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In S01E04 of the TV series The Queen's Gambit, the main protagonist (Beth Harmon) is competing against a young Russian player (Georgi Girev). This happens in 1966.

Beth Harmon is not spending any time at all at the table. Whenever she made her move, she would wander around the hotel, looking at the game from far away. She would also sit on the side, fixing Georgi and even tapping her feet.

To me (I do not play chess, except occasionally with my children) this looks like an attempt to distract the other player, which seems to be forbidden (from the various questions I gathered in SE Chess).

Unfortunately, I could not find a publicly available fragment of that episode, but this behaviour was never seen neither before, nor after that specific game.

I understand that there is a lot of subjective elements in the interpretation of "distraction", so would Beth's behaviour be acceptable in 1966 and today?

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4 Answers 4

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Following an adjournment, Beth Harmon is not spending any time at all at the table, whenever she made her move, she would wander around the hotel, looking at the game from far away. She would also sit on the side, fixing Georgi and even tapping her feet.

I'm an arbiter, and I probably would...

  • Do nothing about her running around. It is allowed if it's the opponent's move and you don't leave the game area. Maybe I have an eye on her, so that she doesn't sneak to the 20 t truck with the 10 t chess computer (it's '66 :-) I'm a "runner" myself and try to be quiet when I leave the board.
  • Have a word with her if her sideway looks seem to intimidate the opponent, and definitely if the opponent claims so. This seems a borderline case to me, if someone tried that on me, no sell.
  • Definitely give her a rap about feet tapping, this might not only annoy the opponent, but the whole tournament area.

There are reported incidents of similar behavior even in GM chess, e.g. '77, Petrosjan playing (table) jerk against Kortchnoi (and what angered Kortchnoi most was he couldn't tit for tat as then Petrosjan simply unplugged his hearing aid...)

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I think the idea was that Beth felt uncomfortable because for the first time she was no longer the young prodigy. Here was someone else younger than her competing at the same level. How would she respond?

This scene was, I understand, to some extent improvised. It seemed to show also Girev’s relative mental balance compared to Beth, at that point in her psychological trajectory. Her arrogance here foreshadows her later fall, after which she did some growing up.

Even today there are mean players, for example the one described in this chess.com post. This kind of thing is clearly against the Laws of Chess but there will be those who continue to behave like this if they find they can get away with it, particularly when facing young and relatively inexperienced opponents. Personally, the individual described seems to be horrid, and I would hate to be taught by them.

The role of the arbiter is essential in policing behaviour, particularly where young players are concerned.

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Yes, this behaviour is forbidden. If you consider that you opponent do something to distract you in official tournament, you can call the arbitrer and explain the problem.

In Queen's gambit, I don't get the reason of why Beth is tapping her foot, (to be honest, I don't understand certains moods that she has) but the little russian was maybe intimidated and shy to call the arbiter (I say that in relation of facial expression he has during the game, and Beth seemed to play with it).

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  • Your claim could use some references, walking around is not forbidden and looking in an intimidating way is quite subjective (and probably a judgement call from the arbiters). Distracting an opponent is not allowed, but this usually also requires a judgement call from the arbiter (just to name a couple, is spinning a chess piece on one's hand distracting? Are facial expressions distracting?). May 19 at 17:59
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would Beth's behaviour be acceptable in 1966?

I didn't start playing competitive chess until 1970 but then I often played club opponents who smoked and blew smoke in my direction. Beth's behaviour would be perfectly acceptable in 1966. Of course today smoking is not allowed in the playing area full stop. It is not only disturbing for non-smokers it is injurious to their health. What Beth was doing was insignificant by comparison

and today?

There are two issues you raise.

  1. "Whenever she made her move, she would wander around the hotel, looking at the game from far away"

This is what the FIDE Laws of Chess have to say:

11.2.1 The ‘playing venue’ is defined as the ‘playing area’, rest rooms, toilets, refreshment area, area set aside for smoking and other places as designated by the arbiter.

11.2.2 The playing area is defined as the place where the games of a competition are played.

11.2.3 Only with the permission of the arbiter can:

11.2.3.1 a player leave the playing venue,

11.2.3.2 the player having the move be allowed to leave the playing area.

If she can see the game then not only is she in the playing venue, as required by the Laws, she is actually in the playing area. Not only is her behaviour here within the rules but would also be within the rules if it was her turn to move. There is absolutely no requirement to stay glued to the seat.

  1. She would also sit on the side, fixing Georgi and even tapping her feet.

Staring at your opponent is perfectly acceptable. Tapping your feet or other nervous habits are more subjective but in general as an arbiter I give the benefit of the doubt to the nervous player and only act if the behaviour seems both deliberate and disturbing. Doing what she was doing from a distance doesn't qualify.

Some years ago I arbited a tournament where one of the young players appeared to have a nervous affliction which meant that his body, arms and head, were continually twitching in a way which was distracting to me as the arbiter, let alone the other players. However it seemed completely involuntary and none of the other players complained so I did my best to ignore it.

Every now and then I play somebody with a "nervous leg". It bounces up and down underneath the table. I try not to allow it to distract me and concentrate on my game as long as the movement doesn't disturb the table and the board. As an arbiter I know that I could complain to the arbiter but that would probably disturb my concentration more than the behaviour so I don't waste my time on mind games.

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