2008 Frank K. Berry U.S. Women’s Championship To Irina Krush, Anna Zatonskih, and all Championship Participants, This is a response to the Open Letter published in Chess Life Online a few days ago from Irina Krush which protested the outcome of the final playoff game of the 2008 FKB U.S. Women’s Championship in which a wild time scramble occurred and Anna Zatonskih was declared the winner on time by a mere one second margin. I am writing this on behalf of the Championship Organizing Committee, whom I consulted about the issues raised. (The organizing committee consisted of Frank K. Berry, Jim Berry, and me. Bill Goichberg and John Donaldson also contributed to this reply.) Although I wasn’t in the room myself, I have consulted with several witnesses who were there, and others, and I had a long discussion about it with Irina on the phone.
I think it is clear that the committee, and most people who have seen the video, sympathize with Irina’s grievance. A playoff that ends in a time scramble like this is never going to have a satisfying result. This experience calls out for the USCF to determine and create guidelines for an optimum system of playoffs for important titles — identifying the best available playoff option to use in certain circumstances (i.e., depending how much time is available for the playoffs, etc.). Guidelines for when to use playoffs as opposed to mathematical tiebreaks or declaring co-champions would also be nice. I am writing the article on the Championships for Chess Life, and plan to detail this issue there as well as to cover this controversy.
The playoff system used in this tournament was similar to ones that have been used before for other important events. It should be noted that the intended playoff methods were communicated to the players long in advance and there were no objections.
First, let’s discuss the technical aspects of the protest itself before discussing its “fairness” beyond the technicalities. Irina’s basic complaint was that the final game was not decided on the board but instead was a clock-punching race in which Anna can be seen on the video starting to make her move before Irina punches the clock on several occasions. Irina calls this both illegal and unfair. (See the addendum after this letter for some interesting discussion on the legalities of this. It is a separate controversy by itself that has been sparked by this event.)
The bottom line for IA Frank Berry and Jim Berry, who were the directors present, is that no protest of the outcome was made at the time when something might have been done about it. Instead the protest came many days later.
Frank stated, “I’d have to say that by not raising an objection at the time Irina essentially agreed to the result by quickly walking out and not protesting immediately. Once agreed to it is next to impossible to over-rule… even in the face of video evidence that might show questionable bending of the rules. I was there to rule in case of an objection raised by one of the players. I’d have to say at this point the result stands as posted that night. It was wild… but who expected otherwise?”
Also, neither TD believed it was their responsibility to step in and stop the game during the time scramble. Here is what Frank noted about what discretion the director has in such situations:
“A few areas of the USCF rule book ( # 5 ) are appropriate:
11D1 Illegal move in sudden death time pressure: A director should not call attention to illegal moves in sudden death time pressure.
(Both players could be seen making questionable moves in the video)
21D Intervening in games. The director’s intervention in a chess game shall generally be limited to the following:
21D2 Correcting illegal moves observed. Correcting any illegal moves observed, unless time pressure exists…
21F. Player requests for rulings. A player has the right to stop both clocks to ask the director to rule upon a point of law, procedure or conduct. (This was not done by either player).
Since this was not a FIDE qualifier event we were going by USCF rules. … “
Frank also has said (along with Larry Kaufman and Bill Goichberg, among others) that this experience makes it clear that if an armageddon playoff game is used is should include a short increment or delay, such as 1 or 2 seconds, to lessen the awkward effects of a possible mutual time scramble. Of course, if you did that you would have to greatly alter the relative starting times of white and black to re-balance the draw-odds equation. Heretofore this has normally not been done for armageddon play, but perhaps it should be.
Another appeal Irina made was to fairness or justice, regardless of the protest being late. She implies in her letter that Anna’s play was unfair, that even though technically it was allowed to stand with no objection, and even though Anna may not intentionally have been trying to be unfair, nevertheless it caused a situation not worthy of a sporting result. This is sticky territory, and I hesitate to discuss it since both Irina and Anna are my friends and I’d like to keep it that way.
Irina’s protest is understandable, but two counter-arguments need to be mentioned in response. First, it is unclear if what Anna did on these moves is actually illegal (see addendum below, in which experienced TDs argue it is not). But even if it is, it also has to be said that it can be seen from the video that both players made technically questionable moves during this wild scramble. At one point Irina knocks over a rook and does not pick it up, which is illegal, and a few more moves occur after that.
On this issue, none of the eyewitnesses I’ve talked to said that they witnessed anything they considered inherently unfair.
“I did not witness anything that would have led me to think the result of the game should not stand at the time, had a complaint been lodged in a timely fashion,” said one 2600-rated witness.
“The biggest thing is neither side played fairly, as Krush knocked a rook off the board and didn’t fix it as well as Zatonskih’s moving before Krush hit the clock,” said another player who was a witness.
So — how can one say this — perhaps one might say that the “unfairness” existed on both sides? But, let’s face it, this kind of thing is what commonly happens in a mutual time scramble with no increment in the cases that both players go “down to the wire” like this.
Pieces start flying, hands move in a blur, etc. It is to be expected, which is why it is to be avoided. To illustrate this, imagine this thought experiment: Suppose everything happened just as it did except that Anna was the one who lost by one second. Later on when she sees the video she might then have protested that the result was unfair because Irina made an illegal move when she didn’t replace a knocked-over piece. I think people would have been sympathetic with her as well in such a case.
A better word than unfair perhaps is just plain “unsatisfactory.” The “blame” for the unsatisfactory result, if it goes anywhere, should perhaps mainly go to the format for the playoff, which allowed this possibility to occur. Again, this can perhaps be fixed in the future but is difficult to try to adjust after-the-fact.
I have three short “addenda” to add on related issues, which I will put following the end of this letter, including:
(2) Correction — The Time Status
(3) Making a Move — Is it illegal to start your move before the opponent punches the clock?
With deepest respect and regards,
On Behalf of the Championship Organizing Committee.
Click here to read the Addenda.
How should this matter be decided? Click here to vote!
1. Too late. Anna keeps the title.
2. Both players share the title.
3. The Armageddon game should be played again.
4. 2-game match in regular time control to decide.
Should the USCF continue to handle the US and US Women’s Championship? Click here to vote.
1. Yes, the USCF is doing a great job.
2. No, the USCF just simply can’t handle the US/US Women’s Championship.