Nationally-Recognized Chess Team Under Scrutiny
A typical US Chess Federation national scholastic event. | ChessKid.com file photo.

Nationally-Recognized Chess Team Under Scrutiny

MikeKlein
FM MikeKlein
Apr 15, 2018, 8:23 AM |
170 | Chess Event Coverage

Scholastic chess is full of inspiring stories of kids overcoming adversity. It's also replete with its share of controversies.

Henderson Middle School, subject of the 2017 book "The Champions' Game," has had a lot to be proud of in the past few years. But now it's under the microscope.

After winning first place in several past national competitions in 2015 and 2016, it added two more first-place team trophies last weekend to its list of recent successes. But other teams on site in Atlanta at the 2018 National Middle School Championships raised complaints about the eligibility of some of their players.

The school from El Paso, Texas dominated several of the "junior varsity" sections. It easily won the K-8 Under-1000 team prize with 24 points, which was 3.5 points clear of second place (a team score is composed of the top four scorers in the seven-round event; 28 is the most possible points). The team also won the K-8 Under-750 section with 23 points, which was one point ahead of two different teams.

Henderson also had two players score a perfect 7-0. Both won individual national titles in the "under" sections.

This 2018 video from the El Paso Independent School District shows that the team also supports more girls in chess.

All of the national championships organized by the US Chess Federation have sections based on rating caps. The invention of these "under" sections years ago has greatly increased attendance. All editions of national championships now draw thousands of players.

Teams and individuals winning the "under" sections often arrive home to local media calling the effort a "national championship"—making no distinction between these sections and "championship" sections where the most elite players and teams are competing (the local paper in El Paso hedged somewhat this year with the headline claiming one thing but the article explaining things more clearly). The book about the team recognizes the school winning the "unrated" section at the nationals, but then referencing it as a "national championship."

Pedantry perhaps, but no matter what you call the first-place effort, having a crowd await a team's arrival at the airport, as Henderson had this year, is inspiring. But did the players deserve to play in their respective sections?

Several coaches at the event cried foul. They said that a close inspection of many of Henderson's players allegedly reveals glaring irregularities in recent events leading up to the nationals. This past week a firestorm erupted on social media that led to the US Chess Federation even making a public posting about the allegations.

The K-8 Under 1000 Team

(Chess.com has made the editorial decision not to print the names of students in this article.)

Winning team members included Player A (also the coach's son and who went 7-0 to win individual first place); Player B (6.5 and second place); Player C (6.0); and Player D (4.5). Of the four, the first three played in an event on January 15 (a Monday which was Martin Luther King Day).

The event, titled "EP vs. EG" on the US Chess online crosstables, pitted some of the Henderson players against mostly members of a high school from Las Cruces, New Mexico. Although listed as a Swiss, players from Texas (four of which went to Henderson) exclusively played against students from New Mexico. The average pre-tournament rating of players from New Mexico was 650 (most of them had provisional ratings based on fewer than 25 games). The average of the players from Texas was 1047.

The seven players from New Mexico won 28-0. The seven players from the Lonestar State went 0-28. Every one of the Texans lost all four games individually. What are the chances mathematically of such a result?

The Chess.com director of research Roland Walker calculated that, excluding draws, the chance of a 28-0 result, even with comparable ratings, is about one in 250 million.

"Once there are draws and ratings tilt in the mix...the chance of this happening at random is less than one in a trillion," Walker said.

After the tournament was rated, Player A and Player B both had their ratings drop from above 1000 to well below 1000, thus making them eligible for the U-1000 section at nationals. Of Player B's four losses, two were against a player rated 466. Player C lost twice to a player rated 102 (that player went 4-0 against 900s and 1000s). He went from 939 to 760, keeping him in the same section at nationals (the next cutoff is the Under-750 section, which will be discussed later in this article).

Three other players went from above 1000 to below as well. One was Player E, who also represented Henderson in the U-1000 section at nationals but didn't finish among the top four scorers. 

In total, of the six out of seven Texas players who began the event above 1000, all went below 1000 except one, who was the highest rated. And even he lost all four games.

US Chess Federation rules do not allow for more than 50 rating points to be lost in a "match" format between players with established ratings. In this case, all of the players from Texas had established ratings, while many of their opponents only had provisional ratings. Despite all players competing against the same opponents twice, and only against the "rival" population, the event was rated as a "Swiss." As noted above, all four Henderson players lost more than 100 points.

A little more than a week later, Player A and Player D played in the "Borderland Cubes" tournament in El Paso (which also had adults). The results are just as unbalanced.

In the "Upper Cube" section consisting of eight players, four competitors went 4-0 while the other four went 0-4—no one had any other result. That losing quartet included Player A and Player D (one of the players finishing 4-0 was the Henderson's coach; more on him later).

In total, Player A had gone from 1054 down to 932 on Martin Luther King Day, and a little more than a week later, fell more to 899 at Borderland Cubes. It should be noted that in the state championship about six weeks later, he was not yet eligible for the "Middle School U-900" section since only the January 15 tournament was rated in time. In the February rating supplement, which was used in the state championship, Player A was still 932. He played in the "Championship" section at states and raised his rating to 980.

Player A was still able to play in Atlanta in the Under-1000 section (regardless of the result at states) since nationals ratings are set in place before the North Texas State Championship, according to Luis Salinas, organizer of that event. Salinas also told Chess.com that there were no complaints in Houston about the team or its members.

After winning a national title as a team and individual last weekend, Player A then rose to 1217.

Jumping back to last year, more alleged irregularities can be found.

A few weeks prior to the 2017 Supernationals Tournament, where more than 5,000 kids in all grades competed in Nashville, Tennessee, Player C and Player D were among the eight players competing in a "dual-rated" event that counted for both regular and quick ratings.

Four players went 4-0, while four others went 0-4. Again, no draws, and no one scored any mixed results. Also happening again was Player C and Player D finishing among the winless. Player C went from 797 to 745, while Player D went from 763 to 726. Both were thus eligible for the K-8 Under-750 section at Supernationals, which is where they both chose to play. 

The K-8 Under 750 Team

Henderson finished as the fourth-place team at last year's Under-750 section, but this year, they won the team title in this, the lowest rating class section at nationals (not counting the unrated section).

Their top scorers were Player F (7.0 and an individual first place); Player G (6.0); Player H (5.0); Player I (5.0); and Player J (5.0). (Teams only count the top four scores but five are listed here for completeness since three players tied with 5.0.)

None of these players competed in the Martin Luther King Day tournament, but four days later, three of them played in the "UU 1_19_2018" tournament on January 19 in Las Cruces. That's a Friday and according to public school calendars online, both Las Cruces and El Paso schools were in session that day (Las Cruces is a little less than an hour's drive away from El Paso). Some coaches thought an event on a school day sounded suspicious.

While there was a sprinkling of points earned from the Texas players, for the most part this event was a carbon-copy of the one from earlier in the week. New Mexico players went 12-1. Texas players only notched two draws (against each other in the same game) and one solitary win.

Henderson's Player F, Player H, and Player J each went 0-2 individually, 0-6 as a unit.

Player F lost to players rated 524 and 279 and had her rating fall from 845 to 734. One of Player J's losses came at the hands of a 320 and she fell from 811 to 727. Player H lost to a 168 and slid from 764 to 668. All thus became eligible for the Under-750 section at nationals, which is where they played.

After their first place this past week, Player F is now 1067, Player H is 940, and Player J is 758.

National Tournament Director (NTD) David Hater, the chief tournament director at the Junior High Championship, directed press inquiries to chief organizer and US Chess Director of Events Boyd Reed.

What is known is that Hater convened a meeting with coaches Sunday morning April 8, the final day of the three-day event. His statements were recorded (with the knowledge of Hater and others). In the meeting, he said US Chess staff had spent "about 40 man hours" on the "inquiry" since it first came to their attention the previous evening.

"We are taking it very seriously," he said. "Garbage complaints get about five minutes of my time. Very few complaints get 10 hours of my time...I got it, this is serious."

Hater said he researched every past event of the Henderson players, going back to their very first rated events.

He called the two events of the week of January 15, "highly improbable, and that might be generous." Those events were the "EP vs. EG" tournament on January 15 and the one at the end of the week on January 19.

Hater noted that the ratings dropped below certain thresholds and correctly tabulated that Henderson players went a cumulative 0-22 in the two events combined, with the lower-rated player winning many of the games. "Statistically, I wouldn't even want to estimate the odds," he said. "I wouldn't say 'impossible.' I would say, 'Sure looks funky to me.'"

He questioned the tournament director (TD; synonymous with "arbiter") of both events of the week of January 15. That TD was William Barela, who is also the current president of the New Mexico Chess Organization (Barela did not direct the Borderland Cubes event on January 24). Barela told Hater that only some of the seven Texas players in the "EP vs. EG" tournament attended Henderson Middle School.

According to Hater, Barela told him that the middle schoolers simply lost to the older high schoolers and "played like crap." Barela supplied Hater with some photos from the event, and Hater became convinced that the games happened and "we're not talking about fictitious events." He also said that he didn't think Barela did anything improper.

Reed said that tournament staff also spoke with Henderson's coach and the school's art teacher, Saul Ramirez (whose son is on the team). "The coach defended the integrity of the players' historical results as reported to US Chess," Reed told Chess.com. Hater said later that Ramirez said he was not present at either the January 15 or January 19 tournaments, adding, "He seemed to have some difficulty remembering the events in question."

Chess.com spoke with Barela this week, who insisted that Ramirez was in fact at both events. Barela said that both January events were his own idea and meant to build US Chess Federation experience with his cadre of kids.

Barela explained that both January events were in a Unitarian Universalist Church in Las Cruces. The playing room was only 500 square feet, meaning there was no room for adults to be in there during the tournament. Barela said Ramirez waited outside the tournament room while the games were in progress.

"I remember that day really, really well," Barela said. "[Ramirez] was there with his team and with his kid, but in another room.”

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William Barela supplied this photo of the January 15 tournament. It shows seven players against seven players, just like the crosstable indicates. Scoresheets from the event are being sought by Chess.com. Photo courtesy William Barela.

Barela said he's aware of how the results appear, but he doesn't benefit in any way from Henderson's success. He also doesn't think Ramirez did anything wrong. Barela said he's known Ramirez for three years, almost exclusively in a professional context.

"I know it looks really bad. I got that. I see that," Barela said. "I don’t think any player from Texas didn’t give their best. They all came to play."

He said he simply recorded the results as they came in, then saw the final tally. "After it came to my attention, I was like, 'Yeah that was a landslide.'”

Barela said he was in the room at all times and attributed the results to high schoolers being "smarter, bigger, and faster" and being underrated due to many fewer tournament events. He also explained the confusion about the January 19 event being on a school day. That was a Friday, and he said that the tournament didn't begin until around 6 p.m.

Barela doesn't see any way the school or the coach could have orchestrated such a ratings caper.

"I don’t think the Henderson team is smart enough to be able to pull that off," Barela said. "They’re not going to band together to do something bad. One of them is going to have a conscience...Saul is not the brightest guy. He doesn’t speak well. He doesn’t speak very educated. He’s excited to do what he’s doing. Even if he wanted to do those things, he couldn’t have executed. I don’t believe he has it in him. I don’t think he’d try to do it."

So according to Hater, Ramirez told him that he was not at either event, but Barela is sure Ramirez was there for both. Chess.com made many attempts to contact coach Ramirez, but numerous emails, voicemails, and Facebook messages this last week went unreturned. Then just before press, Ramirez replied back that all media inquiries must go through a director in El Paso ISD as per his district's protocol. 

Edit: 3:45 p.m. Eastern Time, April 15: Ramirez was supplied with a list of questions through his district's representative, who requested them so that he could "help him prepare." After receiving this list of questions, Ramirez neither consented to an interview, nor did he respond with answers to the questions. Instead, he sent Chess.com this statement:

"The Henderson Chess Team that won the 1st place in the Under 1000 and Under 750 division last week did so using grit and determination. The allegations some schools launched against Henderson are unfortunate and baseless. It may be unfathomable to some to see low-income, Mexican-American students succeed in a game like chess, but the truth is that the Henderson Chess Team won its titles fairly. The U.S. Chess Federation has investigated the unfortunate allegations and has found them without merit. We thank the Federation for their quick and thorough action on this matter. Henderson will put this matter behind us and we will concentrate now on celebrating the accomplishments of its students, as well as continuing the preparation of future chess champions here in El Paso."

Reed said that the middle schoolers were not questioned. 

Hater said that in his talk with Ramirez at the tournament, he asked the coach how can it be that their players lose all of their games in some events, but then do well at states and nationals? Hater said Ramirez told him that "they're kids" and then also began to discuss their underprivileged background (which is one of the themes of Ramirez's recent autobiography).

In the end, Hater had only limited time on the final day of the event. After his investigation, which was limited mostly to examination of online crosstables, he concluded that he could not take any actions on site despite all of the circumstantial evidence (some of the above reporting was naturally not known to him at the time of the meeting last Sunday).

Instead, he said the US Chess ethics committee, of which he is also the chair, would be the best recourse to handle situations where a claim of alleged improper activity happened before an event. Curiously, US Chess Online posted a standalone news piece explaining the procedures for an ethics complaint just this Wednesday. 

At issue would likely be ethics rule 6(c), which governs standards of conduct and prohibits: "Deliberately losing a game for payment, to lower one's rating, or for any other reason; or, attempting to induce another player to do so. Deliberately failing to play at one's best in a game, in any manner inconsistent with the principles of good sportsmanship, honesty, or fair play."

At the time of this writing, Reed said no such official complaint had been filed, but he expected one to come. If and when one is created, Hater explained that the process can take several months to conclude and that no committee member will discuss the case.

However, one other NTD told Chess.com that tournament directors do have latitude to alter a player's rating at an event if they feel that a player is not playing in the proper section.

Reed was also at the meeting Sunday morning. He said one of the events "looks fishy, there's no question about it." But then a group of coaches pushed back when he said that the alleged impropriety doesn't involve the current tournament. 

"This is an egregious attack on the event," said administrator/coach John Galvin of IS 318 in Brooklyn, NY. His school, featured in the documentary "Brooklyn Castle," won the K-9 Championship this year but finished behind Henderson in both the U-1000 and U-750. Other coaches offered similarly strident rebukes of the the January events and the eligibility of the players.

US Chess released a further statement this week explaining that nothing improper is alleged to have happened in Atlanta and also that no official complaint has come yet.

FM Robby Adamson, past co-chair and current member of the US Chess Scholastic Council, was in attendance at the meeting last Sunday in a personal capacity. An attorney by profession, he explained that in criminal cases, proof "beyond a reasonable doubt" is the benchmark, while in civil cases, a "preponderance of evidence" suffices.

He then said that the precedent for what standard to use in cases like this "has not been defined." Adamson is a longtime coach and added that his own teams have been adversely affected in the past in similar situations. 

"This is something we're going to work on," he said.

Speaking to Chess.com later, Adamson said that this standard he wants will give tournament directors authority to remove a player from an event without necessarily having to assert that a player overtly cheated.

"If a kid moves like a computer 28 moves in a row, is that enough [evidence]?" he said hypothetically. "That's what I want to come out of this. We don't have to be 100 percent certain. We just have to have a standard of what is fair play. The odds of something happening would be a relevant standard to consider."

He also wanted clearer guidelines on whether kids could be questioned, and how that should be conducted. Adamson said tournament staff was further hamstrung by the timing of the incident, which wasn't brought to their attention until late Saturday night before the Sunday finish. However, from the coaches' perspective, that's often about when any anomalies begin to manifest themselves.

The scholastic council met in private on Thursday. Afterward, co-chair FM Sunil Weeramantry personally released this statement: "The Scholastic Council has discussed concerns that were raised at the Junior High School Nationals in Atlanta about team eligibility for 'under' sections at national events. We will be reporting back to the Executive Board on strengthening procedures to ensure that all teams conform to standards of fair play."

Principal and coach Salome Thomas-El of Thomas Edison Charter School in Wilmington, Delaware, saw his team finish second to Henderson in the U-1000 section. Thomas-El has been coming to nationals nearly every year since 1996 and rarely can he recall a team notching a winning score of 24 points, and also winning by 3.5 points.

"What alarmed me was the margin of victory...To see a team at the nationals go through a section like a knife through hot butter raised flags," he told Chess.com.

After a thorough examination of some of the January events, he said he intends to file an ethics complaint. "They just wanted to have a fair chance," he said about his own players. His school has finished first twice in the last two decades. "When you do it the right way, you don’t win every year."

Thomas-El also had something to say about the format of the two January tournaments. They were rated as a Swiss but had Texas kids only play New Mexico kids, and had players compete against each opponent twice.

"I’ve tasted American cheese that tasted more Swiss than that," he said.

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