Promoting fair play among child chess players

by Alexey Root
4/8/2020 – Whitney Houston sang “I believe that children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.” With frequent news stories about adult chess cheaters, chess coaches and parents may take a “Do as I say, not as they do” approach to promoting chess honesty in children. WIM ALEXEY ROOT reports. | Photo: Przemek P, via Wikimedia Commons

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The abyss of cheating

“If a player is determined to cheat, it will happen,” stated chess organizer Walter High. Apparently, players cheat regularly. ChessBase’s articles on cheating are catalogued here. The New York Times ran a story about cheating in baseball and in chess. Because children imitate adult behavior, children may also cheat at chess.

In addition to cheating by imitation, children may cheat to win for their own happiness. One study, of 87 six-year-old children, found that 40% said that winning at chess makes them happy. Another 10% said that playing with their queen or cheating at chess makes them happy because those strategies help them win.

Applying advice from schools

Cheating in schools

Four pieces of advice from an article about children cheating in school might transfer to chess. First, allow consequences to stick. Now that most chess games are played online, if a child cheats he or she will be penalized. National Master Jeff Ashton, profiled in this earlier article, said that one child playing in a Panda Chess Academy online tournament “got automatically detected mid-tournament and forfeited points.”

Second, tell children to be honest. The article about school cheating recommends telling a child, “I expect you to be honest.” That positively-phrased wording resonates with my lifeguard training. I was advised to yell “Walk” if a child needed to slow down next to the pool. If instead a lifeguard yells, “Don’t run!” the child hears “Run” and then just keeps running. In other words, “Don’t cheat” may be less effective than “Play Fair.”

Third, the school article asks parents to “consider how much you talk to your kids about the importance of good grades versus how much you discuss the importance of being an honest person.” Translated for chess parents and coaches, “consider how much you talk to your children or your students about the importance of high chess ratings versus how much you discuss the importance of playing chess honestly.” 

Last, praise the children’s efforts. In chess, one example might be to praise children who take an appropriate amount of time on each move during their games. Praise their hard work rather than the games’ results.

These four pieces of advice are my application of scholastic advice to chess. I also asked two prominent chess figures, Dr. Judit Sztaray and Jay Stallings, about their techniques for promoting fair play.

Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club

Dr. Judit Sztaray is the General Manager of Youth Outreach and Events at the Mechanics' Institute Chess Club. Sztaray advises children:

Mechanics' Institute1. Cheating does have serious consequences. Cheaters will be found, if not after their first-time cheating, then later, but they are found. Being caught cheating means having their reputation ruined, and they often find themselves blacklisted as a player. A cheater is a liability for an organization, and the player will find themselves with nowhere to play competitive chess. Who would want to play against a known cheater?

2. Chess tournaments measure your ability to play chess. After cheating, your rating will no longer reflect your chess-playing ability, but rather the fact that you’ve cheated. Sure, you may have a high rating, but you aren’t good at playing chess, you are just cheating, and that makes all the difference. You will always know that you aren’t as good as people think you are.

3. Cheating is addictive. It’s just like cigarettes or drugs. If you cheat once, it will be easy to keep doing and very hard to stop. Don’t get tempted! 

Sztaray added, “We teach our children to say no to drugs. Likewise, we have to remind them never to cheat and always adhere to fair play. Despite temptations, kids should always say no to cheating just like they say no to drugs. If a child is found cheating, we inform their parents and discuss possible courses of action. We then work with them to ensure that the child’s actions and behavior can be remedied and be guided back toward fair play.” 

Prior to the coronavirus, the Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club hosted in-person chess games. Currently, the Mechanics’ Institute building is closed “during the extended Shelter in Place order.” The Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club has transitioned to online tournaments, monitored by Sztaray and Mechanics’ Institute Chess Room Director Abel Talamantez. Some instances of fair play violations have been found, even though the club’s online tournaments have no cash prizes. The Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club is prepared to institute additional precautionary measures to ensure fair play, such as requiring each player’s real name and/or obligating them to record their faces during play (via Skype or Zoom and webcam).

California Youth Chess League

Jay Stallings is the Director of the California Youth Chess League. His nickname is “Coach Jay.” Instead of focusing on the ramifications if caught cheating, Coach Jay often tells a story to illustrate the empowering feeling you earn from playing your very best, win or lose.

In 1972, after Bobby Fischer played a beautiful game to beat Boris Spassky in Game 6 of their World Championship match, the fans broke into applause, and then something incredible happened. Boris Spassky joined them, applauding his opponent’s incredible masterpiece. It was perhaps the only move that Spassky made during the entire match that surprised Fischer. “Can you believe that sportsmanship?” Fischer exclaimed frantically to his manager. In the end, Bobby Fischer won the match, but it is Spassky who will forever be associated with the ultimate display of sportsmanship.

Sportsmanship begins with having a stronger appreciation for the endeavor than you do for winning. In other words - Do you eagerly embrace the epic strategy, calculation, and creativity of chess? Or, do you play the game mainly to gain trophies, recognition, and rating points? For me, I would rather have an incredible battle against a tough player and lose, than checkmate my little brother in 4 moves. How about you?

Two books written by Coach Jay include a section on Sportsmanship. Fried Liver & Burning Pants (2013) shares stories of famous poor sports from chess history, while Coach Jay’s Chess Academy Orange Belt Lesson Book (2018) introduces the young player to sportsmanship and how to properly deal with disputes in rated tournaments.

Coach Jay's books

Coach Jay's books

Confessions of a touch-move cheater

The very first time I won a game against an expert, when I was a teenager who was rated more than 200 points below my opponent, I remember touching a chessman when that expert was away from the board. No one saw me touch that chessman, and I moved another piece. Thus, my first win against an expert is always tainted for me, since I didn’t follow the touch-move rule.

The shame I felt over that touch-move violation was enough to keep me from cheating for more than 30 years, until 2015. I wrote about my 2015 touch-move violation in my 2016 book Prepare With Chess Strategy. In a similar situation to when I was a teenager, I was rated more than 200 points below my opponent and very much wanted to win. The excerpt below is from Prepare With Chess Strategy:

I was paired with FIDE Master (FM) Keith Hayward. In past tournaments, I have drawn Hayward once and lost to him four times. By move 43, this game looked like loss number five for me. Then, on move 44, Hayward made a mistake, giving up a bishop for free. I was back in the game. Unfortunately, I was also in time trouble. The time control was game in 60 minutes with no delay. I had less than five minutes for the rest of my moves. As I took the bishop, I offered a draw. Hayward refused. Six moves later, we reached the position included with this article, move 50 with me as Black to move.

I picked up my rook on b7, touching the white pawn on b6 with it. I said, “I adjust” when I realized that 50...Rxb6 lost to 51. Rh6+, skewering my king to my rook. I started to move my rook to b8 instead. Hayward said that I’d touched his pawn. The tournament director, my son William, asked me if I touched the white pawn. I said that I had. William said, “Then you have to take it. It’s the same rule you teach to your students.” I took the pawn and resigned four moves later. After the tournament, I felt worse about my poor sportsmanship than about hanging my rook. 

In addition to apologizing in person after our game, I emailed an apology to Hayward that evening. Hayward runs the Lewisville Chess Club which I have attended, both before and after my touch-move violation. We remain friends, but I am still embarrassed about my touch-move violation. As Sztaray pointed out, cheaters never forget that they cheated.


Keith Hayward, Alexey Root

Keith Hayward versus Alexey Root (2007) | Photo: Richard Herrington 

The next time I’m paired 200 or more points up, if a situation like a missing opponent or time trouble arises, I must sublimate my burning desire to win for the more lasting pleasure of playing fair. I hope that sharing my experiences, and telling my students and readers to “play fair,” saves them from the abyss of cheating.


Alexey was the 1989 U.S. Women's Chess Champion and is a Woman International Master. She earned her bachelor’s degree in History at the University of Puget Sound and her doctoral degree in Education at The University of California, Los Angeles. She has been a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas since 1999 and is a prolific author.


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