Chess Coach Could Be Banned For Life From US Chess Federation
One of the tournaments cited for "sandbagging" by the Henderson team was this one on January 15, 2018. Photo: TD William Barela.

Chess Coach Could Be Banned For Life From US Chess Federation

MikeKlein
FM MikeKlein
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151 | Chess Event Coverage

In an update to a story that Chess.com broke last year, a nationally-recognized chess team from Texas may now face multiple disciplinary actions after the US Chess Federation's ethics committee found that more than two dozen games were lost on purpose to lower players' ratings.

The nine-page decision from February 22 is a result of nearly a year of evidence gathering. It concluded that coach Saul Ramirez of the Henderson Middle School chess team in El Paso, Texas deliberately instructed multiple players in several events to lose games intentionally. The effect of the losses was that these players dropped below a ratings limit, which allowed them to play in "under" sections at the 2018 National K-9 Championship, where Henderson would go on to win first place as a team in two under sections.

Saul Ramirez
Saul Ramirez, the coach of the Henderson Middle School chess team, now faces a possible lifetime ban from US Chess. Photo: Twitter.

The 19 complainants included other teams in the affected sections and the violations come from section 6 of the US Chess Federation's code of ethics.

By a vote of 10-0, Ramirez was found guilty of the section 6 preamble ("...action or behavior that is...inconsistent with the principles of fair play, good sportsmanship, honesty, and respect for the rights of others..."); section 6a ("intentional violations of tournament regulations, or of any other regulations pertaining to USCF activities and goals...");section 6c ("Deliberately losing a game for payment, or to lower one's rating...or attempting to induce another player to do so..."); and section 6g ("Purposely giving false information in order to circumvent or violate any rule or regulation or goal recognized by US Chess.").

The committee voted 8-2 to permanently revoke Ramirez's US Chess membership. He maintains the right to appeal. The committee also ordered that Henderson's 2018 national titles in the K-8 Under 1000 and K-8 Under 750 sections be vacated.

The controversy began during Henderson's rise to the top of the standings in the middle of the national championship last year. Other contending teams noticed irregularities in some of the events leading up to the championship. Tournament organizers attempted to research the validity of the claims, but it wasn't until after nationals concluded that the full investigation got underway.

As reported last year, Henderson players were found to go 0-28 in several tournaments leading up to the nationals, even though they were ratings favorites in nearly all of those games. Many statistical analyses were done, including by Chess.com's director of research Roland Walker, who concluded that even if the players had comparable ratings the chances were one in 250 million. Adding in the possibility of draws, then the odds grow to more than one in one trillion.

The complainants also alleged that Ramirez even admitted to fixing results of a game in his autobiography "The Champions Game."

Ramirez contended that the statistics are not meaningful and aren't applicable to real life, but US Chess did not buy this explanation. In the report, US Chess notes that "...charts, graphs, and math are just a way of describing a very simple, real work truth—that when any large group of humans engages in a skill-based activity, after you accumulate enough data, the results tend to fall into predictable patterns."

The ethics committee also took exception to Ramirez's contention that his team is being scrutinized due to his players' socioeconomic position. Ramirez wrote, "It may be unfathomable to some that see some low-income, Mexican-American students succeed at a game like chess..." US Chess maintains that statistics are blind to the population in question.

"While the committee understands that players can and do have bad tournaments, the committee did not find it credible that all of the Henderson players had a bad day in each of the three cited tournaments," wrote committee chair Hal Terrie in the decision.

In summary, US Chess wrote:

  • The results seen in the three cited tournaments could not have occurred unless most of the Henderson players lost games deliberately.
  • The Henderson players who lost games deliberately did so on the instructions of the coach, Saul Ramirez.

While none of the tournament directors from the events was found guilty, 13 of Henderson's current or former players were found to have violated at least one of the tenets of section 6 (all by 10-0 or 9-1 votes). Chess.com will maintain its policy of not naming the minors. The ethics committee determined that even those team members who did not play in the questionable events would have known about the scheme. The committee also noted that there is photographic evidence that the games were notated but that none of the Henderson players submitted any of those games for review by the committee.

Those 13 have been officially reprimanded and are on probation for three months. The committee decided upon this, the least serious action, in deference to the fact that they were "under the influence of a highly respected coach." Additionally, by a vote of 6-4, they are barred from "under" sections at all national championships for a period of five years.

As a school, Henderson will be on probation for two years. While it is allowed to field teams in under sections that do not include the 13 sanctioned players, all of its entries will now face inspection before being approved for the national tournament. 

"As US Chess is committed to fair play and the integrity of the game, the organization is actively discussing internally how to address any similar situations at a national championship event," US Chess senior director of strategic communication Dan Lucas told Chess.com. 

Ramirez also took issue with his portrayal in the initial Chess.com article, his lack of first-person inclusion, and mentioned this writer by name during the investigation. Chess.com objected to his timeline of events, and offered to the committee multiple emails showing that Ramirez was contacted many times and given several days to reply to questions. He was also informed of the publication date well in advance.

Chess.com again attempted to interview Ramirez, but through a district spokesperson, this was denied. Gustavo Reveles of the El Paso Independent School District replied back: "EPISD officials have met with the Henderson chess coach to review the allegations and determine future steps. The District is in full support of the students and coach Henderson Chess Team."

As for the recommended lifetime ban for Ramirez, the ethics committee explained its thinking this way:

The committee majority finds this behavior by Coach Ramirez to be absolutely unforgivable. This majority takes the position that an adult who uses his position of authority to influence children to commit unethical acts has committed the most serious violation of the code of ethics. It is also worth noting that while he was apparently trying to enhance the self-esteem of his players by gaining them undeserved prizes at the national scholastics, he was simultaneously crushing the dreams of players from other schools, many of whom were also poor and facing serious challenges at home. The committee majority therefore agrees that its recommendation of a permanent membership revocation is fully justified.

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