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Chess Etiquette - The unwritten rules of the King's Game

"A man that will take back a move at chess will pick a pocket."
    - Richard Fenton (1837 - 1916)

Introduction

Even the title of this writeup may seem a little anachronistic in an age where games are increasingly played on the internet and too often end with such pithy remarks as "lol", "cheater", or "u suck". There is still, however, a reasonably large body of players who believe that the so-called Game of Kings is one which requires a certain protocol and as such there are certain common behaviors that should be understood.

Most of this applies specifically to the casual game, as tournament behavior is enforced by the FIDE Laws of Chess and the rules of the national governing body of a given tournament. Tournament play is therefore outside the scope of this article and will be covered in its own node.

In this endeavor, I have assumed no knowledge on the part of the reader regarding typical rules of etiquette in chess, and have therefore tried to be verbose on each subject so as to enlighten even the newcomer to the various expected behaviors as well as to common transgressions. Also note that a firm understanding of these rules will make you seem like an old hand at the game--at least in mannerisms--even if you're a beginner at the game itself. Every chess player learns these things over time; usually by making errors and being scolded in the process. Hopefully this writeup will help you to avoid that unpleasantness.

Pre-Game

  • Color Selection

    It is common for a casual game to start by one player taking a pawn of each color in his or her hands and having their opponent select one hand to determine player colors. If you're the pawn-holder, don't cheat. I realize that this should go without saying, but people do try to cheat on this trivial matter all the time. Hold out both of your hands with the pawns enclosed and allow your opponent a fair chance at either color. If your hands are too small, hold them out palms down with your knuckles aimed at the ground to better hide the pieces. If you're the selector, don't gripe about your color or ask for a do-over.

  • Shake hands

    This may seem like a small matter, but it is of the highest importance. Regular players shake hands by reflex, but often the newcomer is surprised by this behavior. While the game of chess is no longer considered a "gentleman's game" as it was in less enlightened times, some of the traditions of its stay in that arena have held over to the present. If you're uncomfortable shaking hands with another person, you should perhaps take up a different hobby since to deny a proffered hand is considered a terrible offense.

  • "Good luck" vs "Good game"

    Typically a game of chess is started by the shaking of hands and well-wishing between the players. Said well-wishing often takes the form of saying "good luck". Some players find this highly offensive, since chess is a perfect information game and there is no luck involved. Many players have therefore substituted "good game", which sounds strange at the beginning of the game, but tends to be less likely to cause offense.

  • Clock verification

    If you're playing blitz (or any time control) with an analog clock, it's perfectly acceptable (and in fact encouraged) for the opponent of the clock-setter to pick it up and examine the time settings to make certain everything looks good. This is less of an issue these days as most blitz players use digital clocks, but it's still a useful tidbit to know if you encounter an analog clock in your chess adventures.

Gameplay

  • Touch move

    This is probably the single most violated rule of the uninitiated. Most players expect you to move a piece once you have touched it. It doesn't matter if you've tried to move it somewhere or not. Don't touch a piece until you are certain you know where you're putting it and you'll never have a problem. Many casual players will inform a novice of this rule on the occasion of the first offense, but any subsequent violation is considered blatant jackassery. If a piece needs to be adjusted for some reason (such as being placed badly on the square), say aloud "j'adoube" or "I adjust" before manipulating the piece so that there is no confusion as to your intent. In blitz, this rule is often suspended in favor of "clock move" where you can undo moves and make others until you hit your clock, although this too varies. Make sure you have house rules on the table before you start.

  • Shit-talking

    If you're playing with your childhood friend, the rules may be relaxed somewhat, and you both may feel comfortable passing insults or jabs back and forth. If you get in this habit, though, be aware that a random stranger in a coffee house is very unlikely to be amused by this behavior. Generally speaking, talking during a game is considered rude for the obvious reason that it distracts your opponent from his or her game.

  • Kibitzers

    Kibitzers are people who are not directly involved in the game but who feel the need to sit or stand right next to the board and continually inject commentary on the play. There's no need to tolerate that kind of crap if it makes you uneasy, even in a friendly environment. I've silenced kibitzers with everything from, "Do you mind?" to "Shut the fuck up." to "If you open your mouth again I will tear off your arms and beat you to death with them." (said to a pedantic IM during a coffee house game). Your mileage may vary.

  • Voicing check

    Often new players are encouraged to announce check, and just as often they announce it in such a manner as if they have somehow accomplished a new and amazing feat in the game. I hate to break it to you but almost every game ever played has at least one check in it, and most of them have more. Most players know quite well when they are in check and if--for some reason--they attempt to move illegally, a simple gesture at the checking piece suffices. It is as unnecessary to announce check as it is annoying to your opponent.

  • Clock punching

    If you're playing with a clock, don't forget to hit it after each move. This sounds like common sense, but in reality I've even seen players in tournaments forget their clocks. Also, unless you have explicitly agreed otherwise, it's best to err on the side of caution and use the same hand to both move your piece and hit the clock. This is such an important issue that the latest revision of the USCF Official Rules of Chess has adopted it as a law in rated games. The reason is because of "hoverers", which are people who keep their hand on the clock button and punch it as they move, often creating questions as to whether or not their move was complete when they punched the clock. Just don't.

  • Takebacks

    This is a subject of great controversy. Nobody--aside from perhaps chess coaches--ever wants to grant a takeback, but, sadly, it is fairly common to hear requests for them in casual games. A good rule of thumb is to move carefully so that you don't need to ask. If you're playing a friendly untimed game against someone weaker than you, it's usually ok to preempt their request by pointing out quietly and without fanfare how they would have hung their rook or queen or stepped into checkmate. I've done this with friends many times and they are usually very happy to be able to continue the game. With strangers, though, they're typically on their own.

  • Stealth moves

    The worst and possibly stupidest thing a player can do is to move a piece or pieces while their opponent is otherwise distracted. Even a weak player who has been playing longer than a couple of months is probably going to have the position burned into their visual cortex and will still be analyzing it as they step away from the board. That means that any manipulation of the pieces will be immediately noticed. This is less true with blitz, but it's also less common that someone will get up from the board during a blitz game. If you have to cheat to win, go play online with the rest of your ilk.

  • Clock wins and losses

    If your flag falls and your opponent points it out, you lose. Period. It is exactly the same as if you were checkmated. It doesn't matter how many queens you have on the board or what the position looks like. Gloating about a superior position when you've lost on time only makes you seem foolish. A dozen years ago or so I was at a chess club in upstate Illinois that was running a casual blitz tourney, and my opponent in the first round was kicking my ass, but burning lots of clock time in the process. His flag fell and he lost. Afterward, he looked at me with a greasy smirk and said, "We both know who won." to which I replied, "Yeah, me." as I stood up and walked over to the scoreboard to register my point. Manage your time wisely if you can, but for heaven's sake don't gloat if you can't.

Post-Game

  • Closing niceties

    Typically after checkmate, stalemate, an agreed draw, a resignation, or a fallen flag, one player offers his or her hand to the other to shake hands again. Both players say something to the effect of "Good game", "Nicely done", or "Thank you for the game" or whatever seems appropriate. Insults from either side are never appropriate.

  • Post-mortem analysis

    If you have recorded the game or otherwise remember the moves or a critical position, it's nice to offer to go over the game after it has been completed. This gives both players the opportunity to see places where they could have done better, where they went wrong, and also to understand what their opponent was thinking.


Resources:
My 20 odd years of experience at chess in all sorts of venues.


Thanks to Swap for reminding me about noisy 'check'ers.
Thanks to Miles_Dirac for reminding me about blitz clock move.