The following story appeared today, Saturday January 27,2007, in the printed
edition of one of Germany's largest newspapers, the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
It was put online on the web
site of the newspaper on the previous day. The author is Martin Breutigam,
an International Chess Master and longtime contributor to the Süddeutsche
Zeitung, Der Tagesspiegel, Berlin, and other major newspapers. We have translated
the article and published it with permission of the author. The translation is
as close to the original as possible, even if that meant we had to occasionally
forgo a more natural turn of phrase in English, in the interest of accuracy.
With the thumb in the corner of the mouth
Is there foul play in chess? Observations around the world’s top ranked
player Veselin Topalov
By Martin Breutigam
For over a year rumours have persisted that Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria may
have used illegal resources to win the title at the world championship in San Luis,
Argentina. The allegations raised by other participants in the world championship,
who however did not want to be named, was that his manager Silvio Danailov may
have been surreptitiously signalling him moves checked with a computer.
Just a conspiracy theory of bad losers? Or does the 31-year-old, who in the
meantime has lost his title, secretly receive help in some of his games? If
In the tournament in Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands, which ends this Sunday, the
behaviour of Topalov and Danailov provided grounds for new speculations. Anyone
who watched the two during rounds two and three could get the impression that
a process of non-verbal communication was taking place between the two –
only noticed by those who watched carefully, in the “De Moriaan”
hall, which was filled with many hundreds of people, with world class players
and amateurs participating in different tournaments under the same roof.
The manager on the phone
In the second round Topalov had the white pieces against the six times Dutch
champion Loek van Wely. He castled queenside, van Wely kingside. Until the middlegame
nothing special happened. This changed when manager Danailow entered the hall.
During the following hour a strange ritual kept repeating itself. As soon as
van Wely made a move Danailov rushed out of the hall and pulled his mobile phone
out of his jacket. Did he just want to transmit birthday greetings? Check stock
rates? He could also, every few minutes, have been phoning someone who, somewhere
around the world, was following the game on the Internet.
Whatever the explanation, Danailov would return to the hall after a short time,
always move to the same corner of the spectator area and put on a pair of glasses,
although he has not been known to wear spectacles before. Topalov sat on the
left-hand side, from the point of view of the spectators, Danailov stood on
the right-hand side, behind a barrier and in the anonymity of the masses, about
15 meters away from Topalov.
From this vantage point he could see nothing of the game, not even the monitor
that showed the position; but from that corner he could establish direct visual
contact without Topalov having to move his head. Indeed Topalov looked up, when
it was his turn to move, and as soon as he caught sight of Danailov in the corner,
he would usually put his elbows on the table and fold his hands across his forehead.
In this thinking pose it looked as though his eyes must be directed at the
board, but he could also be peeking through his fingers at Danailov, who sometimes
executed some strange movements.
On move 26, for instance, he held his thumb between his teeth and moved it
back and forth in the right corner of his mouth. After this Topalov took a knight
on c5 with his bishop. Usually Danailov would immediately take off his glasses
and disappear from the corner. The ritual would be repeated as soon as van Wely
had made his move:
Danailov would hurry out of the hall, make a phone call, and usually return
after one to three minutes, going to the same corner and putting on his glasses.
And while Topalov took on his thinking pose, his manager would scratch himself
three to six times behind his ear, tap with his index finger on the glasses
or execute other strange movements.
On move 31 he once again had his thumb in his mouth, and Topalov captured a
pawn on d3 with his rook. After 35 moves van Wely resigned in a hopeless position.
Later it turned out that all the moves that Topalov had played in this decisive
phase are also the first choices of the popular chess programs. “During
the game I did not at all have the impression that anything was fishy, but I
was also told that Danailov was behaving in a very suspicious fashion,”
said van Wely.
The chief arbiter, too, had not noticed anything suspicious, but he said that
he would be looking out for any conspicuous behaviour during Topalov’s
next game. On the next day – in the game against the Russian (sic) Sergey
Karjakin – Topalov was sitting more to the right in the playing area.
Starting from move 20 the action started again: Danailov marched around. Only
this time he went to the opposite side, the left corner. From there he could
once again not follow the game, but could establish visual contact with Topalov.
At this moment his position already looked precarious; Karjakin had the advantage.
With precise moves to a draw
On move 23, with Danailov standing there with his glasses, the arbiter suddenly
moved into the field of view and scrutinised the manager. On move 26 again the
ritual was interrupted for a moment, when someone asked Danailov for a spontaneous
TV interview. Both left the hall.
When Danailov returned Topalov had already made two moves. After this the well-known
game was resumed: Danailov walked out, returned, proceeded to the corner, put
on the spectacles, took off the spectacles, etc. Almost on every move, more
than twenty times in all. In the end, after a series of precise moves, Topalov
achieved a draw. Shortly before the time control (each players has two hours
of thinking time for 40 moves) it had become hectic.
“I couldn’t believe it, Danailov rushed in quick step to the place
where he could see Topalov, all but pushing away the people who were standing
there. It was, after all, a matter of speed,” said one of the spectators,
who had been watching these activities for over two hours.
Neither Danailov nor Topalov were available for comment during the past week,
in spite of repeated attempts to contact them. Was it just a coincidence
when the thumb was being twiddled in the mouth, or part of a secret communication?
That would have become more difficult by virtue of the seating arrangement
in the following round, since in the fourth game Topalov sat close to the wall,
facing it. He won the game against grandmaster Alexei Shirov. Danailov hardly
appeared at all in the hall on this day. And in the following days the ritual
of rounds two and three were not repeated.
The organisers are considering introducing rigorous controls in the next year,
amongst other with metal detectors. Background: in the recent past in India
and the USA weaker players were caught cheating with the help of radio signals.
This time there had been too little time to get reliable detectors for Wijk
(SZ of 27the January 2007)