Today, I partake in a chess arbiter course in order to become a chess arbiter.
When discussing about my plans to partake in a chess arbiter course, most people asked me the following question:
“What is an arbiter?”
Now, this was the part which always intrigued me. Very little do I get the chance to teach someone something new about something non-computer-science related. To put it bluntly for the readers of this post that have no clue either: A chess arbiter is a referee that enforces the laws of chess. The second most common question I get asked after stating that is:
“How hard can it be? Chess doesn’t seem to be a game with many disputes…”
And sure, it does seem like an easy role. You make sure people don’t make incorrect moves and that’s it. Right? Wrong. As I soon come to learn, an arbiter’s duty is not as simple as it seems…
So, firstly, a little bit of background context. In the world of chess arbiters, there are four ‘levels’ in the arbiter system:
- Level 1 Arbiter (Basically a “Trainee Arbiter”)
- English Chess Federation (ECF) Arbiter
- World Chess Federation (FIDE) Arbiter
- International Arbiter
A Level 1 Arbiter is basically an arbiter that has completed an ECF arbiter seminar and passed their ECF Test. From then onwards, higher arbiter levels are awarded as a result of experience and further tests (in particular for the FIDE arbiter).
It’s the first day of the arbiter’s course. A bright and breezy Saturday morning, starting at 10am, in the most convenient location I could possibly hope for - my university campus. Now, I don’t really know what to expect from this course. Given that the instructions on where the course is taking place is “the building with the student cinema”, I’m assuming that there will be a large congregation of adults in a large room where we will have hands on workshops with chessboards where they go over the rules of the game, the nuances and how to use a chess clock (a clock which keeps track of time for two players in a game of chess).
Upon arrival, I enter a small room. I find an elderly lecturer, two players from various chess clubs around the country, as well as two members from my chess society. All in all, eight people were taking the course (after the latecomers arrived) and the course was being taught by a lecturer and an assistant lecturer. Evidently, much smaller than my initial expectation. We begin to introduce ourselves to set a relaxed environment and I am given a question I had to seriously think about:
“Why do you want to become an Arbiter?”
I must say, I’ve never thought about this question in such depth before. I begin to really think about it. Was it just so I could reach my full potential? Was it so I could support my chess society’s new rapidplay tournament? Was it because I wanted to give up playing chess but still be involved in the chess community? Perhaps it was all three. I decide to say that I wanted to support my chess society’s new rapidplay tournament, because I am aware that the current arbiters running the tournament won’t be around for long (considering it’s just a university society).
After the short introduction of each of us, we begin to start the course by starting with the Laws of Chess. In other words, how to move the pieces, how to record moves, how to claim draws - that sort of thing. Luckily for the lecturers, all of us knew how to move the pieces (unlike other candidates that the lecturers have had to deal with).
We go over everything. Everything you can possibly imagine about the simple game of chess. From as simple as checkmate ends the game to something as complicated and intricate as what happens when a player touches their king with their left hand, but then touches their rook with their right hand and attempts to castle but there’s a queen threatening one of the squares that the king has to travel across in order to perform castling? Even the most mundane topics that you assume know everything about such as checkmating a player had complications that you’d never think of, but could encounter as a role of an arbiter.
One such example that frequently comes up is the given scenario:
White delivers checkmate, but their clock time runs out before they can reach to press the clock. Who wins? Normally the most logical answer is “They need to press the clock to complete their move, therefore they lose because their clock time has run out.” which is surprisingly incorrect! Apparently, delivering checkmate instantly ends the game and thus white is the winner.
About a quarter of the way into the course, the lecturer informs us that the final exam, which is three hours long, will be open book for the first time and that we’ll also be able to access all of the teaching material (presentation slides etc.), the internet and any notes that we’ve made. Surely this means a guaranteed pass, right? If you get stuck on a question, just look it up in the Laws of Chess! Or so I thought. There’s one catch with the exam - 15% of it is examined on something called pairings.
Possibly one of the most complicated things the lecturer teaches through this course is about the Swiss Pairing System. Given that the pass mark for the exam is 80% and that 15% of the exam is about pairings, there’s basically no room for error here - you just have to get the pairing question correct.
So, you’re probably wondering: Why are pairings so difficult? Perhaps it’s due to the list of things that could possibly go wrong:
- There’s an odd number of players (so someone has to miss a go)
- A player has played the same colour too many times:
- Say a player somehow gets paired up so they play black. On the next match, they get paired up in such a way they play black again. The matching system now has to take into account that this player CANNOT BE BLACK FOR A THIRD TIME.
- There’s not enough players within a score group.
- Say three players have a score of 2 and five players have a score of 1. Ideally, you want to match all of the players with a score of 2 against each other, but there aren’t enough players to make a pair. Therefore, you have to steal a player with a score of 1 to play against someone with a score of 2 (which makes it harder for the player with a score of 1).
- A player might be paired up against the same person
- In a pairing system, this CANNOT OCCUR UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES
This year, I’ve been studying the Algorithms module in my computer science course - said to be one of the more difficult modules in my course. This pairing system with all of its constraints is definitely far more complicated than any of the algorithms that I’ve studied in that module!
In order to prepare for the exam, I made sure to spend hours and hours in the evening practising and practising various pairing questions until I got them right. The following day, we begin once again at 10am with a pairing question as a warmup. Wonderful, I think to myself. I can impress everyone with all of the practice I’ve done! Unfortunately, I am nowhere near the answer they were looking for when they revealed the solution. Pairings seem to forever be a mystery for me - it seems simple at first and then just looks like they choose random pairings for every player.
After hours of chess theory on different types of tie-break techniques, tournament styles and practice questions, we’re finally ready. The 3 hour, open book, 80% pass mark exam has finally begun. They inform us that we can do the questions in any order we want and I take advantage of that rule quickly. Never have I ever in any exam chosen such a sporadic ordering to answer questions in. 24, 23, 22, 16, 17, 6, 7, 12… and of course, ending with 9. How logical. How predictable.
I must say, despite the exam being open book, it is tough. With the pairing question, you just have to hope you know what you’re doing - there is no looking up solutions for those (you could enter it into a pairing system online, but you’d get no marks for workings). By far the hardest question, however, is this question about a player that moves a piece in such a way it distracts the opponent (they performed a move which could be an offence in the Laws of Chess). In response, however, the opponent decides to pick up the opponent’s piece to show the arbiter what occurred. Now, I can’t say for certain that I know the answer to this question, but in my knowledge of what I could find in the Laws of Chess, I believe it’s an offence to pick up an opponent’s piece and not intend to capture it. Therefore, it’s a penalty against the opponent instead of the initial player that distracted the opponent. How bizarre.
Either way, I make sure to answer each question to the best of my ability and now, after completing the course, await my results of whether I pass or fail.