Remember this one from 2011 on India’s cricketing sportsmanship?

The amazing thing here was that at this point of the match, Bell was crushing the Indian bowling and had turned the whole match strongly in England’s favour. So to allow him to continue when the Indians could easily have said that he made a silly mistake and should pay for it was generosity of a really high order.

The point was, I think, that the Indian side themselves (including most importantly the fielder who stopped the ball just short of the boundary) had thought that the ball had gone out of play, ending the session. So if they were confused/unclear it did not seem fair to them to take advantage of their opponent’s confusion.

A wonderful and touching moment.

Now we have something even more dramatic on the esoteric world of top-end online chess: Magnus Carlsen throws a game in three moves, as he thought that he had an unfair advantage after his Chinese opponent lost the preceding game when his internet connection went down. Watch it here:

Rules are tricky things. If they’re too strict and ‘objective’ they’re inflexible if not stupid and oppressive. If they’re too ‘flexible’ and ‘subjective’ there’s scope for abuse and manipulation:

That’s the whole point of rules. If most rules aren’t properly enforced or are somehow always ‘negotiable’, what is the incentive for anyone to learn or obey rules at all? The very fact of rules being upheld often defends the less advantaged against the more advantaged (see eg private victims of media telephone ‘hacking’ getting sizeable compensation awards).

In fact it could be said that the impartiality and iron ‘objectivity’ of rules, where the rules are agreed by a democratic process and generally accepted by everyone, is what distinguishes civilisation itself from everything else. From Magna Carta onwards.

Yet that sort of instrumental mechanical fairness is not quite enough. Sometimes things happen which are squarely within the rules yet are not quite ‘right’ according to a higher sense of fair play.

Lockdown has led to new organised online chess competitions featuring for the first time the world’s top players in different competitions, most notably the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour in five gripping stages.

Hence a problem: how to stop cheating, given that chess computer engines are now so much more powerful than even the best puny humans?

Part of the answer lies with the players’ own honour or (failing that) self-preservation- anyone caught cheating will experience an abrupt humiliating career end. But it seems that cameras have been set up in the room with each player so that the organisers can see what the payers are seeing on the screen and so help deter any mischief.

However, online chess creates other new issues for the Rules. The players are scattered around the planet in different time-zones, needing to play very fast as a game reaches its climax and their allotted time falls to mere seconds. What about dodgy internet connections? What to do if a player’s connection crashes during a game, through no fault of his/her own? And, contrariwise, what to do about a player somehow deliberately getting ‘disconnected’ when in a losing position who then pops out to check the chess computer engines?

The chosen answer is to lay down that a player does not automatically lose if his/her internet connection falls, but the clock keeps ticking in the game itself. If the connection does not reappear quickly, the game can be lost on time. Too bad. This at least incentivises players to invest in the best available internet connection wherever they might be.

Hence the bad luck for Ding Liren in his match against world Champion Magnus Carlsen. In a completely drawn endgame, the great Chinese Internet Firewall seems to have blocked Ding from playing as his time was drawing down, and he duly lost this game.

Hence in the next game as shown above, Magnus magnanimously threw away his Queen on move three and resigned, restoring equal scores in their match. Magnus would have been within his rights to accept the Ding defeat as just a handy bonus where he might have lost for similar reasons, and pocket the cheap win. But as the position was drawn with almost any reasonable moves by Ding, Magnus chose not to take advantage of Ding’s misfortune and so won general chessic acclaim for sportsmanship.

Would Magnus have been so generous in a crucial Final match when (say) he was behind and badly needed a win? Only Magnus knows. But why poke away at a generous gesture just because it’s maybe not always possible or wise to be quite so generous?

As for rules, the new football rule than any ‘handball’ contact by an attacking player in the run-up to a goal disqualifies the goal was intended to exclude endless ‘subjective’ controversy over whether a handball was ‘deliberate’ or ‘accidental’ (howsoever such words might be defined). But instead of that you get grotesque new stupid unfairness. It’s too painful to show how Tottenham were denied a perfectly good goal yesterday.