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.