Revisited: 15-minute broadcast delay

by Frederic Friedel
9/14/2022 – When the organisation of the 2022 Sinquefield Cup decided, after Round 3, to implement a fifteen-minute delay for the broadcast of moves, we felt some gratification. Hadn't we suggested exactly this to FIDE, seventeen years ago, as one possible measure to counteract cheating in chess? At least to make it more difficult? Not everybody was happy with the proposal and with its implementation in Saint Louis. What do you think?

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The idea was first proposed – at least by me – on October 17th, 2005. It was departure day after the FIDE World Championship tournament in San Luis. Towards the end of the event there had been suspicions, expressed by some of the players, that there may have been signalling going on during the event. FIDE officials were worried and discussing the matter in their board meetings.

I got into a long and intense conversation with FIDE Vice Presidents Zurab Azmaiparashvili and Israel Gelfer, and proposed a simple solution – one that was designed to make it harder for players to cheat during a top-level event. It involved delaying the live broadcast of moves over the Internet by fifteen minutes. The proposal was enthusiastically greeted by the two VPs, who asked me to write it up and submit it to the FIDE Presidential Board. This I did, on at least three separate occasions, over the years.

You can read about the contents of the proposal and it's genesis in this report. A full version of my formal submission is given in the links below.


Now, after sudden cheating allegations arose in Saint Louis, the organisers decided, after round three, to suddenly implement a 15-minute delay in the game broadcast on the Internet. I felt quite gratified to hear this. But a good friend, one who is normally very astute, and whose intelligence I deeply admire, reacted critically. He wrote:

Your solution to cheating at chess reminds me of a famous quote from a US General made during the Vietnam war, “In order to save the village (from the Vietcong) we must first destroy it.” Therefore we get a new Friedel directive, “In order to save chess from would be cheaters we should first destroy the enjoyment derived from broadcasting the games live.”

This left me stunned. Was the friend suggesting that the enjoyment of live chess was based entirely on seeing each move in the exact instance it was played? If I, sitting here in Hamburg, 7500 km from Saint Louis, realize the moves I see in the broadcast were actually executed fifteen minutes earlier, then that would destroy my enjoyment of the game? As it would for someone in Sydney, 14,000 km away? And destroy it for the rest of the 99.9% of the spectators watching the games. They are located all over the world and, like me, watch the game on the Internet?

Would that mean that with the 15-minute broadcast delay it would only be the people in Saint Louis, who were present in the playing rooms of the tournament venue, that would be really enjoying the games?

In any case, in my proposal to FIDE, described to FIDE seventeen years ago (and formally delivered soon after) I suggested we needed to take steps to address a looming problem. "These steps do not eliminate the problem completely," I said. "They just make it much harder to cheat." The measures I proposed, in summary, were:

  1. No electronic devices should be allowed in the playing hall at top-level tournaments. There must be clear penalties for transporting electronic devices, even if they are obviously not intended for illegal purposes.
  2. Seconds and associates of the competing player should not be allowed to be present in the playing hall; or they must be adequately sequestered from the players.
  3. Most importantly: the transmission of moves outside the playing hall must be delayed by a certain period of time (15 minutes for classical games).
  4. Rest rooms during matches are only arranged if both players agree to it. Common toilet facilities must be used.
  5. There must be serious, predefined penalties for players caught cheating.

The delay in the broadcast (3) was of considerable importance. It would be implemented by building a relay loop in the transmission of the moves from the boards to the outside world. Albert Vasser of DGT was able to implement this in a few days. The sensor boards could display the current board position locally inside the playing hall, but a delay module (software) would pass it on to the Internet after a given amount of time. The moves would appear in the broadcast at exactly the tempo in which they were played, just 15 minutes later. It would be hardly noticeable for the world-wide Internet audience.

Installing this mechanism means that any outside assistance to the players would be greatly hampered. Even if a cheater is equipped with a very sophisticated reception device, something that would even elude metal detectors, his accomplices have the problem of receiving the moves from the playing venue in time to analyse and pass their results on to the cheater.

At the time I was severely taken to task by a journalist of the magazine New in Chess. First of all he reminded me that the vast majority of players had no wish to cheat at all. And:

In any case any 'cure' should be avoided that is much worse than the disease. Such as the 15-minute delay of the transfer of the moves that once again was promoted on the ChessBase website. On the surface the idea doesn't sound that bad (the cheaters will not get the moves signalled in time, because their buddies lose precious minutes), but in fact it lacks all logic.

Mr. Friedel knows full well that the 15-minute delay only makes sense if you take substantial additional measures [all of which I had included–ff]. But if you apply all these extra measures (such as searching the players, blocking radio signals, not allowing anyone in or out of the hall while the round is in progress) there is no reason whatsoever why you should have a 15-minute delay in the first place! Why rob the people at home of that wonderful luxury of following the games in realtime?

Honestly, now that we have all watched six rounds of the Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis with the 15-minute delay implemented, has it really ruined your enjoyment of the games? Did it fatally detract from the excitement you felt during the first three rounds, when the moves were displayed on your screen the exact moment they were played?

The 15-minute broadcast delay was most relevant in 2005, when I first proposed it. At the time, and in the following years, it was necessary to use a large desktop computer in order to see deeper than a player in his game. Typically, the computer assisting a player would be halfway around the world – and organisers would be delivering the moves of the opponent in real time to it. That is what the delay was meant to prevent. With it in place, the assistant would have to exit the playing hall after every move to relay it to the conspirators. That would be quite easy to spot.

Today the situation has changed somewhat. It is entirely possible that my smartwatch could play in Saint Louis and stand up to the world elite GMs there. It follows that a member of the audience who is wearing a watch could signal a player when an extraordinary chance, a brilliant move, is displayed. This could be seen with a glance at the watch. I have not actually tried following a game and seeing 3000+ engine analysis on a smartwatch. It may be pure speculation that this is feasible. But if it is not, let me assure you it will only take months or a year for it to become a very real possibility. 

So how will that influence chess, the game we all love. I asked a friend, who is an expert on electronic communication, to attend a top tournament, and a championship match. He snooped around, saw how people were screened at entry, how a glass screen prevented the players from seeing the audience. I also showed him that before the start of a round we had access to the stage, the restrooms of the players, the passages and the toilets. He was devastated. The report he filed for me after studying all conditions started with the statement: "What a pity, it was such a wonderful game!"

But all is not lost. Another friend, a security expert who worked for the US government, a chess enthusiast and a contact magician, has promised to give me a catalogue of the measures that should be taken today. They will not be as harsh as the following "solution":

When Andrew Paulsen was alive and staging a World Championship for FIDE, he consulted me. We decided that ultimately it would only be possible to rigorously prevent cheating by staging the match in a Faraday Cage, in a remote location, without spectators. Andrew actually started negotiating with the state of Bhutan to stage the championship in the Himalayas. He wanted to make it a pure Internet event. But that didn't materialize. So the match was held in the traditional way. It relied on scanning for metal on entry, but mainly on trust in the honesty of the players.


A history of cheating in chess (1)
Hardly a month goes by without some report of cheating in international chess tournaments. The problem has become acute, but it is not new. In 2001 Frederic Friedel contributed a paper to the book "Advances in Computer Chess 9". It traces the many forms of illicit manipulations in chess and, a decade later, appears disconcertingly topical and up-to-date. We reproduce the paper in five parts.

A history of cheating in chess (2)
Coaching players during the game is probably the most widespread form of cheating (rivaled only perhaps by bribery and the throwing of games). Although this practice began long before the advent of chess playing machines, computers have added a new and dramatic dimension to this method of cheating in chess. You will never guess: who were the pioneers of cheating with computers?

A history of cheating in chess (3)
In January 1999 the main topic of conversation amongst top players like Kasparov, Anand and others: who was the mysterious German chess amateur, rated below 2000, who had won a strong Open ahead of GMs and IMs, with wonderfully courageous attacking chess and a 2630 performance? How had he done it? Turns out it was with unconventional methods, as subsequent investigation uncovered.

A history of cheating in chess (4)
Las Palmas 1996: Garry Kasparov is agonizing over his 20th move against Vishy Anand. He calculates and calculates but cannot make a very tempting pawn push work. Immediately after the game he discovers, from his helpers, that it would have won the ultimately drawn position. The point that became clear to him: a single bit of information, given at the top level in chess, can decide a game.

A history of cheating in chess (5)     
A few weeks ago FIDE took first executive steps to combat the most serious threat that the game of chess currently faces: the secret use of computer assistance during the game. In a paper written fourteen years ago Frederic Friedel had first drawn attention to the dangers that are lurking. Here is the fifth and final section.

Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.


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flachspieler flachspieler 9/14/2022 07:40
Based wrote: "... not every case is a front page scandal, certainly not the Feller case."

Sorry but that is plain wrong. Ask search engines for
feller chess cheating
and you will get tons ot hits, even twelve years after the event. For instance,
in Germany Google says "313,000 hits", MS Bing says "104,000 hits".
And back in early 2011, the scandal had front page coverage.

Concerning the proposed (and often used) 15 min delay in transmission: that helps indeed a lot for a very modest price. For instance, German chess Bundesliga uses it for several years already.
goeland goeland 9/14/2022 07:36
Youre right but why did you choose a picture of Hans N ? Kind of bias ? When nobody knows whats happening. The article would have been perfect with a neutral picture, a quiet lake, a zen garden, some cookies.
Based Based 9/14/2022 07:17
@flachspieler: Of course there is cheating, but not every case is a front page scandal, certainly not the Feller case.

I am not against sensible measures against cheating. But as with every problem, the nearer you get to the perfect solution you have to invest exponentially more to achieve it. There is a point where the cost (or harm done) outweighs the benefit. It is usually fanaticism and ideology that leads people to follow a path of incalculable costs to achieve a certain goal, no matter how far the costs outweigh anything that could be gained. You can advocate "Chess Lockdowns" to achieve "Zero Cheating" or any other measure you can imagine, just to find yourself with the same amount of cheating as before.

In the end you will have chess games won by chess players, a world champion who won a world championship - with or without 15 minute delay. Just that with the 15 minute delay you live under the delusion of "zero cheating", while at the same time robbing millions of people of the joy of following games live.
flachspieler flachspieler 9/14/2022 06:48
@Based: There were scandals almost every year, one of the most prominent being the case of Sebastien Feller, cheating in the French national team in Chess Olympiad 2010. Luckily, the French team organisers was so honest to make the case public.
Based Based 9/14/2022 05:43
@Frederic: The obvious answer is "yes". Most of those measures are basically universally applied even in the most insignificant settings such as entering a school building, writing an exam or entering a disco. People following chess online do not even notice any of those measures, there is no public image generated like it is when you delay a game for 15 minutes.
I do think it is a problem when one player accuses another player of cheating without any evidence, like Toiletgate 2006 or what is now happening with Magnus v. Hans. Those are really the only front page scandals in the past 15 years, and both are most probably not a result of cheating but a result of childish and despicable behaviour. And yes, I do take a scandal every 15 years over a 15 minute delay every game.
Jacob woge Jacob woge 9/14/2022 05:35
The suspicion of cheating can be as disturbing as cheating itself. Who knows what rôle suspicion alone played in the Niemann-Firouzja game.

During the Kasparov-Kranmik WC match in Hammersmith, London, every seat in the playing hall was equipped with live commentary thru headphones. People would up and leave (the great games 3 and 4 lasted 6½ and 7 hours, respectively, or vice versa), and leave the headgear on their seat, volume turned up. This was noticed by the players, who came to realise that the noise from the audience was more than just noise. The Kasparov glare penetrated the front row-ers, Kramnik simulated unperturbed. It was most disturbing, and a blatant error on the organisers' behalf.

I am not sure when, but pretty sure to have experienced a tournament of lower category, where one of the top players appeared listened in, in the open commentary room with, his game in progress. The whispers, "What's he doing here?". No hell was raised.

The commentary is an obvious source of information leakage. Again, the mere suspicion is enough to be disturbing.
michael bacon michael bacon 9/14/2022 04:28
Using the delay is another step toward the end of Chess. Can you imagine the World Series, Superbowl, or final game of the soccer World Cup being delayed? The 15 minute delay was not used at the start of the tournament, only after MC lost was it instituted. Chess is dead, or at least on life support... Just sayin'...
Frederic Frederic 9/14/2022 04:10
@brabo_hf: "I remember a few times that I was watching with a delay on a website and somebody in the chat already told that the game was finished with result x." What we are advocating is that only the players, the arbiters and the fifty on-site spectators see the moves in real time. The other ten million chess fans world wide all see them after fifteen minutes.

@Based: "By implementing a 15 minute delay the signal is: there is broad cheating in chess, thus we need this measure. And that causes more harm to chess than if a player cheats and gets by with it." Rigorously scanning the players when they enter the venue, taking their cell-phones and watches, putting up a giant glass barrier to prevent visual contact with the audience, and periodically unleashing a world-wide, front-page scandal does less harm to the reputation of chess than a discrete 15-minute delay in the live broadcase?
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 9/14/2022 02:56
Cheating is a serious problem in online chess - one of the reasons I don't play online, if only for the risk of being called a cheater.
But how is it in normal chess? I would like to see a list of proven cases in the last 20 years. That might be quite a bit shorter than what generally seems to be proposed. may think it's a real problem, because they come with a news article whenever there is an incident. And if clickbait is their purpose, they are quite successful. They even made a newsitem about a young boy who was caught in the toilets in a Dutch tournament. And not at a top tournament, but in the C-group of a regional tournament - 100 euro first prize, if I remember correctly. Now count the number of incidents they reported on, the last ten years. Is it more than 10?
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 9/14/2022 02:21
The first people cheating with computers in chess must have hacked the site, because I get an 'error 404' message when I try to open part 2.
brabo_hf brabo_hf 9/14/2022 02:16
I remember a few times that I was watching with a delay on a website and somebody in the chat already told that the game was finished with result x. Sometimes it was a joke but also often this person had access to a direct communication-channel without delay. I and many other viewers were annoyed by this spoiler. I even started to follow less that broadcast because of it. If many do the same than this can be negative for a sponsor. This can't happen if it is fully live.
Based Based 9/14/2022 01:56
I take the Tour de France approach: I know all the riders are using PED. Let them ride, test them, punish those who fail the test. Life long ban or whatever. For chess that means: do whatever you can to prevent the players from cheating. And then enjoy the game live, no delay. And if you suspect someone is cheating, well, then test them. And if someone cheated and got by with it? Well, then they cheated and got by with it. Does anybody believe this never happened yet? Even in World Championships? Magnus did more harm to chess with his tweet than Hans, had he cheated (which I don't think he did) and got by with it. And by implementing a 15 minute delay the signal is: there is broad cheating in chess, thus we need this measure. And that causes more harm to chess than if a player cheats and gets by with it. So for me it is not only about the enjoyment (I greater enjoy things live) but about basically the big picture. Don't take a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
arzi arzi 9/14/2022 01:49
Live and re-live ...there are some difference. The result may be known online, and watching the game as "re-live" is no longer interesting. That is why some people watch a live event in the middle of the night.
BeTonHan BeTonHan 9/14/2022 01:34
Most people I know think that watching something "live" is a complete different experience than watching it "re-live". They would rather watch a sports event in the middle of the night than re-live in the morning. I never got that.
Queenslander Queenslander 9/14/2022 11:44
A fifteen minute delay is a no-brainer and would have zero impact on the enjoyment I experience when following chess events. In my opinion, cheating is only likely to get worse and become more sophisticated, so a half hour delay would be even better.
arzi arzi 9/14/2022 11:29
I guess cheating in online is still easier than in classical game format? Did Niemann cheat against Carlsen? No, too hard to cheat without getting caught and very stupid to do so while playing against one's idol.

Delay is ok. It helps preventing cheating.