General May 29, 2015 | 1:06 PMby Colin McGourty

Cheating at the European Women's Championship?

Mihaela Sandu has been singled out for cheating accusations in the 2015 European Women's Chess Championship | photo: Georgian Chess Federation Facebook

An ugly situation has developed at the 16th European Individual Women’s Championship taking place just now in Chakvi, Georgia. After five rounds 38-year-old and 2300-rated Romanian WGM Mihaela Sandu was leading with a perfect 5/5, despite starting as the event’s 45th seed. That seems to have led directly to two letters from players to the organisers asking for anti-cheating measures, with one letter naming Mihaela. Was it justified suspicion, paranoia or a witch hunt? Our money is on the latter two.

The 2015 European Women’s Championship has not been a great event so far. Things started off badly when it turned out the players’ hotel didn’t overlook tennis courts and swimming pools, as suggested by the official website, but a building site. Then there was the participants' list. Although all European chess players were eligible the likes of World Champion Mariya Muzychuk and her sister Anna were missing, along with top Russians Alexandra Kosteniuk and Natalia Pogonina. For health or personal reasons players also dropped out during the tournament – top seed Nana Dzagnidze after three rounds, 10th seed Lela Javakhishvili after seven and 3rd seed Antoaneta Stefanova after nine (and three losses in a row).

A surprise leader

The real blot on the tournament, though, has been the atmosphere surrounding Women’s Grandmaster Mihaela Sandu. Of course it was natural that her 5/5 start would raise some eyebrows:

Even now, after three losses in her last four rounds, Mihaela has gained 57.8 rating points (her career peak rating was 2325 in April 2008):

Source: Chess-Results

Things came to a head during the only rest day on Tuesday 26th May, after Round 7. 

Open letters

Two open letters were written to Tournament Director Giorgi Giorgadze, Chief Arbiter Tomasz Delega and ECU President Zurab Azmaiparashvili.

The first, signed by 32 players, talked of “raising suspicions of cheating” and called for the introduction of a 15-minute delay in the live broadcast:

We, the participants of the 16th European Women Championship would like to express our grave concern regarding raising suspicions of cheating in the tournament. We would like to ask organisers cooperation in this regard. There are a few ways to fight with advanced technology, and we strongly believe organisers should do their utmost to avoid such situations. We have already asked for a 15 min delay in the live transmission of all the games. It is a common solution, used in many top level tournaments. If this is technically not possible, then we would like to ask organisers to propose another solution of this problem for the remaining rounds of the Championship.

The second, signed by 15 players, actually mentioned “concern about the situation with M. Sandu’s performance” and asked for her games to be removed from the live broadcast (she was about to play on Board 2 in Round 8):

We, participants of the 16th European Individual Women’s Chess Championship, want to express concern about the situation with M. Sandu’s performance. We would like to ask organizers not to include her games from the rounds 8-11 in a live transmission and publish them after the rounds. We do not see any important reason to dislike this precautionary measure for both sides. We hope that such a decision will prevent all the possible suspicions.

The signatories of the letters were as follows, with bold text indicating players who also signed the second letter naming Sandu:

  1. Natalia Zhukova - Beat Sandu in Round 8
  2. Alisa Galliamova
  3. Lanita Stetsko
  4. Nastassia Ziaziulkina
  5. Olga Girya – Lost to Sandu in Round 4
  6. Dina Belenkaya
  7. Anastasia Bodnaruk
  8. Anastasia Savina
  9. Vlada Sviridova
  10. Lilit Galojan
  11. Jolanta Zawadzka
  12. Jovana Vojinovic
  13. Nino Batsiashvili – Beat Sandu in Round 6
  14. Bela Khotenashvili
  15. Evgenija Ovod
  16. Inna Gaponenko
  17. Sofio Gvetadze
  18. Nino Khurtsidze
  19. Maia Lomineishvili
  20. Melia Salome - Lost to Sandu in Round 2
  21. Svetlana Matveeva
  22. Olga Zimina
  23. Alessia Santeramo
  24. Maria Kursova
  25. Anna Hairapetian
  26. Maria Gevorgyan
  27. Marina Guseva
  28. Svetlana Petrenko
  29. Ekaterina Kovalevskaya
  30. Anna Ushenina
  31. Elina Danielian – Beat Sandu in Round 9
  32. Alina Kashlinskaya
  33. * only signed the 2nd letter - Anna Tskhadadze
  34. * only signed the 2nd letter - Tatiana Ivanova

16-year-old Russian star Aleksandra Goryachkina lost to Sandu in Round 3, but didn't sign either letter | photo: Georgian Chess Federation Facebook

The organisers agreed to a 15-minute delay (as used, for instance, in the Chess Bundesliga), but dismissed the suggestion that cheating was a problem and strongly criticised the players who had named Sandu, describing that as “unfair, insulting and creating some psychological pressure”. The Tournament Director called on them to withdraw their signatures.

EWICC 2015 in Chakvi: Organisers’ answer for players letters

Yesterday, May 26, 2015, organisers received two letters from the participants. The first letter was signed by 32 players, the second by 15 players.

Regarding to the first letter, organisers agree with 32 players to delay 15 minutes transmission of all games on the internet from the round 8 to 11. We are sure, that such solution is a right way to avoid any suspicion of cheating, in general. But we don’t share concerns of “rising suspicions of cheating” in this tournament.

Regarding to the second letter, which is a serious accusation of Mrs. Sandu, organisers do not agree with 15 players. After consultation with arbiters and also with grandmasters, organisers are sure, that there is not any particular reason not to transmit games of Mrs. Sandu. Grandmasters have checked her games with different programs and did not find any use of computer help during the game.

We consider this accusation as unfair, insulting and creating some psychological pressure. We think that both letters should be seriously discussed in ECU to find the right way to protect players from advanced technology, so that not a single chessplayer is put under psychological pressure or undeserved insult.

Organisers ask those 15 players to show their respect to their colleague and to withdraw their signatures.

Organisers, in cooperation with arbiters, follows all rules included in FIDE Law of Chess according to cheating, which was announced during the Technical Meeting of EWICC 2015 in Chakvi:

During play, a player is forbidden to have a mobile phone and/or other electronic means of communication in the playing venue. If it is evident that a player brought such a device into the playing venue, he shall lose the game. The opponent shall win.

The arbiter may require the player to allow his clothes, bags or other items to be inspected, in private. The arbiter or a person authorised by the arbiter shall inspect the player and shall be of the same gender as the player. (11.3 FIDE Law of Chess)

So If you suspect, during the play, that your opponent is cheating you may announce this to the arbiter. Arbiter should observe your opponent and may decide to control him. But in case of a false accusation you may be penalized by the arbiter according to the Article 12.2 and 12.9 of the Laws of Chess (from warning to expulsion from the competition).

May 27, 2015
Tournament Director
Giorgi Giorgadze

The Romanian Chess Federation has come out with a response strongly supporting Sandu, who they say had “an irreproachable fair play attitude during all her chess career.” They note that Sandu, “is complaining about severe harassments, situation that clearly affects the capacity of Mihaela SANDU to compete at her best” and ask for the FIDE Ethics rules to be applied.

Sandu's Romanian teammate Irina Bulmaga also spoke up in defence of Mihaela:

I understand that losing to a lower rated opponent can be quite frustrating, but I don't understand the need of being so paranoid and unprofessional. I find this whole situation simply outrageous and I want to point out that chess is not war and not all the means that can be used to win are ok. I used to think that professional chess players are very intelligent and highly sensible persons and as sportsmen they all demonstrate a high level of fair play. Well, I guess I couldn't be more wrong.

Read Irina's full arguments on her blog.

The chess "evidence"

Those are the open letters to date, but what of Mihaela’s chess? Well, as far as we can tell here at chess24 there’s no justification for accusations of cheating based on the games themselves:

Her chess hasn’t featured obvious engine moves, she’s made some bad oversights and her time usage has been very uneven. What stood out in the early games was simply that she managed to avoid bad blunders while her opponents didn't. As Jan told us about one game, “you’d have to be a genius to cheat like that”.

You can replay all the games with computer analysis here on chess24 and judge for yourself (we’ve highlighted a few positions, but just for interest rather than as an exhaustive analysis):

1. Sandu 0-1 Mammadova (1862)

This game, against a much lower-rated opponent, wasn't one of the 35 each day broadcast live. Sandu missed a chance to win a piece:

26.f6! wins the c5-knight, since 26...gxf6 27.Bf5! will be mate or heavy material loss. After 26.Rad1? Sandu still had to win the game.

2. Melia (2452) 0-1 Sandu

3. Sandu 1-0 Goryachkina (2474)

This game was more or less balanced until 16-year-old Goryachkina blundered badly with 38…Bf2?

White can’t take on f2, but 39.Qf3! was one of the winning moves. Sandu picks up material with check.

4. Girya (2479) 0-1 Sandu

Maybe the problem is Sandu's speed? :) In the background her hand is a blur as she plays Russia's Olga Girya, who signed the first but not the second letter | photo: Georgian Chess Federation Facebook 

5. Sandu 1-0 Javakhishvili (2472)

Lela Javakhishvili had been winning until stumbling into a mating attack. It’s noteworthy that she later supported Sandu and called on her colleagues to stop panicking and putting pressure on Mihaela.

6. Batsiashvili (2473) 1-0 Sandu

Sandu blundered badly on move 47. The game stopped being updated on the live broadcast at one point, though it’s not clear how deliberate that was and it was later restored.

7. Sandu 1-0 Stefanova (2512)

Stefanova had seized the initiative with a pawn storm that Sandu reacted badly to, but after 27…Qb5?? she found a beautiful win:

28.Qb3+! Kh8 29.c4! trapped the black queen.

8. Zhukova (2456) 1-0 Sandu

9. Sandu 0-1 Danielian (2458)

In today’s penultimate round Sandu takes on Moniko Socko, while at the top the game between Nino Batsiashvili (8/9) and Natalia Zhukova (7.5/9) could produce a champion with a round to spare.

It’s already clear what this championship will be remembered for, though. Let’s hope such situations can be handled better in future, since potential witch hunts are likely to do at least as much damage to chess as cheating itself.

UPDATE: Mihaela Sandu responds

Sandu has now responded herself, asking why the transmission of her game was interrupted in Round 6 and describing the letter signed by 15 players as, "a very dirty attack, permanently damaging my name in the chess world". She is particularly unhappy with Natalia Zhukova:

I want to mention Zhukova's paltry behaviour is standing out as she was the main benefactor of the defamation campaign, making psychological attacks right before our game.

Sandu describes the signing of the first letter as "a very serious crime" and one that she and her federation will seek legal advice about. She found it was impossible to play chess normally in the circumstances.

The full letter can be read below:


See also:

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