Peter Zhdanov
8 February 2023

Psychological Warfare in Chess

Recently, I was having dinner with my friends. When the conversation switched to chess, they started asking me why there was a need for arbiters in chess. According to them, the rules of the game are fairly simple, while chess players are gentlemen, so you should not expect any mischief.

Well, I am glad that the public has this idealistic notion of chess players as guys wearing suits with flawless manners! However, in reality, anyone who has been in the circuit long enough knows that the atmosphere at chess events is not all roses.

In the XVI century, Ruy Lopez de Segura suggested in his chess treatise "Libro de la Invencion liberal y Arte del juego del Axedrez" placing the chessboard so that the light shines into the opponent’s eyes and irritates him. This is one of the first examples of psychological warfare advice in chess history. Below we will consider some other well-known methods.

Humming and singing, especially when playing blitz. You will probably not get away with something like this at an official event. However, when I was a kid, there were plenty of amateurs around who would hum or sing during the game, distracting you and never bothering to stop, no matter how loudly you objected. One particularly notorious guy of this sort was some grandpa with a long white beard, a crossover between Gandalf and Dumbledore. His singing was driving me mad!

Finger drumming. This mostly happens naturally due to nervousness, but can be quite triggering for the opponent.

Holding on to the chess clock after making a move to make it hard for the opponent to press the button. This tecnique is particularly popular in blitz games in the park where mechanical clocks are used. By not allowing the opponent to press the tumbler right away, you can gain quite a few precious seconds. Obviously, this is foul play that should not be tolerated. As a kid, I remember being the victim of this and not being able to do anything about it since the offenders were adults who were much older and stronger.

Harassment. Gender, race, age, playing strength and many other factors can become the subject of harassment from the opponents. You should be prepared for anything.

Asking disrespectful questions before the game: “What color do I have? I didn’t have time to prepare”; “How do I spell your name?”. The idea behind such behavior is to trigger the opponent by showing how little you care about the game and that they are not worthy of knowing. Sometimes, this can be done unintentionally. For example, in Qatar Masters 2014, the reporters noticed that Vladimir Kramnik used to check his opponents' name tags before the round. Anish Giri even humorously showed his name tag to Kramnik preemptively! The self-joke seems to have backfired on Anish, as he was destroyed over the board. Amusingly enough, Yu Yangyi used the same trick on Kramnik himself, glancing at Big Vlad's name tag before the round! As a result, the Chinese Grandmaster won the game and eventually the tournament!

Kicking your opponent under the table. This infamously happened in a Candidates match in 1974 between Viktor Korchnoi and Tigran Petrosian.

Not offering a handshake before the game (especially in pre-COVID times). One of the most famous examples of this sort is Short-Cheparinov, 2008. In the World Championship match in 1978, Anatoly Karpov refused to shake Korchnoi's hand before Game 8. The Chief Arbiter informed the head of the Soviet delegation afterwards that they should have informed him in advance about such a decision. Raymond Keene, Korchnoi's second, wittily remarked that Karpov's demarche saved Korchnoi from the necessity to go to the WC after the start of each game to wash his hands.

Staring right at the opponent’s face when it is their move. In many cultures, such staring is considered a sign of hostility.

Placing pieces sloppily or knocking them down and pressing the clock.

Standing up and hovering over the board just behind the opponent’s shoulder when it is their move.

Standing behind the opponent when it is his move is one of the most notorious psychological warfare practices in chess

Smoking over the board. Smoking was banned for the first time at a major chess event, National Open, USA, in 1976. Since 1990, FIDE has officially banned smoking in all events.

It was impossible to imagine Mikhail Tal playing a chess game without smoking one cigarette after another

Writing a move down before actually making it in order to check out the opponent’s reaction (currently prohibited). An even more interesting case was top-10 player Wesley So getting defaulted for writing motivational messages to himself on the scoresheet during the US Chess Championship in 2015. Obviously, there was no evil intent behind this, but it could still be irritating for the opponent.

Showing up for the round drunk and wearing smelly clothes. This is not something you would be able to pull off at a major event. However, in open tournaments, there are quite a few cases when a certain player comes to the round after partying all night and neglecting personal hygiene. This could be extremely unpleasant for some players to face.

Sporting a killer dress. According to the legendary Nona Gaprindashili, female chess players pay a lot of attention to the looks of the opponent. A fancy new dress or a fabulous ring/brooch can make them lose concentration ("I prefer risk, 1974, p. 154). I have heard the same statement from many other female players. Sometimes the chess duel is decided by who has the better dress/handbag/makeup.

Loudly munching food at the board. Prohibited by FIDE rules, but happens more often than one might think.

Arriving late for the game. Pretty much anyone who has played tournaments has been through this. There is always some nervousness associated with whether the opponent is going to come at all. Also, sometimes, especially in short time controls, there is a moral dilemma whether to start the clock or to wait for the opponent to arrive. You should be prepared for this and decide in advance how to act under such circumstances.

Talking to a friend during a game, making the opponent think that the current position is being discussed (prohibited). One of my worst memories regarding this was playing an open event where my opponent's friend would come up to your board and stare. After making a move, my opponent would leave and, accompanied by his friend, leave the playing hall, not even hiding their conversation. When I called for an arbiter and asked her to do something about this since it was clear that they were cooperating and possibly even checking out the positions on some sort of device, she snapped back at me, pointing out that "They had to leave the are so they could smoke! Smoking is prohibited in the schoolyard". Needless to say, she didn't even bother issuing a warning to that guy. Feeling insulted and shocked, I ended up losing despite having a decent position.

Inviting hypnotizers, strong seconds, etc. in order to impress and frighten the opponent. Wars between hypnotizers were all the rage during Korchnoi-Karpov-Kasparov times. Nowadays, many chess players have personal sports psychologists, but these shows of bringing them to the round and trying to negatively affect the opponents seem to have become part of the past.

Dismissing draw offers and not saying a word in return. Playing on in a dead drawn position just to make the opponent more tired and frustrated.

Banging the moves on the board and slamming the door over and over again. For example, Vishy Anand complained that in the World Championship match in New York, 1995, Kasparov was clearly putting psychological pressure on him by slamming the door with a loud bang each time he left the playing hall. According to Vishy, at that time he wasn't prepared for such psychological warfare and didn't know what to do.

Breaking the “touch-move” rule. This one we have reviewed in a standalone blog post.

Screwing the pieces into the chessboard when placing them. This is usually done to signal that you are making a powerful move that is supposed to be devastating for the opponent.

Saying "J'Adoube" repeatedly and adjusting pieces over and over again. This can be highly distracting and irritating.

Obviously, the list is by far not exhaustive. I recommend following the rules of fair play and avoiding using these techniques. However, it is important to be prepared to face them from time to time and make sure that they don’t affect your peace of mind.

I don't believe in psychology. I believe in good moves.

Bobby Fischer

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