The ethics of flagging in chess: My controversial take

It is acceptable to flag your opponent if the position is drawn or there is only a little material difference. If one player tries to flag their opponent while being down so much material it is considered unethical.

Lately I have been browsing a lot of forums about chess (specifically on chess.com) and I’ve come into a wonderful trend about flagging (trying to win by making the opponent lose on time).

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To be specific it is about the ethical part of flagging. As you can tell I was pretty interested in this since I’ve done it and been done to me by other players as well, I want to get into the debate using this article.

A lot of people in the trend that I have talked about just despise the idea of flagging and do not realize that there are situations where it is acceptable.

Of course I’m also going to discuss when it is not acceptable just so we have a clearer picture. Without further ado, let’s get started. 

When is flagging in chess acceptable?

Flagging an opponent in chess becomes acceptable if it is a non-incremental game, it is in a fast time format, or the opponent took such a long time to make their moves early in the game.

There are two types of format in every time control in chess, one is a format where the clock is incremented and the other is non-incremented. Depending on which category the flagging takes place, one will be acceptable than the other.

If the game is on increment (basically a certain amount of seconds are added after each move) then the flagged player is accountable for the result since they shouldn’t have been flagged.

If on every move there is an additional time then theoretically, as long as you move and think fast enough you would never run out of time.

There are instances where even professionals still lose to flagging even in incremental games, yes, but it is for a different reason.

Usually it is because they knock some pieces over and have lost time trying to rearrange it, or they have misplaced a piece and try to make sense of what’s happening. If you have been flagged due to confusion then it is logically your fault. 

There is a way out if it is an incremental game, and just by the fact that you could prevent flagging from happening in the first place (if there is increment) separates the accountability of your opponent trying to make you run out of time.

It wouldn’t have happened if you played cautiously.

People can choose incremented games online to avoid flagging

The hate for flagging is mostly raised by people who participate online, and it is even more your fault if this is the case. In over-the-board, the tournament organizers usually will have a say on the time format that is to be played by the competitors, where the players cannot choose.

That is not the case in online chess! You are the tournament organizer, you have the power to choose whether the game will be on increment or not. 

If people choose to play an online game that is non-incremented then it is their fault, they should have chosen an incremental game in order to nullify any chances of the flagging. 

Usually, people will even choose very fast time controls like bullet or blitz where flagging is basically the norm. Even if you want a rated online game, you can still choose to play an incremented or non- incremented game (in lichess and chess.com). 

If you by your own free will, have chosen to play a game knowing that there are no increments (where you know that there is a higher chance of flagging that can occur) then it is no different from putting yourself in a position to be flagged. 

I think it becomes acceptable (flagging) if the player chooses a time format where flagging normally occurs (non-incremented bullet/blitz games).

Flagging becomes fair when the opponent is too slow

In order to discuss the ethics we have to learn why time controls are even implemented in the first place, basically what is the purpose.

The purpose is basically to punish those who take too long in making their moves and force them to only spend the same amount of time as the other player to make things fair. 

After all if one spends a lot of time thinking of their moves, then they will naturally win compared to the one who thinks a little bit faster. And this is where ethics comes in.

When someone thinks too slowly, it means that they are making their moves in more quality than the other player. It would be unfair if they would jeer the other player who is trying to flag when they are thinking too slow to begin with.

Those who usually have time troubles are the people who take so much time thinking about their moves in the middlegame, it is just fair that people who have spent their time quickly (and have faced consequences doing so) get some sort of a reward.

The reward is of course having their opponent in time trouble and potentially running out of time, it is acceptable in this scenario.

Some flagging plays are too beautiful to condemn

Some people might not know this, but flagging a decent opponent who is aware of their time takes some skill, if something takes skill then it should be worthy of a win especially if it is a legal win concerning the rules. (opponent running out of time).

You might argue that anyone can flag as long as they move fast enough even without much skill, this is actually true, if you are playing against lower-rated opponents that is. 

If it is someone that is at least in a decent level, nonsense moves that are made too fast will be punished accordingly. 

So there are a couple of legitimate tricks that someone can pull out of their sleeves (which take some skills) that may convince you that flagging in their scenario is acceptable.

This is a clip where Hikaru has flagged his opponent (who is totally winning) by making a rook-blocking pre-move.

If the endgame is played where both players have a decent amount of time,  Hikaru would’ve probably lost (worse is a draw). But Hikaru made an ingenious move to flag his opponent which in the standards of most people, is acceptable in this case.

Not only that both of them are low on time but the actual flagging move is not just a random fast move that pressures the opponent into making a mistake, it is pretty skillful and worthy of being watched by chess people.

When is flagging in chess not acceptable?

It is generally accepted that trying to flag an opponent that is low on time while having a huge material disadvantage is unethical, especially in positions where the player would just resign if their opponent is not low on time.

I think this is the cause of the ethical problem, the situation where a lot of people get angry about being flagged.

This is when they have worked a lot to achieve a winning position (usually with a lot of risk and sacrifice) only to be forced into losing by time (flagged).

Chess should be played in a way that players would try to accomplish the objectives of the game, which is a checkmate or winning a lot of material, without an external rule that could ruin all their efforts.

There are certain instances where one player is completely losing in material but decided to play on in hopes of flagging the opponent, this is the scenario where I think it is unethical.

It is disrespecting all the efforts that would have led to that moment of having an advantage.

Chess should never be played in a way that the clock becomes a more reasonable winning condition than just by winning the traditional way (checkmate/material advantage). 

This includes positions that are so overwhelmingly unplayable (being -8 in evaluation points for example), that they would have resigned if the opponent is not in time trouble.

It is pretty disrespectful for the opponent that made all the right calls only to fall short with their time, this is unacceptable in my opinion.

Here is a montage of people getting flagged, these scenarios host one player being in a moment we’ve all been through, a flagging situation worthy of rage:

The rage is real (even though it is suppressed in the presence of the camera), people only play to try pressuring their opponent in running out of time, if something like this becomes more common it may be harder to play even in slower time formats.

Flagging is fine if the position is drawn

Flagging while being down so much material is considered unethical, but what if both players are equal in material and have equal chances of winning? Does it change?

I believe that if a position is completely drawn and one player attempts to flag then it is fine, it only ever generally becomes unethical if one side is overwhelmingly lost in material and goes for the flag anyway.

The only reason that the one above is unacceptable is due to the stigma that one player is disrespecting any winning efforts that have been made by their opponent, it is not the case if the position is drawn.

Not a single player is able to push an advantage that is worthy of winning at this point, if there are equal opportunities then those who have made quality moves in the shortest amount of time should win. 

The clock will determine that, and flagging in drawn positions is much more difficult than you think, something that takes actual skill to do.

Flagging is acceptable in a time scramble

The most acceptable scenario where flagging is not only fine but necessary, is when there is a time scramble (basically means both players are low on time) and you have to make the opponent run out of time before yours expire.

I don’t think ethics apply during time scramble (where both players are low on time) since both competitors are on the edge of losing the game themselves.

They have no choice but to move quickly and try to flag their opponent, otherwise, they are the ones who will lose by time.

I would say that this is the only exception where it is ok to flag an opponent even being down material, since the time element really is not in anyone’s favor. 

If one actually loses in this situation then it is their fault, the one who is trying to flag them is in time trouble as well.

There is no time disadvantage that would pressure the winning player into moving fast and making a mistake, in other words, they can actually use their advantage.

This is different from when someone is down in material (while up by a lot of time) and is just trying to disrespect their opponent.

Flagging is less common in longer time controls

This is something that baffles me though (I believe that flagging is acceptable in most instances except the one above), which is why people who don’t like getting flagged still opts for shorter time formats.

In shorter formats both players are more likely to edge at the 1-minute mark, a critical condition where flagging becomes very likely. 

One of the ways to not completely avoid but limit this, is of course choosing longer formats, something where the game could end before anyone gets into time trouble. In online games this is very easy since you can choose the format you could play for.

And even in over-the board-chess, you usually can choose which time control you only participate in and not go for the others, if the tournament is blitz then you can choose to not go there. 

What I’m saying is just by the fact that you accept playing in a shorter time format, then you to a degree also accept the possibility of getting flagged.

I think it is only rightful to flag opponents in shorter time formats since that is literally what makes the said format interesting (the possibility of losing on time).

For people who do not like the setting where their opponents can just flag them, they can go for longer time formats with increments to ensure that they will only run out of time on endgames or acceptable positions.

Flagging also occur in over the board chess

I have no idea where some people get this notion, which is that flagging rarely exist in over the board chess.

Some people claim that flagging does not occur in over-the-board games for the most part, and while this may be true, it’s only because faster time controls are rarely hosted in this format rather than online, flagging is actually common in faster over the board chess.

If you go to any chess tournament it is likely to be at least of rapid time control (10 minutes) and even incremental (where there is additional time on every move). 

Just like I discussed above, longer time formats usually provide enough period for lower-rated to middle-rated players to end the game without ever getting into time trouble, meaning the lesser possibility of getting flagged.

So this idea that flagging is an evil concept that is only introduced in online platforms is false, it has existed since then but is not highlighted as it is today.

The fact that there aren’t any rules surrounding this that have been created (to regulate it) means that there aren’t any major inconveniences that have surfaced thus far.

I think this fact will play a role in the ethical argument of flagging.

Is flagging in chess likely to cease in the future?

Flagging is very hard to determine and properly regulate, unless a major inconvenience has emerged in the future (in the world chess championship match for example) then major rules around flagging are far from reach.

And I think this is the mindset that we should adopt moving forward (about the ethics of flagging), which is that it will unlikely to go away and is here to stay for a long time.

We can argue on everything but the bottom line is, you have willingly played a game that hosts losing on time, your opponent is also subjected to the same conditions as you are making it a little bit fair.

It’s not like you are the only one that can be flagged, the same circumstance applies to your opponent as well. In fact, if the situation is a little bit different then you will be the one taking advantage of this rule. 

It is funny that people hates on this but will take advantage if there is opportunity in their own games, which makes them hypocritical.

And I think this is the bottom line, which is people usually only argue when things are on their side rather than when they are the ones doing it.

If you could pull this rule over someone else, then somebody out there could also pull this rule to you just to make things fair.

Nobody starts a chess game with the intention of flagging

Chess is a long game, playing with the goal of making the opponent run out of time is usually a bad strategy.

You have to wait all the way when they have already used their time in order to get a win, decent competitors will focus on the actual game as they should be.

But when it comes to ethics this means that nobody really intends to flag their opponents unless they are a bad player that just wants to troll people online. Usually, it is just a spur at the moment when the position is already reaching the endgame.

Flagging is usually non-intentional, nobody starts a game with the intention of making their opponents run out of time (unless it is in bullet format) this means that technically, flagging can be considered an accidental condition. 

Just by the fact that participants do not really intend to use it all the way to the end (from the start) means that it is not abused and needs no regulation. 

Flagging only becomes an issue when online chess boomed

Have you noticed something with this whole debate? Flagging did exist before on faster time controls (in over-the-board formats) but is not discussed as strongly as the way it is now.

I think the primary reason is the emergence of online chess, where it incentivizes people to just get a quick game with little time available to make their moves. But that is the thing, that is the point of fast chess, which is to play with only a limited amount of time.

Flagging opponents is legal (rule-wise) for a reason, if it hosts something that will devalue the experience in competitive settings then a debate should have a spawn up before.

Don’t get me wrong there was a debate before but it is not as big as it was today.

Just by the fact that not a lot of people complain about this means that players have adapted to this before (since no regulations have been created) and the mechanic of flagging overall is not that far from being fair.

You can see elite chess professionals flagging someone

This is another myth that I have to debunked here, which is chess professionals are so honorable that they are not seen to rely upon flagging at all. 

This is not true since it is actually the opposite, professionals are willing to go to the most lengths in order to win the game, even if it means flagging the opponent.

Flagging transpires even on elite levels (online and over the board) since running out of time is a natural component of the game that is deemed acceptable (most of the time) as a winning condition. 

The only reason why such situations are harder to observe is that professionals are too precise in making their move even while low on time, defeating them even in time trouble is quite challenging.

Most of us have tried to flag an opponent in chess before

I think this is something that not a lot of people are willing to admit but is the truth, which is they have flagged someone before. They get proud if they have done it to their opponents, but cannot take the same discipline if flagging struck them.

Most of us (if we would just be honest) have been flagged or flagged someone before, all the rude reactions after the fact are usually just people being upset that they lose the game.

I think secretly, most people are thinking that flagging is just the reasonable win condition that balances out all of the thinking time one player invested in their moves.

That you just have to play with caution and look at the clock if you don’t want to be flagged.

I can understand that you might think otherwise if you have never flagged someone before, but really, I think only about 10% of the chess population are actually like that (it is pretty rare).

What is the right mindset about flagging in chess?

Ok we have this whole debate in our front, but what is the mindset that we need to adopt in order to welcome flagging in our games? We need to put this into use.

The best mindset for this situation is thinking that flagging is actually a part of a game and a reasonable win condition, this way, you are able to manage your time appropriately.

If you think that you can lose the game by running out of time, then you would do your best to move as quickly (but decently) as possible in order to avoid having any time troubles.

In other words, you would actually be forced to learning efficient management of your time.

Consequently, it would also push you to try to find the best move as fast as possible (but not aimlessly) in order to be in the more comfortable position on the clock. This will give us while you are playing the game. 

If you want to learn how to efficiently manage your time, I actually have another article (will open in a new tab) that goes about how I approach this in detail. Check it out if you want!

Do you now know if flagging is ethical?

You know I get it, you are frustrated from losing on time usually on multiple occasions which is likely why you are in this article. But you have to understand that the clock is a part of the game and something you need to get used to in order to improve.

It is there for a reason, which is to balance out the amount of thinking time for both competitors.

I understand that might be completely wrong and flagging might just be unethical, but you should stop thinking about this and focus on actually improving instead.

You can still argue but I suggest focusing on the practical for now, but, it is for you to decide that in the end, sleep well and play chess.

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