Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Touch-Move: Do As I Say, Not As I Do.

When I'm directing a scholastic tournament the one thing I dread when I see a hand go up is hearing, "He touched the _____ (fill in the blank) and moved something else." The touch move rule is the bane of every tournament director's existence. What's a tournament director to do when one player claims the opponent touched a piece, and the opponent vehemently denies it? Either the opponent did or did not touch the piece. Who is right? How does the tournament director figure it out if no one saw it?

In the USCF Official Rules of Chess there is a TD Tip listed even before the rule is stated. TD tips were added to the 5th Edition of the rule book. They are to further explain how experienced directors and players have applied the concepts of the relevant rule. Usually they come after the rule is stated, but in the case of Rule 10 touch-move the TD tip comes first. The TD tip states; "Without a neutral witness Rule 10 depends on the reliability of both the claimant and the opponent. If they disagree then the TD should strongly consider denying the claim. In most cases, by denying the claim the TD shuts the door to all false claims. Upholding a false claim usually does more harm to more players than denying an accurate claim."

Well that certainly puts the TD in an awkward spot right off the bat. If he can't determine whether the piece was really touched or not, it's recommended that he rules in favor of the opponent. The opponent could be lying through his teeth, but he has the TD tip on his side.

Here's the rule: "Except for 10A (adjustment of pieces), a player on move who deliberately touches one or more pieces, in manner that may reasonably be interpreted as the beginning of a move, must move or capture the first piece that can be moved or captured. See also 10E, Accidental touch of piece; 10F, appearance of adjustment."

The typical scenario is one player reached for a piece with the intention of moving it, but may or may not have touched it before changing his mind. This same argument often arises in whether somebody took their hand off the piece after moving it to a square. The lazy TD will ask players at the near by boards whether they saw anything or not. If the answer is no, then he'll simply deny the claim using the TD tip as the basis for his decision.

The conscientious TD will spend more time trying to determine what really occurred. This usually involves asking the players to state what they think occurred. The claimant might say "He put his hand on the ____, but moved something else instead." The opponent may respond, "No I reached for the piece, but didn't actually touch it." Then the TD may ask the claimant to show him what the opponent did. The claimant may demonstrate by reaching for the piece in question and either pick it up, or simply touch it. The opponent may respond by moving his hand towards the piece, pulling back and moving something else. I have watched a TD have both players demonstrate what they think happened a number of times. It's usually around the third or fourth occurrence of the demonstration that it becomes apparent what happened. An excellent example of NTD Steve Immitt being diligent in trying to resolve this type of issue is given here. That was a game between two adults!

I would say most of the touch-move disputes I've observed as a TD or a bystander come about because of a player's indecision over moving a particular piece or not. It usually comes down to did the player touch the piece in the course of changing his mind about moving it? The second TD tip relating to touch-move rules deals with this issue. "After talking to the claimant and the opponent, TDs will often find that opponents often insist that they did not deliberately touch a piece. Often, after some further discussion, the TD will find that some opponents really did physically touch the piece in such way that it appeared as if they intended to move it (not an accident); however, they will explain that they really intended to move another piece; therefore, they believe that since the 'touch' was not literally 'deliberate' (since they intended to move another piece), the rule was not broken. The TD will have to uphold the claim in this instance."

As a coach and teacher I continually remind my students not to reach for a piece until they're positive that they want to move that piece. I also remind them to make sure that they know what square they're putting the piece on. When they're sure of what they're going to move and where they're going to place, then and only then should they pick up the piece and move it. I tell them, "Don't have your hand hovering over a piece while you're thinking about whether you're going to move it. Also don't be holding onto the piece while you decide whether the square is the right one or not." I mention examples of this happening in tournaments and the consequences of the inadvertent touch that can occur in the course of changing one's mind.

Unfortunately I now have a very specific example of the inadvertent touch. On Monday night I reached the following position after 8...Bb6.

Even without the little arrow, I knew that my d pawn was hanging. I had considered simply trading with 9. dxe5, but I didn't like the g1-a7 diagonal being opened for Black's dark squared bishop, and the queen recapture forking my bishop and knight, forcing me to play either Bd2 or Qd2. I'm not sure why I had not given more thought to simply playing the solid developing move of 9. Nf3. Maybe I was afraid he'd push to e4 and chase my knight away. Instead I though 9. e3 would be good because after 9...exd4 I could play 10. exd4, retaining my centralized pawn. What I forgot about until I reached out to play 9.e3 was that after 9...exd4 my e pawn is pinned!

I had not actually picked up the e pawn, but in my reaching for it I did make contact. I pulled my hand back and started to consider my options at this point. Now if this had been a game between two kids it's most likely that Black would have immediately said "You touched the pawn, you have to move it." If my opponent was a kid he might have said something. However my opponent was not a kid, but the father of a very talented 10 year old who is becoming my new King Kong, and he didn't say anything.

I must admit the first things crossing my mind were, "Did he see me touch the pawn? I just brushed it with my hand as I was reaching for it. I didn't actually pick it up. Has he read the rule and the related TD tip? Can I make another move? Will he say something if I play Nf3 instead?" I kept thinking about those questions as I looked at the position. Moving the e pawn to either e3 or e4 causes me to lose the d pawn and gives Black a dominating bishop on d4. I really did not want to allow that to occur. To give Black such a position right out of the opening would be very hard to recover from. One might call it the "generosity gambit". You give up a pawn to allow your opponent control of the center.

I thought about what would happen if I tried to play Nf3 instead of moving the "not deliberately touched e pawn." He could have said nothing because he didn't see that I lightly touched the pawn as changed my mind and pulled my hand away. If he said nothing I probably would have spent the rest of the game feeling guilty because I didn't move a piece I touched. I would have felt even worse since I've advised his son about proper tournament etiquette and sportsmanship. He might not have known, but I would know.

The other possibility was that he would challenge me because he did see the contact. What would I say at that point? "Oh I forgot about that e pawn. Silly me! I will take back the knight move and play the pawn move instead. I'm so sorry." The other choice would have been to say "No I didn't touch the pawn. I reached for it, but changed my mind before touching it." The second choice what have necessitated bringing the TD in to make a determination of what actually occurred. The problem is I'm the TD for the club. I would have had Silvio make the ruling. Silvio is the section chief for the K-1 and 2-5 unrated sections for the numerous scholastic events we run in this area. If Silvio asks the same type of questions Steve does, then he would clearly rule in the opponent's favor.

I finally picked up the e pawn and moved it to e4. I was rather annoyed at myself for putting myself into such a situation by reaching for the pawn before realizing the move was no good. However I knew moving the e pawn was the right thing to do, even though it was clearly the wrong move in that position.

Here is the entire game.


In the grand scheme of things I may have lost anyway. He tends to play faster then me, and I normally have time pressure issues when I play him. I played him last Thursday, and the clock was a large part of the reason I lost that game too. At least this way I could live with myself.


Anonymous said...


What about 9. c5 in that position? It seems like a good move since it would get you more space, force the black squared bishop to retreat (giving you a tempo) and dooming the black squared bishop to a rather miserable existence for the foreseeable future (especially if after (9...dxc5; 10. dxc5, Bc7/Bd8; 11. e4.


chesstiger said...

34. Bf1 ???? 34. Bf2 was the move to play i guess which still holds the game drawish.

In regards of the touch-move thing, next time go sit on your hands and only put one above the table if you are sure about your move.

For kids, especially very young beginners it's allmost impossible to not let them touch several pieces before they decide with which figurine they will move. :-)

chesstiger said...

Eueueh, make that Kf2 instead Bf2.

CHESSX said...

I run a Primary School chess club and before we do anything i repeat the touch piece rule.
We have a touch piece dispute proberly once a week.
I always lean on the side of if i did not see it i can't over rule it.(as the rules state)
But then watch from a near distance.
what is worst some of the parents come to see me with "my son said you did not believe him when he said his opponent touched a piece"
I always invite them to help out at chess club to watch all the games,they never do. It works every time.

likesforests said...

I think the central tension after 5...Qe7 is interesting. On the one hand, you want to play 6.dxe5 Qxe5 7.Nf3 to gain a tempo, but on the other hands 6.dxe5 Bxc3+ 7.bxc3 Qxe5 gives you doubled isolani. But after 8.Qd4! Qe7 9.Bg5 or 8.Qd4! Qxd4 9.cxd4 you're in great shape.

Move 9 - Ouch! I agree it's better to walk away with your honor intact. Polly does the right thing. :)

16...Nd7 - You're alive!

34.Bf1?? - As you say, letting his rook into your house looks fatal. I think 34.Kf2 would've put up a more stubborn defense. Darn clocks.

Temposchlucker said...

If you think about the psychology of this, it is my take that the claimant speaks the truth in 98% of the cases. Denial to avoid punishment is often the unintended result of education. Speak the truth and you get punished, lie and you walk out free. Look at your own struggle with yourself. Not everybody is so strong to do the right thing.

Aziridine said...

Admirable integrity! I don't know if I could do it. Forget the game - it's just a game.

9.c5 is interesting, but after 9...dxc5 10.dxc5 Bc7 I wouldn't play 11.e4 since that shuts in the light-square bishop. On the other hand Black's position doesn't look too bad since the queenside pawns can probably be undermined with ...a5 and ...b6 - I'm not really sure who's better there.

chesstiger and likesforests,
After 34.Kf2 Kg5 followed by ...Kg4 and ...f5 White is still lost. She's down a pawn, every one of her pieces is worse than its Black counterpart, and g3 is weak. I can't give White any good advice - Black played pretty well.
How about 6.dxe5 Ng4? I wonder if there's any theory on 5...Qe7 in the first place.

Polly said...

Marty: 9. c5 is also a reasonable move, though later on I may have to concern myself with the queen side being over extended. I'm not sure I would play 11. e4. One usually doesn't want to block the diagonal of the fianchettoed bishop. I would probably trade of f6 and play Nf4.

Tiger: Kf2 is better then Bf1. I had about 2 seconds left, so at that point I was just moving. It still will be difficult to hold because his king can start advancing and his knight may get play on the queen side. My pieces are tied down.

I know about sitting on my hands. I've given that advice to some of my more impulsive students. Part of my problem was I didn't do the final blunder check before reaching for the e pawn.

Chess: I have the same problem with students in my classes. With less experienced kids I don't have them play touch move, but the same disputes come up in regard to whether they took their hand off the piece or not.

When these types of disputes come up in class I look at the position. Often the kid who's claiming the touch is crushing the other kid already, so I might diffuse the situation by saying "I didn't see what happened, and you are winning anyway. Let him play move the piece where he wants." Then I will tell the opponent that he needs to be more careful, and that next time it happens I'm going to make him leave the piece there. This way I take it away from the direction of believing one kid over another, and hopefully make the opponent more aware of moving too hastily.

Like: The double isolani is why I didn't play that line. You're too polite about the clock. @#$%ing clocks!

Tempo: I think in games with adults that the claimant is probably right most of the time. There is a clearer understanding of a deliberate touch versus the accidental touch. I've had opponents adjust a piece where I haven't heard them say adjust. But it was obvious that they were adjusting the piece because they were using one finger to center it. I would never try to claim a touch move in case like that, yet I have seen children make claims on something like that. Children tend to take things literally so they see a piece being touched, and they want it to be moved.

It's unfortunate that denial to avoid punishment comes into play. However there are too many examples of lying with positive results. Eventually the lies come out, but often people see the first result not the final outcome of the lie.

I'm not so sure it was a matter of being strong, but it was more about what would have happened if he called me on it. I would have been embarressed to be caught trying to get away with something.

My writing about this was with the intent of discussing the issues related to touch-move and how players and directors deal with it. I think it's a very difficult situation from a directing point of view. Many rulings a TD makes are easier to make, because there is concrete proof for or against a specific claim. Claims such as opponent not making the time control or three fold repetition are fairly straight forward. There is concrete evidence in the form of a score sheet. From the scoresheet it's usually pretty easy to see whether the repetition occured or not, or whether the appropriate number of moves were made before time expired.

It becomes trickier when a TD has make a ruling based on one word versus another. That's why it's so important for the TD to ask the right questions and make a ruling based on what is right and fair.

Ken Ballou said...


Thank you for writing about this topic. Putting on my TD hat, I'd like to encourage your readers to consider another aspect of "touch move."

I've often watched players pick up a piece, place it on the intended square, and then keep the hand on the piece (sometimes in a showy manner) for an extended time while deciding whether to commit to the move. Strictly speaking, this does not violate the "touch move" rule, but I think it is a bad practice and violates the spirit of the rules. Basically, the player is "testing out" the move by holding the piece on the destination square and then studying the resulting position. If I were a player whose opponent did this repeatedly, I would make a claim of annoying behavior. (As a TD, I would uphold such a claim.)

Polly said...

Ken: That's an interesting way of looking that that type of move of the piece. My students in some of my classes do that, and I try to break them of the habit. Not so much for the reasons you give, but I'm trying to get them into the habit of looking all the squares with their eyes. My selling point is that the hand and arm over the board blocks the view of some squares, and they really don't see as much.