Cheating at the World Open – more details

8/17/2006 – Last week we reported that two players were accused of using computer assistance during their games at the World Open in Philadelphia in July. The story was in the New York Times, but contained some inaccuracies. The tournament director who found the secret communication device sets the record straight. And one of the victims sent us analysis of his game. You'll probably guess who played it.

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The event had a total prize fund of $358,000, and the two players were accused of surreptitiously receiving assistance from computers. One, who was one of the lowest-ranked players in the main tournament, was confronted after he had beaten a string of much stronger players. He fled to a bathroom stall, where he spent 45 minutes. After that no communications device was found, but the player was watched carefully during the rest of the tournament. He lost the rest of his games quickly. GM Larry Christiansen later ran the moves of one of the games, a black win against GM Ilia Smirin, rated 2659, through the program Shredder and found that the last 25 moves matched those played by the program.

The second case involved a player named Steve Rosenberg, who was playing in a lower section and was leading before the final round. A victory would have been worth about $18,000. He was confronted by a tournament director and found to be using a wireless transmitter and receiver called a "Phonito". He was disqualified from the event. In our report we drew information from an article that had appeared in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. It turns out that some of the details reported there were not completely accurate. The tournament director who detected the cheating, Michael Atkins of Virginia, sent us the following description of the events.

Your article was not completely accurate, because it got some of its information from the New York Times article, which posted an inaccurate chain of events. I was the chief TD of the U-2000 section, I took the device from the player, investigated it, and forfeited him.

Before I describe the situation I would like to note that in Steve Rosenberg's previous three tournaments in the US he had scored 18-0 in class sections. Either he had made dramatic progress or, more likely, he had perfected his cheating technique. Naturally I can't swear to that, but who goes 18-0 in three tournaments, especially at the erratic class level?

The actual and correct sequence at the World Open in Philadelphia was as follows:

  1. Rosenberg's last round opponent asked me about the large headphones he had been wearing all through the tournament. I explained to him that under the rules of the tournament he could ask Rosenberg to play without them. He asked and Rosenberg complied.

  2. Shortly after they started playing, Rosenberg went to the bathroom, where several players reported hearing "whirring" noises coming out of the bathroom stall he was in. I didn't personally hear them, but decided to investigate. Once Rosenberg had left the stall and had had the chance to change or remove whatever made the whirring noises, I didn't see the point to a physical search.

  3. Shortly after that I asked to speak with him. I had already spoken to him earlier in the tournament, as players were complaining that he was cheating somehow. So he knew who I was, the section chief of the Under 2000 section he was playing in. I told him that he was under suspicion of cheating, and that he should not go to the bathroom without a director for the rest of the game. I also asked him what was in his ears. He said a hearing aid. I had no reason to suspect anything different, so the game continued.

  4. I went back to watch the game several times in the next couple hours. Each time I observed Rosenberg playing with his hands tightly clutched over his ears, making a move and then quickly bringing his hands back over his ears. Whenever I was around, he looked nervous, shot nervous glances off to the side, in order to see where I was, and was sweating. His opponent told me after the game that Rosenberg's play had greatly improved after coming back from the initial bathroom trip, that he had been "floundering" in the opening until that trip.

  5. Several hours later, and several complaints later, I asked him to step away from the game and asked him again what was in his ear, and I would like to see it. He said it was a hearing aid and quickly put the device into his pocket. I insisted several more times that I needed to see the device. He fished around in his pocket, then slowly and reluctantly revealed the item. I knew what the color of the device was that I saw him put into his pocket, and I took it. I told him to continue the game.

  6. I started studying the device. It looked nothing like any hearing aid I had ever seen. It had a name and a website on it, but not a serial number (as stated in the NYT and your article). I investigated the name and website, and discovered what it was. I showed this to another director and to Mr. Goichberg. The device was a Phonito, manufactured by a company called Phonak. It is described on the page's headlines as "Phonito Wireless Earphones by Phonak – Wireless Miniature Communication Receivers". I also showed the device to International Arbiter Carol Jarecki, who had complained of something in Rosenberg's ears. She too said she had never seen a hearing aid like this either.

  7. I went to get Mr. Rosenberg and brought him to the office. I asked him again what the device was and he said a hearing aid. I opened the laptop and showed him the web page which described it as a wireless miniature VHF receiving device. He still claimed it was a hearing aid. He stated he had a prescription for a hearing aid, but didn't have that with him. He claimed to be hard of hearing, but had no answer when asked why someone would attempt to limit noise with a headphone and then increase sound with a hearing aid. During the process I had input from six other very experienced directors.

  8. The device is usually coupled with a signal booster that is worn around the neck, and Mr. Rosenberg refused to remove the bulky sweater he was wearing. I forfeited him for cheating and turned the decision over to Mr. Goichberg, who upheld it. Mr. Rosenberg remained generally calm during this whole process, stating that it was a hearing aid and if we were going to forfeit him to let him have the device back so he could start his long ride home.

    Michael Atkins,
    National tournament director and
    chief TD of the U-2000 section of the World Open 2006

Atkins adds that the matter has been submitted to the US Chess Federation Ethics Committee as a formal complaint. He wonders if we will eventually have to do what airports in the US are doing, and run everyone though metal detectors and x-ray machines prior to entering the tournament hall. Or use systems that block cell phone and other wireless transmissions.

We also received a message from one of Rosenberg's opponents:

I played Steve Rosenberg in the first round of the World Open. After hearing about the New York Times article concerning the cheating scandal I analyzed my game with Fritz9. The game was 29 moves long. On move one (d4) was the choice #2 in the opening book (e4 being #1). On move 3, Rosenberg chose the #2 choice also (but, of course, GMs frequently choose variations).

But now get this: every other move of the game was a #1 choice of Fritz! I have analyzed games by World Champions and haven't ever seen that before! Rosenberg was clearly making computer moves! On move 20, oddly, he made what initially appears to be one of the worst moves possible (#36 out of 43 choices). But if you let Fritz think for 3-4 minutes, it too becomes a #1 choice! Here's the game:

Steve Rosenberg (1974) - Mike Henebry (1892) [A31]
World Open (1), 30.06.2006
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.Nf3 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nc6 5.Nc3 e5 6.Ndb5 d6 7.Bg5 a6 8.Bxf6 gxf6 9.Na3 f5 10.Qd2 Be7 11.Nd5 Be6 12.0-0-0 Bxd5 13.cxd5 Na5 14.g3 Rc8+ 15.Kb1 b5 16.Bh3 b4 17.Qxb4 Rb8 18.Qa4+ Kf8 19.Bxf5 e4 20.Ka1 Bf6 21.Rd2 Qb6 22.Rb1 Qc5 23.Rc2 Qb6 24.Qxe4 Qxf2 25.e3 Rxb2 26.Rbxb2 Qe1+ 27.Nb1 Nb3+ 28.axb3 Qa5+ 29.Qa4 1-0. [Click to replay]

You might want to retrieve the games from Rosenberg's other World Open victims. If they also turn out to be #1 choices by Fritz then I think you only have three possible explanations: that Fritz should be rated 1974, like Rosenberg; or that Rosenberg should be rated higher than any previous World Champion; or that he was cheating. Even the O.J. Simpson's jury shouldn't have much trouble figuring this one out!

Mike Henebry
of Cypress, CA, USA.


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