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Players Suspended In Italian Cheating Scandal

Players Suspended In Italian Cheating Scandal

Four chess players have been convicted by an Italian federal court for their involvement in rigging games and attempts to manipulate results at the Montebelluna tournament in January of this year. The story has a deep impact on the Italian chess scene, and the verdict was widely published in mainstream media.

When you hear the term match fixing, usually the story is about football. As it turns out, chess is not immune either to such malpractices, and the term "cheating in chess" might need a broader definition.

Last Saturday the Federal Court of First Instance of the Italian Chess Federation ruled that four players have violated the Rules of Justice and Discipline of the Italian Chess Federation, mostly for behaviour at the Montebelluna chess festival in January 2017. Three of them were penalized with suspensions.

The 19-year-old IM Pier Luigi Basso was suspended from competitive play for five months, the 52-year-old Russian grandmaster Igor Naumkin (who lives in Italy) was suspended for six months and the 32-year-old IM Angelo Damia was suspended for seven months for throwing games at a different tournament in 2013. 

The 24-year-old IM Andrea Stella, who scored a GM norm in Montebelluna, was only reprimanded for rude behavior, and was urged not to repeat this.

The 63-year-old Croatian IM Milan Mrdja was also a subject of the investigation, as some of his losses were seen as suspicious by some, but he was found not guilty.

The court ruled that there was enough evidence that attempts to throw games had taken place in Montebelluna, a festival with several events including closed IM and GM tournaments. "The principles of loyalty and fairness were violated," stated the court.

According to the 22-page document provided by the court (here in PDF), GM Naumkin had offered an opponent victory in exchange for 200 euros. Damia had also offered to lose a game in exchange for money. Both opponents refused.

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GM Igor Naumkin. | Photo: Giordano Macellari/Wikipedia.

Facebook chats showed that Basso, who co-organized the tournament, attempted to manipulate results. He bragged about "being part of the dark side of chess" and stated elsewhere: "There is a strong temptation to accept if you say 100 euros for a point at the Italian Championship. Few would resist; you know it well."

Stella has been found saying: "Maybe with 600 you make 2.5 out of 3, and you have another one to play for 50 euros more. If not maybe 450 for 2 out of 3, that's 100 less. It's always possibility to negotiate." 

The court, which ruled out that this was "about hotel rates," wasn't satisfied with the defense by the players, who claimed that the chats had taken place "after midnight" and were "just a joke."

Rumors about matchfixing had existed for years in the Italian chess scene, and the results in the Montebelluna tournament were the proverbial last straw. In February of this year a group of top players, including GMs Sabino Brunello, Danyyil Dvirnyy, Michele Godena and Daniele Vocaturo, wrote an open letter (here in PDF) to the Italian Chess Federation, the Federal Court and "all Italian chess players." The players expressed their worry about widespread corruption and noted that any form of matchfixing should not be tolerated.

No names were mentioned in the letter, which includes the sentence: "It is of utmost importance to act with determination at all levels to isolate the apples before they contaminate the entire basket."

It was clear that the players had the Montebelluna festival in mind, where no fewer than 11 norms were achieved. Especially Stella's GM norm was regarded as highly suspicious. 

After the publication of this letter, the federal court started its investigation. Some players started to collect evidence, and eventually dozens of witnesses were heard and many documents, text messages and chat conversations were investigated.

The verdict was published last Saturday afternoon. No evidence was found that games had actually been rigged in Montebelluna, but the attempts to do so were enough for the court to suspend the players.

According to sources talking to Chess.com, the Montebelluna scandal is not the whole story. The federal prosecutor wrote something similar: "It is a spontaneous but widespread revolt in the chess world against what was initially only an occasional malcontent; but that, in recent years, has unfortunately become a widespread and constant illegal practice in Italy."

In a reaction to the news, grandmaster Sabino Brunello told Chess.com: "The Montebelluna verdict is a partial victory for the accusing side. The jury pointed out absolutely shameful behaviour by Basso, Stella, Naumkin and Damia. However, the jury ruled against the main charge (heavily arranging a GM-norm tournament), since it was considered that Basso's alleged written confession was barely an act to appear as a criminal.

"All in all, however, the sentences are relatively light, with a maximum of seven months suspension from taking part in chess tournaments. This story is still in progress, since it seems reasonable to me that all sides will appeal to different chapters of the ruling."

All four convicted players have denied the allegations. They have 15 days to file an appeal.

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