In Round 6 of the Candidates tournament, Hikaru Nakamura grabbed his king and then had to move it, costing him the game. How rare is such an error?

Blunders among top level grandmasters are rare, but they happen with a fair amount of frequency — after all the players are human. But the blunders are usually caused by an oversight: A player miscalculates or fails to notice something. 

They hardly ever occur because the player simply grabbed the wrong piece. But that is exactly what happened to Hikaru Nakamura of the United States in Round 6 of the Candidates tournament in Moscow. He grabbed his king, when he had to move his rook if he had any chance to draw the game. 

Initially, Nakamura tried to pass it off to his opponent, Levon Aronian of Armenia, as he was just “adjusting” the piece — an also not uncommon occurrence that is usually accompanied with the words “j’adoube” from French, which means “I adjust.” But Aronian did not accept Nakamura’s explanation and he called the arbiter over, who agreed with Aronian. As a result, Nakamura had to move his king and lost soon after. The video of the incident, below, has been the talk of the chess world since it happened. You can tell even the commentators were shocked when it happened. 

Though it is not the same, there was another minor incident involving Nakamura during last year’s World Cup. During an Armageddon tie-breaker against Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia, Nakamura used both hands to complete the act of castling, thereby saving a precious second or so on the clock. According to the rules, a player can only use one hand, and then he must first move the king. Nepomniachtchi lost the game and then protested, but by then it was too late. Again, there was video of the incident, which can be seen below in slow motion. 

Nakamura later talked about it in an interview at the World Cup, but dismissed it as much ado about nothing. (The critical point of the interview begins at 1:30.)

The most famous incident might be one in which the player did not necessarily grab the wrong piece, but he grabbed it, moved it, released it and realized that it would be a gross error, so he picked it up again and moved it to a different square. Of course, that broke the rules, which say that once a piece has been moved and released, the move is over. The incident in question was in the 1994 Linares tournament in Spain, and the game was between Judit Polgar of Hungary and Garry Kasparov of Russia, who was then the World Champion.

The players arrived at the following position after White’s 36th move:

Kasparov, who was Black, initially moved 36. … Nc5, which would have allowed Polgar to play 37. Bc6, attacking Kasparov’s queen and rook and probably leading to a win. Instead, almost instantaneously (he later said he did not release the knight, but a camera crew was filming the game and caught the action and it was clear he had released the knight), he retreated the knight to f8. Polgar, who saw the whole thing, but who was also only 18 years old, was shocked and did not say anything. Neither did the arbiter. Polgar resigned about a dozen moves later. 

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Dylan Loeb McClain is a journalist with more than 25 years of experience. He was a staff editor for The New York Times for 18 years and wrote the paper’s chess column from 2006 to 2014.