The quest for workable methods to secure the US chess world against computer-aided cheating entered a new phase on Dec. 4, 2006, when some of America’s top chess authorities put their heads together for a panel discussion that was billed as a "Chess Cheating Town Meeting."
Bill Goichberg, president of the US Chess Federation and a leading organizer, announced new cheating prevention measures for his four biggest events. These specify that players may not use headphones, earphones, cell phones or hearing aids; that they may not leave the tournament floor without permission; that they can be ejected if they refuse an official request to be searched for banned devices; iPods will still be permitted – but, earphones, needed to listen to an iPod, will not. These rules may be waived for players with low scores. Cell phones would be banned from tournament rooms altogether at the point when cell phones are able to run Fritz (i.e. in about a year from now). The most serious threat is the combination of a chess engine with wireless communication with an accomplice outside the playing hall. Goichberg dismissed another proposed technological solution – signal-jamming equipment – because of a Federal Communications Commission rule that he said bars the use of such equipment in the United States. On the other hand he will consider using signal detectors – devices that pinpoint the source of communications signals without interfering with them.
GM Alex Stripunsky, called for mandatory three-year bans from all USCF play for a first offense, and a lifetime ban after a second offense. He equated this action with the tough steps other sports federations are taking to stamp out cheating through performance drugs. Stripunsky also suggested that an anti-cheating statement be added to USCF membership forms. The member would acknowledge that using any kind of outside help during a rated game is illegal and is punishable by disqualification. Stripunsky also addressed the widely publicized allegations of cheating in the recent World Championship match between Vladimir Kramnik and Veselin Topalov. Citing information from current US Champion Alex Onischuk – a member of Veselin Topalov’s team during the match – Stripunsky said the fact that Topalov merely suspected that Kramnik might have been cheating during bathroom breaks, was enough to affect the quality of Topalov’s play.
Nelson Farber, Manhattan-based attorney, said that legal authority exists to prosecute cheaters under either common law ("larceny by trick" in the New York State penal code) or civil racketeering (RICO) statutes. Nevertheless, Farber said that in practice, "prosecuting chess cheating is not likely to be a priority of District Attorneys and U.S. Attorneys." Therefore, instead of seeking help from law enforcement chess authorities concentrate on developing fair and appropriate internal procedures to adjudicate cheating complaints.
Steve Immitt, National TD, delved into the history of cheating in chess and outlined the factors that in recent years have made cheating a threat to organized chess competition: the strength of chess programs; smaller, cheaper and more powerful computer and communications hardware; and larger prize funds.
Dr. Danny Kopec, IMaster and computer professor said cheating was a natural outgrowth of a creeping erosion in respect for the culture of tournament chess, even among participants themselves. The degradation of competitive chess is rooted in commercialism.
Jon Jacobs, chess writer and anti-cheating activist, warned against professional cheats, teams of dedicated thieves who employ hidden wireless devices to send moves from computer-equipped accomplices outside the playing hall to stooges moving pieces at their boards. One anti-cheating technology was engine move-screening.
Here are the full minutes of the meeting:
Blockade Chess Cheaters: Town Meeting
Results of "Chess Cheating Town Meeting" (held December 2006)
The quest for workable methods to secure the US chess world against computer-aided cheating entered a new phase on Dec. 4, 2006, when some of America’s top chess authorities put their heads together for a panel discussion that was billed as a "Chess Cheating Town Meeting."
Bill Goichberg, who is both president of the US Chess Federation and the leading organizer of large-scale chess competition in the US as owner of the Continental Chess Association, used the New York gathering to explain electronic-device restrictions and other new rules for the World Open and three other big-money CCA tournaments, to take effect in 2007.
Grandmaster Alex Stripunsky, who tied for first place in the 2005 US Championship tournament, called for mandatory bans for proven cheaters (a three-year ban from USCF play for a first offense, and a lifetime ban after a second offense), and recommended that the USCF maintain records of cheating allegations even if unproven, in order to recognize patterns of suspicious behavior.
IM Dr. Danny Kopec, Brooklyn College professor and graduate deputy chair of the Department of Computer and Information Science.
Steve Immitt, a prolific National TD honored by the USCF as "Tournament Director of the Year" for 2005.
Nelson Farber, New York-based attorney in private practice and an active member of the Marshall Chess Club.
Jon Jacobs, a non-professional tournament competitor, occasional Chess Life contributor, and webmaster for the "Blockade Chess Cheaters" site.
More than 40 people attended the session at the Marshall Chess Club, packing the venerable club’s second floor. In addition to the VIP panel, chess notables in the audience included: Chess Life Online editor IM Jennifer Shahade; brilliancy prize donor Paul Albert; science journalist and publishing consultant Paul Hoffman; New York Times reporter Dylan Loeb McClain, who often writes about chess; USCF Executive Board member Sam Sloan; and Dr. Frank Brady, long-time chess writer, editor, sponsor, and organizer. Part of the meeting was filmed by a Russian TV crew.
Following is a summary of each panel member's remarks (including responses during the question-and-answer period and in at least one case, in follow-up interviews with this writer):
Bill Goichberg, proprietor, Continental Chess Association, and president, USCF:
Goichberg’s CCA, which runs most large public tournaments in the US that offer cash prizes, has announced new cheating prevention measures for its four biggest events (World Open, Foxwoods, Chicago Open; the same rules will be announced for the 2007 North American Open).
- Players may not use headphones, earphones, cell phones or hearing aids (this rule may be waived for players with low scores).
- Players may not leave the tournament floor without permission (this rule may be waived for players with low scores).
- A player who refuses an official request to be searched for banned devices, will be ejected from the tournament with no refund of entry fee.
- iPods will still be permitted – but, earphones, needed to listen to an iPod, will not.
The first tournament subject to the new rules is Foxwoods, which takes place the first week in April. But the greatest attention will go to the World Open, whose prizes are larger by far.
Goichberg said he will go further and ban cell phones from tournament rooms altogether, at the point when cell phones are able to run Fritz. This is expected to happen about a year from now, he said. (Current CCA policy permits cell phones to be carried into, but not used within, playing halls.)
Although submitting to a search request will be mandatory for players, Goichberg has no plans for mass searches. He said he expects to search perhaps two or three people at the World Open. He will probably retain a security professional to perform that work.
Noting that cheating in one form or another has always been with us, Goichberg said that traditional, low-tech forms of cheating don’t seem any more widespread now than 20 years ago. What has increased is computer-aided cheating.
The most serious threat, according to Goichberg, is the potential to combine a chess engine with wireless communication with an accomplice outside the playing hall. A cheater who did so could get help on every move of every game without being conspicuous – something he couldn’t even accomplish with Pocket Fritz. (A player would attract suspicion if he kept going to the bathroom to repeatedly consult his handheld PC.)
An important consideration is that restrictive rules of any sort involve a trade-off. As Steve Immitt, the other National TD on the panel, put it, honest players "will cooperate to a reasonable degree, but not to an unreasonable degree."
This is why Goichberg isn’t about to institute a full ban on possessing cell phones and iPods even in the biggest CCA tournaments just yet: Why should everyone be inconvenienced, even people with minus scores who have no incentive to cheat, when it’s really only an issue for a few players in contention for prize money?
He predicted that metal detectors will never be used at mass public tournaments. They might not even work, because not all cheating devices contain metal.
Goichberg dismissed another proposed technological solution – signal-jamming equipment – because of a Federal Communications Commission rule that he said bars the use of such equipment anywhere in the United States. On the other hand, he said he will consider using signal detectors – devices that pinpoint the source of communications signals without interfering with them.
World Open authorities still don’t know exactly how either of the major cheating suspects at the 2006 World Open notified their presumed accomplices about the moves played at their board.
TDs who were watching Eugene Varshavsky – who Jerry Hanken humorously labeled "The Cat in the Hat" in his October Chess Life article – noticed no one person coming by repeatedly to look at his games. Instead, their best guess is that he used a small hidden camera to record the positions and relay them to an accomplice.
Goichberg stated that new behavioral rules to prevent cheating are best left to tournament organizers, mainly his own CCA, rather than the USCF. "The organizers that run super-big money tournaments will be forced to be the leaders in anti-cheating," he said.
Players conversing in foreign languages isn’t a problem, in Goichberg’s view. He said he’s against any kind of "English-only" rule for tournaments as a way to prevent old-fashioned verbal cheating.
While many argue that the best deterrent would be having a cheater hauled off in handcuffs, both Goichberg and Nelson Farber, the attorney on the panel, said police and prosecutors simply have bigger fish to fry than punishing a chess cheater. Goichberg said he gave up on involving the police after getting the run-around some years ago from three separate police departments he approached about a seemingly cut-and-dried crime: a player at the World Open had stolen Bill’s checkbook and wrote himself several large checks.
Grandmaster Alexandr Stripunsky
Representing the professional chess players’ viewpoint, GM Alex Stripunsky defined cheating as, "using any kind of outside help during the game." Much of his remarks focused on the need for tougher punishment.
He called for a three-year ban from all USCF play for a first offense, and a lifetime ban after a second offense. A USCF committee, perhaps the present Ethics Committee, should have power to adjudicate complaints of cheating. If there is "unbeatable evidence," Stripunsky said the committee’s ruling should generate an immediate ban, subject to appeal, which should be considered as quickly as possible.
Even if a particular cheating complaint can’t be substantiated, Stripunsky recommended that the USCF should keep the allegation on file in "a special data bank of suspected cheaters." That way, patterns may become evident if reports multiply for the same suspect – for instance, if a player makes unusually strong moves matching an engine’s choices, in multiple games.
"With strength of the computers improving every day, the gap between them and let's say 2000 level players, will be growing more and more. So, it's quite unlikely that anyone rated below 2200 can follow a computer's suggested moves (excluding openings) in multiple games in multiple tournaments. In that case, having several reports in its hands, the USCF should not be afraid to proceed with disqualification."
He equated such a stance with the tough steps other sports federations are taking to stamp out cheating through performance drugs. "Using outside help in chess, is comparable to drugs these days. Not caffeine and not steroids but computer chips. And our federation should be very strict defending our noble game from people who want to achieve tournament victories at any cost."
Stripunsky also suggested that an anti-cheating statement be added to USCF membership forms. The member would acknowledge that using any kind of outside help during a rated game is illegal and is punishable by disqualification.
The grandmaster stated flatly that the recent World Open incident – when Israeli GM Ilya Smirin was defeated by an amateur suspected of receiving computer help – "proves that it's possible to detect cheating, if it happens between two players of different rank."
He also addressed the widely publicized allegations of cheating in the recent World Championship match between Vladimir Kramnik and Veselin Topalov. Citing information from current US Champion Alex Onischuk – a member of Veselin Topalov’s team during the match – Stripunsky said the fact that Topalov merely suspected that Kramnik might have been cheating during bathroom breaks, was enough to affect the quality of Topalov’s play.
"In order to keep his opponent at the board, in some games, Topalov played very quickly, almost instantly," Stripunsky said. "No need to say that it cost him. In some critical positions he made several superficial solutions which probably affected the final result."
Nelson Farber, Manhattan-based attorney (solo practitioner) and long-time Marshall Chess Club member
Legal authority exists to prosecute cheaters under either common law ("larceny by trick" in the New York State penal code) or civil racketeering (RICO) statutes. Nevertheless, Farber said that in practice, "prosecuting chess cheating is not likely to be a priority of District Attorneys and U.S. Attorneys."
Therefore, instead of seeking help from law enforcement, he recommended that chess authorities concentrate on developing fair and appropriate internal procedures to adjudicate cheating complaints. He distinguished between rulings that must be made "on-the-spot" during a tournament, and long-term disciplinary hearings such as those of the USCF Ethics Committee.
For on-the-spot decisions, Farber said, "There is a need to standardize procedures, preferably as a matter of USCF governance, and also as part of the contractual relationship between tournament participants and organizers. Participants should be provided with a copy of procedures and give written consent at the time of signing up for a tournament, or at the time of joining the USCF and each successive renewal."
Policy standardization serves everyone’s interests, he said. Organizers will be less likely to have their decisions second-guessed by a court, while players accused of cheating will have a better shot at a fair outcome.
Among specific planks that Farber recommended for inclusion in a policy for handling cheating complaints:
- Consent by participants that procedures are binding.
- Immunity for decision makers.
- Methods of protecting privacy, especially in case of personal searches (should be performed only when there is probable cause / reasonable suspicion; and should be carried out in a manner "that respects the suspect’s dignity, to the fullest extent possible").
- For large tournaments, the TD’s initial ruling should be immediately reviewed by an on-site Disciplinary Committee.
- Those on-site hearings should employ various formal procedures – record-keeping, right of the accused to present evidence and cross-examine witnesses, and when practical, the right to an advocate, especially if the accused is a minor.
- In such hearings, "cheating may be found by a fair preponderance of the evidence, which is the general standard in civil cases."
Refuting one bogus "legal" nostrum popular on Internet chat boards, Farber stated: "The finding of the (on-site disciplinary) committee should be final for purposes of the tournament, and a sanction imposed. In other words, if it is later determined that the accused did not cheat and that he or she was deprived of $20,000 by the ruling, quite simply, tough."
He explained that a tournament organizer and arbiters actually would run very little risk of losing a lawsuit in those circumstances, because courts have held that the need for "finality" may outweigh "correctness" when determining the outcome of a sporting event.
He quoted from a 1991 New York State court decision that rejected a horse-race bettor’s claim for damages when, due to a recording error, the track paid only a fraction of what it should have for a winning daily-double bet. "There must be one final and determinative call, no matter what a subsequent review may show. Even a change in declaring the winner upon review cannot affect the payoff once the ‘official’ results have been posted." (Vaccaro v. Joyce)
In general, Farber said courts are reluctant to overrule decision makers unless the decision was "arbitrary, capricious, or fraudulent."
Still, Farber said a cheating suspect found guilty in an on-site hearing should be granted a subsequent review before the USCF Ethics Committee and Executive Board. Furthermore, he said that Ethics Committee hearings – which can result in a player being suspended from organized competition for a period of time, and consequent loss of income if the accused is a chess professional – should perhaps employ a stricter standard for proving guilt, "clear and convincing evidence," even if not legally required.
Steve Immitt, National TD and USCF’s "Tournament Director of the Year" for 2005:
Although cheating at chess probably has been around almost as long as chess itself, a seminal event occurred in 1993 at the World Open. A dreadlocked, headphone-wearing, unrated newcomer, who took the name "John von Neumann" (matching the name of a famous artificial intelligence research pioneer), scored 4.5/9 in the Open Section, including a draw with a grandmaster and a win over a 2350 player. This "von Neumann" seemed to have a suspicious bulge in one of his pockets, which appeared to make a soft humming or buzzing sound at important points in the game.
"When quizzed by the tournament director, the ‘lesser’ von Neumann was unable to demonstrate even a rudimentary knowledge of some simple chess concepts, and he was disqualified," Immitt related.
The von Neumann incident, and a handful of other documented cheating incidents in the years that followed, underline three relatively recent developments that make cheating a threat to organized chess competition in ways that it wasn’t before, according to Immitt.
Chess software has advanced to such a degree that "chess may be close to being solved, if it hasn't already been."
Smaller, cheaper and more powerful computer and communications hardware.
Larger prize funds. "When the payoff is in the tens of thousands of dollars, it undoubtedly will inspire more to take a shot (at cheating)."
This places organizers in a bind. Immitt explained it like this: "People who do not cheat will not enjoy being subjected to the multitude of restrictions and limitations on their freedoms necessary to eliminate totally any possibility of cheating – invasive searches, continuous monitoring, even in the restroom, total prohibition on talking, being confined to the playing area at all times, etc. People will cooperate to a reasonable degree, but not to an unreasonable degree."
The best answer, he said, is to work toward "a reasonable compromise," that would avoid over-regulating the mass of honest competitors, while making it harder for cheaters to communicate with an accomplice.
He also called for a "more streamlined" system to prosecute credible allegations of cheating, and stepping up penalties to create a stronger deterrent.
Dr. Danny Kopec, International Master, computer professor at Brooklyn College, Kopec’s Chess Camp proprietor, and author of chess books and DVDs:
Danny Kopec portrayed cheating as a natural outgrowth of a creeping erosion in respect for the culture of tournament chess, even among participants themselves.
Faster time limits, inconvenient and stressful playing schedules, increased reliance on databases and opening preparation, and the elimination of adjournments – taken together, these changes signify that chess is no longer "The Royal Game."
Today, instead of tournament behavior and results being driven by "ethics, morals, and the essence of the logic of chess," Dr. Kopec said, "It seems that like in most other endeavors in life, the clock and monetary reward seem to dictate chess, while the science and pure love of the game/sport suffers."
The relatively recent degradation of competitive chess is rooted in commercialism. Organizers, professionals, adult class players and young players all bear part of the blame, according to Dr. Kopec.
Jon Jacobs (panel moderator), non-professional tournament competitor, chess writer, and anti-cheating activist:
The idea of holding a public panel session about issues related to chess cheating was suggested to me by Doug Bellizzi, the president of the Marshall Chess Club.
I viewed the session primarily as a vehicle for bringing specific questions to public attention, and getting some ideas on the record from people who actually know what they are talking about (a superior alternative to Internet debates dominated by mostly anonymous know-nothings).
In my own remarks, I highlighted one potential doomsday scenario, and one possible prevention method that I feel merits attention. I outlined my concern that we’ll eventually face a "professional" sort of cheater. Instead of a lone nut, an out-front, conspicuous oddball, I spoke about a hypothetical team of dedicated thieves who would employ hidden wireless devices to send moves from computer-equipped accomplices outside the playing hall to stooges moving pieces at their boards. Such a cheating team "might be able to swipe the first prize in several sections of a single big tournament, and no one would be the wiser," I warned.
Having looked up details of about a dozen past cheating incidents described in various news reports and blog discussions, the thing that struck me most is that not one of those probable cheaters appeared to make a serious effort to avoid detection. Some, like Eugene Varshavsky, who was "The Cat in the Hat" at this year’s World Open, were so conspicuous that it almost looks as if they were actively trying to get caught. (For an itemized list of past incident reports, see "Supplemental Information" on this page, below.)
So, the biggest danger I see is not that prospective thieves will upgrade their technology for cheating, but that they will upgrade their attitude. I echoed the fateful words of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part III: "Our true enemy has not yet shown his face."
One anti-cheating technology that I discussed in my remarks is engine move-screening. That would represent an application of the old truism, "It takes a thief to catch a thief." This method is already widely used on various online chess servers, most notably ICC with its SpeedTrap system. But it seems to me that refinements are needed, if either engine-based or human analysis of games is going to become the preferred method for detecting cheating over-the-board. Having uniform standards for engine analysis for cheating – things like search depth, processing speed, and what percentage range of matching an engine’s choices is viewed as strong evidence of cheating – would place move-matching on a firmer foundation if the authorities ever decide to adopt it, I said.
Supplemental Information on Alleged Cheating Incidents
1. The "Blockade Chess Cheaters" Web site was set up in late 2005 mainly to showcase a petition sent to the USCF at that time. Signed by prominent chess figures including GM Andy Soltis and IM Dr. Danny Kopec, that petition asked chess authorities and big organizers to start studying how to provide better enforcement that could improve the chessplaying public’s confidence that games and prizes couldn’t be stolen by cheaters. The site includes the full text of the petition, plus the full text of the security and ratings (anti-sandbag) policies published for the 2005 HB Global Chess Challenge. (The latter document is now rare; I retrieved it from a cache that no longer exists, since the HB Foundation closed shop around the end of 2005 and its former Web pages went off-line.)
2. Chess Life’s account of the 2006 World Open cheating incidents. One suspect, who played in the Open section (who the article ingeniously refers to as "The Cat in the Hat"), was searched and nothing was found, so he wasn’t penalized. The other, playing in the Under-2000 section, was found to have a wireless receiver, and he was ejected during the final round after he refused official requests to inspect his clothing for a companion device.
3. Two lengthy discussion threads (here and here) that got started with the 2006 World Open cheating incidents, and developed into a raging debate over tournament prize structures and the relative morality and integrity of amateurs compared with professional chessplayers. Includes a fascinating debate sparked by IM Ben Finegold’s admission that he can’t do the math that would enable him to understand how a portion of the entry fees paid by players in class sections of events like the World Open, are used to enlarge the prizes paid to professionals who compete in the Open or top section.
4. A leading chess news site’s report, followed by another lengthy discussion thread, about a player who forfeited from a class section of the HB Global Chess Challenge in Minneapolis last year. To be precise, the directors did not actually forfeit him; he fled the tournament and forfeited his final-round game, after being caught making cell phone calls during his games several times. He was suspected of receiving moves by phone from an accomplice working with a computer. His name and results were expunged from the tournament crosstable. But six weeks later, he returned to win a $5,800 section prize in the World Open.
5. A tongue-in-cheek account of a 2003 cheating incident at a tournament in Germany. Although the incident itself apparently was real, the news site that reported it opted to make light of it. Their reason: Chessbase News is operated by the German company Chessbase, which produces and markets Fritz. For a great laugh, be sure to read not just the news item itself, but the "Editorial Comment" below it, and then the "Dentophonics" and "Nice One, Centurion" (a Monty Python reference) entries beneath that.
6. The "Nice One, Centurion" comment mentioned above refers to another momentous cheating incident, in which a German amateur named Alwermann apparently used computer help to defeat one or more Grandmasters. People became suspicious when, playing against a GM in a complicated position, the amateur cavalierly but correctly announced "mate in 8". Unfortunately, complete details are hard to come by – in English, at least. A Google search of "Alwermann" turned up mostly unnamed, unidentified posts on bulletin boards from way back in 1999.
7. Although the specific details of this accusation against the 2005 FIDE World Champion (I hesitate to even call it an accusation) carry no weight, if you read down the various readers’ comments – and note that one of the readers identifies himself as an International Master – they testify to how many chess people are concerned about the fact that this sort of cheating is technically possible.
It later emerged that no participant at the San Luis tournament lent his name to the scurrilous accusation against Topalov. Several were asked, and each denied making such accusations. However, a Russian GM named Dolmatov did go on the record to accuse Topalov of cheating. Since Dolmatov at one point was a trainer with Russia’s Olympic chess team, and by some accounts is close to World Champion Kramnik, this led some people to speculate that the obviously groundless and low-life accusations that the Topalov team later made against Kramnik during the 2006 championship match, were a form of "payback" for the previous, unsubstantiated mumblings about Topalov getting illicit help.
8. An old Larry Evans column that briefly describes the 1993 "von Neumann" incident, as part of a more general comment about computers in chess.
9. This Usenet post mentions both the Alwermann and "von Neumann" incidents. John Von Neumann is the name of a major figure in early computer science, who worked on the Manhattan Project developing the A-bomb. He died in 1957.
10. Still another chess news site’s report of a 2002 World Open cheating incident, which led to a player being forfeited from a class section during a late-round game with prize money on the line.
ChessBase articles on the subject
D.P. Singh – a supreme talent or a flawed genius?
India: player gets ten year ban for cheating
cycling, hearing and other aids
at the World Open – more details
Accusations at the World Open
in Lampertsheim – cheating in the loo