Fake Chess Improvement

There has often been something rotten in the state of chess dating back at least to the 1800s, when the so-called world champion could ignore his challengers for years on end to preserve his title and his preeminence. Today we have a new set of problems in chess organization: more or less complete anarchy may be a thing of the past, but the organizations we now have, tend to oscillate between incompetence and corruption. (Which suggests a question: which is better, to have a competent but corrupt group, or an incompetent but honest one? Would that we had even this Hobson’s choice: too often we seem to end up with chess organizations that are both incompetent and corrupt.)

To me, the widespread chicanery and incompetence in the world and national and local chess scenes, while regrettable, are nothing new. The persistence of such problems over time may even indicate they are inevitable and should be suffered with some degree of resignation. There simply isn’t enough money in chess to pay for all the work that must be done, so we must depend to a large extent on volunteers and part-timers. The resulting lack of professionalism in chess organizations leads not only to uneven standards but also to a lack of controls, which invites corruption of various sorts, on various scales.

The new problem which poses a serious threat to the viability of the game—even more so than computers, although computers are an element of the problem—is the inability of the chess world to diagnose and prevent sophisticated methods of cheating during games, such as we see allegedly being practiced by a young player who I’ll refer to as Zeberdee. In the opinions of many experts and informed observers, clearly he is cheating: there is absolutely no other plausible explanation for his pattern of results and the specific moves he has played. Yet he continues to win prizes. Personally I suspect a transmitter embedded in his ear, with an offsite assistant consulting Houdini and speaking the moves to Zeberdee; that would be the simplest explanation, and therefore the likeliest according to Occam’s Razor. What is chess going to do about this?

Worse, whatever technology Zeberdee may be using, that same technology could potentially be exploited by others (if it is not already!). Zeberdee is an insolent ass, who mocks the honest players he defeats. He is easy to dislike, and his results are easy to dismiss as cheating, even while the method he uses to cheat remains obscure. What if other players, stronger players, gain access to his methods and use them not in every game, but occasionally, as needed, so their pattern of results is not so egregious? What if a strong player uses this technology to play an occasional brilliant game, which could be explained as “a very good day” for him? What if a junior player uses this technology to play good moves—perhaps not the best or most brilliant moves—to win junior championships? All the junior player would need is a clever assistant whispering the moves in his inner ear, plausible moves that are good enough to win, but not so brilliant that the cheat is exposed. The possibilities for careful exploitation of this technology are endless.

As an unfortunate corollary, what about the implications for non-cheaters? I myself once played a queen sacrifice leading to forced mate in 11 moves, with only two or three of the moves being checks. The game was published in GM Patrick Wolff’s chess column in the Boston Globe. It was all my own inspiration, though I did not see clearly to the end when I played the first move. However, in an era when electronic cheating is rampant and cannot be detected, I can easily imagine an observer saying, “Look at this game: Hanke is only a weak amateur; how could he have played such moves? Obviously he is cheating.”

To conclude, I see nothing new in the fact that chess organizations are corrupt or incompetent: this has often, perhaps usually, been the case in the past. What I see new and dangerous to the game we love is the use of technology to cheat during games. Just as skilled magicians are always able to fool the lay public, the cheaters in chess may simply have become better than our ability to detect them, thanks to all the new technologies now available to them. Even if we could devise, say, a booth impermeable to electronic transmissions, and force a known cheat to play his games inside the booth, can we provide such booths for all players in every tournament? “Of course not,” I hear you say. Then I say, “We can’t prevent cheating.”

We should also mention another more common method of cheating, which has already been a notorious problem at tournaments for years. This method is to leave the board briefly at key points in the game, perhaps to visit the bathroom and sit in a stall, where you can consult your convenient pocket electronic chess brain. It is almost impossible to prevent this sort of cheating, which likely occurs far more often than it can be proved. It may not even be suspected in the large majority of cases. One recent case was exceptional in that the cheat was allegedly detected. A suspicious player followed his opponent to the rest room, looked over the top of the stall in which the opponent was sitting, and allegedly caught him examining the game position with electronic help. The outraged player hauled his opponent bodily out of the stall—with the result that both players, the honest one and the alleged cheat, were tossed out of the event. Surely that was a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, but how was the tournament director to know which player was the valuable baby and which the worthless bathwater? Just as it is easy for anyone to cheat during a game, it is easy for anyone to accuse someone of cheating during a game. Perhaps more to the point, how many cheating victims are suspicious enough and bold enough to follow their opponent to the rest room, look over the top of the stall, and drag him physically out of the stall to face justice? Clearly this sort of cheating must happen all the time, and is much easier to perpetrate than to prove.

I used to play postal chess—as we called it then—but gave it up years ago, when it became easy for my opponents to outplay me by consulting commercially available chess computers. The same problem exists today, to an unknowable extent, in games played with invisible opponents over the internet.

Now over-the-board chess is under siege. In the most sophisticated cases, we don’t even know how the cheaters are cheating, let alone how to catch and prevent them. Where can honest players go now, to find an honest game? Perhaps at the local club, it may still be possible to find an honest game, most of the time. Of course, a dishonest player can still go to the rest room and consult his pocket computer during the club championship, or during any game that is important to him, if he so desires. But I believe most games played at local clubs, if not all, will probably remain honest for some time to come.

At higher levels, with money and titles and prestige and media coverage at stake, I’m not sure we can trust the results even now.

Tim Hanke

Editorial note: Any perceived resemblance to any Magic Roundabout characters or real life insolent asses is purely accidental. The Chess Improver has a strict policy to try not to say or imply anything bad about anyone whether or not they deserve it.