Cheating in chess: the problem won't go away

3/30/2011 – 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.

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The cheating case that is being investigated by the French Chess Federation is clearly affecting the players and the atmosphere at the European Championship in Aix les Bains. It has been widely discussed and has led to the players signing an open letter demanding that additional measures be taken to prevent any form of unfair assistance during the games.

The open letter, a picture of which was posted on Francisco Vallejo's Facebook page

Open Letter

Dear French chess federation, dear ECU, dear chess community,

In view of the rumours and allegations about possible cheating using electronic devices and
outside help taking place during the European Individual Championship in Aix-les-Bains, we
have an atmosphere that makes it impossible for the players to approach their games calmly
and being sure that their opponents do not break the rules.

We therefore demand that

- the arbiters reserve the rights to search any player’s pockets in case of suspicion

- no electronic devices can be brought into the playing hall, switched off or otherwise

- electronic boards can be unplugged if one of the players demands it


The players who signed the letter are Francisco Vallejo Pons, Peter Svidler, Natalia Zhukova, Anna Muzychuk, Jan Gustafsson, Tomi Nybäck, Vladimir Chuchelov, Robert Aloma Vidal, Viktor Bologan, Jan Smeets, Luka Lenic, Papaioannou Ioannis, Anastasios Pavlidis, Hrant Melkumyan, Ildar Khairullin, Gabriel Sargissian, Sergey A Fedorchuk, Boris Grachev and Markus Ragger.

One of the signatories has scrawled a note about a 15-minute delay (of the Internet broadcast) at the bottom of the page. This refers to a measure that can and should be taken, and which we have been promoting for five and a half years now. Apparently it is being sporadically implemented. A member of the French Chess Federation has told us that in rounds one to five all boards were displayed on the Internet with a 15-minute delay. In round six there was no delay, in round seven boards 1-19 were broadcast with the delay, and in round eight (today) boards 1-29 are being broadcast with the 15-minute delay.

Here's the history of the broadcast delay proposal.

Fifteen minute broadcast delay – a partial solution to the problem of cheating

By Frederic Friedel

The idea was first proposed – at least by me – on October 17th, 2005. It was departure day after the FIDE World Championship tournament in San Luis. Towards the end of the event there had been suspicions, expressed by some of the players, that there may have been signalling going on during the event. FIDE officials were worried and discussing the matter in their board meetings.

Leaving for the airport in San Luis after the 2005 World Championship

At the airport I got into a long and intense conversation with FIDE Vice Presidents Zurab Azmaiparashvili and Israel Gelfer, and proposed a simple solution – one that was designed to make it harder for players to cheat during a top-level event. It involved delaying the live broadcast of moves over the Internet by fifteen minutes. The proposal was enthusiastically greeted by the two VPs, who asked me to write it up and submit it to the FIDE Presidential Board. This I did, on at least three separate occasions, over the years.

The above picture is from August 22, 2006 (2:45 p.m. – isn't exif information wonderful?) during the Credit Suisse Blitz in Zurich. Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov had just finished their simultaneous exhibitions and were surprised to run into FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov (second from left) and his Deputy President Georgios Makropoulos (left) in the VIP area. Within minutes the subject turned to the 15-minute broadcast delay proposal, which Kasparov strongly supported. Ilyumzhinov asked me to resubmit it, which I immediately did.

Proposal to FIDE

The following proposal addresses the problem of cheating in chess, which has become quite serious and may bring the game into disrepute.

The problem

Cheating in chess is becoming easier, year by year. Chess programs are getting stronger, while communications systems become smaller, more powerful and cheaper to set up. Chess moves can be transmitted not just by voice, but by tapping a code, or even by simple human signalling. Strong players do not need a continuous stream of moves, just computer assistance in key positions in order to win a game and an event.

There are many different ways of communicating the very small amount of information required in chess to the player who is actually making the moves. Any stage magician or mentalist will provide a wealth of extremely clever techniques for passing on information, especially when it is something as elementary as individual chess moves.

The Internet and mobile phones provide the cheater with the possibility of installing his helpers in a distant location, e.g. in his home country. There a team can be using powerful computers to analyse the position, and results will be transmitted to the playing site by email, SMS or mobile phone.

A proposed solution

I am proposing a simple and easily implemented mechanism that will make the kind of cheating described above very difficult for the cheater – not completely impossible, but much more complicated and dangerous. The method blocks one channel of communication, making the other almost impossible to maintain.

The anti-cheating mechanism I am proposing requires that the moves of a game do not leave the playing hall for a certain period of time, typically for 15 minutes after they have been played.

This is done by building a relay loop in the transmission of the moves to the press room and to the Internet. If a sensor board is being used it can display the current board position inside the playing hall, but a delay module (software) will pass it on to the outside world after the given amount of time. There the moves appear at exactly the tempo in which they were played, just 15 minutes later. Naturally this is completely unnoticeable for the world-wide Internet audience.

Implementing this mechanism means that any outside assistance to the players is fatally hampered. Even if the cheater is equipped with a very sophisticated reception device, his accomplices have the problem of receiving the moves from the playing venue in time to analyse and pass on the results to the cheater.

Naturally the organisers of important tournaments must make sure that there is no accomplice at the playing location broadcasting the moves to the outside world. This can be accomplished in the following way:

  1. No kind of electronic devices are allowed to enter the playing hall, and offenders are heavily penalising.

  2. Make it a breach of etiquette for spectators to enter and leave the playing hall repeatedly. Anyone who leaves the hall is not allowed to go to the press or other communications rooms immediately, or to inform other persons of what has just been played.

  3. The playing hall should be treated as a VIP area, where people go to watch the games for a certain period, and not jump in and out dozens of times during a game. It should have the atmosphere of a theatre or movie palace where this is also not possible.

  4. The visitors in the playing hall can be treated to very special GM commentary using infra-red earphones. If the same commentary needs to be made available to people outside the playing hall this is done using a delay-loop device that is synchronised with the move transmission.

Note that the technical implementation of the above delay mechanisms is not at all difficult and can be accomplished purely with PC software (no complicated electronics required). The delay time can be set to anything, e.g. five minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes or even a full hour.

I would like to mention that my proposal in the form presented above is tailored to big matches or match tournaments, like the World Championships in Elista and Mexico City. It can also be applied more or less to some other tournaments, like Linares or Morelia. There are of course events where the playing conditions make it impossible, e.g. Wijk aan Zee. But still, preventing cheating (or making it much more difficult) in a number of major chess events is an important step that needs to be taken.

Frederic Friedel
Hamburg, Germany

The above was sent by email, but a year later I had an opportunity to hand-deliver it to Kirsan Ilyumzhinov in Elista, immediately after the FIDE Candidates Tournament. My flight back to Europe was delayed by a day and Kirsan very graciously showed me around his capital city.

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov in the Gazebo of his parent's garden (June 14, 2007, late afternoon)

Tea and snacks with the Ilyumzhinov family: father, Kirsan and mother

In that Gazebo, in his family garden, I handed over a full proposal, complete with introduction and summary, a description of the problem, the proposed solution, and a summary of ten urgent measures that need to be taken. We read the key passages together, with me circumscribing difficult words. "Let's do it," Kirsan exclaimed in the end, typically jumping up and kneading my hand. I was instructed to send the document to his Deputy and various Vice Presidents, which I subsequently did. Here it is, for your personal perusal.

That was almost four years ago. But unfortunately nothing was actually done. At the Chess Olympiad in Dresden, the proposal got a powerful boost from Vishvanathan Anand. As reigning World Champion he was (and is) an important member of the FIDE Presidential Board. Anand handed in a "proposal on the conduct of World Championship matches." It contained three points, regarding (1) the venue; (2) the rest room; and the following, which I quote in full:

3. Anti cheating measures – All moves should be relayed with a fifteen minute delay to avoid any speculation as to probable electronic cheating in chess. I understand this could have some implications, but in matches for the World Championship this would ensure that on the one hand the participants feel more confident that their opponent is not receiving illicit help during the game; and on the other that a world-wide audience knows that the organisers are ensuring that this is the case.

These have been opinions expressed by myself and people in the chess world including players. I request that the FIDe Board of which I am a member will consider and execute the issue.

As it stands

Unfortunately this again was not passed and things went on as before. Since some of the objections raised in the matter regarded the feasibility of actually implementing the delay, I went to the Dutch company DGT, whose CEO Albert Vasser is an old friend. Albert told me that implementing an n-minute delay in the broadcast of information from the DGT sensor boards was "absolutely no problem", and in fact he went ahead and put it into the TOMA software that drives the DGT boards. It was used twice at the Dortmund tournament and worked flawlessly. Practically nobody in the Internet audience noticed that they were watching the moves that had happened fifteen minutes earlier.

My appeal to FIDE and to its President: make the Internet broadcast delay mandatory for all major FIDE events. Do it now, Kirsan, before the suspicion of cheating poisons the entire world of chess.

Previous reports on ChessBase

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.

French Chess Federation suspends players accused of cheating
21.03.2011 – On Saturday the Disciplinary Committee of the French Chess Federation suspended GMs Sebastien Feller, Arnaud Hauchard and IM Cyril Marzolo, finding them “guilty of a violation of sporting ethics” for allegedly cheating during the Chess Olympiad 2010 in Khanty-Mansiysk. The three received suspensions, after evidence was presented, including a detailed description of how it was done.

Copyright ChessBase

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