Why Does The Touch Move Rule Exist? (Exceptions To The Rule)

The touch move rule in chess dates back centuries ago and is one of the most basic rules of chess; if you touch a piece, you should move it; a rule that is officially accepted in the FIDE laws of chess and the U.S chess federation rules.

However, over the years, some tournament directors have made some unwarranted decisions due to lack of knowledge of the touch move rules. They seem to forget that there are exceptions.

Therefore, as a chess player, you need to be aware of this rule and some of its exceptions in the event you need to defend yourself.

So why does the touch move rule exist? In this article we answer that question and outline some of the exceptions when the touch move rules doesn’t apply. Here are the 3 reasons why the touch move rule exist:

Why Does The Touch Move Rule Exist

1. Avoid Disputes

One of the main reasons why the touch move rule exist in chess is to avoid disputes over the board. If players were allowed to touch a piece without moving it, or let a piece go and then change it, it would be impossible to resolve dispute over what the real position is.

This would cause a lot of confusion over the board which would result in unwanted problems.

To avoid any problems, players are asked to to say ‘I adjust’ or say the word J’Adoube which is the french word for I adjust. After expressing your intentions, the player having the move may then adjust one or more pieces on their squares. This rule is enforced in Article 4.2 of the FIDE laws of chess and article 10B of the U.S Chess Federation rules.

Exceptions To The Rule

It’s important to note that in some jurisdictions, players do not have to say the word ‘I adjust’ or J’Adoube when adjusting a piece.

Exception #1

In the jurisdiction of the United States Chess Federation, you are not penalized if you clearly appear to be adjusting your pieces. This is called Appearance of Adjustment which is outlined in article 10F of the U.S Chess Rules.

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It quotes: “Sometimes it is clear that a player is adjusting, even when that player improperly fails to say j’adoube or I adjust. For instance, a player who uses one finger to slide a piece to the center of its square is not acting in a manner usual to the beginning of a move, and probably should not be required to move the piece. Players are warned, though, that it is wise to announce one is adjusting in advance, as a safeguard against being forced to make an unwanted move.”

However, in the FIDE rulebook, this rule is not present and hence is more strict. This means, if you touch a piece without expressing your intentions to adjust, then you have to move that piece. Although “appearance of adjustment is not present in FIDE rules, arbiter and tournament directors outside the jurisdiction of the United States Chess Federation should use their judgement and discretion when enforcing the touch move rule.

For example, the touch move rule should not be enforced if a player is simply adjusting his pieces at the start of a match. A player may see the need to adjust all his pieces at the start of the game if they are not setup properly onto their squares.

Exception #2

Apart from appearance of adjustment, there is one more exception to the touch move rule and that is accidental touching of pieces.

If you clearly touched the piece by accident. And you clearly did not intend to move the piece, they cannot call the touch move rule on you. For example, if you stretch your arms over the board to play a move in your opponent’s half of the board, but your elbow accidentally brushed the top of your king, then the touch move rule cannot be applied. This is outlined in article 10E of the U.S Chess rules.

Yes! I’ve seen some tournament directors in major events allowed the player to move their king when it was obviously incidental touching of the piece. This is bad for chess. It’s important that as a chess player that you have knowledge of these exceptions because you may need it to defend yourself in the event your tournament director is unaware of these exceptions, (which shouldn’t be the case).

All in all, when adjusting a piece over the board, you should make a verbal announcement to avoid disputes.

2. Touching the piece without moving it may distract your opponent

A second reason why the touch move rule exist is to prevent a player from distracting their opponent. I for one get distracted whenever I see my opponent touches a piece in a manner that is reasonably interpreted as the beginning of a move and then let’s go of that piece. Not only is it distracting, it can be irritating  and provocative.

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Chess is a mind sport. If your opponent keeps touching pieces with the intention of moving it but changes his mind at the last second, it could really mess with your psyche. You could also get thrown off while doing calculations in your head.

This is even worse in speed chess. In chess games like blitz or bullet where you have to be thinking fast, touching the piece without moving it can mess with the flow of your opponent’s moves. For example, if you already calculated the opponent’s move e4 in your head along with your response, your opponent touches the e pawn, you attempt to make your response but then your opponent takes back the move and plays something else.

This often results in hand fidgeting causing the pieces to be displaced from their squares. Then the players would have to pause the timer to adjust the pieces that are knocked over. In worse case scenario, both players may not even remember where the pieces were positioned before the irregularity.

Can A Touch Move Claim Be Made If There Are No Witnesses?

Without a neutral witness, upholding the touch move rule depends on the reliability of both the claimant and the opponent. If they disagree then the tournament director should strongly consider denying the claim.

In most cases, by denying the claim the tournament director shuts the door to all false claims. Upholding a false claim usually does more harm to more players than denying an accurate claim.

However, if there is a neutral witness who saw that the player touched the piece, and can vow that the player indeed touch the piece with the intention of moving it, then the T.D should uphold the touch move rule.

It’s the T.D’s responsibility to weigh both the reports of the claimant and the witness. If there are inconsistencies in their reports, the T.D should strongly consider denying the claim. If both reports match up, the T.D should uphold the touch move rule given that the evidence is clear.

It’s important that arbiters and tournament directors see to it that the games are being played fairly. Wrongfully making judgements that are not apart of the rules is bad for the game of chess.

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3. Touching the piece without moving it invokes a tell

Trying to invoke a tell from your opponent is a cheap way to playing chess. A player may touch a piece and look up at their opponent to invoke a reaction from him. This may give him cues that the move is bad or good.

Nonetheless, this type of behavior is 100% prohibited over the board. If your opponent tries this on you, you should claim the touch move rule.

Note that you don’t have to claim the touch move rule if you don’t want to. For example, if your opponent touches a piece that was going to pose a serious challenge in your position, but instead plays a bad move. Then the smart thing to do is NOT claim the touch move rule as you are the one who would be at a disadvantage.

According to article 4.7 of the FIDE laws of chess, a player forfeits the right to claim the touch move rule against his opponent once he deliberately touches a piece. 

Therefore, if your opponent touches a piece and you don’t feel the need to make a claim, then all you do is simply continue on with the game.

Pieces Touched Off The Board

In some cases, your pawn is on the verge of promoting to a queen. You pick up a queen from the side of the board with the intention of promoting it. However, instead of moving your pawn to the queening square and replacing it with the queen, you play another move instead. So, can your opponent claim the touch move rule against you? Does it apply off the board? Does this mean that you have to promote the queen?

The answer is no.

“There is no penalty for touching a piece that is off the board. A player who advances a pawn to the last rank and then touches a piece off the board is not obligated to promote the pawn to the piece touched until that piece touches the promotion square.” The touch move rules only applies to pieces touched over the board according to the FIDE rules and U.S chess rules.

Final Verdict

The touch move rules exist to keep order over the board. It would not be appropriate to have players touching the pieces all over the board as chess is a an orderly game. The touch move rule exist to avoid disputes, prevent players from distracting each other, and prevent players from invoking a response from their opponent which could give them cues.

All in all, the touch move rule helps promote fairness and is one of the most important rules every chess player should know.