In many sports, you often find legal tactics that are considered unsporting by fans, spectators and/or opponents. For example, in football (soccer), it is often considered unsporting to simply pass the ball around your back defenders instead of trying to attack. Are there any similar situations in chess?

Some examples that I can think of: perhaps it is considered unsporting, or perhaps indicative of lack of skill, to promote 5 pawns and crush your opponent instead of looking for a more elegant mate in a winning position. Also, in my school days, we used to think of scholar's mate as a bit ... unsatisfying. There even used to be a meme going around that scholar's mate is not allowed (probably started by the coach to get the kids to play "proper" chess).

To be clear, I'm not so much looking for unsporting behaviour as unsporting moves. I can imagine it being very unsporting to, for example, let your clock run out when you still have 40 minutes left rather than resigning in a lost position, forcing your opponent to hang around just in case you actually make a move.

Are there any other examples you can think of? Or is chess a case of - if it's legal, then it's good?

Update: Just as I was starting to think that unsporting moves are few and far between, Kamsky and Gareev played to a controversial draw by three-fold repetition in round 1 of the US champs. According to the GM's doing the analysis, Kamsky was pretty much forced into the draw, but Gareev had the opportunity to play an alternative move to continue with the game.

So let's say you have the following situation: player A plays against a much stronger opponent B. By luck or miracle, player A finds himself ahead in the game, and see the opportunity to force a draw (or maybe he is so far ahead that he knows player B would accept a draw if offered). Is it unsporting for him to draw the game then?

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    can we call magnus carlsen's style of play unsporting?
    – vinayan
    Commented May 6, 2014 at 7:44
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    You're in it to win. I think Cersei's statement is appropriate here: "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die." Commented May 6, 2014 at 11:42
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    @Carl I thought Ender said it best: “The way we win matters.” :)
    – firtydank
    Commented May 6, 2014 at 11:45
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    @vinayan Could you possibly expand on the Carlsen comment? As someone who does not closely follow professional chess, I am curious to understand what in particular you find unsporting about the current World Champion's play.
    – Lumberjack
    Commented May 6, 2014 at 20:55
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    There's no limit to unsporting behavior- 1. Kissing your pieces before moving them! 2. Placing pieces right at the edge of a square. 3. Smiling at your opponent. 4. Winking at your opponent. 5. Laughing at your opponent. 6. You get the idea... 7. Doing a break dance after you win. 8. Showing up naked to play a tournament game. 9. Not taking a shower for 20 days and then showing up to play. 10. Keeping snakes inside your shirt such that your opponent can sense their motion. ... the list goes on. Unsporting MOVES - well, that's a different story. Commented May 6, 2014 at 21:53

15 Answers 15


What is "unsporting"? To my mind (backed up by the two or three definitions I quickly browsed), it's mostly about behaviour. To act sportingly is to be fair and respectful, to play for the (mutual) enjoyment of the sport, and—here's the tricky part—to not abuse the rules for an unfair advantage.

Unsporting behaviour in general, and the last kind in particular, often leads to new rules being introduced. ("No underarm bowling in one-day cricket" is the first example that comes to mind.)

I can't think of anything on the board (as opposed to players' behaviour, or abusing the clock) that would strike me as unsporting. And the lack of new rules to counter anything on the board would seem to support that view.

So essentially, no: in standard chess, "if it's legal, then it's good". People might complain about how some style of play (whatever's new and trendy and effective) is changing the spirit of the game or whatever, but so far everything still seems to be fair play.

  • Thanks Tim - that was exactly the motivation for the question. I was thinking about how many rules in sport (like the back-pass rule in football) was introduced to punish "unsporting" tactics, and was wondering whether chess could do with a similar rule modification or two. So far though, it seems that the rules are good!
    – firtydank
    Commented May 7, 2014 at 9:41
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    This seems like the best response, as the others don't answer the question in the right way. For example, I wouldn't call moving your piece back and forth in a timed game unsporting because you'll usually lose doing this -- your opponent will develop all their pieces and slaughter you if you've done nothing but move one knight. "Unsporting" seems to come down to whether or not there are flaws in the game. The only example I can think of is purposely playing a very dull game where you trade whenever possible and lock things up, but a good player will even take advantage of that. Commented May 7, 2014 at 14:36
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    Although your answer is not the most popular, I think it does the best job of answering my actual question. Accepted - thanks!
    – firtydank
    Commented May 8, 2014 at 7:46

Possible unsporting situations I'm thinking about:

  • When playing bullet games online (1 to 3 minutes per side), you move a single piece many times like 1. Nf3 ... 2. Ng1 ... 3. Nf3 ... 4. Ng1 etc. (to gain some time against your opponent)
  • When you wait to lose by time instead of resigning (to avoid your opponent to play another game and to force him to keep thinking for nothing)
  • When you wait the last minute you have on clock to force mate and win (to apply a psychological pressure to your opponent)
  • When playing bullet games online, you promote all your pawns to queens to force mate with a big advantage (to apply a psychological pressure to your opponent)
  • When playing games online, you try to distract your opponent by being chatty for example (to force him to make a bad move)
  • When you ask for draw many times during a game whereas you are most probably going to lose (to distract your opponent and thus try to force him to make a bad move)

All these situations are legal in chess but can be considered as unsporting approaches.

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    The question is about moves only, not behavior. Why do you think it's unsporting to move a single piece many times during a bullet game? If the opponent is so incompetent that he can't win after such repetition, then he shouldn't be playing bullet to begin with. Promoting all pawns to queen is also not unsporting, because the opponent should have resigned by then. One might argue that the opponent has been unsporting by not resigning when he should have, so he deserves some humiliation. Commented May 6, 2014 at 14:09
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    @Zistoloen I'm sure Wes understands that. His point is that in bullet chess, such moves are a normal part of the game and not unsporting.
    – dfan
    Commented May 6, 2014 at 15:58
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    @Zistoloen surprising and distracting your opponent is part of chess and I don't see anything unsporting about it as long as you're doing it using chess moves. Carlsen played 1.a4 against Radjabov in a blitz game (and won). I'm sure 1.a4 surprised Radjabov, but you can't say that's unsporting. Chess is psychological warfare too. Great players like Mikhail Tal did it all the time. Commented May 6, 2014 at 16:57
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    FIDE law 12.6: "It is forbidden to distract or annoy the opponent in any manner whatsoever." So your last bullet isn't unsporting behaviour but flat-out cheating. Commented May 6, 2014 at 17:11
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    @David It seems rather easy to ignore such distractions in online chess. I mean what options does your opponent really have to distract you that you can't just ignore easily?
    – Voo
    Commented May 7, 2014 at 11:20

Two situations I have seen in FIDE-rated tournaments:

  • Both players making nonsense moves (mostly king moves) throughout the game. At around move 20, the arbiter stepped in and gave it a 0:0 score. [I guess they were going to agree to a draw at some point.] In this case, the arbiter didn't agree to the idea "if it's legal, then it's good".

  • Two juniors continued playing after reaching a K+R vs. K+R endgame, neither agreeing to a draw, nor claiming a draw by 50 move repetition [when it became possible]. They played on for hours in this situation delaying the next round of the tournament. (NB. In their defense, both had been instructed by their coaches not to offer nor accept draws under any circumstances.)

    (Actually, a similar situation happened to me online once: my opponent kept playing a K+R vs. K+R endgame, and I was so disinterested my rook got skewered and they won the game. I felt that was rather unsporting, but I have to recognize that it actually worked.)

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    The 75-move repetition rule didn't exist then. Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 2:36

I do think that the intention (and thus behavior) behind a move is what could make a move unsporting. Even in the example of football (soccer), the intention behind passing the ball to the defender makes the pass sporting or unsporting. Merely passing the ball is not unsporting.

Also, the example you mentioned is very conspicuous, meaning that we can conclude without a reasonable doubt that the passing of the ball to the defender is intended for wasting time (for example) and thus unsporting.

For a chess move to be judged to be unsporting, we need to be reasonably sure about the intent behind the move. Thus, blunders are not unsporting moves. They're just blunders.

Having established that, This is one example of an unsporting move(s) (conditions explained below).

    [FEN ""]

    1. d3 c5 2. Kd2? d5 3. Ke3? Nf6 4. Kf3?

If a strong player (ELO 2200+) in his/her right mind makes such an opening in a classical or rapid game, then we can reasonably conclude that he/she is deliberately trying to insult his/her opponent, essentially saying with these moves - "You're so bad that I can beat you even after making such rubbish opening moves". Or we could conclude (although less likely) that the player is not interested in playing the game and thus acting unprofessionally and thus unsportingly.

Here, it's not simply the case that we know that these opening moves are objectively bad, but we also know that the player who is making these moves also knows that they are objectively bad. So this is unlike the king moves of Steinitz, who made them thinking they are objectively good.

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    Yes, excellent point! I agree that the intention is what determines whether a move is within the spirit of the game or not.
    – firtydank
    Commented May 11, 2014 at 8:25
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    I think your example is more of taking on unnecessary risk like this: youtube.com/watch?v=wkYmmV7Oa-U, than passing the ball between the defenders. This could also be bad sportsmanship, of course, but a different analogy.
    – Akavall
    Commented May 13, 2014 at 3:11
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    @Akavall, Normally you take risks to improve your position or start an attack. White is doing none of that. All he is doing is saying to the opponent that you're not good enough to beat me despite me having played so badly. In the video you mentioned, the goalkeeper is trying to show-off his own skills and not the lack of skills of his opponents, so this will not be an insult to his opponents. It would be an insult if, for instance, he stood with his back towards a free kick or penalty kick taker, when he would be saying "You're so bad that I can stop your kick even with my back to you". Commented May 14, 2014 at 16:14
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    To me it looks like the goalie is saying "The gap between your shot and my skill is so big that I can block it with my heels!", and in your example white is saying "The gap between is your skill and my skill is so big that I can afford a king walk at the beginning of the game!". Those seems similar to me.
    – Akavall
    Commented May 16, 2014 at 13:48
  • @Akavall, lol I think you're pushing it too far. Those kind of shots are pretty regular in football. Commented May 16, 2014 at 15:41

As a strong club player myself, when my opponent makes a brilliant combination, I sometimes give him/her (and the audience) the chance to observe checkmate for the beauty of the game. So, making useless moves isn't always unsportsmanlike.

  1. "Torturing" your opponent by promoting all your pawns to rooks/bishops/knights and mate your opponent with that.

  2. Keep offering him a draw when you're in a losing position to annoy your opponent.

  3. Scramble the chess piece when he/she goes to the toilet.

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    As to #1, your opponent's an idiot if he hasn't resigned several moves ago. Now, true story: my bro was in a high school tourney once, and the kid at the next table offered a draw before move #1. His opponent accepted, then the kid said "hey, just kidding!" The tourney director threatened to toss him out on the spot. Commented May 6, 2014 at 13:52
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    Believe it or not, #3 is illegal.
    – dfan
    Commented May 6, 2014 at 14:13
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    #2 is illegal. FIDE law 12.6: "It is forbidden to distract or annoy the opponent in any manner whatsoever. This includes unreasonable claims, unreasonable offers of a draw..." Commented May 6, 2014 at 17:13
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    @DavidRicherby I dunno about FIDE but in USCF it is against the rules to prearrange a draw or agree to a draw in such a position that is obviously unsporting. (before a move has even been played). So it could be possible the director makes the right choice by forcing them to play on.
    – Alan
    Commented May 21, 2014 at 18:09
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    @dfan Indeed. This is addressed by FIDE Laws 7.3 ("If a player displaces one or more pieces, he shall re-establish the correct position on his own time. [...] The arbiter may penalise the player who displaced the pieces.") and 7.6 ("If during a game it is found that pieces have been displaced from their squares, the position before the irregularity shall be re-instated. [...] The game shall then continue from this re-instated position."). Commented May 21, 2014 at 19:28

All moves are fair, there's nothing unsporting that has been discovered so far.

There are only two situations that really fit well:

  • Taking a long time to move, when only 1 move is possible.
  • Not resigning once the game is lost. (E.g. forcing your opponent to go through the mechanics of a forced mate e.g. King+Queen vs King, is pretty disrespectful).

Perhaps one might consider playing for a draw from the outset to be unsporting, e.g. if you're ahead in a tournament, but being predictable is a weakness, so if you think somebody is playing for a draw, you need to find a way of possibly using this to your advantage.

  • About your 1st point, i see some people getting in bad mood when opponent takes time when they have only one move; but it is their time they are taking, so there is not much reason to complain. As for the second point, the phrase `once the game is lost' is undefined :-) Commented Jun 26, 2020 at 6:01
  • It depends. If you're playing for leisure, then it's both people's time that is being wasted. Players of sufficient experience will understand when a game's outcome is inevitable whether there is any formal reference or definition to guide them. Commented Jun 27, 2020 at 17:36

It is unsporting to make moves with the intention of losing.


For example, in football (soccer), it is often considered unsporting to simply pass the ball around your back defenders instead of trying to attack. Are there any similar situations in chess?

I think similar situation to passing the ball around in your half is very passive play with white, I think KIA (King's Indian Attack) is one example. It is, of course, debatable whether this is bad sportsmanship, but there are plenty of people who will call this style "lame".

[fen ""]

 1.Nf3 Nf6 2.g3 d5 3.d3 c6 4.Bg2 Bf5 5.O-O
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    The King's Indian Attack would certainly not be considered unsporting if you ask me. If the opponent doesn't like the resulting playstyle, that's his problem. An opening move like 1. h4, by contrast, would (if played by anyone other than a complete beginner) only be made by somebody trying to make a statement, most likely "I can play this rotten opening move and still beat you. Just watch." That's obviously not very sportsmanlike. Commented May 7, 2014 at 12:53
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    1. This position is more a Reti than a KIA. 2. KIA is not lame at all. As a matter of fact is very agressive. One of the greatest World Champions, Bobby Fisher used to play beautiful games with it: Bobby Fischer Wins With The King's Indian Attack Commented May 8, 2014 at 6:55
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    This White opening is neither passive, offensive, nor unsportsmanlike. White makes sound developing moves that allow for King safety. These moves are consistent with White trying to win.
    – rolando2
    Commented Apr 27, 2020 at 16:23

Imho unsporting, but legal, behaviour on the board is mostly done by not resigning:

  • If you play until mate in a position where mate is not immediately imminent, but you are completely lost.

  • If you let your time run out instead of resigning, effectively forcing your opponent to wait unnecessarily.

This is from the point of view of a tournament player. Casual players might have a different approach, especially to point one. The mentioned "torturing your opponent by promoting all your pawns before checkmating" is really only possible if your opponent should have resigned already. (And might be an adequate way to show him that he cannot touch you with his unsporting behaviour, that in fact you enjoy playing on in a completely winning position.)

  • At least in club tournaments, some (maybe many!) players prefer to be allowed to play out the mate. It has training value ... (at many levels, at least) and feels satisfying. On the other side, I don't like to give up, at least as long as there is meaningful moves. Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 15:06

Let me mention timed online games where the opponent seems to disappear, then makes a move with a few seconds left in the hope you are no longer watching the board and will, yourself, forfeit.


The touch-move rule depends on the intention of the player. It is unsporting to misrepresent one's intention after changing one's mind and changing their move.

This type of situation is nearly never provable because the opponent would very rarely let it pass if they would suspect this, but it is at least suspected at Linares 1994 between Polgár and Kasparov, or at Sousse Interzonal in 1967 between Matulović and Bilek.

In this case, what would make such a move unsporting, would be that the player has already made a different move.

Other possibilities include cheating using electronics, bribery, collusion to a fake draw, excessively protracting a game whose outcome is, given the level of players, already very unambiguous, and many more. Tournament chess has rules against a player "making no effort to win by normal means", so all these cases are strictly speaking rather illegal than unsporting; but the move ultimately made on the board itself might well still be legal.


From what I've read, in the romantic era it was considered unsporting to decline a gambit or a sacrifice. That would certainly fit the defintion of an unsporting move (under the culture of the time). However, once people came to their senses and realized that playing good moves is more important than trying to prove one's "manhood", all that went away. I can't think of a modern equivalent. Playing the best move is always right. If someone plays a suboptimal move to be "unsporting" (whatever that means), their opponent should refute it by winning, not by whining!

  • Intentionally playing a suboptimal move is always unsuporting, e.g. In a positionally equal game if you have a choice to take opponent's rook or a bishop+pawn and if you do not take the rook rather take bishop+pawn then its unsuporting because you are trying to prove that you know chess better(i.e. trying to prove that (bishop+pawn)>rook)
  • Intentionally giving up the opening advantage is considered as unsporting e.g. declining King's Gambit etcs - this is the carlsen's style.
  • Playing wrong opening at the outset e.g. h3,e3,d3 or h4,a4 etcs are unsporting.
  • Giving up a tempo.
  • Not taking up the gambit when the opponent propose a tactical challenge by sacrificing material.
  • Playing a positionally weak move is unsporting e.g. blocking your own bishop with your pawn.
  • Underestimating opponents strategy e.g. allowing the opponent to open up his file for the rook.

Basically playing wrong intentionally is considered as unsuporting e.g. In the previous world Championship Anand allowed Carlsen to promote his pawn to create a new Queen because there was a long tactic behind it. The tactics was that in a few moves Carlsen had to sacrifice his new Queen to avoid the forced mate. But what Anand did was a blunder. He played 28.Nf1 which opened Carlsen's Queen way to kill the rook. I recall once there was a game of Kramnic vs computer and Kramnik could not see mate in 1. Such type of blunders from the super GM's are very much unsporting.

In short you can say playing a blunder or try to do something different from usual(mainly playing wrong strategy) is considered as unsporting. Sometimes trying to do something unusual is sporting. It is only when there is some deep analysis behind that e.g. in this game Anand played 12.Ng5 a deeply analysed move which to a casual(say under 2500) player at the first glance would appear unusual but it is very much a suporting move. How Aronian played after 12.Ng5 can be called unsporting ;-)

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    I'm not sure I like/agree with this answer because it's basically arguing that making a mistake is unsportsman-like conduct.
    – TylerH
    Commented May 8, 2014 at 13:12
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    @user31782 I believe that you are not using the normal definition of the word "unsporting".
    – dfan
    Commented May 8, 2014 at 14:07
  • @dfan I mixed up bad play with unsporting. But what Anand did is really unsporting as par the definition of unsporting.
    – user31782
    Commented May 9, 2014 at 9:16

As far as I know playing for time when the game is obviously lost (i.e. trying to make it longer with generally useless moves) is considered unsporting


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