Wesley So forfeit: What should have happened

As the entire chess world knows, Wesley So was recently forfeited for writing notes to himself during his games at the U.S. Championship. The purpose of this blog post is to give my view of what should have happened. There were three major parties in this incident, Wesley So, Tony Rich and Varuzhan Akobian and I think that all three of them should have acted differently.

Let’s take a look at the most obvious offender in this case: Wesley So

What should Wesley have done differently? This one is pretty obvious. Once he was warned that he could be forfeited if he continued taking notes, he should have stopped taking notes completely.

Instead he decided that he could take notes on the non-official notation sheet. This is definitely an odd way of thinking, but I suppose it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility for Wesley to believe it. However for someone to be 2700+ FIDE rated and to not take the precaution of asking the tournament director if this very similar action might be okay…let’s just say it’s a bit strange.

So at the end of the day, it’s the irresponsible actions of Wesley that lead to the events that followed and put all of the other parties in a very awkward and difficult situation. When people are placed into strange situations and faced with tough choices, sometimes not everyone is going to love the choices that result.

Party number 2 is Tournament Director Tony Rich

In my belief, one of the major responsibilities of a tournament director is to be as invisible as possible. Sometimes this will remain impossible due to the actions of the players. In this case we have a player who made a few minor rules violations, and Tony was correct to respond. However the one situation that should be a last resort, is to actually forfeit a player for a rules violation that does nothing to threaten the integrity of the game. Yes it may have to come to this eventually, but you should definitely make every effort to make this a last resort.

Did Tony try to leave this as a last resort penalty? The obvious answer is no. There are a ton of intermediate steps that could have been taken before a forfeit win was awarded to Wesley’s opponent. Tony was definitely in a difficult and unprecedented situation, one that no tournament director should be expected to face in such a high level tournament. However I wish that Tony didn’t threaten to forfeit him for a future violation, so that he could have felt more comfortable first taking one of the more intermediate steps such as a 10-15 minute time penalty. FIDE rules completely allow for this type of in between penalty, and for a violation that’s so harmless it would have been a completely reasonable option. If Wesley still didn’t get the idea after a time penalty then okay, go ahead and forfeit him, but please penalize him with something tangible first. Instead this moment has become the focal point of attention for the entire Championship.

Party number 3: Varuzhan Akobian

Varuzhan was Wesley’s opponent and was well within bounds to inform the tournament director that Wesley was note-taking. However what I really would have liked to see, was for Var to not simply roll over and accept a forfeit win in 6 moves. If I was in his place I would ask the director to please allow the game to continue, and to perhaps impose a less severe penalty instead.

I am pretty sure that the majority of players would accept the win, so I wouldn’t go biting off Var’s head over something like this. Taking the win seems self serving, but it’s the opposite that’s true. To behave in an over the top sporting manner in a situation like this, that is what people remember, and that’s what’s going to increase your reputation and make people want to help you as much as possible. Also it’s just a nice thing to do to a fellow chess player and a friend.

Sure, Var gets a point in the standings and ends up with some extra money, but he squandered an opportunity to potentially achieve more. He probably won’t notice losing anything tangible from this, but let’s say he fought for Wesley instead. A lot of people would have seen and noticed this. Random opportunities would come up in the future, and people might remember this hypothetical selfless act and Akobian’s name would end up on the tip of their tongue. Var is going to be active in the chess world for a long time, and this one moment could have really helped him in a lot more ways than one single 6 move forfeit win will help him. And who knows, maybe Var would have won the game anyway.

It’s very beneficial in the chess world, and in the real world, to have as many people like you as possible. Yasser Seirawan is basically one of the most amicable, sporting and friendly chess players out there, and it’s no coincidence that after all of these years of generating good will, that he gets so many high profile broadcasting opportunities with the St. Louis Chess Center. Varuzhan passed up a chance that was handed to him on a silver platter to make thousands of new fans.

(random aside: I would accept a forfeit win for violation of the cell phone rules in the majority of cases, mainly because this is something I am also in danger of losing to and have to vigilantly make sure my phone is off before every game.)

Party number 4: Hikaru Nakamura

After this incident, Hikaru posted a nasty tweet about Wesley at one of Wesley’s lowest moments. I would have suggested not doing that.

Conclusion: At the end of the day it’s clear that all of the chaos began due to Wesley’s relatively insane insistence on continuing to write hilariously adorable inspirational notes to himself during his game. I really wish the rules were different and this kind of behavior would be encouraged, but sadly it’s not. What a cruel cruel world the chess world is.

The actions of Tony and Varuzhan were different than I’d have hoped, but understandable because they were placed in very difficult situations.

Wesley So will recover from this embarrassing moment for sure. He seems like he is always a perfect gentleman and everyone I have personally talked to about Wesley is a huge fan of him as a human being. In fact he defeated defending U.S. Champion, GM Gata Kamsky, in the very next round. I think we need a 10 game match between Wesley and Hikaru in the future…

37 thoughts on “Wesley So forfeit: What should have happened

  1. One part I have not heard mentioned, is if the warnings to So were announced publicly. I would have to guess not. So to assume that Var knew So would be forfeited is a reach. Maybe he didn’t know and just told Tony like he is supposed to, expecting Tony to tell Wesley to stop.

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    • Hi Eddie,

      I am sure Var didn’t expect to receive a forfeit win from his complaint. Once Wesley was forfeited it was totally reasonable to have accepted the free point, but I and probably many others, would have been more impressed had he not.

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    • Var said that he`s a good friend of So and that he knew his bad habit of writing down harmless notes of encouragement a long time before. Why then going to the ref demanding an investigation?

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  2. An old saying in behavioral management that applies to police, parents, and TDs is never to set a limit that you cannot enforce. When you then do not enforce your own limit, it comes across as impotent and you failed to maintain control. In this case a limit could have been set with a different outcome, FIDE has a series of steps that include adding time, subtracting time – any of these could have been used other than the ultimate penalty forfeit. Its too bad that Tony painted himself into a corner as it would have taken exceptional courage not to follow through with the promised result.

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  3. I agree with most of this article and Michael Atkins comment. The only point of disagreement is regarding Hikaru’s tweet. I’m hardly a ‘Hikaru can do no wrong’ fan as he has done many things of which I disagree. But his speaking out here to defend Akobian was within his rights. Its become a public dispute and if Akobian is being attacked by others he has a right to be defended.

    Whatever the case – this certainly wasn’t a ‘great moment in chess history’ (bring it back!)

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  4. Greg,

    I have several points on this:

    1. Regarding Tony Rich, it is definitely worth noting that before forfeiting, he consulted with Franc Guadalupe who is the FIDE zonal president. So the forfeit was not instituted without due consideration. I have yet to see a single FA or IA that hasn’t supported Tony’s position (seen into the double digit posts in support of it too), so the people that actually know the rules suggest it was correct.

    2. Hikaru’s tweet. Generally, I am not a fan of his. However, I was genuinely impressed with his tweet, coming to the defense of his teammate and demanding professionalism.

    3. The actions of many of the Filipino and US fans has been disgusting, blaming everyone except for Wesley. His personal problems are no excuse, if they are a hindrance, he shouldn’t play in the event. I get it, Wesley is an exciting young player who is in the top 10, and easy to cheer for, he needs to be held to a standard.

    4. The blame against Var is particularly offensive. He did what any player should have done, and brought a dubious situation to the arbiters attention. Personally I think Wesley should be fined for his attack on Var. It is also important that even if Var didn’t bring it to Tony’s attention, Tony would have likely seen the note at some point and made the ruling anyways.

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    • Glenn, are there actually people who are specifically blaming Var? Probably 75% of players would take the win without a fight in this spot.

      Secondly, whether or not they support the forfeit, I am pretty sure that every single one of these same FA/IA’s that you mention would have also supported a time penalty. Yeah forfeiting is reasonable when a player ignores a warning, but I believe that if at any point a concrete chess based penalty took place (ie reduced time), then it’s very unlikely that there would be future violations, thereby removing the need to forfeit a player, which should be the goal.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Curtains, I have seen a number of posts blaming Var. Even Wesley fans that flame with his comments too.

        I do agree that many arbiters would have liked to see a different result there. He did issue TWO warnings before forfeiting though. And it is just bizarre to me, with him being a professional player, and playing in a prestigious event with a lot of money on the line, that Wesley would not bother to get clarification on the rule.

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    • Wow, Glenn, that is quite a conclusion you jumped into. I don’t anybody is actually holding Wes blameless. So, your disgust is absolutely out of place. What most people are upset about is the harshness of the penalty. You are absolutely right, penalty imposed was “right” or within the bounds of the rules, and nobody is contesting that; only that alternatives were also available that are also within the the bounds of “rightness,” and more acceptable in the interest of fair competition. As for Wesley’s supposed attacks, I don’t see it at all. Mr. Shahade is correct to say if he were truly a FRIEND, he should have spoken up FOR his friend. As it is, Wes was within his rights to accept or reject friends on the basis of his actions toward him. You may have your own standard for friendship and you, of course, have a right to them. But you have no right to meddle with Wesley’s. To suggest a penalty for what is absolutely personal in natural is thrice more disgusting that your own expressions of disgust in your post.

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  5. As a player my sympathy is with Wesley, but as an organizer and arbiter, I will say what lawyers favorite phrase “Dura Lex, Sed Lex” meaning The law may be harsh, but it is the law, and ignorance of the law excuses no one.

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  6. Tony Rich warned Wesley So 2 times not to write nothing else on the scoresheet except the moves, time, and draw offer! Wesley wrote on a blank piece of paper. Why is this act a violation of what Tony Rich told him?

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  7. I like the article.

    A perspective hat was given to me is that his “hilariously adorable” notes could in fact mean something other than what they say. I agree his behavior was very odd and, given his rating, he should know it is odd. That being said, it isn’t that I believe he worked out some sort of code, but that no one can say there is 0% chance of this being true.

    I have never met Wesley but I watch his games and have seen him speak online – he does seem kind.

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  8. I think what is forgotten in the forfeit discussion is the second element of the rule: The opponent is bothered by the infraction. Varuzhan is a veteran player, and to say Wesley’s innocuous note “bothered” him when he read it is hogwash, But he is a member of the appeals committee and he knows he could get a free point with a Wesley forfeit. Was he not just trolling for a free point, knowing that he can get it?

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    • The fact that Var is a member of the appeals committee has absolutely nothing to do with it, as obviously he knew he would be replaced by someone else in matters in which there was an obvious conflict of interest, such as this. But I agree with you otherwise and I do think Var was motivated by the free point. The prospects of him earning it the hard way against a much stronger opponent, and with the black pieces to boot, was dim, to say the very least.

      I think any sensible person has to arrive at the conclusion that the forfeiture was an over-the-top response, especially in light of the fact that the inarticulate tournament director didn’t specify that any note taking at all (whether on your score sheet or not) would be a violation. Especially in cases involving someone from a different culture and for whom English isn’t necessarily their first language. A 15 minute time penalty or $500 cash fine would have been more appropriate.

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  9. I did find Hikaru Nakamura’s tweet as nasty and harsh, given the fact that Wesley So did acknowledge his mistake and accepted the penalty without scruples during his interview with Maurice Ashley. And had Maurice not pressed Wesley for more about what he thought about Akobian’s actions, the straightforward and candid answer Wesley gave would not have been given at all.

    Looking at the words he used in his tweet, I believe Nakamura wanted to use the So-Akobian controversy to gain political and/or PR points, and probably wanted to ingratiate himself to the US chess team members and to chess players in general.

    It’s also true that Nakamura hasn’t had a good word to say about Wesley So from the day he switched his affiliation to the US Chess Federation. In his post-Gibraltar tournament interview, for example, he even said that Wesley So’s switch to the US chess federation reduces the chances of US chess players like Shankland and Robson from being invited to chess tournaments.

    Asked about Wesley So’s inclusion in the US chess team for the next Chess Olympiad and what effect it will have on the team’s performance, Nakamura essentially poured cold water on the idea, saying he doesn’t know or can’t say if it’s going to be good or not. He, of course, was talking about a Top 10 player.

    What conclusions can we draw from Nakamura’s actions and pronouncements about Wesley So? Your thoughts are as good as mine.

    Lastly, we probably should be a bit more considerate towards the 21-year-old Wesley So talking about what he felt about Akobian’s conduct who, incidentally, was audacious enough to assert that he and Wesley are “friends”, despite his obviously “unfriendly” action of complaining to the tournament director — instead of giving the friend a “friendly” reminder, or perhaps refusing to win the game on a forfeit — about Wesley’s note-writing.

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    • This is a national championship and you think buddies should be giving each other special treatment? Var acted as any participant in the tournament should have. I can’t believe people think ‘friend’ status should figure into it.

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      • @Matrices, sorry, but you totally missed my point. We appear to be on different tracks; hence, there’s no need to pursue this discussion with you any longer.

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  10. Greg,

    A Wesley So vs. Hikaru Nakamura match is a fantastic idea and an intriguing match-up! I’m sure public interest in it will be incredible, not just here in the U.S., but also around the world, that it won’t be hard to find commercial or corporate sponsors for it.

    Let’s have it!

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  11. Hi Greg,

    Thank you for your balanced way of putting things into perspective. I agree with you 100% on this.

    It is really unfortunate that one disfortunate act (Wesley continuing to write notes) results in no less than 4 chess profiles (Wesley himself, Varuzhan, Tony and Hikaru) finding themselves at the center of crossfire. I really doubt that any of them would have wished for that to happen.

    I’m looking forward to everyone focussing on the game once again instead of judging and pointing fingers.

    –Sandra

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  12. The rule is the rule to prevent cheating whether you write on the desk, your hand, in code, waiting for your coach to nod approval to an advanced written move as can occur in kids events. Mostly, rules balance the scales of fair play for all players and that shall keep the game fair and in repute since this weekend has seen this rule applied at Aeroflot and a cheating scandal in Dubai to drive the point home that it happens. Only specific requested changes submitted to FIDE can mean anything here as the court of public opinion will change nothing. Liking one person over another bears little weight.

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  13. Nakamura’s teet wasn’t exactly nasty..he was commenting on SO’s own comments about Var Akobian. So had replied to the interviewer’s question isn’t he a friend? and SO replied not any more….Either way I don’t feel So or Nakamura said anything too out of line or unprofessional here..it was a quip from So not necessarily disparaging..and Naka’s main point seemed to be that the responsibility lies with So ” he has no one to blame but himself”…aside from all of this writing under your score sheet would be more distracting for an opponent as the notes are kept hidden..how was Akobian to know they were just motivational?

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    • Because So is known for this, they all talked as friends about his behaviour often. By the way… Naka would be the first to say, that an opponent (known as friend) acting, complaining like this, wanted a free point and is not a fighter – and he would be right!

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  14. I agree with most of what you have said, Greg. And I think this is one of the more level-headed examinations of the situation that I have come across so far. Although I think you’re being a bit unnecessarily gentle on Nakamura, who, among other things, claimed that Wesley did not take responsibility but instead blamed everyone else. This is not the case at all as was evidence by the interview between Wesley and Ashley. Wesley took full responsibility and levied no criticism towards the tournament director, but only voiced his views towards Var’s motivation of wanting an easy point, of which I happen to agree. Nakamura seems to be acting like an early Ronda Rousey who gratuitously throws out insults perhaps to try to create drama and drum up fan interest.

    Also, I wouldn’t say that Mr. Akobian had any sort of difficult decision to make. Wesley has been making such notes during games for years, and Var is the first one to complain about it. A classy guy would have simply brought it up with Wesley after the game, as he himself said they were friends. W/hat kind of a friend stabs someone in the back like that? I don’t think he should have complained in the first place, but certainly after he did complain, it would have been a bit more friendly to refuse the default win and instead suggest a time (or cash) penalty, as you suggested, instead of such a draconian response to something which had no effect on the integrity of the game.

    Just my thoughts on the matter.

    Jason Repa

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  15. The issues as I see them — and I hope you’ll find them fairly reasonable and acceptable — are these:

    1. The clarity of the warning given -vs- the comprehension of the warning by the player — It is clear to us now that Wesley So was not told in CLEAR LANGUAGE that writing personal notes on ANY material is not allowed.

    It’s fair and safe to say that had Wesley been told THAT, he would not have done what he did — write personal notes on a separate sheet — and risk losing the game on forfeiture. Wesley knew he needed to win the game to try to catch up with the tourney leaders.

    2. The nature and gravity of the rules violation -vs- the type/level of penalty imposed — Many people, including myself, found the penalty too harsh for, and not commensurate with, the violation committed

    3. Akobian’s ‘friends’ comment/assertion -vs- the action he took — A ‘friend’, given its commonly-accepted definition and popular meaning, doesn’t do what Akobian did. Also, Akobian gave us the impression, given the words he used during his interview with Maurice Ashley, that he KNEW Wesley So had already been warned twice.

    If, in this context, Akobian’s implied ‘friendly’ action is acceptable to even one reasonable person, then perhaps we should rise up and demand a change in the definition and meaning of the word ‘friend’. 😉

    4. Wesley So’s acknowledgment of his mistake/violation -vs- Nakamura’s comment about Wesley taking responsibility for breaking the rules — I’m sure Nakamura watched Maurice Ashley’s interview with Wesley, but decided to IGNORE the fact in his Twitter tweet that Wesley VERY CLEARLY acknowledged his mistake and accepted the penalty without scruples.

    This fact gave some of us the impression that Nakamura is on to something else other than to, shall we say, stand up for what is right or to defend Akobian. You also will notice the harshness of the language Nakamura used (e.g., “very shameful”), writing as though HE, Nakamura, was the aggrieved or offended party.

    We are not sure what Nakamura’s motivation was for his tweet (one can argue that ‘nasty’ is a fairly reasonable description), but it gives us the impression that Nakamura is out to gain some PR points, and perhaps wanted to ingratiate himself with Akobian and his Twitter readers.

    Given what we know about Nakamura’s character, personality, and ego, this assertion cannot be considered as outrageous. We also know, of course, that Nakamura hasn’t been particularly excited about Wesley So’s transfer to the US Chess Federation and his potential inclusion in the US Chess Team. In this case, 1 + 1 = 2 holds its ground pretty well.

    Wesley So, and US, learned some very good lessons from this controversy and this tournament. We also were able to gain valuable, deeper insights into the characters of the people involved.

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  16. I don’t think I’ve seen it mentioned yet, but one reason why many TDs do not like to assess time penalties, particularly near the beginning of a game in a round-robin event with the possibility of rescheduling, is that you can end up with players trying to game the system: dock me 15 minutes! — if I win (at the minor handicap of 75:90 time odds), great, and if not, maybe the AC will allow me a second chance in a replay. (Any competitive bridge player should recognize such a 2-way play vis-a-vis the appeals committee.)

    Of course, I don’t think such a ploy is remotely relevant to the So case, but it’s just some background on why the arbiter might leap to the guillotine after warning(s) have been given: procedurally, the route is more clear, as the AC can always overrule it w/o the offender possibly gaining an advantage. Further, having/starting a *precedent *of “time penalties” might get one of the players to think in the manner of the above conception. (NB: the above is also a general argument for why the AC, if possible given the game situation, should prefer to give an adjusted score rather than order a replay in the wake of an erroneous time penalty being assessed.)

    By the way, 12.9g of FIDE Laws allows a fine if announced in advance – I have seen anyone address whether there was such a possibility here?

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  17. Glenn – I don’t think you can see my earlier response as being strongly favorable. I understand why Tony forfeited So, but I don’t think it was necessary to get to that point by handling it differently earlier in the tournament and not setting the ultimate limit. It went from warnings to forfeit and skipped the intermediate steps. FIDE Law 12.9 states the Arbiter options:

    12.9
    Options available to the arbiter concerning penalties:
    warning
    increasing the remaining time of the opponent
    reducing the remaining time of the offending player
    increasing the points scored in the game by the opponent to the maximum available for that game
    reducing the points scored in the game by the offending person
    declaring the game to be lost by the offending player (the arbiter shall also decide the opponent’s score)
    a fine announced in advance
    expulsion from the competition.

    It went from warning to forfeit for a repetitive behavior. Some steps were missed.

    Michael Atkins, NTD, FA

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      • It must always ultimately be the decision of the arbiter on how to deal with repeated minor violations of the player conduct laws. Rich chose: warning, stern warning, loss of game, and w/o being there it is hard to speculate whether the ex post facto counterproposals would have panned out any better. One could argue the other way, that he was nice enough not to assess a time penalty on the second incident (as the “intermediate step” would already suggest), for he figured the explicit (yet intangible) mention of a forfeit upon a further problem would suffice for So to conform his behavior. But by choosing not to make a minor (tangible) intervention, he ended up having to make a decision about a much more major one. I guess the threat was not stronger than the execution here?…

        The linked Bloomberg article erroneously uses the pre-July 2014 Laws, so its rule numbers are wrong, and there are also some rejuggling of the arbiter options compared to the current.

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  18. Pingback: US Chess Championship 2015: “My worst ever!” ~ Wesley So | think! mind matters

  19. Greg, I agree with you totally. As for Var’s lost opportunity. How many times I’ve seen people, smart, even smartest, do such stupid mistake again and again. They just don’t think rationally. In situation with Wesley, not only rationality, but also gentleman behavior would pay off for Var. I hope you and others will tell him how many bright things he lost because of his action.

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  20. Next comment. You don’t understand Wesley Behavior. Let you not to be offended, but he is a genius, you and me are not. We are rational, we calculate our steps, we take measures. He does not. Why? He has given so much in one area that he misses lots in others areas. We are average guys, we are good in everything. Sufficiently good, but not brilliant.

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  21. As for Tony. Well, I know this type. Sorry but he is not even an average guy. He is just a strange rules freak. I won’t let such a guy to be close to geniuses less than 1000 yards. Damage he handmade for U.S. team, U.S. Championing, the current tournament is hard to overestimate.

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  22. As for Naka, his comment was stupid. But again he is a genius, and I forgive him for that. Anyway, we will see who is the boss in the U.S. Chess.

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