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Cheating in Chess


While chess has always been a game in which most players have exercised sportsmanship and proper etiquette, there have always been those who sought ways of gaining an advantage. While centuries ago that might have been as simple as making sure the sun would be in your opponent's eyes, the modern chess world has some rather sophisticated cheating possibilities open to unscrupulous players, especially given the state of chess computers and technology.

Obviously, I'd never condone or suggest cheating in chess. However, it is a real issue for the chess world, and it's helpful to know the possibilities that are out there - particularly if you'll be playing in tournaments where there's a lot of money (or some other valuable reward) on the line. Let's take a look at some of the more common cheating techniques used in modern chess - and what steps players and organizers take to stop them.

Cheating the Old-Fashioned Way

Not all cheating requires the use of computers. In fact, many players regularly get away with some very mild forms of cheating during chess tournaments - often without realizing they're doing anything wrong at all!

For instance, it's against the rules to read chess books or other materials during a tournament game. This is fairly obvious, and it's not something someone could feasibly get away with without being detected, so you're not going to see someone consulting an opening manual during a game. But this restriction also applies to notes, meaning that players can't refer to anything they've written during a game either. Of course, notating your game is an exception to this rule, but some actions - like writing out a sequence of moves you expect might be played - are technically against the rules. It's also against the rules to make any sort of notes that might help your game. This is unlikely to cause much of a fuss in a small club tournament (I knew a player who, for some time, wrote down Silman's imbalances to help them think through them during the game, and nobody ever complained), but shouldn't be done - and could get you in trouble in a more competitive event.

These minor rules violations aren't really what most people think of when they're talking about cheating in chess, though. Rather, we're most interested in intentional efforts to play the game unfairly, which generally mean getting outside assistance from another player.

Of course, having a strong player standing over your shoulder and feeding you moves isn't likely to work. But when players walk away from the board, they might be able to get a quick hint or two from a friendly player who has been watching their game.

Surprisingly, this type of cheating is fairly commonplace…at least in a very mild form. Players do have a tendency to talk about their games with friends while their opponents are moving. While most of these conversations are entirely benign (usually just "I'm in trouble, but I still have a chance" or a similar assessment), sometimes friends will chime in on each others games. While this usually doesn't mean actively giving moves to another player, even more general hints are technically illegal. And when these sorts of conversations do change into active solicitation of moves and other advice, then they are unquestionably a form of cheating.

High-Tech Cheating

All of the above is important for understanding the basis of chess cheating, but in today's game, most cheating threats come from computers. Since computer chess programs are now undoubtedly stronger than even the best human players, they make the perfect partner for someone who wants to receive great moves without finding them by themselves. These cheating concerns occur at all levels of competitions, from scholastic tournaments up through World Championship matches, as seen in the famous Toiletgate incident.

There are several ways in which such a cheating scheme can work. In its most basic form, such a plot needs two individuals to accomplish: the player, and someone away from the tournament room who will run the computer and then feed the moves to the player. A common method for attempting to cheat in this manner is to use some sort of transmitting device to give the player the computer-suggested moves while the accomplice stays in a different room. The player can transmit the moves their opponent plays back to the accomplice in a number of ways; one way that I've heard of involved using a very basic transmission device in their shoe, allowing them to tap out the moves.

Of course, more complex methods are also available. A scandal involving a French grandmaster at the Chess Olympiad required a total of three people to pull off: the player himself, a coach, and a third conspirator who operated the computer. The coach would text the moves from the player's game to the computer operator, who would then text the recommended move back to the coach (a basic coding system was used to try to make the fact that the texts were all chess moves a little less obvious, just in case someone should quickly glance at the phone).

Here's where things got interesting. The coach would then walk around the boards of the four French games, but would periodically stop behind one of the eight chairs (either one of the French players or their opponents). By doing this twice, they could tell the player the square they should move their piece to. Although the coach couldn't tell the player what piece should move to that square, remember that we are talking about a grandmaster; simply knowing what square to move to was enough for him to decipher the correct move virtually every time.

For a long time, concerns about cheating were mainly confined to the use of powerful computers, or at least laptops. This meant that a player needed help to cheat, since they couldn't easily have a machine with them at the board. However, the advances made in mobile chess programs has meant that even a cell phone or PDA could theoretically be used as an effective cheating device. This isn't just a passing concern; there have been documented cases of cheaters using mobile devices to find moves during games.

Combating Cheating

The above should help explain why so many chess tournaments now put an emphasis on prohibiting phones and other devices on the tournament floor. In small tournaments, there's usually no problem with having a cell phone on you, but players are usually required to put them on silent mode and not have them out during the game. In addition, while specific devices created just to record moves are allowed in most tournaments, they are often subjected to intense scrutiny by opponents and tournament directors alike.

In larger tournaments, strict precautions are often taken. Players who are doing well and have a chance of winning prizes may not be allowed to leave the tournament area in later rounds without a chaperone, and are unlikely to be allowed to use any electronic devices at the board, even if they appear harmless (for instance, listening to an iPod may not be permissible). In addition, organizers may ask to examine any electronic devices, even those that appear to be used for legitimate medical reasons. For instance, no tournament would deny a player a hearing aid, but a TD might still want to examine it; after all, there was the case in a major American open tournament in which a surprisingly successful player claimed they were using a hearing aid, but upon further inspection, the device turned out to be a receiver.

These and other rules - along with the general feeling amongst the majority of players that cheating should not be a part of chess - have helped keep these incidents to a minimum. It's likely that as technology improves, so will anti-cheating measures in order to maintain the integrity of tournaments and other chess competitions. Hopefully, players will overwhelmingly choose to not even attempt such cheating: after all, cheating scandals can only serve to hurt chess as a competitive sport, which should be something every chess player is against.

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