Thinking about defining sportsmanship in chess

Photo by Michal Vrba on Unsplash

What has recently happened on Jeopardy! has had me thinking about how to quantify sportsmanship. Of course it’s impossible to boil sportsmanship down to a single number. The attempt might still be worthwhile.

People fixate on the amount of money a contestant wins on Jeopardy! and seem not to care if the contestant won because he’s genuinely better than his rivals, or he won because they use a combination of strategies that border on cheating without actually being cheating.

A game of Jeopardy! can have several different outcomes. A game of chess only has three possible outcomes: White wins, Black wins or it’s a stalemate.

But there are metrics in chess, like number of moves, centipawn values, number of missed wins, players’ Elo ratings, etc. Those metrics might be useful in a rough attempt to quantify sportsmanship in chess.

As we’ve seen on Jeopardy!, there’s more to sportsmanship than obeying the rules of the game. Sportsmanship can’t be codified into rules, because there’s always a smug jerk who comes along and shows the rules to be inadequate.

The most we can do is formulate guidelines. Or we can look to guidelines that have already been formulated. Like the ones from the Illinois Chess Association, which I now quote partially:

Be polite, and get off to a good start. …

Don’t boast, talk trash, or try to intimidate your opponent. …

Don’t argue with your opponent. …

Don’t use outside materials. …

Don’t give or ask for advice. …

Don’t be annoying. …

Stay at or near your game when it’s in progress. …

Do not discuss your game in progress with anyone. …

Don’t talk with anyone in the playing room except to say check (optional) or checkmate, to make a draw offer, to point out an illegal move, or to talk with a tournament director to request a ruling.

Don’t try to trick your opponent by pretending to have made a bad move (gasping or faking dismay) or falsely announcing check, checkmate, or stalemate.

Do not rush your opponent by saying “hurry up!,” “go!,” “move!” or anything similar.

After your game, be a good winner or loser. …

[…]

Saying “check” is not required, but is considered polite, especially if you are playing with an inexperienced player. …

[…]

If you wish to offer a draw, first make your move, then simply say “I offer a draw” and hit your clock.

The rest of the guidelines are rather more specific to tournament play than the previous ones.

I was hoping to see something in there about when to resign and when not to drag out a game longer than it needs to go on for.

When I play against the computer on easy, I can often win with three of my queens on the board after capturing all of the computer’s “officer” pieces. But often an advantage of just a queen and a rook is enough to win.

I wouldn’t try to win with three queens against a human player. It would be condescending. A human player deserves a lot more consideration than the computer.

Maybe a centipawn advantage of more than 1,800 (two queens would get you there) could be considered an indicator of poor sportsmanship in chess, especially when combined with an endgame lasting more than twenty or thirty moves.

One time, online, I was playing a timed game against a fellow from Europe, if I recall correctly. I was losing, he was playing a lot more thoughtfully than I was. Too much more thoughtfully: he was going to lose for time.

I like to win. But not like that. So I resigned. My Elo rating took a hit. But it’s an informal rating and it’s not connected to any money. And even if it was, I would hope I would care more about my self respect than about a few dollars.

Winning is nice, but only when it is an honest, clean win not just by the rules of the game but by the guidelines of sportsmanship.

is a composer and photographer from Detroit, Michigan. He has been working on a Java program to display certain mathematical diagrams.