Just the Rules: Scholastic Rules Rumble?

When I think of a rumble I think instantly of pro wrestling or West Side Story. Scholastic chess does not come to mind, until recently. In the words of Michael Buffer: “Let’s get ready to rumble!” THE SETUP: The scholastic community has always had a separate set of rules and regulations for its US Chess National events. This document in its entirety does not appear in the US Chess rulebook. Those National Scholastic contests typically include all sorts of tweakable rules: school team prizes (size and quantity)—a rarity in adult chess tourneys, school team composition, notation (very young children can’t write yet), sections qualifications, team and individual ratings used, etc. Two new far-reaching polices are kicking in during the 2019 – 2020 Scholastic National Chess Tournament season. What was impacted? Let’s take a peek at the new spectator access to the playing area and electronic score keeping device regulations. SPECTATORS ARE NOW RESTRICTED from the National scholastic playing area. Why? Noise, crowds, and cheating claims—especially cheating claims. For as long as there have been National Scholastic tournaments there have been crowd control issues. Besides answering a player’s question or addressing their claim, TDs are charged with also verifying every game result. Allowing spectators near each game, or confining them to the center aisle, often put up physical roadblocks for the TD to maneuver around. Some adult hangers-on even managed to talk well above a whisper while spectating. Numerous warnings and removal from the tournament hall did not substantially dampen the noise. Add to that the increasing number of cheating claims that need to be investigated (spectator involved, technology involved, etc.) and tournament administration has turned into an energy and time draining enterprise; thus, the ban on spectators from the playing area. Fear and anxiety over cheating far outweigh the actual instances of verified cheating. Yes, some small amount cheating probably occurs, but not as much as we all dread. We all want a level playing field. Check out this tale from the distant pre-technology past: The top board was front and center on the makeshift platform stage. A demo board behind the scholastic contestants let the spectators follow along in the unfolding drama. Supporters—teammates, coaches, and parents—from both camps had front row seats in the multi rowed seating area in front of the stage. The teammates for one of the wannabe champions complained to the TD that the opponent of their teammate and his dad were cheating—sending signals back and forth. Dad was a master. The TD, himself a master, did some observing. He even checked over the board position. His final ruling was that no cheating was taking place. The opponent was losing badly, so if signals were being passed (something he never could verify) the master-son combo was doing a real bad job. The player’s teammates did not agree with the TD and did their best to block the line of sight between the player and his dad for the rest of the game—creating an entirely different problem for the TD to solve. ELECTRONIC NOTATION DEVICES ARE NOW BANNED at National Scholastic events. This ban of all notation devices at National Scholastics may be the Royal Rumble in the scholastic community. Remember that this device ban does not impact the other National tournaments organized by US Chess, just National Scholastics. Organizers of non-national scholastic events—aka adult events, state scholastics, etc.—are also not impacted by this National Scholastic device ban. Fear of loss is a great motivator. No one likes an unfair contest. No one likes to believe that they are being cheated. Mix those attitudes up and cook them in the “anxiety” oven and you get all sorts of notation device claims: possible hacking, signals sent, signals received, possible installed chess engines, using devices as a second board, etc. These claims can’t be ignored by the event staff. But those claims are burdensome on the staff—too often they don’t have time left for their other duties. Without those devices, the ability to use them to gain a potential edge disappears—as do the cheating claims; thus, electronic notation devices got banned. Players with special needs get a free pass from this regulation—well, if they jump through the “approved for use” hoops. On one side there are those that loudly support the ban. On the other side there are those that just as loudly object to the ban. Both sides have engaged in a back-and-forth contest over and over on the US Chess Forums and on social media. A Royal Rumble indeed? And before the dawn of notation devices there was this: In kindergarten sections expecting notate is problematical. The participants typically can’t write yet, let alone take notation. One creative parent knew the value of notating a game. But since his offspring could not yet deal with scoresheets, he came up with a clever solution—videotaping. He set up his equipment near his child’s game and took on the role of cameraman so that he could capture every move on tape. His lens not only recorded every move of the game but also recorded a lot of other players on the surrounding boards. He was very unhappy when the TD  had him move out of the playing area—which by the way banned spectators. His efforts were well meaning but capturing other participants on tape created a few perceived legal problems of their own. Additionally, his equipment limited the movement of both players and TDs—plus created a safety hazard. His equipment followed him out the of the playing area. He and his son embraced notation devices when they appeared on the chess tournament scene. The free, updated as of 1-1-20, US Chess Rules (Chapters 1+2+11 from the 7th edition rulebook) are now downloadable and available on-line. Past “Just the Rules” columns can be viewed 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.