Features May 6, 2015 | 3:37 PMby chess24 staff

How I became a cheater

The recent scandal involving two-time Georgian Champion Gaioz Nigalidze got Vlad Tkachiev thinking about the problem of cheating in chess. He wondered what can be done about it, but also why those who call for lifetime bans condone the fixing of individual games in open tournaments. After getting thoroughly acquainted with FIDE's new plans for dealing with computer assistance he decided there was only one option left to him... to become a cheater himself!

After the original publication of this article in Russian a friend of Tkachiev's asked him what the idea behind it was. His response:

There's a picture by Edvard Munch - The Scream. How can I describe it any better? 

The Scream (1893), The National Gallery, Oslo | image: Wikipedia / ibiblio

Don't miss Vlad's cri de coeur, including a video of his first attempt at cheating:

How I became a cheater

“If there’s no God, everything is permitted”
(attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky)

What now?

18 years ago – on 6 May 1997, at a specially convened press conference, World Champion Garry Kasparov accused his opponent of cheating. If anyone’s forgotten, or isn’t aware what I’m talking about, I’ll remind you: he was playing against the IBM corporation’s supercomputer Deep Blue, and he suspected his opponent and its team of getting help from “superior intelligence”. He used that precise phrase. Who did he have in mind? You won’t believe it – a Human Being.

Garry Kasparov after conceding defeat in the final game of the second match against Deep Blue | screenshot: The Man vs. The Machine

A few days later the match was lost, and the faith of chess players in the superiority of biological brains over silicon ones rapidly began to melt away. The deity raised up on a pedestal over the centuries of the Renaissance, Enlightenment and technological progress was relegated to a much lower rank. As for the Blue monster, it was soon dismantled, but there was little time to savour that fact: a whole new variety of afflictions began to gush from the Pandora’s Box uncovered in its entrails. Computer expertise went on to become a determining factor in the outcome of tournaments and matches between people. That happened in the early years of the new millennium, and since then the process has only accelerated: so I’m sitting now and writing these lines while somewhere in another corner of the world the latest advanced user is “plumbing the depths”. You see, we’ve even got our own slang for it (in Russian).

You’ve got to hand it to Garry Kasparov – he was the first to sense the looming danger and proposed the idea of Advanced Chess; as if to say, what harms us can also help us. But, as always in chess, utter conservatism conquered innovation, and Kasparov himself soon retired from professional sport, out of harm’s way. Computer cheating scandals had already shaken our community by then, but only the recent one linked to the name Gaioz Nigalidze has really got me thinking.

Gaioz Nigalidze tried to disown the phone that was found in a toilet during the Dubai Open, but his game was open in it and it was signed in to his social media accounts... | photo: Dubai Open Facebook

A two-time Georgian Champion, member of the national team and grandmaster with a solid rating was caught red-handed cheating. You know, that really is a new stage of degradation. What next – catching an elite-tournament regular? You don’t think it can happen? Blessed is he who believes. I preferred action and began by conducting a survey of my colleagues.

The proposals for cleaning out our ranks turned out to be highly varied: from the classic demand to monitor toilet visits and introduce metal detectors to testing suspects with a lie-detector and making players sign a solemn assurance that they won’t cheat. Everyone was agreed on one thing: a 100% certified cheater should be punished with lifetime disqualification. What a bloodthirsty lot chess players are! 

I decided to formulate some ideas on this topic myself. Here’s a short list of the most promising:

  1. Declare an amnesty on skilled cheaters who are caught or surrender and offer them the chance to reverse their weapons. Form them into an ultra-equipped technological agency – a 21st century Chess Inquisition - and allow them, like former hackers in the FBI, to redeem their guilt by selfless service to the ideals of fair play.
  2. Open a Cheaters Anonymous club online. “Hello, my name is Ivan Ivanov, and I’m a cheater.” People can drop by and heal each other from harmful tendencies using the 12-move method.
  3. Establish financial bounties for cheater hunters. I began to fantasise a little here about how I’ll dash across the whole of European on a steel horse, from open to open, looking for scoundrels. And then just imagine - at a prestigious round-robin tournament I’ll take someone out to the admiring screams of the audience. There’s Good and there's Bad – I’ll be the Ugly. 
  4. Introduce criminal responsibility for crimes committed on the chequered board. Siberian penal colonies and the prisons of Alcatraz and Chateau d’If will be revived by a cultural chess program based on the efforts of its new residents. Judges and prosecutors will be forced to acquire chess literacy – all heralding a new global program, “Chess in Prisons”. I can already imagine the enthusiasm of politicians.

However, an acquaintance drew my attention to the fact that the last suggestion isn’t original – the opportunity to include cheating under article no. 165 of the Russian Criminal Code was already pointed out by lawyer and grandmaster Irina Lymar. It refers to damage done to property by deception or the abuse of trust. It’s clear that the offence can similarly be criminalised in the legislation of other countries – after all, the well-known British poker player Darren Woods has already been sentenced to three years in jail and a fine of one million pounds sterling. That also happened very recently, in January 2015. There’s one hitch, though: in poker the players bet and deceiving those sitting at the same table can be counted as fraud. In chess the culprit mainly picks the pocket of the organisers, and even then only if he gets a prize. The rest is hard to prove as it’s a matter of speculation.

Taking a look around on the internet I considered it my duty to familiarise myself with the whole gamut of opinion on the problem at hand, and what struck me was that often in the forefront of the battle for the purity of morals were players who themselves aren’t exactly scrupulous when it comes to morality. After all, what is cheating in chess according to the Wikipedia definition?

Cheating in chess refers to a deliberate violation of the rules of chess or other unethical behaviour that is intended to give an unfair advantage to a player or team. Cheating can occur in many forms and can take place before, during, or possibly even after a game. Commonly cited instances of cheating include: collusion with spectators or other players, linking to remote computers, rating manipulation, misuse of the touch-move rule, and the pre-arranged draw. Many suspiciously-motivated practices are not comprehensively covered by the rules of chess and so, on ethical or 'moral conduct' grounds only, may be judged by some as acceptable, and by others as cheating.

Note there’s not a word about “throwing games”… although we all know that’s far more common than cases of remote-controlled geniuses or fans of the first Godfather!

If the formulation "suspiciously-motivated practices… not comprehensively covered by the rules of chess" confused you, then I’ll point out that the practice of taking out so-called "insurance" * with an opponent in the last round is widespread at all levels. And since it’s almost always the person who has the better tiebreakers who wins it’s nothing other than a thinly-veiled example of throwing a game. Scamming your colleagues? If so, then should people be imprisoned for that as well, or perhaps disqualified for life? By the way, since 1997 sporting “colluders” directly fall under article no. 184 of the Russian Criminal Code.

* "Insurance" is when opponents agree to compensate each other with part of the difference between the prizes for winning and losing. Often in such cases it's much more advantageous to lose a game than to draw. The impossibility of a peaceful outcome is often discussed separately – someone must win. 

Or what if, in the form of our technically-gifted colleagues, progress itself is knocking on the door of the enchanted kingdom of chess? And demanding urgent changes; heroic films are now made about bootleggers in the time of Prohibition and pirates of the Caribbean – without them the world wouldn’t be the same. The story of the years during which Kempelen hoodwinked the respected public with his automaton forms part of the golden treasury of chess heritage, though it could easily have ended with the Austrian engineer enjoying a protracted tour of the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.

Thus wandered my thoughts until they came upon solid ground…

Law and order

It turns out a legal framework for dealing with this scourge already exists – since August 2014. There’s also an appropriate regulatory body that deals with the issue – FIDE’s Anti-Cheating Commission (from January 2015) made up of 13 people, two of whom are grandmasters (Konstantin Landa, Rafael Vaganian), two Women’s International Masters (Yuliya Levitan, Salomeja Zaksaite) and one a FIDE Master – the Chairman of the Committee, Israel Gelfer. The rest are IT and legal specialists.

The secretary of the ACC (Anti-Cheating Commission) Yuri Garrett kindly agreed to answer my questions on Facebook, and at the same time pointed out where to find a document that’s vital for us all:

I’ll try – as far as I’m able – to summarise the main points of the conversation and regulations:

  1. Due to the difficulty of defining the concept of a “cheater” the commission won’t deal with identifying such people. Instead it will investigate incidents involving those who have broken anti-cheating rules.
  2. If suspicion arises about a player, the person pointing it out can no longer simply do so verbally but is obliged to submit a formal complaint to the event’s arbiter. The latter, in turn, should respond by observing the suspect: how often he visits the toilet, contacts third parties or uses electronic devices. If suspicions seem warranted the arbiter has the right to demand to search the player’s personal belongings and clothes, behind closed doors. The arbiter and witness to the procedure should be of the same sex as the person suspected. He or she also has the right to one witness – of either gender. If the inspection uncovers something the arbiter is obliged to report it to the ACC, with a description of the details of the search. If the original complaint against another player turns out to be unfounded then the person who submitted it ends up on a so-called “warning list”. In case of a repeat occurrence in the next six months the “witch hunter” should be disqualified for three months.
  3. Over the course of 2015 FIDE will provide the ACC with a so-called Internet-Based Game Screening Tool (IBGST), available to FIDE-authorised officials and national federations. It will be located on a separate FIDE page and allow interested parties to upload games in PGN format for a quick check, with the aim of finding potential offenders. Such a “quick test” will be purely provisional and generally serve as a basis for deciding whether or not to manually inspect a suspect. At any rate, only the results of the “full test” will be considered by the ACC when investigating cases. As far as I understood, this will involve the use of the statistical system for tracking correlations between computer and human moves developed by Dr. Kenneth Reagan – a private consultant of the ACC’s, who played a significant role in the exposure of Borislav Ivanov.

    FIDE reported only today that Sebastian Feller is now free to play in FIDE-rated events again after serving his ban for cheating in the 2010 Olympiad in Khanty-Mansiysk | photo: ugra-chess.com

  4. Each investigation will be carried out by an “Investigatory Chamber” (IC) made up of three members. They will take into account the details of the accusation and the arbiter's report, the results of the “full test” and other arguments and evidence. If a breach of the rules is proven, the case will be passed to the FIDE Ethics Commission. 
  5. The Ethics Commission – after listening to the accuser and the accused within 30 days – should reach a decision no less than 75 days after receiving the ACC report. If sanctions are taken as a result of the investigation they will come into force immediately after the publication of the verdict.
  6. Sanctions: A first offence will be punished by suspension from the game for three years, a second offence – for 15 years. The offender in that case will be stripped of his FIDE titles and norms.
  7. Since the role of arbiters needs to be revised in the light of the new issues it’s expected that special anti-cheating training sessions will be organised for arbiters.
  8. Rule 11.3, banning the use of any external information during a game, has been supplemented with restrictions concerning electronic devices capable of analysing or transmitting moves. If a player is found to have any of those he or she loses the game.
  9. From now on all chess tournaments are divided into three groups, requiring different levels of anti-cheating protection: standard, increased and maximum. The first level refers to the bulk of tournaments, the second - to tournaments with a prize fund of over €20,000, the possibility of gaining norms and round-robins with an average rating of 2400+ (2200+ for women), the third – to tournaments with a prize fund over €100,000 and round-robins with an average rating of 2600+ (2400+ for women), official FIDE events and national championships.  
  10. The following technical equipment is recommended to prevent cheating:
  • Mobile phone jammers
  • Hand-held metal detectors
  • Walk-through metal detectors
  • Automatic electro-magnetic screening devices for metallic/non-metallic objects
  • Closed circuit cameras

It’s emphasised that hand-held metal detectors are the simplest approach – due to their availability and cost – and should therefore be the first option that organisers look at. The ACC also reserves the right to use advanced equipment for on-site inspections.

Ufff!!! It seems that covers all the most important points. I spent a long time delving into the details of the fight against this new incarnation of Evil, and then the decision came all by itself.

I set out to become a cheater.

On the other side

In general I hate technology and, alas, the feeling’s mutual. I’ve done everything in my power to lose my new iPhone – I’m sick of everyone coming up with the same jokes about how I use only three functions: calls, text messages and reading on the internet. I didn’t, however, find there to be any difficulty circumventing the rules – I only need computer help about three times a game, and no IBGST is going to pick that up. In order to play the opening the good old paper “crib sheet” will do – no-one even thinks to check for them. Finally, historical truth itself is on my side:

In 1965 the future founder of Intel, Gordon Moore, formulated a law that later acquired his name: that every 12 months the number of components on an integrated circuit doubles. Ten years later he revised his prediction to each 24 months. What that means for us is that miniaturised technology is becoming easier and easier to hide on or in yourself or somewhere in the hall – with terrifying and increasing simplicity. Of course I love Al Pacino, but there’s no need to hide anything in a toilet tank. Thankfully, it’s already 2015 out there.

Mr Garrett admitted during our conversation that the new rules wouldn’t, of course, stop James Bond, but would be a reliable net to catch others. You get to decide for yourself whether I look like a cloak-and-dagger agent in my first incarnation as a cheat.

P.S. I found the necessary equipment on the internet in about an hour and a half, while renting it for one day cost me no more than 1500 roubles (€25). A walk-through metal detector wouldn’t find it, while a hand-held detector would only uncover it if you changed the settings and checked my ear. The device can be completely invisible, which is why it’s very popular among a certain sub-section of students.

“Gaudeamus Igitur”!

GM Vlad Tkachiev

Vlad was born in Russia but grew up in Kazakhstan and now represents France. A Kazakh and French national champion and the winner of the 2007 European Championship, his first love has always been rapid chess, which he hopes will become the main form of the game. In recent years he set up the website WhyChess and now writes a blog, ChEsSay. | photo: Irina Stepaniuk

Have you ever been tempted to go over to "the dark side"? What would you do about the problem of cheating in chess? Let us know in the comments below!

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