Cheating in chess
Cheating in chess refers to a deliberate violation of the rules of chess or other behaviour that is intended to give an unfair advantage to a player or team. Cheating can occur in many forms and can take place before, during, or after a game. Commonly cited instances of cheating include: collusion with spectators or other players, use of chess engines, rating manipulation, and violations of the touch-move rule. Many suspiciously motivated practices are not comprehensively covered by the rules of chess. On ethical or moral grounds only, such practices may be judged by some as acceptable, and by others as cheating.
Even if an arguably unethical action is not covered explicitly by the rules, article 11.1 of the FIDE laws of chess states: "The players shall take no action that will bring the game of chess into disrepute." For example, while deliberately sneaking a captured piece back onto the board may be construed as an illegal move that is sanctioned by a time bonus to the opponent and a reinstatement of the last legal position, the rule forbidding actions that bring chess into disrepute may also be invoked to hand down a more severe sanction such as the loss of the game.
History and culture
Cheating at chess is almost as old as the game itself, and may even have caused chess-related deaths. According to one legend, a dispute over cheating at chess led King Canute to murder a Danish nobleman. One of the most anthologized chess stories is Slippery Elm (1929) by Percival Wilde, which involves a ruse to allow a weak player to beat a much stronger one, using messages passed on slippery-elm throat lozenges. Television shows have engaged the plot of cheating in chess, including episodes of Mission: Impossible and Cheers. In televised shows based on humourist Tenali Rama (a real-life personality who lived under king Krishnadeva Raya, ruler of Vijaynagar during its most prosperous period), a loud-mouthed chess "unbeatable champion" (who mostly depends on winning by cheating) takes advantage of the emperor's sleep due to boredom and starts shouting along with followers (who have accompanied him from an opponent kingdom), successfully convincing the assembly that he has won.
In Satyajit Ray's Shatranj ke Khiladi (one of only two Hindi films he made – both based on short-stories by Premchand), Mirja Sajjad Ali, fed-up by his opponent's childish playing habits, has to make rules that only the piece intended to be played should be touched, and taking more than five minutes to move should simply mean defeat.
In contrast to the modern methods of cheating by playing moves calculated by machines, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the public were hoaxed by the opposite deception in which machines played moves of hidden humans. The first and most famous of the chess automaton hoaxes was The Turk (1770), followed by Ajeeb (1868), and Mephisto (1886).
Over the years, there have been many accusations of collusion, either of players deliberately losing (often to help a friend or teammate get a title norm), or of players agreeing to draws to help both players in a tournament. One of the earliest evidences is with the Fifth American Chess Congress in 1880, when Preston Ware accused James Grundy of reneging on a deal to draw the game, with Grundy instead trying to play for a win. A newspaper article contemporary to the event stated, "Ware’s avowal of his right to sell a game in a tourney was a novelty in chess ethics ... Ware’s veracity has not been questioned, only his obliquity of moral vision ..." Six prior allegations of similar collusion and bribery, including another against Ware, were listed from 1876 to 1880 in that article on the Ware-Grundy affair, which was published in the Brooklyn Eagle on 8 February 1880. More recently, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have claimed, based on their analysis of statistical tests of match records against economic models, that Soviet chess masters may have colluded in world chess championships held from 1940 to 1964. The Washington University study argues from the researchers' statistical findings that Soviet players may have agreed to draws between themselves to improve their standings.
Opinions differ over how effective collusion may be. For example, if a leading player draws his game, it may allow his rivals to gain ground on him by winning their games. The most infamous alleged instance, the 1962 Candidates' Tournament, is discussed further at the World Chess Championship 1963 article.
In 2011, IM Greg Shahade wrote that "prearrangement of results is extremely commonplace, even at the highest levels of chess. This especially holds true for draws... There is a bit of a code of silence at the top levels of chess." The subject had been partially broached (in the U.S. context) by Alex Yermolinsky a few years earlier, saying "It's no secret how people act when facing a last-round situation when a draw gives no prize ... People will just dump games, period." Concerning an incident involving 2006 US Championship qualification, Shahade blamed the Swiss system for creating perverse incentives. Frederic Friedel reported that the PCA had considered running a series of open tournaments in 1990s, but for similar reasons given by John Nunn ultimately declined, saying that deliberately losing games was "very real in the many open tournaments that are staged all over the world."
In chess, the "touch-move" rule states that if a player (whose turn it is to move) touches one of his pieces, it must be moved if it has a legal move. In addition, if a piece is picked up and released on another square, the move must stand if it is a legal move. If an opponent's piece is touched, it must be captured if it is legal to do so. These rules are often difficult to enforce when the only witnesses are the two players themselves. Nevertheless, violations of these rules are considered to be cheating.
In one famous instance, Garry Kasparov changed his move against Judit Polgár in 1994 after momentarily letting go of a piece. Kasparov went on to win the game. The tournament officials had video records proving that his hand left the piece, but refused to release the evidence. A factor counting against Polgár was that she waited a whole day before complaining, and such claims must be made during the game. The videotape revealed that Kasparov did let go of the piece for one-quarter of a second. Cognitive psychologist Robert Solso stated that it is too short a time to make a conscious decision.
Another famous incident occurred in a game between Milan Matulović and István Bilek at the Sousse Interzonal in 1967. Matulović played a losing move but then took it back after saying "J'adoube" ("I adjust"—which should be announced before adjusting pieces on their square). His opponent complained to the arbiter but the modified move was allowed to stand. This incident earned Matulović the nickname "J'adoubović".
The 2003 European Championship saw a "takeback game" between Zurab Azmaiparashvili and Vladimir Malakhov, who eventually finished first and second in the event. To quote the book Smart Chip by Genna Sosonko:
Both grandmasters were fighting for the lead, and the encounter had huge sporting significance. In an ending that was favourable to him, Azmai[parashvili] picked up the bishop, intending to make a move with it instead of first exchanging rooks. Malakhov recalled: "Seeing that the rooks were still on the board, he said something like, "Oh, first the exchange, of course." put his bishop back, took my rook, and the game continued. I don't know what should have been done differently in this situation—in Azmai's place, some might have resigned immediately, and in my place, some would have demanded that he make a move with his bishop but I didn't want to ruin the logical development of the duel, so I didn't object when Azmai made a different move: the mistake was obviously nothing to do with chess! When we signed the score sheets, Azmai suggested to me that we consider the game a draw. After the game I was left with an unpleasant aftertaste, but that was due mainly to my own play."
Cheating with technology
Technology has been used by chess cheats in several ways. Perhaps the most common way is to use a chess program while playing chess remotely, e.g., on the Internet. Another type of cheating, with the aim of boosting one's rating on an Internet chess site, is to sign on with a different IP address and user name (a form of sockpuppetry) to play and lose against themselves. Electronic communication with an accomplice during face-to-face competitive chess is another reported type of cheating. Games can be analyzed after the fact to give a probabilistic determination on whether a player received surreptitious help.
Due to the great multiplication of technological cheating incidents, the following examples concentrate only on those that are either at a high level, or are of historical significance.
- In the 2010 FIDE Olympiad Tournament at Khanty-Mansiysk, three French players were caught in a scheme to use a computer program to decide moves. Their plan involved one player, Cyril Marzolo, following the tournament at home and using the computer program to decide the best moves. He would send the moves by SMS to the team coach, Arnaud Hauchard, who would then stand or sit at various tables as a signal to the player, Sébastien Feller, to make a certain move. Sébastien Feller was given a two-year and nine months suspension, Cyril Marzolo was given a one-year and six-month suspension, and Arnaud Hauchard was given a three-year suspension by the FIDE Ethics Commission. Unlike other cases, each player involved was a legitimate Grandmaster or International Master. None of the other players on the team knew of this or were involved.
- The scandals of Borislav Ivanov were a cause celebre in the chess world in 2012 and 2013, with first cheating being alleged at the Zadar Open, and then Kyustendil. He was banned for four months by the Bulgarian Chess Federation, though this ban was overturned due to procedural defects, and was not based upon the cheating allegations, but rather Ivanov's rude behavior toward his accusers. After various interludes, he was banned permanently by the Bulgarian Chess Federation. The incidents were significant as they were one of the first times that statistical methods were used to analyze move-matching with computer programs, even though in the end such evidence was never used in a formal legal procedure.
- At the 2014 Iasi Open 2014, Wesley Vermeulen was caught cheating by consulting a mobile phone in the toilet, admitted his offense, and was eventually banned for one year by both the Dutch chess federation and FIDE.
- In April 2015, Georgian grandmaster Gaioz Nigalidze was banned from the Dubai Open Chess Tournament after officials discovered him consulting a smartphone with chess software in the washroom during a game. He was later stripped of his grandmaster title and banned from competition for three years, though he was allowed to keep his International Master title.
- In February 2016, Sergey Aslanov was expelled from the Moscow Open, for a smartphone in the toilet, hidden under a loose tile behind a drainpipe. He declared himself to be guilty of error but not a crime, and was only suspended for one year.
- In July 2019, Igors Rausis was caught cheating in the Strasbourg Open, using a mobile phone in the bathroom. He admitted to having cheated, and announced his retirement from chess.
- One of the earliest known cases of using technology to cheat occurred in the 1993 World Open. An unrated newcomer wearing headphones used the name "John von Neumann" (matching the name of a famous computer science pioneer), and scored 4½/9 in the Open Section, including a draw with a grandmaster and a win over a 2350-rated player. This player seemed to have a suspicious bulge in one of his pockets, which appeared to make a soft humming or buzzing sound at important points in the game. When he was quizzed by the tournament director, he was unable to demonstrate even a rudimentary knowledge of some simple chess concepts, and he was disqualified.
- The 1998 Böblingen Open saw Clemens Allwermann latterly accused of cheating using Fritz, and after an investigation by the district attorney was inconclusive as to the evidence, the Bavarian Chess Federation barred him from participating in future tournaments.
- In the Lampertheim Open Tournament 2002 the arbiter announced the disqualification of a player before round seven. Markus Keller explained what had happened:
In the sixth round a player came to me and said he suspected his opponent, W.S. from L., was using illicit aids during the game. He often left the board for protracted periods of time to go to the toilet, even when (especially when) it was his turn to play. He had done this in earlier rounds against other players as well. I watched W.S. and noticed that he played a number of moves very rapidly and then disappeared in the toilet. I followed him and could hear no sound coming from the stall. I looked under the door and saw that his feet were pointing sideways, so that he could not have been using the toilet. So I entered the neighbouring stall, stood on the toilet bowl and looked over the dividing wall. I saw W.S. standing there with a handheld PC which displayed a running chess program. He was using a stylus to operate it. I immediately disqualified the player. When confronted he claimed that he was only checking his emails, so I asked him to show me the computer, which he refused to do. There are witnesses for my investigation in the toilet, and we will ask the chess federation of our state to ban the player from playing in other tournaments.
- In the HB Global Chess Challenge 2005 (in Minneapolis, Minnesota), a player in the Under-2000 section exited the event under suspicion of cheating, while his final-round game was under way. According to tournament officials, he was caught repeatedly talking on his cell phone during his game—which the published rules for that event expressly prohibited. Directors suspected that he was receiving moves over the phone from an accomplice elsewhere in the building. His results were expunged from the tournament and an ethics complaint lodged. Six weeks later, the same player entered the World Open and tied for first through third place in the Under-2200 section, pocketing $5,833. An attempt was made to eject him midway through that event, when the organizers belatedly learned about the earlier incident in Minnesota. But, lacking any specific allegation that he was cheating in the World Open, they backtracked and re-admitted him after he threatened legal action.
- In the Subroto Mukerjee memorial international rating chess tournament 2006, an Indian chess player was banned from playing competitive chess for ten years due to cheating. During the tournament at Subroto Park, Umakant Sharma was caught receiving instructions from an accomplice using a chess computer via a Bluetooth-enabled device which had been sewn into his cap. His accomplices were outside the building, and were relaying moves from a computer simulation. Officials became suspicious after Sharma had made unusually large gains in rating points during the previous 18 months, even qualifying for the national championship. Umakant began the year with an average rating of 1933, and in 64 games gained over 500 points to attain a rating of 2484. Officials received multiple written complaints alleging that Umakant's moves were in exactly the same sequence suggested by the chess computer. Eventually, in the seventh round of the tournament, Indian Air Force officials searched the players on the top eight boards with a metal detector and found that Umakant was the only player who was cheating. Umakant's ten-year ban was imposed by the All India Chess Federation (AICF) after reviewing evidence presented by Umakant himself and the electronic devices seized by the tournament organizers. The penalty was considered harsh, especially considering that those in other sports who have been found to be doping and match fixing did not receive such lengthy suspensions. When officials were asked about the suspension they stated, "We wanted to be frank and send a stern message to all players. It is like cheating on exams."
- In the Philadelphia World Open 2006, Steve Rosenberg, who was playing in a lower section, was leading before the final round. A victory would have been worth about $18,000. He was confronted by a tournament director and found to be using a wireless transmitter and receiver called a "Phonito". He was disqualified from the event.
- In a Dutch League 2C 2007 match between Bergen op Zoom and AAS, the arbiter caught the team captain of AAS (who was playing on board 6) using a PDA. The player was outside the playing hall, with permission, to get some fresh air. The arbiter had followed him and caught him using Pocket Fritz. On the screen, the current position of the game was shown. The arbiter declared the game lost and informed the Dutch Federation about the incident. The competition manager communicated a heavy penalty: the player was banned from playing in the Dutch League and Cup matches, not only for that season, but also for the next two seasons. The competition manager applied article 20.3 of the Federation's competition regulations.
- In the Dubai Open 2008, M. Sadatnajafi, an untitled Iranian player (rated 2288 at the time), was disqualified from the tournament after he was caught receiving suggested moves by text message on his mobile phone while playing Grandmaster Li Chao. The game was being relayed live over the Internet and it was alleged that his friends were following it and guiding him using a computer.
- In the Norths Chess Club Centenary Year Under 1600 Tournament a 14-year-old boy was caught using what the arbiter called a "hand-held machine" in the toilets. The game was declared lost and the boy was expelled from the tournament. He was using the program Chessmaster on a PlayStation Portable, and that was probably the reason why the moves were not particularly strong. It was the first example of a chess player getting caught while using an electronic device in Australia, and so it quickly became a big story in the relatively small Australian chess community.
- In the German Chess Championship 2011, FM Christoph Natsidis used a chess program on his smartphone during his last-round game against GM Sebastian Siebrecht. Natsidis admitted that he had cheated, and was disqualified from the championship.
- At the 2012 Virginia Scholastic and Collegiate Championships, a player was caught using a chess engine running on a PDA. The player was disqualified from the tournament, had his membership to the Virginia Chess Federation suspended, and had an ethics complaint filed to the USCF. Unlike other incidents, the player was using the chess engine disguised as using eNotate, which is one of two electronic chess notation programs permitted to be used at USCF tournaments. While the player only admitted to using the chess engine in that one match, his results suggested he had been using the program for several tournaments.
- At the 2013 Cork Congress Chess Open, a 16-year-old player was found to be using a chess program on a smartphone when his opponent, Gabriel Mirza, confronted him in the toilets by kicking down the cubicle door and physically hauling him out. Mirza received a ten-month ban for violent conduct and bringing chess into disrepute for his violent conduct, a far more serious charge than cheating. His young opponent was banned for four months for cheating.
- In January 2016, the blind Norwegian player Stein Bjørnsen was accused of cheating after playing games that showed a very high correlation with computer analysis. Due to his disability, Bjørnsen had been allowed to keep a record of his moves with a recorder coupled to an ear plug. The ear plug was later found to be incompatible with the recorder, but capable of receiving messages by Bluetooth. In April 2016 he received a two-year ban on domestic competition from the Central Board of the Norwegian Chess Federation (NSF). Bjørnsen's appeal to the federation's rules committee was turned down in September 2016. Bjørnson returned in 2018 after serving the ban. In March that year he was caught with a Bluetooth earpiece taped to his hand during a club tournament in Horten. The federation expelled Bjørnsen in May 2018.
Since the introduction of Elo ratings in the 1960s, a number of attempts have been made to manipulate the rating system, either to deliberately inflate one's rating or to disguise one's strength by deliberately losing rating points.
Sandbagging involves deliberately losing rated games in order to lower one's rating so that one is eligible to enter the lower-rated section of a tournament with substantial prize money. This is most common in the United States, where the prize money for large open tournaments can be over $10,000, even in the lower-rated sections. Sandbagging is very difficult to detect and prove, so USCF has included minimum ratings based on previous ratings or money winnings to minimize the effect.
Small pools of players
A limited pool of players who rarely or never play against players from outside of that pool can cause distortions in the Elo rating system, especially if one or more of the players is significantly stronger than the others, or if the results are deliberately manipulated.
Claude Bloodgood was accused of manipulating the USCF rating system in this way; at his peak in 1996 his USCF rating was in excess of 2700, the second highest in the country at the time. As a long-term prison inmate, he was necessarily restricted in the range of opponents available to him. The USCF suspected that he had deliberately inflated the ratings of his opponents; Bloodgood denied this, attributing his inflated rating to a quirk in the rating system resulting from his regularly playing against a limited pool of much weaker players.
There was widespread reporting of anomalous Burmese (Myanmar) rating movements in the late 1990s, with Milan Novkovic giving an analysis of manipulation in Schach magazine.
False tournament reports
The most notable international example of ratings manipulation involves Romanian Alexandru Crisan, who allegedly falsified tournament reports to gain a Grandmaster title and was ranked 33rd in the world on the April 2001 FIDE rating list. A committee overseeing the matter recommended his rating be erased and his Grandmaster title revoked. While the Romanian Chess Federation initially favored action against Crisan, eventually he himself became the RCF president and changed the policy, creating such a situation that FIDE intervened to broker a resolution regarding many problems in the RCF, including Crisan's rating. Crisan then was arrested and imprisoned on fraud charges relating to his management of the company Urex Rovinari and disappeared from chess, thus failing to fulfill the conditions of the resolution and so activating the above recommendations regarding title revocation. FIDE did not fully update its online information until August 2015, when all his titles were removed and his rating adjusted downwards to 2132. When writing about the Crisan case, Ian Rogers alleges that Andrei Makarov (at the time a FIDE vice-president and Russian chess federation president) had arranged an IM title for himself through nonexistent tournaments in 1994.
Rumors of rigged tournaments are not unheard of in the chess world. For instance, in 2005, FIDE refused to ratify norms from the Alushta (Ukraine) tournaments, claiming that the games did not meet ethical expectations. A number of players involved protested over the matter. A different Ukrainian tournament in 2005 was found to be completely fake. Usually the strongest players are not involved in these, as they are more for careerist players to gain title norms or small rating gains, but Zurab Azmaiparashvili was alleged to have rigged the results of the Strumica tournament of 1995 to allow him to reach the chess elite. In 2003, Sveshnikov referred to these high-profile Crisan and Azmaiparashvili incidents as "open secrets", at a time when both purported culprits were heavily involved in FIDE politics.
A player with no knowledge of chess can achieve a 50% score in simultaneous chess by replicating the moves made by one of his white opponents in a match against a black opponent, and vice versa; the opponents in effect play each other rather than the giver of the simul. This may be considered cheating in some events such as Basque chess. This can be used against any even number of opponents. Stage magician Derren Brown used the trick against eight leading British chess players in his television show.
William Hartston - author of How to Cheat at Chess
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