A Game of Chicken: Ivanov rides again

by ChessBase
3/23/2013 – In the last weeks of 2012 he wowed the chess world with a 2700 performance. Two months later the new Bulgarian star FM Borislav Ivanov finished 88th in the Plovdiv, this time with a performance of 1970. Then came another enviable achievement, a clear win at the Villava rapid (again with a 2700 performance). What is going on? Alex Karaivanov speculates, with new video analysis by Valeri Lilov.

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A Game of Chicken: Ivanov in Plovdiv and Villava

By Alex Karaivanov

With a stellar rating performance of 2697 at the famous International Open in Zadar, Croatia, the Bulgarian chess player Borislav Ivanov, wowed the chess world with his sharp, computer-like style of play during the last weeks of 2012. Many chess media outlets were fascinated by the unprecedented success of the young chess dilettante over a horde of legendary grandmasters like Ivan Šaric and Zdenko Kožul.

Two months later, the new Bulgarian chess prodigy scored a mediocre performance of just 1942 at the Georgi Tringov Memorial Open tournament in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, finishing 88th and not even getting the chance to meet a titled opponent, with the only exception of a 1969-rated junior FIDE master to whom Ivanov lost badly in the second round. Despite this exceptionally weak performance for someone who just convincingly beat four GMs with an average FIDE rating of 2597, a few weeks ago, Borislav Ivanov would go on to produce his next enviable achievement, namely his most recent 2696 rating performance at the March 16-17 rapid chess tournament, XXIII Memorial Paz De Ziganda J.L. Gorostidi Oroigarria, held in Villava, Spain:

Rk. Title Name Gr FED Rtg Pts.
1 Ivanov Borislav BUL 2303 8.0
2 IM Cruz Filemon Cat PER 2414 7.0
3 GM Barsov Alexei Val UZB 2526 7.0
4 GM Larino Nieto David Gal ESP 2508 7.0
5 GM Fedorchuk Sergey Ext UKR 2643 6.5
6 GM Komljenovic Davorin Val CRO 2394 6.5
7 IM Ibarra Jerez Jose Carlos And ESP 2544 6.5
8 GM Djuric Stefan Cat SRB 2471 6.5
9 GM Korneev Oleg Can ESP 2609 6.0
10 GM Strikovic Aleksa Gal SRB 2500 6.0
11 GM Ubilava Elizbar Cnt ESP 2495 6.0
12 IM Kovacevic Slobodan Val SRB 2331 6.0
13 GM De La Villa Jesus Mari Nav ESP 2472 6.0
14 IM Reinaldo Castineira Roi Gal ESP 2468 6.0
15 IM Garbisu de Goni Unai Nav ESP 2452 6.0
16 GM Hoffman Alejandro Gal ARG 2453 6.0
17 GM Cifuentes Roberto Eus ESP 2472 6.0
18 GM Shchekachec Andrei FRA 2520 6.0

The story of Ivanov began in Zadar, where the organizers’ strip search before the start of the eighth round provided no evidence for any form of the cheating Ivanov had been accused of by his opponents in previous rounds. In fact, the search gave Ivanov the courage to beat Šaric with the exact same tactical prowess he demonstrated against other titled players in earlier rounds. Still, it is quite important to note that Ivanov lost quickly his eighth game, right after the search was performed. On the other hand, though, according to FM Valeri Lilov’s analysis of Ivanov’s games, this is the only game where his moves didn’t match the top choices by the strongest chess program, Houdini, whose moves correlated more than 90% of the times with Ivanov’s in all other rounds of the tournament, including the game against Šaric. In the end, Borislav Ivanov placed fourth and covered his first GM norm, while boosting his FIDE rating to a solid FM level.

The headline reads: "Genius or crook? Check Bulgarian chess player stripped to see whether he is using cheating chip!" And the intro paragraph: "Ivanov is 25 years old and has a job as a programmer. Everybody is watching him, but he is not doing anything that raises suspicion that he might be receiving signals during the game." You can read the full article (in Croatian) here.

In the days following the Zadar events, the case was picked up first by the Croatian media, but it quickly spread as far as the U.S. where both New York Times and Washington Post published a column on the Ivanov dilemma: chess genius or chess cheat? It wasn’t long before Ivanov came forward and defended his success as the result of his hard work in a number of interviews both for the national and foreign newspapers and TV programs. Ivanov was also featured on an Oprah-style talk show on the Bulgarian TV channel where the host offered him to submit to the lie detector.

In another interview on the private TV7 channel (video) the Executive Director of the Bulgarian Chess Federation, Nikolay Velchev, publicly endorsed Ivanov’s performance in Zadar, comparing him to Bobby Fischer due to his identical nickname.

The case was repeatedly picked up by the media for the following weeks and everyone expected Ivanov’s next tournament where he would have possibly demonstrated his smooth and superior style of play consistently, regardless of any tournament regulations aiming at preventing computer cheating. After the initial media reports on his Zadar performance, Ivanov had quickly signed up for the upcoming Georgi Tringov Memorial to be held in his native Bulgaria. However, as the event was fast approaching, a number of local grandmasters expressed their intention to boycott the tournament, unless the organizers take specific precautions against a possible cheating scheme at the event.

The most prominent opinion was that of the second-best Bulgarian player, GM Ivan Cheparinov, who stated that if paired with Ivanov, he would offer him a draw to avoid a dramatic loss later on. The organizers were quick in their actions and announced that as part of the tournament rules, players will be subject to unexpected searches before and during tournament games. Ivanov was aware of that beforehand and started his tournament with a win over a 1696-rated opponent. Nevertheless, as soon as the second round was over, Ivanov lost dramatically to a 1969-rated Greek teenager, FM Ioannidis Evgenios. After this game, Ivanov went on to draw 1985-, 2069-, and lose to 1983- and 2094-rated players, while winning only agaubst sub-1850 opponents. All of that earned Ivanov an overall tournament performance of just 1942, exactly 400 points lower than his expected strength of 2342 FIDE at the time.

This tournament was quickly concluded and another important event was on the way for Ivanov. On the very next day, he entered the Semi-Final of the Bulgarian Individual Chess Championship. Here, he performed way better and scored 5.5, only a point shy of the winner.

Nonetheless, according to FM Valeri Lilov’s analysis of Ivanov’s latest classical chess games, it was evident that Ivanov employed three completely distinctive styles of play, depending on the situation and opponent he was paired with. In a final video by Lilov, the FIDE Master dissects Ivanov’s games for you. In his video, Lilov suggests that Ivanov had an intricate strategy of trying to win as many rating points as possible while throwing sand in the eyes of his suspecting opponents and the tournament organizers, who saw him losing badly in the Georgi Tringov Memorial which was held at the same site.

According to Lilov, Ivanov did use the computer engine Houdini 3.0 in eight of his games. FM Valeri Lilov did an impartial game analysis comparing Ivanov’s moves to those of several popular chess engines, only to find out that his moves correlated to the first line of Houdini 3.0 at a rate of over 90%. However, Lilov suggests that not all of these eight games were played with the same engine settings and that was for a reason. In fact, the games against Valkov, Enchev, Kukov, Galunova, and Dimitrov were played with a high rate of exchanges and simplifications with the ultimate objective of achieving a draw, a setting available on the modern Houdini 3.0 program! Thus, Ivanov hoped to demonstrate that his play is not faultless and his results are nothing but human, Valeri states. On the other hand, however, Ivanov was also able to use the full power of Houdini 3.0 on the Semi-Final by beating Kirchev, Bratanov, and Marholev when he played with extreme accuracy and tactical ferocity, which we have already seen in Ivanov’s Zadar games.

Yet, how about Ivanov’s game against GM Popchev, Valeri asks. Why did he lose to the only GM he was paired against in this tournament? The truth is, as Valeri later explains, that in this single game, Ivanov decided to employ his real, third style of play for this tournament, which is: playing by himself and losing to the GM, crushing any suspicions on his style of play at a time when a sudden strip search was most likely to be conducted on him. FM Valeri Lilov’s analysis of his games from this and other key tournaments played in 2012 is very revealing and demonstrates the difference between Ivanov’s superior style of play mostly seen in Zadar and his ‘other self’ when playing at a Class A player level, e.g. the game against GM Popchev. Valeri does give more insight on a possible cheating scheme that Ivanov may be using, but unless caught, we cannot conclude that this theory is correct given the current definition of chess cheating stipulated by FIDE.

It is hard to believe that Ivanov has played his best at all tournaments without outside help. Some of his games have mysteriously followed Houdini’s best move suggestions consistently until some of the strongest grandmasters have been beaten in classical miniatures thanks to some extraordinary tactical blows only computers are able to calculate! Thus, today we also report on the latest event Ivanov dared to join and win convincingly, beating and placing ahead of the Ukrainian GM Sergey Fedorchuk (2643). Ivanov also beat GM Oleg Korneev in the same rapid chess tournament that finished this past Sunday, March 17th, in Villava, Spain. His phenomenal score of eight points out of nine games, a whole point ahead of IM Filemon Cruz, who placed second in the event, and Ivanov’s astronomical tournament performance of 2696 created another “Zadar” in a matter of days!

Ivanov is sure to continue his splendid chess career and collect larger prizes than the 1,200 € he took at Villava last week. There have been many speculations as for how he is doing it. Some claim that he cheated and even had an assistant, while others believe he is playing all by himself. However, the lack of live coverage and the rapid chess time control at Villava suggest that Ivanov relies entirely on himself and only the current FIDE regulations are not enough to catch an alleged cheater, neither to demonstrate his possible innocence in case of a thorough, unexpected search once a winning position has been achieved against a 2600+ opponent. Can Ivanov’s erratic play be a proof by itself or we still need the much needed physical evidence that FIDE requires to implicated a regular chess player in computer cheating?

Alex Karaivanov is the manager of FM Valeri Lilov and has managed his coaching career and chess training business for the past six years. He is also involve in producing Valeri Lilov's ChessBase DVDs.


Recent ChessBase articles on cheating in chess

Cheating suspicion at the Zadar Open in Croatia
04.01.2013 – In this event, with 16 GMs and a host of other strong players, one participant stood out especially: the 25-year-old untitled Bulgarian Borislav Ivanov scored 6.0/9 points, with a rating performance of 2697. In the January FIDE list Ivanov has gained 115 points over his previous 2277 rating, gained in over 400 games over three years. A certain suspicion once again raises its ugly head.
Cheating scandal in Croatia – feedback and analysis
08.01.2013 – Recently we reported that the incredibly brilliant play by a 25-year-old untitled Bulgarian player at the Zadar Open in Croatia had raised suspicion that he might have been using illicit electronic assistance during his games. A number of readers criticised us – for linking to the mainstream Croatian media reports?! One of them, an expert in the field, actually analysed all the games in question.
Cheating scandal – Borislav Ivanov speaks out
17.01.2013 – Recently a 25-year-old untitled Bulgarian player scored 6.0/9 points in a strong GM tournament, with a 2697 performance. His opponents complained, he was searched, and no electronic equipment was found. Still, the case put chess on the front pages of the mainstream media, and led to intense discussions on the Internet. Now Ivanov has given the Russian news portal WhyChess an exclusive interview.

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