Just the Rules: Is That Still a Rule?

just the Rules by Tim Just

Nostalgia has a way of making us feel good about the past. We look at things through the “warm and fuzzy” lens of time. We tend to ignore the idea that things change. Some old ideas still hold on in today’s world. Sometimes a good idea from long ago really has lost its shine in the here-and-now, but it is still remembered fondly.

Some chess rules improve with age. A tweak here. A tweak there. They grow with the times. With analog clocks headed towards extinction via their digital cousins, the chess clock rules were adjusted. The recent updated language for both chapters nine (Correspondence Chess) and ten (Internet Chess) turned them into a grown-up version of their younger selves.

Adjournments (rules 18 and 19) are so old that they are new again—thanks to increment time controls. (Just the Rules: Adjournment Rules of Thumb)

Then there is Rule 36. It’s the one at the end of chapter two in the rulebook. The one with some old-fashioned language and old-fashioned concepts. A rule that now seems to reflect outmoded technology. It addresses a need that barely existed in its own time, let alone now. Nostalgia is not a word associated with Rule 36: Rules and Regulations for Computer Participants.

That’s right, computers were allowed to enter chess tournaments with the rest of us wood pushers as far back as 1994, and earlier. Goichberg’s 4th edition published in 1994 was the first time Rule 36 was included in any US Chess (then USCF) rulebook—though according to Mike Nolan, US Chess Ratings Consultant, computers were issued Federation memberships as far back as 1991, and even before that. Tim Redman’s 3rd edition (1987) makes no mention of computer wood pushers in chess tournaments. Let all of that marinade with you for a moment.

Just what does Rule 36 say? Check out this digested version with commentary:

  • A non-commercial membership is required—directly available from US Chess.
  • Computer participation in events must be advertised in advance.
  • Players can’t object to being paired with computers—Rule 36D (more on that later).
  • Computers can’t be paired with each other.
  • The operator’s responsibilities: They can’t fiddle with the computer while a game is in progress; They can move the pieces for the computer on the game board; They deal with all rules and functions of the game clock, including pressing the clock; They can accept draws, resign, or claim a win on time (using the game clock) for the computer; They can jump through the adjournment hoops for the computer; And, they can swap memory units when asked to by the computer (talk about something that doesn’t need to be done any more!?).
  • The US Chess Computer Rating Agency rates commercially available computers. What? Does this agency still exist?
  • And related rule 28M1 suggests using a computer as a “house player.” Hmmm… has anyone ever done this? What was the procedure? Both Mike Nolan and I want to know about those hoops.

In the beginning, chess playing computers were a novelty—a collection of circuits that had questionable chess ability. Weekend chess warriors often looked forward to essaying games against computers—it was a free, easy, tournament point for the human—not to mention free rating points. Chess computer programing improved. They started to consistently beat higher and higher rated opponents. They became Chess Masters. The free game and ratings points disappeared.

When those CPUs traveled along that upgrade highway it gave rise to greater and greater backlashes from humanoids. Organizers and TDs had to start offering humans the opportunity to not be paired with that technology—despite rule 36D. Why? Because organizers wanted to hold onto their traditional clientele—the ones generating dollars from those entry fees. The fallout from the “I’m not playing a computer” sign-up sheet was that pairings became problematical—if not impossible. The alternate solution was to not allow computers to enter in person events (NC in the Chess Life ads). Eventually, that became the norm. Not allowing computer participants made the paying crowd happy. Chess playing computers faded from the tournament scene.

Rule 36 is still kicking around. Check out the last rule in chapter two in our current (7th edition) rulebook. But when was the last time a tournament had a computer entrant? Nolan points out that 2003 was the last year that a computer membership was issued—though some memberships got issued using their creator’s own names. Has Rule 36 outlived its usefulness?


  • The free, updated US Chess Rules (Chapters 1+2 + 9 + 10 +11 from the 7th edition rulebook) are now downloadable and available online.
  • Want more? 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.”

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.


It should be emphasized that the "computer" participation rule is about a proprietary program. Not an off-the-shelf version.

You cannot simply enter your copy of Fritz, Stockfish, or any other publicly available program running on your laptop. Nor can you buy a tabletop chess computer and enter your Chess Challenger 7 in an event.

You have to write a program -- your own program. That was the point. The rule was designed to allow chess programmers to test their programs.

It's odd that rules specifically for computers were not added until 1994. Master-strength computer programs were playing in rated tournaments at least as far back as the 1988 Pennsylvania State Championship, which was won by Hitech, which beat IM Ed Formanek in the last round.

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