As with almost any form of competition, occasionally you will face intimidating or even downright unethical players. It is disappointing that this occurs in chess too, but keep in mind that only a very small minority of players are dishonourable. First of all, note that trying to distract the opponent is blatantly illegal according to the official rules of over-the-board (OTB) tournament chess. However, this will not stop rude and overly-ambitious players from trying to distract you.
Here are some typical distractions that such players might employ:
Tapping a piece loudly against the table.
Adjusting their pieces in your time.
Staring at you when you are thinking.
In an international junior event, a player from Switzerland kept staring at me during the critical moment of the game. Having never met such an intimidation before, he really threw me off my game. I could not bring myself to call an arbiter. Instead, I preferred to blunder and lose the game miserably.
Some other players go to ever greater extremes. American International Master Joshua Waitzkin once noted a rival of his kicked him under the table during crucial moments of the game. When the arbiter was called, the rival would feign innocence and pretend he could not speak English very well.
In the game against the young Swiss player, my opponent’s unsportsmanlike behaviour made me furious. This is exactly how I should not have reacted to his intimidation. In general, players should remain as unemotional as possible when dealing with unprincipled players. Just like a schoolyard bully, such players thrive on emotional reactions. Even if you suddenly become very angry and the opponent no longer distracts you, he has successfully thrown you off your game.
Joshua Waitzkin thanked his rival for distracting him and I would like thank my Swiss compatriot too. Being intimidated is a
valuable experience and teaches a person to control his emotions. I made a serious mistake by letting my emotions flare within me. However, this error has given me an exceptional learning opportunity. We will be intimidated in any competitive field, not just in chess, and learning how to react correctly against such deceitful methods is priceless.
Getting back to the board game, there are two methods in dealing with intimidating opponents, one of which I was completely unaware of until a couple of weeks ago. The method you choose to employ comes down to a matter of taste.
1. You can physically get up (or lean over the table if you are large enough), and tell your opponent in a calm voice that his fraudulent behaviour is unacceptable according to the rules of OTB tournament chess. You could further assert that you will call the arbiter if the distractions continue.
2. This second method was detailed by IM Waitzkin in his book The Art of Learning. He believes that, “blocking out [one’s] natural emotions [is] not the solution”. Rather than being “thrown off by or denying [one’s] irritation”, Waitzkin recommends channelling your emotions into “a profound state of concentration”. I have never thought of such a method to deal with distractions, but the more I pondered about the notion, the more it made sense. Waitzkin goes on to provide some compelling examples such as basketball player Reggie Miller using Spike Lee’s intimidation as “fuel for his fire”. Michael Jordan liked to trash-talk his opponents and if they threw dialogue back, Jordan would suddenly become inspired and “score fifty and then do it again next time you played him”.
If you are interested in further elaboration on this concept, I highly recommend you take a look at Waitzkin’s book. It has received an average rating of 4.5/5 stars according to 83 customer reviews.
No matter which method you employ, I hope I have provided you with some decent practical tips next time you come up against an immoral player. Good luck at the chessboard!