Chess Cheaters

Chess Cheaters

Jul 4, 2008, 10:48 PM |

In Steinbeck’s sequel to his famous book Cannery Row, his richly deep and delightful character Doc proclaims that “chess is possibly the only game in the world in which it is impossible to cheat.”  He was, of course, talking about over-the-board chess.  It is obviously trivial to cheat at internet chess, but we will return to that topic in a few paragraphs.  Doc goes on to explain his reasoning that “both players know exactly the same things.  The game is played in the mind.”

Presumably, Steinbeck never read the article published in the Birmingham Post fully five years before Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, in which B. H. Wood detailed numerous methods of cheating at chess.  And in 1976, William R. Hartston published a humorous book entitled How to Cheat at Chess.

Cheating at chess apparently has a long and proud history.  Wood cites Ruy Lopez’s 16th century advice to “arrange the board so that it reflects the light into your opponent’s eyes.”  He also passes along the historical suspicion that Napoleon would make illegal moves whenever he felt he was losing his chess game.  I suppose his opponents would overlook such gentle indiscretions, given the alternatives available for Bonaparte to assuage his wounded pride.

In 1972, the Soviets claimed that an electronic device had been planted in Bobby Fischer’s chair, which was aimed at Spassky to disturb his thinking during their world championship match.  How else could an elite Soviet grandmaster be beaten by an upstart and arrogant American?  And for his part, Fischer (and many others) accused the Soviets of routinely prearranging draws at tournaments in order to help the Soviet tournament leaders. There is a YouTube video where you can see Anatoly Karpov referring to one such arrangement that took place between Petrosian, Keres and Geller in 1962 in Curaço. 

Indeed, such high-level draws are so widely believed in that The Oxford Companion to Chess has an entry called ‘Grandmaster Draws’, though it must be said that this refers to any grandmaster collusion, not just those of the former Soviet Union’s players.

And of course in more recent times we have the rule banning headphones at tournaments, which is clearly an unfair and outrageous discrimination against cheaters.

When we remove ourselves from face-to-face play over the board, however, things become more subtle.  Wood relates a story he heard about one sly con man who separately but simultaneously challenged two professional players to a game of correspondence chess, giving himself odds for the monetary stake of two to one since he was the weaker player.  He simply relayed each player’s move to the other as he received them, guaranteeing that he would enrich himself regardless of which player won the game.

But justice also sometimes prevails, even if only in devious form.  In 1951, Alton Cook related that the famous American champion Frank Marshall once gave a cheating postal player some advice regarding his game.  Shortly thereafter, the other player in the same game also approached the famous Marshall for advice.  Marshall, who must have been a marvelously wicked man, agreed to help the second man cheat as well.  In essence, Marshall was playing solitaire chess, using the cheaters to shuffle his pieces on the board, unbeknownst to each other.  The game continued in this manner for many months, with each player wondering how his opponent could play the great Marshall to a draw.

The 21st century counterpart of correspondence chess is internet-based chess, where the two players cannot see each other or the opponent’s manner of selecting a move.  Recently, the well-known member and prolific author Bill Wall, collector of all lists chessic, published a Top Ten List.

His posting was really a list of lists, and it presents a snapshot of the highest rated FIDÉ players on, the highest rated USCF players on, the highest rated players on, and other lists.  The first two lists contain many well-known and respected masters, such as Nigel Davis and Rusudan Goletiani.

These people are not cheaters.  They have earned their places by applying themselves in thousands of hours of intense study and practice, which is required for mastery of any subject, be it chess or animal husbandry. 

I find it interesting that there are online players, both here and elsewhere, whose names do not appear on such lists of online FIDÉ or USCF players, and yet have similar or even higher ratings than these acknowledged masters.  I just saw one player on Yahoo! Chess who boasts the breathtaking rating of 3500, having never lost a game. 

I can think of 3 possible explanations. 

One is that they are legitimate masters who prefer to remain anonymous behind a fictional screen name.  I am certain that Garry Kasparov, if he is one of them, would regret making himself known to lowly rabble such as myself, if he happens to be playing here.   There may very well be some players in this category.

Another explanation is that these highly skilled – indeed master-level – players are simply unknown, albeit brilliant, students of the game.  For any such players who have achieved such refined skill in the confines of their lonely abodes and who do not seek out the public recognition that would come their way if they were to play openly in sanctioned tournaments using their real names, I admire their chess skills, but I have even higher admiration for their strength of modesty.  They are better persons than I.

There is also a third possible explanation for players who are able to achieve such a high numeric rating.  I suspect that these players are skilled, if not in chess, certainly in the art of button pushing and icon clicking.   It would be interesting to compare the moves they make with such noted and widely-accessible advisors who go by the name of Fritz, to name just one.

If I offend any of these top players, then I must sincerely apologize.  Please enlighten me as to the fourth explanation that escapes my thinking.