Etiquette for Chess Spectators
Created | Updated Oct 30, 2011
So you have decided to go along and watch a chess match or tournament. What are you going to encounter? And how are you expected to behave? The first thing to bear in mind is that, with the exception of world championship matches, most chess matches or congresses1 are held in confined spaces, as by and large the sport is not extremely well funded, so the venue is going to be cramped.
Most important of all when watching a game of chess is to keep the noise down. The people you are watching are concentrating so much they will be sweating at times and come away from the table mentally exhausted. The last thing they want is someone in the crowd to shout out the next move and disturb such a high level of concentration. A quiet whisper is just about acceptable, but make it discreet and out of earshot of the players.
In major tournaments such as the World Championship final, when there are just two players on a stage, you may find that there is a soundproof screen around them which allows you to make a little more noise, but all the aficionados will continue to speak in hushed tones as they are so used to doing in the big halls.
Know the Score
Scoring is pretty straightforward: one point for a win, half a point for a draw and nothing for a defeat. There is no added bonus for winning with the black pieces2 apart from the fact that it is a psychological blow to your opponent. Top players are generally hoping to win with the white pieces and draw with black; anything better than this is a bonus.
Be Careful Where you Move
One of the first things to be aware of in cramped conditions is where you are able to stand to spectate. If this is a major tournament, there may well be rope behind which you have to stand so as not to distract the players, otherwise common sense will come into play. Obviously, do not stand right at somebody's elbow or shoulder, especially if that someone is your eager chess-playing child. Standing too close can, on occasion, actually put them off. Also, a lot of chess players do tend to live a fairly lonely existence, especially if they are aiming for the top, spending many long hours over a chessboard by themselves checking the latest theory or thoughts on the game. So, in all probability, they won't be very used to crowds, or indeed to being crowded.
As well as being careful about where you stand, it is vitally important to be careful where you move. If you were to brush past a table and knock a piece off the board, do not be absolutely certain that the players would notice it was not there. They might be too focused on another part of the board or be planning an attack somewhere else to be aware that a piece that they think is under no threat is suddenly no longer there. Also knocking into a player may force him to touch a piece he has no intention of moving3. So the best thing to do is to keep a sensible distance and, if you do need to wear glasses, come prepared and don't sit with your nose six inches over the board.
One thing to bear in mind when spectating at a chess tournament is where all the best action is going to be taking place. As most tournaments make it impossible for every player to play everyone else, some sort of structure had to be established to ensure that the eventual winner has competed against a high enough level of opposition so that no one can sneak in by beating a whole range of also-rans, edging out someone else in the last round who has played all the other top players. To achieve this, chess tournaments are drawn round by round pitting those on equal scores at the top of the table against those on equal points, providing they have not yet met in the tournament. The result is that the longer the tournament progresses the more of the top players you are going to have to get a result against to remain in with a chance of winning.
All the best action is going to start to become focused on the top few boards (apart from the first round where the top ranked player faces the player with the best ranking from the lower half of the draw). The action is the most tense at the top boards as these are players who, in dropping even half a point, might jeopardise their success in the tournament. These boards will eventually gather the majority of the crowd, much as the top players at a chess tournament gather the largest galleries, but it may cause you problems in getting close enough to see what is going on.
To get around this, especially at some of the larger tournaments, a large display screen may be erected for one or more of the top boards and these can be watched either on the stage or occasionally in a separate room. For big one-on-one matches, this board will often be just behind or beside the players so that everyone can get a clear idea of what is going on without having to leave their seats.
If you are watching a league match, the best players from each team will be playing on board one, the weakest on the lowest board. The odd and even boards will alternate and be playing either black or white; this is to give both teams an equal chance of winning. So at league games quite often there is a congregation around the top couple of boards. This is because these are the boards where everyone else in the room is going to be able to learn something as these are the players that are most likely going to have a greater ability than them.
Unlike your games at home, those at a chess tournament are played under stringent time controls. If you know what you are looking for as regards time, you can get to see some really exciting high-speed play. But at different points of the game there are different rates of play.
The Opening - At tournaments these are fast and furious, as most players will know a large range of opening moves, sometimes up to the twentieth move and all the consequences. These can be hard to follow for the spectator, unless they happen to know opening theory4.
Development - After the breakneck pace of the opening, eventually one of the players will have to take time to think. So you as a spectator can catch your breath and see what state the board is in. However, they cannot spend too long contemplating as they are under time controls.
Approaching a time control - One player may be taking considerably longer than the other to make their moves, or they might both be taking too long in the middle game. If this is the case, one of them is likely to find themselves again having to move quickly to get all the required number of moves in before the flag on their clock falls5.
End game - In some forms of competitive chess, especially league play, the game does not have to be completed, but may go to adjudication to see who would have won. Alternatively, once a final time control for that session of play has been reached, the next move may be sealed and play resumed at a later time or date. End games may not always be entered into at the top level as the players tend to know if they have a winning or losing position before they get too far into it. However, there can be a frantic chase of pawns and a few pieces, trying to trap and ensnare each other's kings.
So, with this information you can place yourself at the right board at the right time to see the sort of play you want to see. When players are facing tight time controls or are playing at rapid speed (five to 30 minutes for all moves), they can often make a fatal blunder without realising it, as they are left with no thinking time. This is where chess players have to exercise their poker face, especially if they realise it, and hopefully find some way to distract their opponent away from the weakness they have exposed.
Definite no-no. Even the official chess press are only allowed to take photos from the first ten minutes of competitive play and they are tolerated more than accepted. So, leave your camera at home and take a pen and paper and note down the moves from the game to play later. After all, everyone else will be going over their games and analysing them afterwards, so you may as well join in.
After the Game
So the game reaches a finish and the players have shaken hands. What often happens next may surprise you. They sit back down and sometimes reset up the whole board or sometimes just return to an earlier position to consider other paths the game might have taken. There will always be a point in a game when a player has to make a choice between two moves of equal outcome in their eyes; it may lead to victory or defeat depending on what the opponent sees. It is these key moments that live large in a player's mind as the board develops around them. 'What ifs', however, cannot be answered until the end, and often the only person who knows the outcome of the alternative 'what if' is sitting opposite you. So, chess players quite often will analyse the game even with the person they have just beaten or lost to, as it is a game where everyone is constantly learning.
In major parks the world over from New York to Moscow to Cairo, there are often clusters of tables and benches where people congregate to sit down for a game of chess. In some locations these boards are free to play on; in others you have to pay a small fee. But better still, why don't you take your own board along if you like. Some of these games are for money, some just for fun. But many, numerous and varied are the people you may find there huddled over their chessmen, even in the depths of a Russian winter. These games are good to watch as a passer-by. Some are played at rapid speeds, some are just a leisurely way to spend a day. You are quite free to stand there and idly watch but, if you aren't too great a player yourself, watch your money as some of the guys you see there are hustlers, maybe losing to a mate to entice you in and empty your wallet.
If you do play though, especially if you are in a strange country, it's a great way to cross language and cultural divides as the rules are the same, and there is little that you encounter that is too radically strange.
Another feature of many outdoor parks and public places is giant chessmen laid out on a giant board. These are very rarely played with which is a shame, as they are there for public enjoyment. However, if you are watching a game on one of these boards, you can watch from quite a distance away. However, do not take any of these pieces away for your gnome collection at home. For a start they are civic property, and if some child wants to play with them, imagine their disappointment when they find there is one piece missing.