Cheating: careful what you ask for

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage

When you read an open letter like the one on cheating, signed by a number of participants of the European Championship in Aix les Bains, there are basically two ways to react. The first is to join in the public outrage and bemoan the terrible state that chess has gotten itself in. Something needs to be done and it needs to be done NOW! That's the easy path. But as is often the case with open letters, they are drawn up hastily and the authors are usually driven by emotion rather than reason. The second option, therefore, is to question what's being said in the letter even if your gut feeling tells you otherwise. Well, the Aix les Bains open letter was certainly written quickly, and by just looking at the wording of the letter ('rumours', 'we demand', 'impossible'), one can easily detect strong underlying feelings. But what about rationale? What about rhyme and reason?

Open letter

The open letter that appeared in Aix les Bains

A few years ago, I argued that the subject of cheating in chess is hype and heavily overrated as a serious topic of concern. I still think it is. Let's face it: in all the millions of games that are played each year around the world, in how many games has cheating actually been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt? Five? Ten? This is not to say that we should ignore the issue altogether or refuse to take preventive measures, but it does seem to me the attention the subject is getting is a little over the top and is by now almost leading to mass hysteria. Moreover, cheating in chess is nothing new. It's probably as old as the game itself. The fact that it's played by more people than in the Middle Ages doesn't mean it happens more often, relatively speaking - though of course, some technological developments have made it somewhat easier to cheat.

The Turk

A reconstruction of The Turk, a fake chess-playing machine constructed in the late 18th century.

However, even cheating with the help of all kinds of technological assistance still seems to be pretty difficult, if we are to rely on the method that was used in the "French cheating" case:

(...) According to Jean-Claude Moingt the cheating system went as follows: Cyril Marzolo sent SMS text messages with phone numbers which functioned as code. The first two digits were always 06, the following two were the number the move, the 5th and 6th figures would refer to the starting square, the 7th and 8th to the ending square, and finally, two counts of no importance. For example: 06 01 52 54 37, 06 01 57 55 99, 06 02 71 63 84, 06 02 67 65 43 are the codes for the moves constituting the Latvian Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5). This is actually the international notation of correspondence chess. Arnaud Hauchard kept the two phones with him: his own and that of Sebastien Feller. He consulted and then returned to the bar at the venue. The way to indicate moves to Feller was as follows: the opponent of Vachier-Lagrave: A and 1, the opponent of Fressinet: B and 2, the opponent of Tkachiev: C and 3, the opponent of Feller: D and 4, Feller: E and 5, Tkachiev: F and 6, Fressinet: G and 7 and finally Vachier Lagrave: H and 8. For example if Arnaud Hauchard revolved around the table and stopped some time behind the opponent Tkachiev, and then behind that of Fressinet, he was signalling square c2.

See how easy that is? Piece of cake. No wonder everyone's a 2600-GM these days! Of course, the use of mobile phones should be prohibited during chess games. This indeed is one of the demands in the open letter. So here's the good news: it already is! However, apparently that's not enough: "in case of suspicion", demand the signatories of the open letter, "the arbiters reserve the rights to search any player’s pockets". Unfortunately, the authors couldn't be bothered defining what, exactly, "suspicious" behaviour looks like. I think it's safe to say they mean things like sneaking to the toilet after every move and/or producing very strong moves that could also be played by chess engines. Basically, these are the very same things the Topalov team accused Kramnik of during their infamous Elista 2006 World Championship match. Tiebreak in Elista Back then, Kramnik received massive support from other GM's in the form of, you guessed it, a good old open letter. Interestingly though, some of the signatories appear in both the old Elista and the new Aix les Bains letters. Have they changed their minds? But even if such "suspicious" behaviour could be objectively established (say, by always searching everybody who's present in the playing hall) do we really want arbiters (or indeed anyone at all) to "search" players and spectators? Isn't that - well, if not downright illegal, then intimidating at the very least? What if the suspect has no pockets? What if the suspect in question is a woman - without pockets - and only male arbiters are available? Have the angry grandmasters thought about these things? Okay, maybe we shouldn't be so harsh on them. Perhaps we can do without these unpleasant methods, as long as we can "unplug" digital boards or delay transmission over the internet by 15 minutes, which was already implemented in Aix les Bains (making ChessBase's plea for implementing it rather puzzling.) Note first of all that these proposals actually assume that the other preventive methods are not working: after all, if nobody is able to use electronic devices, then why does the internet transmission still have to be stopped or delayed? Note also that this proposal wouldn't be of much help for 99.99% of all the other chess games being played around the world, since these simply aren't played on digital boards. Don't the grandmasters care about cheating if it's done on non-digital boards? Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt rather than accuse them of an unhealthy focus on their own direct interests, this particular proposal seems to ignore the fact that live broadcasting of games is in fact one of the key assets of many tournaments in the first place. (You could even argue that without live broadcasting, it would not make so much sense for tournament organizers to invite all these strong players anyway.) Also, if live boards can be switched off at will, will that not lead to even more rumours and accusations - the exact opposite of what the authors are trying to achieve? DGT As for the "15 minute delay" solution, will this really help? An accomplice doesn't have to wait for the official live transmission, does he? He or she can simply text or e-mail the moves to anyone he likes (as indeed was supposedly done in the "French cheating" case), if not inside the playing hall then surely one step outside of it. All these suggestions seem utterly naive to me - people have always been able to cheat one way or another, and probably will always be able to. It seems simplistic and also a bit childish to ask for a perfect world. On a more philosophical note, I've often wondered why it's always this kind of "electronic" cheating that is emphasized and is somehow considered the most unfair of all. I can't help thinking this is just because other methods of "cheating" are more subtle and aren't so easy to fight. After all, no doubt electronic cheating can make one play better moves, but what about the good-old method of trying to make your opponent play inferior moves, e.g. by exerting psychological pressure on him? Isn't that equally unfair? The method has been tested at the highest level numerous times, often quite successfully.

Korchnoi-Karpov in 1978

Korchnoi-Karpov in 1978

Famous instances of psychological pressure which, some would argue, border on cheating include the 1977 Spassky-Korchnoi Candidates Final match, where in game 10 Spassky didn't appear behind the board except to make a move (as if playing a simul!), and instead did all his thinking from his relaxation box. Korchnoi protested, but lost the 11th and 13th game as a result of his agitation. A year later, in the the World Championship match against Karpov, Korchnoi was again the victim of a subtle psychological game, when he was distracted by the stare of the mysterious "Dr. Zukhar" from the audience. And there are many more examples - in fact, some would argue that publishing an open letter which clearly hints at possible cheating by your opponent, right before the game, is also an excellent way of getting a head start. But apart from such "dubious" psychological pressure, chess is such an unfair game anyway! Even as a kid, I thought it was grossly unfair that some of my young opponents whom I initially beat without effort, suddenly had lots of chess books and some even had a private chess trainer - just because their parents could afford it! - and started beating me. Isn't that, in a way, a kind of "cheating" as well? Later, I realized many grandmasters have an absolutely phenomenal memory - a gift from nature for which they didn't have to do anything at all! - whereas my own memory is always failing me. Such things are, in my opinion, much more consequential than a player occasionally receiving one or two hints from a chess engine. Naturally, I don't expect anyone to fully agree with all this. It's certainly true that, as Hans Ree observes in this week's chess column in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, the threat of cheating is "not a phantom, but a real danger".


The iPhone app Stockfish, which allows easy analysis and can be connected to an engine running on a remote computer, making it even stronger

But I can't help wondering whether the people who shout so loudly about cheating (or doping, for that matter) and demand all kinds of rules - in their own interest - have actually considered any of the above-mentioned objections at all. To me, it seems that these are legitimate questions which should be answered before introducing all kinds of new rules. Even if we all agree that cheating is bad, let's not get carried away by emotions and forget the bigger picture. Suppose we do decide that new, more extreme rules are necessary to limit the possibilities of cheating, who will prevent FIDE or other organizations from making caricatures of the rules we demanded in the first place, as they've done repeatedly in the past? Needless to say, some of these harsh measures, such as the "zero tolerance" rule, were again grounds for grandmasters to make a collective protest. But what have all these open letters achieved, in the end, except more confusion and more open letters? I, for one, am sceptical about introducing - let alone implementing - new, extreme rules that ask for even stricter control, more privileges for officials and an atmosphere where even going to the toilet once too often might make you a suspect. Before we know, all tournament participants will be subjected to lie detectors after each game! Let's be careful what we ask for. The cure may be worse than the disease.

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