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What's in a watch? In chess, it could cost a game

B Adhiban is the first Indian Grandmaster to be penalized for wearing a watch to a game. B Adhiban

Garry Kasparov often took off his Audemars Piguet 18 Karat Yellow Gold Millenary limited edition watch before the start of a game, placed it next to the board and watched his opponents squirm. It was the former chess world champion's way of unsettling his rivals and making himself at home.

On Saturday, Indian player B Adhiban earned his own brand of watch notoriety. The 27-year-old became the first Indian Grandmaster to be penalized for wearing a watch to a game in the country. The top-100 player was forced to forfeit his round 3 match at the National Team Open in Ahmedabad for wearing an analogue wristwatch. According to the FIDE's arbiter manual clause 11.3.2.1 in the anti-cheating rules, "during a game, a player is forbidden to have any electronic device not specifically approved by the arbiter in the playing venue". While in many international events, players are usually barred from wearing smartwatches, in its central council meeting in March 2018, the All India Chess Federation (AICF) took this rule to its extreme, banning the use of all wristwatches at official national chess championships and FIDE-rated events.

"It really took my surprise," Adhiban tells ESPN about the incident. "It's an AICF rule which I wasn't aware of. I had just returned from the Gibraltar Masters where I was wearing the watch throughout the tournament and everyone else was also wearing all kinds of watches. I was jetlagged and didn't quite realize I was wearing a watch and after nine moves my opponent called for the chief arbiter and claimed a win. Ideally, a warning should have been handed to me first perhaps." In addition to a forfeit, Adhiban also lost 7.7 Elo points.

Explaining the rationale behind the Indian federation's decision to impose a blanket ban on watches at tournaments, AICF secretary Bharat Singh Chauhan said that the idea was to make it easier to implement regulations. "We host around 350 tournaments all over the country in a year and it didn't seem practical for us to train arbiters to distinguish between different kinds of watches," he says. "We aren't subject experts on which watches are analogue and which aren't, so we decided to ban watches as a whole at tournaments. There have been incidents of cheating in the past at national events where we've found players hiding Bluetooth devices in their caps and using smartwatches to their advantage, so we wanted to be absolutely strict in the application of such regulations."

Five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand too had a recent run-in with the FIDE watch regulation. At the Wijk aan Zee tournament in January, Anand forgot to take off his smartwatch ahead of a game. "The arbiter reminded me and I then promptly took it off," says Anand. "A forfeiture should be handed only after repeated violations in my opinion. A player should be given one or two warnings to start with maybe, otherwise it does seem like a silly application."

Adhiban, one of the country's top GMs, was turning out for his team, PSPB, against RSPB's IM CRG Krishna, after having won round one and being rested in the second round. "Well, despite the forfeit our team still won," Adhiban laughs. "So clearly my watch didn't help them much."

Former women's world champion and one of the strongest female players in history, Susan Polgar too expressed her astonishment at the incident. "It just seems incredible to me that a world-class player like Adhiban can be asked to forfeit a game for wearing an analogue watch," she tells ESPN. "Anti-cheating regulations are supposed to address the problem of players using unfair means but I can't just understand how an analogue watch could be a problem."

Adhiban's teammate Abhijeet Gupta, who sat across him at board 2, had attempted to avert the casualty. "As soon as Abhijeet spotted Adhiban wearing a watch, he tried to gesture to him to take it off," says IM Vishal Sareen who was present at the venue during the incident. "But Adhiban was buried in his board and didn't notice any of it. Still, a forfeit does seem a bit harsh."

Players can use chess engine apps to find moves suggested by the computer on their phones and smartwatches, which prompted the world body to draw up regulations barring electronic devices during games. In July 2019, FIDE suspended 58-year-old Latvian-Czech player Igors Rausis after a picture emerged of him sitting on a toilet seat and allegedly using his mobile phone to cheat during a tournament in France. In a sport lately ruled by young names, Rausis had stunned the world by touching No. 40 in the live rankings list, becoming the oldest GM to be placed in the top 100.

For its part, the AICF says it's willing to re-examine and amend the rule if there are enough players demanding for it. "The rule is in existence so that players don't lose to those resorting to unfair means," Chauhan says. "So if there are enough player voices who come up to us and say they want it changed, we will look into it."

Adhiban himself though does seem to have picked up his lessons from the incident and is now happy to go for the jocular.

"You can't do anything really with this kind of watch. So somehow it does feel absurd. But yeah, I seem to have entered some sort of record books for this act. I only wish it was for a better reason."