Aeroflot-gate: reactions from our readers

3/13/2009 – When he was crushed at the Aeroflot Open by a weaker player in just 21 moves top seed Shakhriyar Mamedyarov withdrew in protest, claiming his opponent had been using computer assistance. The accused, Igor Kurnosov, replied with an open letter, and ten days later Mamedyarov restated (and emphasized) his claims. All this has produced vigorous feedback from our readers. Excerpts.

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Readers' take on the Aeroflot scandal

Our previous reports brought you to story of s cheating allegations against Russian GM Igor Kurnosov, at the Aeroflot Open, and also Kurnosov's response. The World no.18 player was not prepared to let the matter drop and issued a strongly-worded letter to a Azeri sports website, repeating his allegations in respect of his own game against Kurnosov, but also claiming that the Russian GM was using the assistance of Rybka in other games played at the Aeroflot Open. Here some of the feedback we received from our readers in reaction to Mamedyarov's letter.

Gary Walters, Cleveland, USA
My sympathies are with Kurnosov. Mamedyarov's letter was published to the world and inflicted substantial harm upon Kurnosov. If the allegations were true, the harm would have been deserved. But Mamedyarov had an obligation to overwhelm everyone with his evidence before going so public. He didn't -- not even close -- and the result is not funny.

Everest Tucker, Farmington, USA
Wow! So this is chess at it's highest levels? It seems that this might be a severe case of bruised ego on the part of Mamedyarov? GM Kurnosov was, after all, only 100 points below Mamed and a GM, so where's the surprise at him playing strong moves? Actually, like several people already pointed out, getting up frequently may have very well been a strategy used to throw of an otherwise formitable opponent? Students of chess will remember how Dr. Emanuel Lasker played the board as well as idiosyncrasies of his opponents to great effect! Even I've been in a similar situation as Mamedyarov without having to accuse my opponent of cheating! I was playing a young lad named Fabiano Caruana and it seemed like he would jump up after every move and wonder around the tournament hall. I noticed that he was mostly chatting with other youngsters or just watching other games. Some players simply can't stay put, but this doesn't mean that they're cheating! Shame on Mamedyarov!

Antonio Gillot, Guatemala, Guatemala
If someone makes an accusation like that, he has to prove it. The tournament organization or fide (low case letters) should jugde the case. If nothing is proved the accuser should be reconvened and some measures taken against him.

Nick Barnett, Cape Town, South Africa
I have been writing a weekly column since 1972 in The Cape Argus. Here is an extract from whatI wrote in my latest column:

"How easy is it to cheat at chess? An athlete cheats through taking performance drugs, but at least it is the same pair of arms and legs that are performing, enhanced or otherwise. Cheating at chess is many ways worse, someone or some software or a combination of the two, is making the moves for the cheater. Yet it is a lot easier to cheat at chess, partly because because whatever rules are in place are not enforced with the rigor that athletics authorities impose on their community. Now turn this around. If Mamedyarov had not indulged in a bout of paranoia, and if Kurnosov had cheated, nobody would have been any the wiser. Take note arbiters and do your job, this kind of incident is going to happen again if you don't take action now."

I looked around during last weekend's Western Province Open and pondered as to how easy it would be to invoke a little bit of help. For instance I could have installed a friend with a laptop in his car – there is a car park right outside the Claremont Chess Club – and sauntered outside between moves to get a briefing as to what to play, and no-one would have bothered.

Rahul Muthu, Bangalore, India
The kind of accusation made by Mamedyarov is very common made by players competing at a much lower level on chess servers and with regard to error-filled blitz games. It is ridiculous that a player of Mamedyarov's stature should fling such accusations publicly without asking for a verification of his claims submitted in private directly to the organisers or arbiterers.

John Crooks, Stilwell, KS, USA
I find the stories on potential cheating in poor taste. If someone is caught cheating then everyone should know and they should be sanctioned. But I think it is unfair to accuse someone simply because they beat you and the computer agrees with their moves. Mamedyarov is a bit unclear in his accusation as well (though that could be a result of the translation). He states that the Rybka moves followed the first choice for entire games but then talks about 2nd choice moves being made and those were the weaker moves. Wouldn't you expect that from someone who wasn't cheating? That they would make some poor moves and other strong moves. With all of the pre-game preparation that is done, studying you chosen opening variations with the help of the computer, you have to expect that many times a player is going to follow computer lines fairly closely. Also, as computers get stronger in all aspects of their game it will be hard for a really strong player NOT to play the moves recommended by the computer unless they are making an error.

I think that repeating Mamedyarov's accusation on your site is a mistake. Reporting on the incident itself was probably unavoidable – it was chess news. Reprinting his accusation is tantamount to your supporting his claim, which without evidence is simply poor journalism.

Igor Freiberger, Porto Alegre, Brazil
Mamedyarov made a very serious accusation based on fragile evidences and no proves at all. His reply on an Azeri newspaper is confused as he first points that "Kurnosov followed Rybka's first choice" and later he says "In all three of these games, very few of Rybka's second-choice moves were played". Even more dubious is that Mamedyarov focuses on other games instead of explaining his own, which moves are fairly simple to any strong player. The Azeri GM could consider himself a fortunate man as Kurnosov may issue a lawsuit against him but he preferred to release a very polite answer.

Baquero Luis, Medellin
For the benefit of chess competition, Mamedyarov's claim should be taken VERY seriuously, not precisely because he is right, but because ANY person making such complaint MIGHT be right, if there is the possibility of a player receiving signals of computer moves. In the near future there is the possibility that this factor, joined with another one that organizers and some players don´t stick to (not enough time for analyzing during the game) will deflect honest and brilliant minds from chess competition.

Jacob Portukalian, Los Angeles, USA
This latest cheating allegation demonstrates that much more care needs to be taken at these top level events. It is not that difficult for a resourceful group of GMs to devise a system to follow and analyze the games and get the correct move back to the GM who is playing. If the GM is relatively strong, as in the case of Kurnosov, just knowing which piece to move without even knowing the computer's choice of square is already a huge advantage. The person signaling the move could do so with just the way he/she is handling her cigarette in the smoking area, i.e. right hand for King side, left hand for queen side, finger and thumb for pawn, index and middle finger for knight, etc. In these tournaments the GMs on the top boards need to be confined to separate lounge areas to smoke and/or relax where they are not able to be in contact visually or verbally with anyone who is not playing in the tournament.

Cheating in chess is much much simpler than cheating in a University, yet we all know how problematic academic cheating is and the universities go to great pains to minimize it. Of course nothing is 100% effective. Tournament chess needs to start enforcing similar anti-cheating measures (not anti-doping which is clearly stupid) in order to maintain the integrity of human vs human chess.

William Shea, Honolulu
It is disappointing to see the cheating accusations in chess continue. The most recent occurrence with GM Mamedyarov and GM Kurnosov could help to improve things in the future, but this would require very serious actions on the behalf of FIDE and other chess organizers. First and foremost, unfounded accusations should result in specific sanctions. For example, if there is no proof to Mamedyarov's claims, than he should be the one subjected to heightened scrutiny by tournament officals. Moreover, if he should repeat any further unsubstantiated claims, he should be suspended from FIDE games for a specific period of time.

In the meantime, with the current envionment in chess, the tournaments do not provide much in the way of anti-cheating securities. A metal detector has been suggested. Maybe it would help, provided it is sensitive to detect all major forms of electronics including phone and PDA. What about ear buds or other means of communication? Perhaps a simple bag check would be a start, but these devices are unlikely to be detected, regardless. All things considered, I think the people making the unfounded cheating allegations have been getting away with too much. They put their opponents on the defensive and dictate the environment and tone of the game to try to obtain an advantage. Some do this intentionally and others do so as a by product of their suspicions. If the officials found no conclusive wrong-doing on the part of GM Kurnosov, then one would expect that GM Mamedyarov has some questions to answer and some decisive action should be taken to prevent unfounded accusations from becoming the norm.

On a final note, since when is it uncommon for a GM to know 25 moves of the Gruenfeld? Perhaps he is guilty of being a slave to opening theory, but I do not think there is any real evidence of anything more than that.

Odion Aikhoje, London, England
I must say I'm very disappointed at GM Mamedyarov's continued pursuit of what I feel is a large barrel of sour grapes. In another field, I'm sure GM Kursonov would be able to sue for defamation of character – is this possible here. The reason I am giving my comments on this issue is because I was privileged to observe GM Kursonov in action first hand at last December's Hastings International Event. From observing his games it was clear to me the level of talent for chess he possesses, at his young age – he is in his early twenties.

In my opinion, some of these 'super GM's' like Mamedyarov feel they only need to show up at the chess board, then their opponents will capitulate out of fear. When Mr Mamedyarov was not so highly rated, on his way up, what if he had been accused of using 'computer assistance' in order to improve his rating? I think FIDE should step in and sanction people who make all these unfounded (unprovable) claims. In my eyes, GM Mamedyarov is a bad loser, a bad sportsman and the perfect example of what a chess player should NOT be.

David Or, Hong Kong
Just writing in to express my opinions on this whole Mamedyarov issue. Frankly, it is complete and utter nonsense. Is it a sign of our decaying world that we can no longer simply compliment our opponents on a game well played and leave it at that?

Let's see now: Why is it that Kurnosov's move matches Rybka's first choices? No doubt its computer assistance right?! I mean god forbid, that a GM could possibly come up with the best move in a position right?! All his winning games show matches to Rybka's choices: definitely cheating right? Totally improbable that he won those games because, gee, I don't know... he actually thought of good moves? (end sarcasm)

Seriously, I'd be interested to see Mamedyarov turn Rybka on his own wins and see how many moves fit the first choice. He even has the audacity to state that this issue will bring a bad image to chess, albeit being the one to both accuse the opponent of cheating AND sending a letter which basically calls the other person a liar despite said participant coming up clean. If he really cared about the image of chess that he should refrain from sending unsubstantiated claims of cheating to a local paper and keep it professionally between himself and FIDE to check things. As it is he is no better than an internet troller.

Sorry for the rant (I'm sure you receive too many of these as is), but I just felt I had to get it out there given Mamedyarov's ridiculous actions. As always thanks for the great news coverage.

Boris Kazanski, Architect and Urbanist, Düsseldorf/Sydney
Mamedyarov´s cheating allegations against Kurnosov at the recent Aeroflot tournament are disturbing for the chessworld, irrespective if they are true or false. One possible way of tackling in what has become a recurring problem is to expand the responsibility of tournament arbiters, particularly in important international tournaments. A special control room could be set up which would contain powerful chess machines such as Rybka. All important chess games would be fed into the computers, move by move and simultaneously. The controllers would thus be able to pinpoint any suspicious computer-assisted manipulation in a particular game and approach the player in question directly. This would help to eliminate protracted wrangles such as the one at the moment, viewed by many outsiders as yet another bizarre episode in a chessworld replete with weirdos and absurdities.

Nat Kongsamran, Bangkok, Thailand
After studying the comments of the people about this case, I think that Mamedyarov hasn't grown up yet in term of maturity and sportsmanship. Many comments show that Kurnosov made the normal moves for the players of his level, and it was Mamedyarov who made some mistakes. He even made a mistake by accusations without any strong evidences and supporting senses. This case will harm him if he doesn't stop. The more he continues, the lower he will sink. Please stay calm and think carefully, Mamedyarov.

José, Montes de Oca, España
First of all, I am neutral on the battle between GMs Mamedyarov and Kurnusov. I only want to point out that these scandals are becoming too frequent in the chess community and, therefore, FIDE and the whole chessworld have to take the necessary solutions to the problem of cheating in our game. Whether there was cheating or not in Mamedyarov´s claim, I don't know for sure. But FIDE has to return confidence back to our game. Certainly, it is very easy to cheat at chess, and I personally know of several cases of this occurring in tournaments. Just remember the scandal in the Krammnik-Topalov world championship match: it was a low blow for chess and nothing was cleared up in the end. I suggest that FIDE and tournaments organizers at all levels adopt very strict controls to avoid this situation.

Woody, UK
The continued Mamedyarov accusations: can he offer any proof? To compare a GM's moves with a computer is silly – surely the moves (especially forced moves) should match. It's not that the GM is playing like Rybka (which is after all a product of human minds) but rather that Rybka plays like a top GM. Can these allegations keep being made? Is there not a need for "proof"? Is there not an issue of slander and/or libel to consider? Is rule of law so backward in that part of the world?

Selim Gurcan, Turkey
In chess, computer assistance during game can be accepted as doping. FIDE and arbiters should be responsible for doping control (computer assistance). In Aeroflot, Mamedyarov asks for a doping control (asking arbiters to observe suspicious behaviour of Kurnosov). The answer is "No, we can't make a doping control because there are too many players!" Kurnosov may be innocent, but can't someone ask for a doping control? Mamedyarov is the player. How do you expect him to find evidence when he is thinking at the board? This is not a simple accusation. So you can't expect him to prove it. This is arbiters responsibility. Did they do it? No.

We say that chess is a sport, but the only doping control is switching off the mobiles and running after Ivanchuk for urine. On the other hand some players can go out in every move and may have the chance to get whispered a Rybka move. Some people may accuse Mamedyarov for his claim now, but soon we will see more people leaving the board in every move and having Rybka-level performances.

N. Earl Roberts, New Zealand
The thing is Shakhriyar Mamedyarov is moaning on about how Igor Kurnosov was up and down out of his chair to supposedly quote Rybka, and here the Chessbase website shows a picture of Kurnosov in his seat and Mamedyarov is not to be seen??

In consideration I do think too much as been made of the Mamedyarov claim that his opponent went to the toilet after every move. Just how many times did actually Kurnosov go? Obviously given the quickness of the moves that Mamedyarov talks about, Kurnosov did not start adjourning to the toilet until move 12 or beyond. This means nine trips at most. Further Mamedyarov states that "after suspicion of unfair play on move 14, I offered a draw". So can it be surmised that supposedly after two trips to the toilet following moves 12 and 13 that Mamedyarov concluded that his opponent was cheating? The game has been played twice before up until Black's 15th and once upt to Black's 16th move. I would also like to know just how long moves 12 to 21 took to play? If you take Mamedyarov's claim at face value, did Mamedyarov play a move and his opponent, say, get up and disappear to the toilet for hours on end to wait for Rybka to do its thing? Or was his opponent back straight away after a quick nervous evacuation and seated thinking or waiting for Mamedyarov's next move?

It would be foolish not to appreciate that cheating in chess goes on, but without the person concerned being caught red handed, it would be equally foolish to assume that all good moves are computer generated on the spot. After all what is Mamedyarovs proof? The output from Rybka? That is like saying because a deaf person has ears, he can hear. Until Mamedyarov has more than sweeping assumptions, I think the media should stop providing him a soap box.

Mig Greengard, Chess Ninja
Mamedyarov's statement about all of Kurnosov's moves matching "strictly from the first line of Rybka" is piffle. The cited win over Onischuk in the second round contains several very nice moves, no doubt, but it's certainly not a game that was garnering particular attention. Once again to the specifics. If no alternative moves are given it's because they are evaluated at least a half-pawn worse.

  • 13..Ba6 (-0.02) is close enough to 13..Na6 (-0.06) and 13..Bxb2 (-0.03) as to define "meaningless." Note it's the third move, not the first, on my machine, but of course with such tiny disparities it could switch back and forth on each iteration. The ..Ba6 idea against the white king's bishop with a knight on b8 is as old as Ernst Grünfeld himself. More recently, by Morozevich in 2008. Against Onischuk!
  • 14..Qc8 (0.04) vs 14..Bxc4 (0.00) and 14..Bxb2 (0.05). ibid.
  • 15..Kxg7 (0.04) vs 14..Bxc4 (0.04) the bishop must be recaptured and taking on c4 first is the only intermezzo.
  • 16..e6 (0.00) vs 16..Bxc4 (0.00) and 16..h6 (0.11). Again, worthless and debatable. I don't doubt ..e6 might be first by a hundredth or so depending on how long you wait.
  • 17..exd5 (-0.57) vs 17..Bxc4 (-0.57) and 17..Re8 (0.22). Meaningless transposition to the computer, since it wants to take on c4 before or after. The computer doesn't believe in White's pawn gambit.
  • 18..Bxc4 (-0.63) vs 18..Qe6 (-0.38). Unremarkable exchange. 18..Qe6 looks entirely bizarre and computer-like.
  • 19..Nc6 (-0.63) Routine development. Any other move would be odd, and bad.
  • 20..Rd8 (-0.63) Challenging the d-file. Again, other moves are significantly worse and would be hard to explain.
  • 21..Qf5 (-0.75) A strong move and the first one going slightly beyond the obvious. The close alternative, 21..Rxd6 (-0.74), is passive.
  • 22..Nxe5! (-1.29) vs 22..Rxd6 (-1.14). A powerful exchange sac and a Grünfeld player isn't happy unless he's playing one. As in various cases during this game, the closest alternative is a passive and unattractive option for any human Grünfeld player. Black has two pawns, a mighty knight, and threats against the white king.
  • 23..Nxf3 (-1.29). Or taking the rook first. Meaningless transposition and forced.
  • 24..Rxd8 (-1.29). Or Black is just worse.
  • 25..Nd4 (-1.29) vs 25..Nh4 (-0.88) or 25..Ne5 (-0.87). The centralization is natural and strong. Black threatens mate and will win another pawn after 26.Qd1 Qxf2.
  • 26..Qb1 (-6.39). The first move of a winning three-move combination after White blunders. The ..b5 deflection theme is pretty, but not hard to find from the attacking side.
  • 27..b5 (-6.39) Having said A, B. White resigns. The white pieces lose control of d1 and ..Ne2 will mate.

So, to wrap up, it looks for all the world like a typically dynamic Grünfeld. White sacrificed a pawn in the opening and Black took over the initiative with a nice exchange sac and then won with a cute tactic missed by White that was instantly lethal. As for Moiseenko-Kurnosov in r4, it was a 25-move liquidating draw of mostly captures. Not only do all of Kurnosov's moves match Rybka's first (or infinitesimally different alternatives), but all of Moiseenko's as well. Elementary, my dear Watson! As for Kurnosov not playing his best after being accused of cheating in front of the whole world by a former top-10 player, go figure.

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