On Chess: Becoming an international arbiter | St. Louis Public Radio

On Chess: Becoming an international arbiter

Feb 1, 2018

When I first started at the prestigious Saint Louis Chess Club when it opened its doors in July 2008, I didn’t even know what an international arbiter was.

An international arbiter, or “referee”  is the highest title an arbiter can attain through FIDE, the World Chess Federation. It’s basically like earning the grandmaster title, but for arbiters. An arbiter’s primary responsibility is to make sure the event runs as fairly and smoothly as possible. 

One might not think there would be many disputes in the game of chess, but you’d be surprised at what kinds of disagreements happen. Here are some examples:

  • My opponent’s pocket change is jingling.
  • My opponent is moving too fast.
  • My opponent touched his pawn but moved his knight instead.
  • My opponent is hitting the clock too hard. My opponent put his rook upside down to represent a queen.
  • My opponent isn’t allowed to use the restroom when he’s on the move.

As you see, most claims are easily solved, but some cases require a thorough knowledge of the rules and the wisdom to implement the call correctly. For instance, there is a rule in chess that if the same position occurs on the board in the same game three times, either player can claim a draw. In the final game of the final round of the 2014 Club Championship, grandmaster Manuel Hoyos still had winning chances against the woman’s grandmaster Anna Sharevich. In severe time pressure, Sharevich was attempting to repeat the position. After five times of the same position occurring on the board, I stepped in and declared the tense game a draw.

Thanks to the support of the Saint Louis Chess Club and the management team, I was able to achieve my international arbiter title. It was a lengthy process. First, one must become a senior tournament director with the United States Chess Federation. Only then can one advance to the world stage. Then, you must perform successfully as the deputy under a more experienced arbiter, attend a training seminar, and pass a difficult test. Now, you are eligible to start directing professional chess tournaments. Once you sufficiently run enough events of different formats, you can become an international arbiter.

Because of my nearly 10 year affiliation with the Saint Louis Chess Club, I’ve been the chief tournament director of more than 700 United States Chess Federation tournaments. My mentors have been second to none. Saint Louis Chess Club executive director, IA Tony Rich, patiently trained me on the tournament pairing software, SwissSys, and showed me what it took to organize and hold a tournament. IA Chris Bird taught me what to watch for during the rounds and to anticipate any potential problems. IA Carol Jarecki taught me how to take charge during tournaments. And IA Ken Ballou taught me if I can’t be right, be loud.

There are many steps, lessons and pitfalls that need to happen to become a top arbiter. The biggest attribute that’s been a constant throughout the process is something every chess player or arbiter understands: patience. Just as games can be long and intense, patience is needed to make the correct decision. Every mentor has taught me many things and they all preached that the most important thing to become a great arbiter is patience.

Mike Kummer learned chess from his dad and grandfather at age 7. He started competitive play at age 15 with his high school team, the Bishop DuBourg Cavaliers. At age 17, Mike won the 1998 Missouri High School State Championship. He has been lucky enough to be with the Saint Louis Chess Club since the beginning. As well as being an international arbiter, he performs numerous tasks as assistant manager at the club