by Steve Lopez

Synchronicity -- ya gotta love it!

I was thinking about a topic for this week's ETN when I realized that a get a few e-mails about the resignation feature in Fritz6. As I was considering ways to work this into an article, I received an e-mail from my old friend Lew Hucks in which he also mentioned resignation, but this time in the context of on-line games. Boom! Instant synchronicity -- and here we are with a new issue of ETN.

One of the little-known features of Fritz6 is the ability to configure the circumstances under which it resigns. I get occasional e-mails from users who complain that they want to play out a won endgame against Fritz but that the program resigns before they have a chance to practice "won endgame technique". There is a way to configure this and it's pretty simple.

In the main chessboard screen of Fritz, go to the Tools menu and select "Options". In the new dialogue that appears, select the "Game" tab. In the upper left corner of this window, you'll see a section for "Resign" with a choice of three radio buttons: "Never", "Late", and "Early". This is where you configure when Fritz will resign.

"Early" is best used by players who are pretty confident of their endgame technique and don't feel the need to practice it. The exact criteria that Fritz uses in deciding when to resign are "hidden" within the program (and are thus unavailable to us), but it's a safe bet that you need just a small material advantage to make Fritz resign in this mode. Be aware that this has to be a lasting advantage. Merely capturing a Knight that will be retaken three moves later doesn't qualify, as Fritz will see this and know that a resignation is out of the question.

It's not too hard to figure out that "Late" means a larger advantage must be attained by the user before Fritz gives up the ghost. Again, I have no concrete specifics on this but it's likely going to be the equivalent of a minor piece or more.

Of course, "Never" is your best choice if you want to practice your endgame technique. If this option is selected, Fritz will play the game out to the bitter end. You have to checkmate it (or have it lose on time) to win the game.

The next question is almost invariably, "Which setting will make Fritz stronger?" The issue of strength doesn't really enter into the equation. It's really a matter of personal preference. Some players get hideously offended when they're up a minor piece and their opponent chooses to not resign (in fact, this is a frequent topic of debate/heated discussion/flamewars in the Usenet chess newsgroups). If this is the case, such players should choose "Early" as the resignation option. You'll win more games with "Early" selected, for the simple reason that the longer the game lasts the more chance there is that you'll blunder, give away the advantage, and allow Fritz to crawl back into the game.

Since the resignation option does affect results (but not playing strength per se), users who run Engine vs. Engine matches and tournaments will probably want to select "Late" or "Never" as the resignation option. If you're particularly interested in comparing the endgame play of different engines (assuming that tablebases are not involved), "Never" would be the logical choice.

There are numerous other ramifications for other circumstances (such as time control) but it's not necesary to go into them in depth; by now, you get the idea. However, I will state briefly that it is possible for a computer program to lose a game on time. It's a common misconception that a piece of chess software can never run out of time, that it will move instantaneously when it's down to just a few seconds on the clock. That's not necessarily so. Most of them will speed up their play when under time pressure, but it is possible to beat a computer on the clock instead of on the board. I know -- I've done it.

One thing that Fritz won't do is simply abandon the game without telling you. This is a very good thing and sets Fritz apart from many humans, especially humans playing in the online environment.

Sportsmanship is definitely on the decline and "resignation" is becoming a lost art. Longtime tournament chessplayers can tell dozens of stories about players that just couldn't bring themselves to resign. One guy told me a story about getting up to view the wallchart, coming back, and finding his opponent gone -- along with his opponent's board, pieces, and clock. The only thing left on the table were his own scoresheet and pen. Perhaps his opponent got some measure of self-gratification about his actions by telling himself, "Hey, at least I didn't steal his pen". Who knows?

I've seen a few folks at tournaments, playing on their opponent's set, who think that the proper way to resign is to simply get up, mark a "1" next to their opponent's name on the results sheet, and then leave without informing their opponent. A variation of this is to mark the "O" next to their own name, but leave the space next to their opponent's name blank. I personally saw one game in which the set belonged to one player and the clock belonged to another. The former player got up to stretch his legs. The latter player "resigned" by packing up his clock, marking the results chart, and leaving without telling his opponent.

I've been pretty fortunate in this regard. I've never had an opponent who resigned in an "inappropriate" manner (i.e. failed to resign and just took his toys and went home). There was one guy who refused to shake my hand after a game, and countless others who assuaged their bruised egos by admitting that I'd won while at the same time haughtily pointing out several alternative paths to victory that I might have taken which were "better". The closest I ever came to experiencing this kind of "rude resignation" in real life (as opposed to online) can be read here in an article from a long-past issue of ETN and which now wastes valuable server space on my personal home page. But I'm still left to wonder what it is that's so danged hard or abhorrent about resigning. What is it with some people, anyway? Yes, we're serious chessplayers, but at the end of the day it's still just a game for crying out loud!

There have also been myriad arguments about the "proper" way to resign. I prefer to knock over my King, hold out my hand for a handshake, and say "Good game". But in a memorable Usenet thread a while back, a poster informed readers that this is "laughable and hopelessly old-fashioned". The argument was that the "proper" way to resign is to just stop the clocks, with or without the handshake. This was countered by a couple of people who cited obscure rulebook references which were somehow interpreted to mean that stopping the clock was not appropriate either. Hey, I'll pick either method over seeing my opponent resign by picking up the King and hurling it against the wall a la Alekhine (especially if it's my set that's being used!).

But resigning in the online environment -- ah, that's a different matter! "Resignation"? What's that?

Anyone who's played online chess more than a couple of times has run into a bozo who has a dead lost position, but who doesn't want to play it out and at the same time also won't resign. It's much easier for them to just close the connection or else simply exit the game and go find another opponent rather than click that "resign" button. This isn't such a big deal on the telnet-based servers such as ICC which offer third-party adjudication for "interrupted" games, but it's a chronic problem on the Web (Java-based) servers, such as Yahoo, at which adjudication is not available.

Oops! Did I say "chronic" problem? I meant "epidemic". It's fast becoming a rarity on the Java-based servers to see one's opponent resign the game. They just leave, usually after spewing a ton of misspelled obscene and/or scatalogical invective accusing you of cheating: "U $^#$^ stankey cheeter -- I kmno u r uysing a campooter!!! Ugo to %&^8, u %(&$!!"

I've seen a lot of theories that attempt to explain this behavior; the most is that most players on these servers are teenagers. That might be true, but there are quite a few adults who engage in this behavior as well. Obscenity and unfounded accusations of computer chess program usage are two of the most popular forms of making oneself feel better after a loss. One well-known poster to the rec.games.chess.* hierarchy routinely engages in the latter whenever he's feeling particularly bitter about losing a game online. In fact, this attitude has become something of a joke around the Internet chess community: "How do you know that your online opponent was using a computer? Simple -- you lost."

Consequently, some players have taken their online chessplaying to the turn-based (as opposed to realtime) sites, such as It's Your Turn. There's a lower percentage of ill-behaved youngsters at those sites, primarily because turn-based sites are the equivalent of playing postal chess instead of over the board. Since one move played every day or two is the norm, the sites lack the "instant gratification" factor that some young people seem to crave.

But these sites, too, are changing. Enter my old pal Lew Hucks, who sent me an e-mail on the topic last week, a portion of which is quoted here:

In forty years of tournament chess I have never walked away from a lost position and allowed my flag to fall. There seems to be a general lack of proper etiquette among young players at the site IYT. It is rare to have an opponent give up. Usually you either mate them or they allow their time to run out. Only the older experienced players demonstrate the courtesy of a respectful resignation in a lost position. In Postal Tournaments it is very bad form to abandon lost games and can at times result in disqualification from future play.

I'm sorry to say that Lew's spot on (mostly) with this assessment (I disagree with the "younger players" reference in this context, as I have no empirical evidence that the cited behavior is limited to a certain age group, and I have no problem with playing a game out to mate; if my opponent wants to play on in a lost position instead of resigning, I figure that's his perogative). While IYT is a casual site (i.e. they don't offer rated chess -- all games are "just for fun", though they do offer the display of win/loss/draw percentages), there does seem to be a certain level of discourtesy beginning to be seen there as well as on the other turn-based chess sites.

As background, here are a couple of facts about IYT. Any game can be abandoned by either player up until move 4; after that, the game becomes a permanent part of your record. You have 45 days to make a move; if you don't make a move within the 45-day limit, the game is scored as lost for you.

I play chess at a number of turn-based sites and I estimate that fewer of 50% of my games make it out of the opening; less than 15-20% end in resignation or checkmate. Most of the games I start on these sites are deleted or abandoned by my opponents, usually because: a) I didn't play an opening they were familiar with, or b) I achieved an advantage right out of the opening. If I play an obscure gambit in the first four moves, the game gets deleted. If I end up with a won position, they just fail to come back to finish the game and let their 45 days run out. This is particularly embittering when you play a game for two or three months, reach the endgame, your opponent simply vanishes, and then you have to wait another six weeks for your win to be recorded.

So it appears that resignation is becoming a lost art. It's easier for some folks to simply leave a game hanging rather than resign politely. So what do we do about it? Can we do anything about it?

Many questions, few answers. And before anyone mugs me about this next bit of business, I'll freely admit that I haven't been the nicest guy on the Interrant. I've been involved in more flamewars and altercations in message boards and chat rooms than you can shake a telephone pole at; in fact, I openly concede that I'm a jerk. But one thing I can say for myself is that I've never left a chess game hanging. I've been cut off by my ISP a couple of times in the middle of a game, but I've always come back to finish it. I've never just walked away from a losing chess game without resigning. I love chess, I'm serious about chess, but it's not so terribly important to me that I forget the rules of basic civility in the process of playing it. And there's a reason for this.

I remember an old interview Don Maddox conducted with David Bronstein, in which Bronstein said that the act of playing chess is an act of creative cooperation. Even though you're trying to defeat your opponent, you're still creating something in partnership with him, a brand new game. Whether that creation is ultimately beautiful or ugly makes no difference, the aesthetics don't matter -- you're still teaming up to make a game that's never been played before.

And if you don't buy into the "artistic" argument (and, personally, I do), one simple fact remains unalterable. When you're playing chess with someone, whether in real life, via snail mail, or online, you're spending time with that person; likewise they're spending time with you. They're giving up some small portion of their finite lifespan to push little pieces of wood across a board or shuffle electrons across a screen with you. And, in my humble opinion, that alone is worthy of some measure of respect.

When you start a chess game with someone, you're making a commitment, believe it or not. You're saying to your opponent, "Yes, I want to play a game with you," without any further conditions being attached. It's not "Yes, I'll play a game with you as long as I'm the one who wins". It's not "Yes, I'll play a game with you, but only until my position goes bad and then I'm leaving". It is "Yes, I'll play a game with you and I'll see it it through to the end". Otherwise you're being dishonest with yourself and your opponent and you're doing both of you a disservice. Your opponent has decided to use a small portion of his life to play a game with you, so you owe it to him to finish the game. It doesn't matter who wins, it doesn't matter whether the game ends in checkmate, a draw, a resignation, or a loss on the clock. If you can't bear to see your King checkmated, that's fine -- nobody's forcing you to be a masochist. But at least have the courtesy to resign the game. And leave off the profanity -- if you lost because you made a mistake, that's your fault, not his, and he doesn't deserve to be sworn at just because he won.

It all comes down to personal responsibility, which is fast vanishing in this day and age. It's becoming the norm for people to bring lawsuits against others because of their own stupidity (remember the lady who sued a fast food chain because she spilled hot coffee in her own lap -- and won the case?). We live in a culture of victimization, in which everything that happens is always the other guy's fault. Take a look at any episode of The Jerry Springer Show (if you can stomach it); the "guests" on that program come up with a nearly infinite variety of ways to blame their own boorish behavior on someone else ("Yeah, Jerry, I slept with my wife's sister because my wife drove me to it with her constant nagging, so it's her fault!". Give me a break, buddy -- you got caught with your hand in the proverbial cookie jar. Stand up, say you did it, and take your lumps like a man). And don't even get me started on the subject of certain professional athletes. Over the last ten years, it's become very prevalent in our society to act in any way one chooses and then try to slough the blame off on someone else. It's all very sad.

It's time for people to start taking responsibility for themselves and quit this "victim" stuff. And it has to start somewhere. For those of us who are chessplayers, it's as simple as saying "I resign" when we don't want to play on. I've done it, countless times in fact, and I'm still breathing. It doesn't kill you to say, "I resign" and then compliment your opponent on a well-played game, instead of tainting his victory by abusing him. And, as Lew said in his e-mail, you may even make a friend in the process.

These are very interesting times for chess and its players. We're at a major crossroad right now and where chess goes in the next couple of decades depends in large measure on the average chessplayer, not the grandmasters. A lot of new players are being introduced to chess via the Internet; it's up to us "old hands" to make sure that the new folks develop a positive image of chess so that they'll stay involved. It's not that hard. It just means that a few of us have to put the good of the game ahead of our pride.

Until next week, have fun! And, Lew, get well soon pal!

You can e-mail me with your comments, suggestions, and analysis for Electronic T-Notes. If you love gambits and sacrificial play, stop by my Chess Kamikaze Home Page and the Yahoo Chess Kamikazes Club.