How to prove you're not a cheater

GM smurfo
May 31, 2015, 8:01 AM |

The recent ‘cheating’ scandal at the European women’s chess championship is incredibly sad. This story stands apart from the recent ‘Georgian GM’ and Indian ‘phone legs’ incidents in that the accused, Mihaela Sandu  is almost certainly innocent. In the cold, hard light of day (or ‘ex post’, as us economists might say), the evidence clearly suggests that no computer assistance was used in her wins. This is not to say that the fifteen participants who accused her mid-tournament didn’t genuinely believe Sandu was cheating; I’m sure that at least some, and possibly all of them, did to some extent. But the facts remain thus: the 37-year old chess teacher was having her best ever tournament when she was publicly accused by some of her peers and subsequently collapsed, despite post-tournament analysis of her games by grandmasters and other professionals revealing no sign whatsoever of foul play.

It wasn’t always this way in the chess world, that a player could be publicly shamed as a cheater without evidence. With super-GM smartphones and pea-sized transmitters, today’s age breeds mistrust. So how does one ensure that he or she can avoid the scorn of such allegations? Let’s take a quick trip down the Hall of Shame of the cheating world to see what lessons we can learn.

We start our sordid journey all the way back in 1993 with the infamous “von Neumann” case. This player (probably using a pseudonym) was on his way to producing a remarkable performance in the lucrative World Open when things started to go awry. Never mind the fact that he wore headphones during his games, attached to a large bulging object in his pocket that regularly buzzed. Von Neumann’s real undoing game when transmission errors occurred between him and his accomplice, which led to him literally sitting at the board in the opening until his time ran out. That’s right; he couldn’t play a single move on his own. Subsequent interrogation by the arbiters revealed that von Neumann hadn’t the least rudimentary chess ability besides (presumably) being able to read the coordinates. For the honest chessplayers of those pre-smartphone days, there was a very simple moral from this as to how to prove you weren’t a cheat.


Lesson 1: Know how to play chess.


Of course, as time and technology progressed, so did the know-how needed to avoid detection – and accusation. Tracking all the way forward to 2006, the infamous Kramnik-Topalov world championship match showed that cheating scandals could permeate the very top echelons of the chess world. While the players still refuse to shake hands to this day, the record shows a match victory to Kramnik, even despite having forfeited a game in protest of the ‘Toiletgate’ allegations. No evidence was ever forthcoming against Kramnik, but clearly the stakes for rising above false accusations had been raised.


Lesson 2: Don’t go to the toilet too often.


So now being able to prove your chess abilities was no longer a sure way to dodge a scandal; bladder control had made it to the list. Rationing one’s liquids and ensuring at least one neighbouring urinal was also occupied became a player’s safest in-game innocence aids. Too bad if you were a woman with a thirst, or – heaven forbid! – someone with a bladder problem. But things were just getting started.

At the 2010 Olympiad, French GM Sebastien Feller was found to have been cheating, with the assistance of another French GM and IM. The elaborate scheme made use of text messages to send computer-aided moves. Bizarrely, the plot would probably never have been uncovered, were it not for the fact that the phone they were using was paid for by the vice-president of the French chess federation, who had access to the phone records and saw one of the cheating SMSs.


Lesson 3: Make sure your phone records are publicly available; after all, there’s no room for personal privacy in modern chess.


The most notable cheating case in recent years was Borislav Ivanov, a Bulgarian computer programmer who caused a big stir in 2012-13 with his outrageous tournament results. Similar to the recent case at the European women’s championship, in April 2013 more than 20 grandmasters and international masters signed a petition for special anti-cheating measures to be installed in tournament in which Ivanov participated. Unlike the recent incident, however, these masters waited until six months of convincing evidence of cheating had been accumulated against the accused. (Ironically, Topalov is quoted as having publicly supported Ivanov during this period.)

The game was eventually up for our villain when he asked to be searched by the arbiters and his opponent GM Dlugy during a tournament in October 2013. Ivanov complied up until a point, but refused to remove his shoes, claiming that he had smelly feet. (Suspicious to that point had strongly indicated that a cheating device was hidden within his shoes.) Ivanov was defaulted and subsequently retired from tournament chess.


Lesson 4: Be prepared to be physically searched to the fullest extent in order to exonerate one’s name from one’s accusers. Hold nothing back!


Perhaps this last lesson may seem a little harsh, but if the Ivanov case proved anything, it was that modern-day cheating measures were reaching new levels of sophistication. In fact, voluntary stripping to the bare essentials had perhaps become one of the surest ways of proving one’s innocence – and yes, the burden of proof had by now well and truly shifted to the innocent. Of course, shameless nudity may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I myself had resolved to take such measures, had I ever been accused of anything indiscrete – chess-wise, that is. (On the other, I’ve never been one to shy away from baring all in the name of a good cause.)

But I have never, ever faced any accusations of cheating, I am happy to report, and there’s a good reason for this. I doubt whether even a Sandu searching would have dispelled the witch-hunt embarked upon by her accusers, but fortunately there is an absolute, fail-safe way to ensure one is completely immune from suspicion. In fact, I employ it almost exclusively in every tournament. It’s a lesson that not only Sandu could learn from, but also the strong Russian GM Igor Kurnosov [Edit: Chris Rice pointed out that Kurnosov was tragically killed in a car accident in 2013 - see here.]

In case you aren’t aware, in 2009 Kurnosov defeated GM Shakriyar Mamedyarov in an absolutely brilliant game from the Moscow Open. After being crushed in just 21 moves with the white pieces, Mamedyarov took it upon himself to publicly accuse Kurnosov of computer cheating, and subsequently withdrew from the tournament in protest. It was later demonstrated that no foul play was involved whatsoever, and that Kurnosov had just played a magnificent game – as GMs are occasionally prone to do. However, the complete lack of remorse or ramifications of Mamedyarov’s accusation sent a signal around the chess world that McCarthyism had finally arrived – and the Sandu case shows that, apparently, it’s here to stay.

But I’ve teased you long enough. No longer are lessons 1-4 sufficient to protect one from the wrath of an accuser (or sore loser, for that matter). I encourage everyone concerned with his or her integral reputation to take a leaf out of my book and adopt the final, and ultimate, lesson on how to prove that one is not a cheater. It seems to me, the way things are going, that this is pretty much the only way to ensure this.


Lesson 5: Don’t ever, ever have an amazing result.


Fortunately for me at least, this comes easily.