In the ninth round of the US Chess Championships 2015 Wesley So was spectacularly and controversially forfeited after just 6 moves for writing notes on a sheet of paper. This incident brought a lot of other things to light, some of which might explain why his performance had not been as strong as expected at this Championships.
Why was he forfeited? FIDE rules state that only the moves and certain other information related to the game may be written down on the scoresheet. For instance, players can write down how much time they have used/have left after a move and to mark when the time control is. However, writing the move down before playing it is not allowed (although used to be) and neither is reading ‘notes’. It was the latter category that Wesley’s misdemeanor fell into. He has a habit of writing reminders to himself during games. This one was to check variations 2 or 3 times. Previous reminders had been about using all his time and not getting up from the board during the game. Does this give Wesley an advantage during a game? It must help him or he wouldn’t feel the need to do it and he is giving himself good advice but I doubt anyone would see it as being such an unfair advantage as if he had Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual open in front of him.
However, the rule is in place and Wesley So had been warned about his note-taking twice in previous rounds. Indeed, he had been told that doing it again would result in him forfeiting his game. In this round, So decided to write on a separate sheet of paper believing that he was getting around the rule by not writing on his scoresheet. This was not the case however. His opponent, Akobian, brought the matter to the attention of the arbiter who promptly awarded Akobian a win with just 6 moves on the board.
Should Wesley have been forfeited? I think so. He had been warned in this tournament and others (the Millionaire Chess Open, which he won) and, according to Paul Truong, his former coach and husband of Susan Polgar, constantly whilst he was at Webster University. The arbiter had other options available to him than forfeiting So, however if a player is forfeited for their mobile phone going off, for arriving an hour late or for refusing to shake hands before a game, this keeps everything in line.
Was Akobian looking to score an easy win? He claimed that the note-taking was “distracting”. Anyone who plays OTB chess will know there are far more distracting things that opponents do, unwittingly or not. Coughing, rocking a chair, constantly “J’adoube”-ing , drinking noisily and so on. Writing one small note would not be any more distracting than writing the moves down so I don’t believe this. I am sure Akobian knew that reporting the incident would get him a win as he would have known about the prior warnings. Akobian also happened to be on the appeals committee which, although he wouldn’t sit if So appealed, might have given his complaint some more weight with the arbiter. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean Akobian did it just to get the win. He might have been irritated by Wesley’s constant breach of the rules and wanted to do something about it. Perhaps tellingly, Akobian remarked that the incident might do So some good and that everybody needed to respect the rules, even the top players. So has since said that Akobian is no longer his friend and that he just wanted a free point.
This controversy brought another story to the front, one of Wesley So being hassled and pressured by various parties including his own family and ex-coaches at Webster University. So had disappointed family and coaches alike by leaving Webster to concentrate on being a chess professional after winning the Millionaire Open. It does seem that he has had a lot to deal with and that this affected his overall play at the Championships. The whole story relating to this can be read here.
I had tipped Wesley to win this US Championships ahead of the favourite Nakamura but this tournament has not gone well for him and there is surely a number of reasons for that, many not his fault whatsoever and we can feel a degree of sympathy for him. However, with regards to this incident, after being warned twice before, he can only blame himself. Honestly, I cannot imagine any amateur player ignoring warnings and getting forfeited. Wesley So is an excellent chess player and I hope that he comes back much stronger but he would do well to consider all elements of being a professional.
I am happy to say that Wesley So scored a fine win as Black over Gata Kamsky in round 10.