Just the Rules: Rulebook Judgement Calls

Tim Just

If annoying acts cause a migraine, see a TD and make a claim.

Your opponent complains to the TD that you are eating a sandwich at the board. The TD observes that you have a fast food burger that you are holding below the table. There are no crumbs or food on the board or table. You are observed taking a discreet nibble from your food occasionally.

But what if you had you been eating a crunchy snack from a noisy cellophane bag and getting crumbs all over the board?

And then there is the shirt that another player wears with slogans that supported a cause that you have spent a lifetime opposing–no offensive language or immoral suggestions, just words of support. Do things change if the language on the shirt is offensive?

Your opponent keeps tapping his pencil…

If the TD gets involved it is a judgement call on their part if any of these scenarios are annoying. Typically unobtrusive eating, unless a no-eating-at-the-board rule is announced, is not annoying. Crinkly, messy, and loud eating is probably going to get labeled as annoying. A tapping pencil often gets the heave-ho from many TDs; however, T-shirt babble is a close call and very subjective. Sometimes just wearing the disputed shirt inside out solves that problem.

Check with a TD if your opponent’s behavior, or anyone else’s, is annoying you. Once you contact a TD about what is annoying you, the TD gets to decide how big of a concern the alleged annoyance really is. Remember, what annoys you may be just normal behavior for everyone else.

Before you file an annoyance complaint, politely ask the person to stop their bothersome behavior. Making this kind of complaint should be a last-ditch effort on your part.

Do you have any tales of annoying behavior at a tournament? You can tell your story in the comment section at the end of this post.

Playing black, have no fear: you get to choose the gear—or do you?

You are playing in a tournament where you are expected to provide your own equipment. You are managing the white pieces. Your opponent, as the general of the black pieces, wants to use his equipment. His board has bright polka dot pink and red squares, while his chess army is turquoise and red. You object.

Or, your opponent—playing the black pieces—claims the player with the black pieces gets to choose the equipment. They choose the Bart Simpson memorial chess set.

If you have to provide your own chess equipment, then the player of the black pieces gets to choose what standard set, board, and clock to use. Of course, if the player of the black pieces is not there at the start of the game, then they forfeit their right to choose, unless their opponent sets up substandard equipment.

What kind of substandard equipment?—substandard standard clocks for one. If either player is using a clock that is not appropriate for the tournament time control, then the other player may be able to swap out that substandard timer for a more appropriate clock before move one. You may need a TD to help you with this.

And if there is a dispute over equipment, then the TD gets to decide what will be used. Most TDs would rule the Bart Simpson pieces and the oddly colored board & pieces do not meet the “standard equipment” test.

If You Touch it, then Move it or Take it. 

There was no thinking involved. It was intuitive. It was obvious to the most casual observer. Your Bishop move simply wins your opponent’s knight on the other side of the board. You grab the cleric and reach across the board to claim your loot. In the process you brush up against your opponent’s guarded pawn. Your adversary claims you touched that pawn and now you must take it.

Or, the wood pusher across the board from you touches the top of his queen with his finger tip for a few seconds. Suddenly he switches gears and grabs his rook. “He touched his queen and must move it,” is your claim. He retorts that he did not deliberately touch the queen and intended to move the rook all along.

If you touch your piece, you will have to move it. If you touch your opponent’s piece you have to take it.

Accidentally bumping or brushing up against a piece is not considered “touching a piece.” Using the “no intent, so it is not deliberate” argument muddies the waters of “touch move” but not enough to avoid moving the first piece touched—even with the tip of a finger. However, when there is a dispute the TD gets to decide whether a piece was touched or not—a judgement call to be sure.

A FREE on-line downloadable version of the rules, chapters 1+2+11 only, digested from the upcoming 7th edition rulebook are available HERE.

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.



  1. To clarify, “standard equipment” is pieces with the Staunton design, with king 3-4″ tall, and other pieces proportionately sized. The TD gets no say in this.

    • Actually, color is important too. Neon orange and pastel pink pieces can be considered nonstandard since they do not approximate naturally light and dark wood or simple black and white.

  2. I had an opponent recently, rated like 200 points higher than me, cough incessantly at the board. Sometimes he covered his mouth, sometimes he didn’t, but the bigger point was that his cough was distracting and annoying. He must have coughed 20 or more times during the game. I gave him a look but didn’t think to talk to the TD until after I lost the game. Then I spoke with his dad (he was like 12 years old or something) and the dad said “He has a right to cough!” I tried to make the point that anyone can cough 3 or 4 times but 20 is excessive, and I told his dad to buy him some cough drops! I still can’t understand why the kid felt the need to distract me. He didn’t look sick, and if he WAS sick he should not have been at the tournament. Next time I will stop the clock and complain before the game is over.

    • Please be advised that inadvertently annoying behavior is not necessarily a violation of the rules. However, there may be solutions that the TD may be able to implement to help alleviate the annoyance of the situation.

    • If I were to guess, he was probably sick but his dad might have forced him to play that round (against his son’s will) instead of taking a bye.

      That’s not your opponent’s fault.

  3. “Nikunj Oza | December 20, 2018 at 2:57 pm To clarify, “standard equipment” is pieces with the Staunton design, with king 3-4″ tall, and other pieces proportionately sized. The TD gets no say in this.”

    I don’t think I’d go so far as to say the TD has no say in ANYTHING at his/her tournament.

  4. Judgement calls are exactly why I started TD work. Every tournament, there’s something new and unique that requires creative problem solving. Sheet years of doing scholastic events, I was pleasantly surprised at the US Open that I had virtually nothing to do… Until a few new challenges arose.
    It’s like a whole extra level of chess that TDs enjoy.

  5. In the UK, a major city league games typically take place on a weeknight, starting around 7:30 pm. Many, if not most, of the players come directly from their place of work and can expect to finish after 9pm; snacks are often provided, but sometimes this is not possible, and players will bring their own food for this dinnertime match.

    I have personally witnessed a player who brought to the board a full kebab meal, including sauce and chips! For those not familiar, kebabs in the UK are heavy on the meat, which has a distinctive smell that can be recognised from some distance. The player in question continued to munch through the meat, fries and salad courses between moves. Other than fish, it is difficult to think of a meal with a stronger odour!

  6. At one of the National Youth Action tournaments there was a coach who instructed a team to complain to the TDs about distractions. One player raised his hand complaining that the opponent was violation the “no distractions” rule. It turned out the opponent was quietly watching the game on the next board and that letting himself get distracted was the cited “violation”.

    Sometimes claims come from people that are more sensitive to distractions than most people and the TD may well rule that the behavior is not really annoying (an example would be somebody whose leg is quietly and subconsciously bouncing the knee up and down under the table, which annoys some people while most would be almost oblivious to it).

    Sometimes claims come from people that are themselves trying to disrupt the opponent with spurious claims.

    Sometimes claims come from people in a poor position who are desperately trying anything to avoid losing.

    Most of the time complaints are understandable and might also be justified.

  7. Sometimes getting to really know your regular players personalities is a plus. One player 50 years old, male, math and tennis coach must have complained about every single noise in the tournament. I kid you not he complained more than 20 times in 30 minutes about every conceivable noise made in the playing hall. Since I know him very well I took him aside and told him to stop whining to me like an old like codger, grow some thick skin, play tough and win your game. Lo and behold he did just that and thanked me for chewing him out and making him grow up. He beat his opponent 300 points higher than him.
    Regarding the coughing above I have a little 10 year old boy who has a chronic cough that is not contagious (born with it). I gave his opponent ear plugs and that solved the problem.

  8. About 40 years ago, there was one chess player, at tournaments I attended, who regularly opened a thermos of soup and slurped the soup during the game. Many of his opponents were distracted and lost. One time he was pared to play my father. When they sat down at the table my father politely asked him not to slurp his soup, so he placed his thermos on the floor where it stayed for the duration of the game. Afterwards, my father asked him why he never did that for other opponents, and his response was simply, “None of them ever asked me not to eat soup during the game.” I think the simple solution to most annoying behavior, whether intentional or not, is to politely ask your opponent to refrain from such behavior.

  9. Only two incidents readily come to mind. Young (maybe 12) opponent would slam down his soda can on the table during my game with him. Asked once that he not do this and the next time he did, I got up, picked up his soda can and threw it in the trash. No more problem.

    The other incident was a young player (see a trend here ?) who kept banging the button on MY clock with his fist. My comment was, “Once more and I’ll knock you off your chair !” Never happened again !!! This was not at a tournament but at my local chess club.

  10. In the days just after smoking at tournaments was banned I once held an unlit cigaretted in one hand and a match book with bent match prepared for striking. My opponent was a NOTORIOUS self-righteous complainer and mightily focused his attention on my unlit cigarette and match book just waiting to leap into the air and scream outrage if I lit the tobacco. I never did and he dropped a piece in the opening because of his misplaced attention. LOL! Some people are very dim.

  11. At 63, extra noise and movements definitely distract me more than they used to. I try to maintain my focus and perspective but it’s difficult in some cases. The most I’ll ever eat at the board is a granola bar, and I’ll always move away or out in the hall before unwrapping and eating it. But I’ve seen parents bring entire meals to their kids at the board, complete with silverware! Then there’s the potato chips, constant opening/closing/slurping a water bottle, and dancing around behind their chair. Between rounds, the hallways have turned into playgrounds with games of tag and football. It’s really getting more difficult for me to play in weekend tournaments now. I’d rather play the adults in my local club, or senior events.

  12. My favorite story on this topic is from back in the day when smoking was allowed in the playing halls. One gentleman, who has since passed, was so irate when someone lit up when playing him calming opened his briefcase, pulled out a clove a garlic, popped it into his mouth, chewed on it for a bit then exhaled. The smokers usually wilted.

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