The recent scandal at the Women’s European Chess Championship yet again stirs the question for suitable measures to prevent fraud.
The number of cheaters caught at small and big chess tournaments around the globe has increased over the last years. This is no surprise, as chess programs are faster and better than ever and new technology tempts with new ways of cheating. Tournament participants have access to smartphones, tablets, headsets, or a partner in crime who has endless options to analyze live stream matches and to forward the information to the player. Vague security measures, high prize money incentives, and a reputation in the chess community allure amateurs and professionals to drop the idea of fair play and make use of illegal help instead. Computer analysis is to chess players what doping is to other sport professionals.
The chances of being caught cheating are very low. Though frauds are caught frequently, it seems to be only those who cheat obviously. The Georgian grandmaster Nigalidze, who quickly became target of his Armenian opponent’s suspicion at the 6th round of Dubai Open in April, used the same bathroom stall before every major move. After the referee had been informed about the suspicion, he found (hidden in a roll of toilet paper) a smartphone in the very stall Nigalidze had been using. Although denying made no sense at this point (Nigalidze was logged in to his social media account and a chess application of the current match was running), the fraud unsuccessfully tried to deny being the owner of the phone. Previous successes of his, such as the Georgian championship titles from 2013 and 2014 and a surprise victory at a tournament in Al-Ain, are now being questioned.
Particularly bold and obvious attempts to cheat with the help of technology were already documented in 1993. Back then, an unknown player with the name John von Neumann (Austrian mathematician) signed up for participation at the World Cup and managed to make his way to finals through signals in his pants. He acted so suspiciously that he was searched for prohibited items. During a following interrogation it turned out that the player wasn’t even familiar with the basic rules of chess.
In 1998, a German chess player caused a stir when performing far better than his usual ELO would suggest, made reconstructible moves with Fritz and even predicted the way his opponent would be checkmated in eight moves which by far exceeds the capacity of the human brain. As it turned out he was wearing mini earbuds, hidden by his long hair, through which the moves were transmitted to him.
Earbuds, Bluetooth-sets, alleged hearing aids, long hair, hats, caps, phones in pockets and taped to legs, text messages to partners in crime, pounding signals. So many attempts to cheat were discovered during the last years and have caused skepticism and mistrust amongst chess players.
If a tournament participant performs extraordinarily and unexpectedly well, he becomes subject to questioning. Such good performance is usually followed by accusations, strong players even face general suspicion. And even if no illegal means of help are found, the bitter taste stays and the performance is not honored by competitors.
The FIDE and tournament organizers haven’t come up with serious consequences. Though tournaments are always broadcasted live with a fifteen minute delay to interfere with analyses and tips from third parties, and bags as well as phones can be searched by referees when acute suspicion arises, many options of fraud are still accessible. Bathrooms and smoking areas are no subjects to controls, players are allowed to leave the board at any time and as often as they desire, without witnessing escort. As long as chess players have access to means of fraud, the sport will not be free of scams. The skepticism amongst players will continue to grow and the reputation of the sport will suffer severe damage.
This is the time to introduce observational measures and rules that are in line with the technical standard of today, train referees to recognize indicators, and to make chess a fair sport again to maintain an integer image in public. Whether associations and organizers will finally see the necessity to counteract fraud and when they step in, remains speculation at this point.
written by Sarah, translated by Birthe