Chess Cheating Part 1: Cellphones and YOU!

I’ve been keeping this blog for a little while now and have yet to cover one of the most controversial topics in modern chess: Cheating. An email sent out recently on behalf of the Continental Chess Association (CCA) describes new rules and conditions. I have played in many CCA tournaments through the years. Mr. Goichberg does a nice job of continuing to hold large tournaments with big prize funds in a variety of locations.

In this first part I’m going to examine some infamous cheats of days gone by and discuss their methodologies. Addendum, no I’m not:

One of the most infamous examples of cheating in modern tournament history is Borislav Ivanov. The Bulgarian Chess Federation banned Borislav Ivanov from tournament chess for alleged cheating. His “play” was nothing short of brilliant. He produced masterpiece after masterpiece against stiff competition. Many believe Ivanov was receiving help from Houdini or Rybka (two strong commercial chess engines). The only problem was that we never figured out exactly how he was cheating. We all figured it had to have been something in his shoes, but we are not sure what that could be. The whole scheme seems elaborate and would likely have used some sort of Morse code combined with a camera (it likely involved a team effort). One of my favorite games Ivanov played was against GM Zdenko Kozul:

In general cheating in chess is quite uncommon. In the entirety of my chess playing (about 700 games), I have only once suspected that a player might have received outside assistance. I no longer suspect that his play was dishonest but at that time, I believed he was not on the level. He made frequent trips to the restroom and found an unusual plan that I still don’t understand. See if you can guess my opponents idea:

To reiterate, I don’t believe he cheated. At the time, I felt his behavior was suspicious (it didn’t help that I was losing.) No one suspects an opponent of cheating when his or her play is bad; except maybe Rustam Kamsky in the 90’s when Gata was playing Nigel Short. Here’s a gem from Short:

It is funny, how you are the only person to have observed that I am a cheat, Gata. Indeed the protests and accusations went on even when you were 3-0 up. I must have been the most inept cheat in history.

The most inept cheat in history is quite a bold statement. I could find no examples of someone cheating at such a high level with such poor results so his assertion is probable.

This brings me to the crux of my position against the Continental Chess Associations (CCA) new rule changes. According to my constituents on the USCF forums, the CCA finally codified their practices. The CCA is within their legal purview to create their own rules for their own tournaments. Before I begin, it would be helpful to state the now infamous (to me anyhow) rule 10:

10. Players must allow a search for, or examination of, electronic devices if requested by the Director. Refusal to cooperate with such a search or examination is grounds for expulsion from the tournament, with no refund.

The above is an example of an adhesion contract. Companies use adhesion contracts so they can deal with their customers in a uniform manner. You’ve probably agreed to these contracts plenty of times without bothering to read them. When you clicked “accept” on those terms and services, you didn’t bother to read you agreed to them. This pdf does a fantastic job of explaining adhesion contracts for those interested in learning more.

Many of you may be thinking at this point, “Why is it such a big deal? What are you hiding? Why go through this whole rigmarole if you aren’t cheating?” To me that isn’t the point. The point is that I believe this is a major invasion of privacy (and I’m sure I’m not alone on this point).

I’ve also observed on numerous occasions TD’s struggle with setting standard chess clocks most tournament veterans know:

Don’t ask the TD to help you set it, instead find a small child and they will usually help you out.

This is because TD’s usually don’t know how to set them. Setting the chess clock is the player’s responsibility. There is no excuse as to why players are unable to set their chess clocks. I’m of the opinion that TD’s should be able to set most digital clocks. Are these TD’s are the same people that we are expecting to open up a modern smartphone to try to figure out if the player has chess software? It’s a laughable premise. Additionally every good cheat knows that you can hide apps on your phone, that’s cheating 101. Instead of catching the cheater, you may inadvertently exonerate him because you’re unable to find well-hidden software.

It doesn’t stop there though, finding chess software is truly the low hanging fruit of this whole situation. You would have to look through their phone calls (to make sure they haven’t called anyone during the tournament). You would also have to look through:

  • Text messages (for obvious reasons).
  • Pictures
  • Videos
  • Emails (should they have that tied in)

In addition, do the sort of thorough investigation that forensics companies charge thousands of dollars for. I worked at a forensics company that did this, and even when you have a few weeks the process itself is not trivial, and these were industry experts with years of experience! Perhaps now you’re starting to understand why I consider this a heinous breach of privacy, which will ultimately prove ineffectual.

Finally, I’d like to know what constitutes and warrants such a search. Is it a simple matter of my opponent complaining that he believes I played “above my rating” or found some exceptional moves? There is an adage known as “Littlewoods Law” which states that,

an individual can expect to experience “miracles” at the rate of about one per month.

Therefore, we can agree that it is possible for someone to play exceptionally and above his or her “level”. This has happened  to many top players. Think back to Fischer going 11-0 in the US Championship in 1964 or Karpov going 11/13 in Linares in 1994. Dr. [and IM] Kenneth Regan has done a lot of work on this subject. He has incorporated Littlewoods Law into what he calls “The Parable of Golfers“. Dr. Regan’s claim is that statistical matching evidence for cheating can only be used in support of physical or observed evidence (ie. “I saw him making frequent trips to the bathroom and in there I observed him using a cell phone.”).

According to my constituents on the USCF forums, this isn’t so much a new rule as “codification” of what was already happening which begs many questions. I would encourage you people to read the rules that the CCA posted, I’m sure many of you disagree with me. Please file all grievances, opinions, and snide comments below.

Finally shout out to my friend GM Alex Lenderman who is currently playing in the US Championship and won his first game. I thought he was on the worse end of that endgame but he found 38. … d5! Which was quite pretty. Additionally (as this took me a while to write), he is now leading the tournament, after defeating Ray Robson. Sending good thoughts his way!

  2 comments for “Chess Cheating Part 1: Cellphones and YOU!

  1. noyb
    May 14, 2014 at 12:41 am

    A virtually unenforceable rule. Banning all electronic devices (including MonRoi) is about the only way to deal with this, but how do you check everyone going to a bathroom stall (or anywhere else out of eyeshot)? Good luck.

  2. June 23, 2014 at 3:47 am

    Great website you have here but I was curious if you knew of any discussion boards that cover the same topics talked
    about here? I’d really like to be a part of community
    where I can get feedback from other knowledgeable individuals that share the same interest.

    If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Thanks!

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