now? Follow in line with FIDE and problem solved! You write any move on your scoresheet that has not already been made and you are penalized! PERIOD!

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