Visually Impaired Player Gets Lifetime Ban For Cheating
The game in which Stein Tholo Bjørnsen was caught. | Photo: Reidar Helliesen

Visually Impaired Player Gets Lifetime Ban For Cheating

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A visually impaired chess player has been permanently banned by the Norwegian Chess Federation (NSF) after having been caught red-handed with an earplug glued to his palm during a game against a nine-year-old girl. Norwegian chess reporter Tarjei J. Svensen tells the story.

The player, 52-year-old Stein Tholo Bjørnsen, was caught just two months after he had completed serving a two-year ban for prior cheating.

The verdict in this remarkable cheating case, reached at a board meeting of the federation at the end of May, was historic. It's the first time in the history of the NSF that a player received a life-time ban from domestic competition. Although Bjørnsen still has the opportunity to appeal the suspension, the evidence and severity of the case leaves little hope for the verdict to be changed.

"We have zero tolerance when it comes to cheating, and we want all our members to play according to the rules," Morten L. Madsen, President of the federation, said in a statement.

The verdict is likely to be the end of what is the biggest scandal in Norwegian chess ever. How could an unknown beginner manage to go 56 games undefeated, without anyone taking action?

Photo: Tarjei J. Svensen

Bjørnsen using a special chess set for visually impaired players. | Photo: Tarjei Svensen.


The 52-year-old caught the attention of Norwegian chess circles in the summer of 2015. As an unrated and completely unknown player, he won the Class 2 section (Norwegian Elo 1500-1750) of the Norwegian Championship with an impressive, undefeated score of 8 out of 9.

He continued his progress by winning Hans Olav Lahlum’s Elo tournament in Fagernes during the Christmas period of 2015/2016, with an undefeated 8/9 and a rating performance of 2267. That was quite an achievement, considering that just a year earlier he had scored 50 percent in the lowest section of the Norwegian Championship for the Blind, a performance at novice level.

It was at this point that his performance started to raise concerns. In previous tournaments he had been allowed to play with an electronic earpiece that later proved to be a bluetooh device. His explanation was that he wanted to record moves in order to be able to play them back later.

However, tech experts told Norwegian chess site Matt & Patt at the time that the headset seen on photos during his games, is unable to connect to a recorder.

A number of games played in Fagernes raised eyebrows among strong players such as GMs Frode Urkedal, Artur Kogan and IM Atle Grønn. Many used the following game as a clear example of suspicious play.

When the allegations of cheating first broke, a few days after the event, it caused headlines in all Norwegian mainstream media. Bjørnsen appeared on national TV channels claiming his innocence. Even Magnus Carlsen commented on the story, calling him "really a unique talent, if everything is correct, and I hope it is."

Speaking to Matt & Patt, Bjørnsen denied any cheating, claiming he had made the progress from beginner to master level by "playing through Carlsen and Anand’s games with various colors" and "studying chess for up to 10 hours a day" for months.

To NRK he said: "My way of playing and learning chess, is different than others. I memorize all possibilities on the board and have to admit that my level of understanding is pretty average for a chess player. I’m good at remembering analysis made in advance."

The Norwegian Chess Federation launched an investigation into the case and eventually suspended the player for two years.

Regan, lab test

Among the strongest evidence used was a report from Kenneth Regan, the main consultant for the world chess federation in cases like this. Regan analyzed the 18 games from the tournaments using a specially developed formula designed to detect cheating based on statistics. A level below 2,75 indicates no cheating, 2,75-4,75 means there's a great chance of cheating, while levels above 4,75 is considered clear cheating,

"The full test of both tournaments is arguably over 5.00," Regan concluded in his report. 

Bjørnsen denied all allegations. "I still claim my innocence. I can understand why it seemed strange that I used headset with bluetooth, but there is a long way from that to receive information to my ears. I didn't receive any information. I didn't cheat on purpose," he said.

After a lot of hesitation, he eventually agreed to go through a test in order to prove his real playing strength. The test was done in June 2016, and didn't go as planned for Bjørnsen.

In a special lab that prevents all forms of communication from outside, he failed miserably and his approximate playing strength was set to no more than 1000. He couldn't event solve simple mate puzzles.

"There is zero chance that Bjørnsen, with his playing strength, could have made all these moves without any assistance," the Rules Commitee of the federation said, denying his appeal a few months later.

The end

However, this was not the end of the story. After serving his two year sentence, Bjørnsen's was back at the chess board at the end of January 2018. That turned out to be the beginning of the end of his chess career.

At his local club tournament in Horten, roughly two hours south of Oslo, Bjørnsen had won his three previous games, one of them against a player of master strength. Bjørnsen was up against the talented 9-year-old Lykke-Merlot Helliesen in the fourth round.

After a few moves, her father become suspicious when Bjørnsen was repeatedly putting his left hand close to his ear. He eventually started filming the whole thing.

When the game was eventually stopped after 15 moves, it turned out he had a bluetooth earplug taped to his palm. Several witnesses said Bjørnsen tried to hide the device, but it was already too late.

"I have never witnessed such blatant and calculated cheating as I saw in the game between my daughter Lykke-Merlot and Stein Bjørnsen. This is digital doping of the worst kind," her father Reidar Helliesen said.

Bjørnsen eventually admitted he had the device, but denied any cheating and claimed he never used any devices.

"It is illegal to bring any electronic devices to a chess game, and I had, so I am automatically suspended. But I didn't cheat at all. I was just picking on it, but I was just fiddling around, because I was not in great shape that day. I am seriously sick," Bjørnsen said.

According to his wife, the 52-year-old is going through chemotherapy due to an aggressive form of cancer. He stated that he does not intend to go through an appeal process. 

"My chess career is over," he told local media.

His local chess club, the one that supported him during the first process, has suspended Bjørnsen and he is no longer welcome there.

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