Anti-cheating: the fifteen minute broadcast delay

5/13/2011 – For five years we have been trying to get FIDE to implement a 15-minute delay in the Internet broadcast of important games – to make organised cheating harder. A chess journalist has now pointed out a fatal flaw in the plan: it would force chess journalists to walk many yards to find out the current status of the games. Damn – and we thought it was such a good idea! What is your opinion?

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Anti-cheating: the fifteen minute broadcast delay

By Frederic Friedel

In the past six weeks we have received a great number of letters discussing our recent article Cheating in chess: the problem won't go away. We were preparing a feedback page when suddenly people started pointing us to an article that had appeared in the Dutch magazine New in Chess. It is to be found on page six in the latest issue and is unsigned – but the style and language point to one of the editors, easily the most opinionated chess journalist we know. Here is the relevant section:

Lacking All Logic

Inevitably, the general indignation about fraudulent behaviour [French players accused of organised cheating by their federation] led to renewed calls to fight the cheaters with the most fervent crime-fighters sadly overshooting the mark. There is no doubt that in an 'unprotected' environment cheating at chess is possible, so measures have to be taken, but let's not forget that the vast majority (you and I) has no wish to cheat at all. An obvious choice is banning cell phones. Arbiters should be trained to be alert on signalling from the audience and cheaters should be deterred by bans that would wreck their (professional) careers.

In any case any 'cure' should be avoided that is much worse than the disease. Such as the 15-minute delay of the transfer of the moves that once again was promoted ('It needs to be implemented now') on the ChessBase website. On the surface the idea doesn't sound that bad (the cheaters will not get the moves signalled in time, because their buddies lose precious minutes), but in fact it lacks all logic. Let's look at a few aspects. The author of the article, Frederic Friedel, claims that the 15-minute delay was 'twice used at the Dortmund tournament and worked flawlessly'. Did it? We don't think so. In Dortmund the players were not frisked for any electronic devices and their seconds could walk in and out of the hall freely and signal whatever they might have wanted. The only people affected were the journalists in the press room, who had to ask the players how their games had ended when they walked in. What's more, with the 15-minute delay in force the organizers were signalling to their sponsors on a daily basis that in fact they were supporting a game of cheaters.

Of course, Mr. Friedel knows full well that the 15-minute delay only makes sense if you take substantial additional measures. But if you apply all these extra measures (such as searching the players, blocking radio signals, not allowing anyone in or out of the hall while the round is in progress) there is no reason whatsoever why you should have a 15-minute delay in the first place! Why rob the people at home of that wonderful luxury of following the games in realtime?

While reading his plea you get the idea that he only has a vague idea of what a chess tournament looks like these days. The halls in which the tournaments or matches take place should have 'the atmosphere of a theatre or movie palace', he suggests, where you cannot go in and out all the time. Indeed, that would be a perfect way to control the spectators, but in todays chess world only a fraction of the tournaments takes place in theatres and even there, games take much longer than concerts or movies. Wouldn't it be pretty cruel to force the audience to stay inside for five or six hours?

For once we pin our hopes on FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. During a visit to Elista in 2007, Mr. Friedel tried to convince Mr. Ilyumzhinov of the need to adopt the 15-minute delay. At the end of a cosy afternoon with tea and snacks in the Ilyumzhinov family garden the FIDE president jumped up and enthusiastically exclaimed 'Let's do it!'. That was reassuring, and of course nothing ever happened. We're not going to make this a habit, but here we can only hope that everyone will follow our leader!

Oh dear, one hardly knows where to start. Basically the author of the NiC article is vociferously rejecting a 15-minute broadcast delay because (1) it sends a signal to sponsors that “they are supporting a game of cheaters”; (2) it does not work and other measures make it superfluous; (3) it denies people watching games on the Internet "that wonderful luxury of following the games in realtime”; and (4) most importantly, it is highly inconvenient to the chess journalist who would be forced to walk all the way from the press room to the playing hall – often dozens of yards – if they want to find out the result of a game.

The problem

Perhaps we should start our reply with the assertion that we are dealing with a real problem. Suspicion is rife in the chess world, and this can be very damaging to the game. Not just that more and more players may be tempted to use – and indeed may already be using – illegal computer assistance (those who are caught and admit to their wrongdoing inevitably say "doesn't everyone do it?"). Even graver is the fact that not just the cheaters but everyone else is affected: soon nobody will believe a brilliant game. Recently we had the following conversation with a top GM: "Did you see the 2570 performance by the 13-year-old Indonesian girl?" we asked (WFM Medina Warda Aulia, rated 2035, had just scored 5.0/7 at the Telin Chess International Tournament in Jakarta). Our GM friend's reply: "So have you figured out which engine she was using?"

It is also a problem that will not go away, certainly not by hiding it from sponsors, which is what the author of the NiC article seems to advocate. You can ask cycle racers: there was a long-term effort by the athletes, organisers and in fact parts of the media to adopt a don't-ask-don't-tell policy with regard to doping. But of course in the end it all blew up, with sponsors discovering that a majority of racers were using forbidden performance-enhancing drugs. They withdrew their support in horror, and TV channels stopped covering the events. It is cynical to suggest that in chess we must hush things up, since implementing measures that would curb the problem might send a "signal to the sponsors that they were supporting a game of cheaters." Athletics and Olympic sports have long practised rigorous doping controls, which include taking urine and blood samples in unannounced tests. This has not caused the entire athletic circuit to collapse because sponsors felt they are “supporting a game of cheaters.” On the contrary, sponsors appreciate the fact that measures are being taken to keep the sport clean and free of suspicion.

“Let's not forget that the vast majority (you and I) has no wish to cheat at all,” says the author of the NiC article. Was anyone suggesting otherwise? Let us likewise not forget that a vast majority (you and I) has no wish to rob banks, steal cars, break into houses, hijack aircraft or commit acts of violence or terror. But this does not mean we can be lax about security.

Anti cheating measures

The NiC author aggressively rejects the 15-minute broadcast delay, but proposes instead to ban cell-phones, presumably to prevent players from making phone calls during the game. We thought that was already forbidden. In our formal proposal to FIDE (http://www.chessbase.com/news/2011/FIDE03_cheating.pdf) we went a step further and included the following details in our list of ten urgent measures that need to be taken:

2. Players are advised that they are not allowed to take any electronic devices whatsoever to the playing site. If a player needs a specific electronic device, e.g. a hearing aid, this must be registered with the arbiter and organiser in advance.

3. If a player is caught transporting any form of electronic device to the playing location he immediately forfeits the game, irrespective of whether the device can be used to communicate moves or not (i.e. a switched-off cell phone or an iPod).

Screening the players, making them go through metal detectors, is currently being practiced in some tournaments (apparently without sending a "signal to the sponsors that they are supporting a game of cheaters"). But this is only a token measure and almost useless, as we explain below.

So what can we do? “Arbiters should be trained to be alert on signalling from the audience” says the NiC article. This is a truly stunning proposal. Is the author really suggesting we should pin responsibility for catching cheats or preventing signalling on the arbiters, who would be required to scan the audience during games for anyone tugging their ear or scratching their nose in a suspicious manner? Would any arbiter in the world be willing to take the responsibility of imposing a life-long ban on tournament players (including top GMs) on the basis of what they had observed? Even bringing it to the attention of authorities would open them to immediate costly litigation by the player involved. Ask arbiters whether they would be willing to accept the NiC proposal, ask the French Chess Federation what accusing a professional chess player of cheating entails, just from a legal point of view.

As an aside we would like to mention that arbiters, officials, even detectives are not the best experts when it comes to detecting signalling from the audience. They have almost no idea how these things are done. You need to consult stage magicians (as we have done), because they do it professionally and have developed considerable skills in that area. We will not elaborate further, since the methods are so devilishly clever it would only put ideas into the heads of dishonest players.

“Cheaters should be deterred by bans that would wreck their (professional) careers,” is another pat proposal by people who see the solution to everything in terms of punishment rather than prevention. It doesn’t work for embezzlers, bank robbers, car thieves or burglars, but it is supposed to work for chess, if we only ratchet up the penalty. Our own proposal to FIDE stated:

9. FIDE should define standard penalties for players caught cheating, e.g. a three-year ban from tournament play for first-time offenders, a life-long ban for the second time.

An immediate life-long ban for first-time offenders, which is what people usually demand, is excessively harsh and irresponsible. Would it apply to a boy or girl whose father gives them a thumbs-up during the game? A three-year ban for full and proven first-time cheating during a game is severe enough to act as deterrence.

Does the 15-minute delay work?

We claimed that the 15-minute delay was twice used at the Dortmund tournament and worked flawlessly. “Did it?” asks the NiC journalist. “We don't think so. In Dortmund the players were not frisked for any electronic devices and their seconds could walk in and out of the hall freely and signal whatever they might have wanted.”

First of all frisking players with metal detectors is, as we said in our proposal paper to FIDE, not a solution to the problem, it is just a token measure:

Airport-style detectors will not pick up some of the electronic equipment that could be used to receive information during a chess game. There are devices on the market that use a very small amount of metal – in fact they have been specifically designed to elude detection by the usual methods. Apart from that there are many ways in which a player could pass through a security detector without the receiver and obtain this later on during the game. A whole set of additional measures, many extremely restrictive, need to be implemented to prevent this from happening.

In Dortmund the spectators sit in a darkened theatre while the players are on an elevated, well-lit stage. Visual signalling is almost impossible. The same effect was achieved in the World Championship matches in Elista, Bonn and Sofia by using a glass wall or a gauze curtain. This does not rule out acoustic or electronic signalling, so cheating is still possible. However, what we are trying to do is make it harder for a team of cheats. If a helper (never a player’s second, of course – that would be too obvious) has to walk in and out of the playing hall after every move, to make calls on a cell-phone, this makes teamwork cheating – as allegedly took place in Khanty-Mansiysk) – more difficult and much easier to detect. We want to force the assistants to relay the moves themselves to the base station, instead of having them automatically delivered by the organisers of the event in real time. That is the entire point of the proposed broadcast delay.

The NiC article generally implies that the 15-minute delay can be circumvented and is thus pointless. But it was not our claim that it would be a 100% fool-proof measure. From the fact that locks can be picked and cars jump-started it does not follow that you might as well leave your house or car unlocked. With other (presumably more effective) measures in place at chess tournaments, says our critic, “there is no reason whatsoever why you should have a 15-minute delay in the first place!” Again: since cars have number plates and serial numbers engraved in their bodies (other measures), there is no reason whatsoever for locking them?

The disadvantages

The 15-minute delay of the broadcast, the NiC author claims, denies people watching games on the Internet "that wonderful luxury of following the games in realtime”. This is an entirely artificial, almost metaphysical, objection. Everyone in the world – except for the audience who have bought tickets and are sitting in the playing hall – is receiving the moves, at the original rate they were played, at the same time. A number of TV broadcasts do the same: for instance you do not see 'Who Wants To Be A Millionaire' live but with a strategic delay. Why? Because the show’s organisers do not want to provide the questions in real time to possible helpers in remote locations. They could google the answers in ten seconds, as one of our friends has shown, and then pass the information to someone in the audience, who in turn could signal the participant. Actually we should credit the Millionaire team with coming up with the time-delay anti-cheating idea.

It should be mentioned that in Dortmund there actually were complaints by some visitors to the Playchess server. “That spoils the fun completely,” said about four people on the first day. On the second day one person continued to object, and after that nobody remembered that it was being done at all. At the 2011 European Championship, at the insistence of a number of strong GMs, a delay was implemented in key rounds. There were exactly zero complaints – most Internet spectators did not even know it was happening.

On a personal note: The NiC journalist, who has covered dozens of events together with me, writes: “While reading [Mr. Friedel’s] plea you get the idea that he only has a vague idea of what a chess tournament looks like these days.” He knows that I have been to literally hundreds of tournaments, ranging from amateur championships (in which my son played) to all kinds of major international events, on four continents [memo to self: accept the invitation to the next Doeberl Cup in Canberra], as well as around a dozen World Championship matches, some of which I helped to organise. So our NiC friend can only mean that in spite of this I had somehow failed to comprehend how tournaments work. I accept that it is a possibility (I can be fairly dense on occasion), but it would follow that those who put me in charge of security during world championships have shown extremely bad judgement.

Finally I would like to mention that other misguided souls have shared my general concerns and enthusiastically endorsed my 15-minute broadcast delay plan. These include Garry Kasparov, Viswanathan Anand (who formally proposed it to FIDE), Vladimir Kramnik, and numerous other 2700+ players. Even the late Bobby Fischer, with whom I had many long phone conversations a couple of years before his death, was firmly in favour, although he was suspicious of allowing people to do “intrusive body scans” of players before important games. On the other hand, the 15-minute delay, he said, was a no-brainer.

In conclusion we would like to venture that the NiC article hit the spot in one respect: the title, “Lacking All Logic”, was perfectly apt, if we assume it refers to the piece that followed. In any case we are determined to continue our campaign for the delayed broadcast solution, which we think is the simplest and least intrusive way of tackling a very serious problem, one that is threatening the game. In recent weeks we have urged the President of the World Chess Federation, yet again, to take action, at least for major tournaments. Our NiC friend, on the other hand, will probably continue to pin his hopes on the incompetence of FIDE to implement the proposal, or anything at all. If it turns out that these hopes are justified, all honest grandmasters will simply have to give up their selfish demands for more protection and pay attention to the urgent needs of the handful of chess journalists lounging in the press room.

We know that we are going to receive many letters and opinions on this subject.
Please use the feedback link on the left of the page and give your submission the title “15 minute delay.”


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ChessBase reports on a recent case

FFE accuses its own players of cheating
22.01.2011 – Shocking news: the French Chess Federation (FFE) has announced that it has initiated disciplinary action against three players – one of them one of France's most promising talents – on suspicion of "organized cheating, serious breach of sport ethics, undermining the image of the national Olympic team in Khanty-Mansyik". We are following the investigation. Press release.

Feller replies: 'I completely deny the cheating accusations'
24.01.2011 – Two days ago the French Chess Federation announced the investigation of three French players on suspicion of "organized cheating" at the Chess Olympiad in Khanty-Mansyik. Now one of the three, 19-year-old French GM Sebastien Feller, has replied emphatically, implying that the entire action was a result of his support of the current FIDE president (the FFE supported his rival Karpov). Open letter.

Battesti: 'It's insulting to our president and his federation'
24.01.2011 – Instead of adopting an ostrich position the President of the French Chess Federation and his VP have initiated an investigation of French Olympiad members suspected of cheating. They have appointed Leo Battesti, a Sorbonne-educated lawyer, as the spokesperson for the Federation. Battesti has reacted to the criticism of one of the accused player with an interview in Europe Echecs.

French GMs: ''We express our full support of the FFE
27.01.2011 – Four grandmasters Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Laurent Fressinet, Vladislav Tkachiev and Romain Edouard have expressed their dismay at the charges brought against three of their colleagues who are accused of cheating. "If the allegations are found to be true, we will condemn them firmly," they write, in this public statement in Europe Echecs.

FFE: cheating not the first time, Biel statement
01.02.2011– The French Chess Federation disclosed they had evidence that the "organized cheating" accusation, which has rocked the chess world recently, is in fact not the first time. They have now mandated the Federal Bureau to take the case to trial in a court of law. Meanwhile the Organisers in Biel have issued a statement on the same players earlier last year in their Master Group. Open letters.

FFE Cheating: Judge rules incriminating SMS inadmissible
11.03.2011– After unearthing a series of SMS messages between players accused of cheating at the Olympiad using a phone lent by the French Chess Federation vice president, the FFE sought to have those messages transcribed and included as evidence in the upcoming Disciplinary Committee. A judge ruled that secrecy could only be waived if the FFE sued in court, as the FFE explains in a public statement.

Cheating in chess: the problem won't go away
30.03.2011 – As you know the recent suspicion of organized cheating during a Chess Olympiad has led to three French players being suspended. One is currently playing in the European Individual Championship, where his colleagues have published an open letter demanding additional security. For years we have been proposing a remedy for this very serious problem. It needs to be implemented now.

Cheating scandal: Opinions, concerns and revelations
06.04.2011 – In a series of interviews, Robert Fontaine from Europe Echecs, culled the opinions of the players, to get a clearer idea on how players both French and foreign viewed the cheating scandal. A lengthy interview with Jean-Claude Moingt, the president of the French federation, revealed not only the next steps to be taken, but also that confessions were not only made to the players. An eye-opener.

Copyright ChessBase


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