Tkachiev: How I became a cheater in chess

5/13/2015 – Grandmaster Vladislav Tkachiev is a flamboyant character. His most recent escapade: to test how easy it is to cheat in chess. He spent an hour and a half researching the subject, $30 to rent some equipment and a hidden conspirator to wirelessly send him key moves. That was enough to thoroughly trash a colleague of similar strength. Tkachiev had it all recorded on video.

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Before we come to the video of the fraudulent games, we should find out what drove Vladislav Tkachiev to undertake this experiment. It is described in a Russian language article available on his ChEsSay web site and summarizes the current status of the problem.

It was the recent case of GM Gaioz Nigalidze, who was caught cheating at the Dubai Open, with a smartphone hidden in the toilet, that set Tkachiev thinking. He believed it was time to take concrete action and conducted a survey amongst his colleagues. They came up with all kinds of different solutions: monitor toilet visits; use metal detectors to scan participants; use polygraphs on suspicious players; make everyone sign solumn assurances not to cheat. One thing everyone seems to agree on: people caught cheating, with no room for doubt, must receive a lifetime ban from tournament chess. "What bloodthirsty people chess players are!" says Tkachiev.

The Kazakh grandmaster has some tongue-in-cheek ideas of his own on the subject and presents a short list of the most promising:

  1. Competent cheaters who are caught or surrender themselves are offered amnesty and a chance to turn their weapons onto other cheaters. Equip them with ultra-modern technology and set them up as a 21st century inquision for chess, so that they can redeem themselves, just like former hackers have done in the FBI.
  2. Open Cheaters Anonymous, a club where people can drop in and help each other overcome their harmful tendencies.
  3. Provide bounties for people who successfully hunt down cheaters.
  4. Introduce criminal responsibility for the crime of cheating in chess, and help judges and prosecutors to become chess literate.

Tkachiev points out the the last point was already addressed by lawyer and WGM Irina Lymar (above), who in a ChessBase interview proposed that cheating in chess be dealt with under Article 165 of the Russian Criminal Code – damage to property by deception or abuse of trust. He quotes the case of Darren Woods who was sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of one million pounds sterling for cheating in poker. (We haven't researched this case thoroughly, but it appears that Woods had succeeded in overcoming the protection of online poker sites and used multiple accounts in a single game in order to be able to see more than just one set of cards).

FIDE has, as Tkachiev points out, published Anti-Cheating Guidelines, which ere prepared by the FIDE/ACP Anti-Cheating Committee and approved by the FIDE Presidential Board in Sochi (November 2014). It is a 22-page PDF document you can study here. In it the Committee describes the procedures of checking and searching suspicious players; how to deal with frivilous complaints (two unfounded complaints in six months will result in a three-month suspension of the "witch hunter"); and the promise of an online Game Screening Tool that will help identify suspicious correlations with computer moves in human games.

The penalties for cheating are:

  • First offence: suspension from the game for three years, one year if the player is under 14 years of age or two years if the players is under 18.
  • Second offence: suspension for 15 years.
  • The offender will be stripped of his FIDE titles and norms.

Chess tournaments are divided into three categories, standard, increased and maximum, with different levels of anti-cheating protection, depending on the average rating of the players and the prize funds at stake.

The technical equipment recommended for cheating prevention are:

  • Mobile phone jammers
  • Hand-held security metal detectors
  • Walk-through metal detectors
  • Automatic electro-magnetic screening devices for metallic/non-metallic items
  • Closed circuit cameras

The hand-held metal detectors should always be considered as the first-choice device for maximum protection. FIDE has promised to obtain "extremely sophisticated anti-cheating equipment" for use in sample checks, but will not disclose th features of such devices.

How I became a cheater

"After delving into the details of the fight against the new incarnation of evil, and then the solution came by itself: I set out to become a cheater," Tkachiev says. He decided that it was only necessary for him, as a 2657 grandmaster, to receive assistance two or three times during a game.

It is interesting to note that twenty years ago Garry Kasparov had drawn attention to exactly this circumstance: that a strong player doesn't need all the moves from the computer. In part four of his History of Cheating in Chess (link below) Frederic Friedel describes how in 1996 during the Las Palmas Super-GM Kasparov would have needed just one bit – literally – of external information ("Now!") to win his game against Anand. Lacking this during the game he was only able to draw.

Kasparov's second Juri Dokhoian checking a key move with Fritz in real time during the game,
Kasparov and Anand analyse after it six hours of play – video grabs from CBM 56 multimedia.

Tkachiev decided to put his theory to the test. He discovered that with the progressive miniaturisation of electonics it becomes easier and easier to hide cheating devices on your person – he adds "or in your person" – or in the playing hall. He spent about an hour and a half to find the equipment required for his deception on the Internet, and renting it for a day cost him just 1500 Roubles (less than $30).

A colleague would be following the game on a notebook outside the playing room and occasionally transmitting a key move to a tiny device hidden in Tkachiev's ear – one he says is very popular amongst certain students (i.e. those cheating in exams). A walk-through airport detector would not find it, and a hand-operated scanner would need to be set to high sensitivity and directly scan the ear.

To this we add: any spy worth his salt will never carry the device to the scene of his activity himself. He will have it placed there for him to retrieve, much like Michael Corleone when he killed McCluskey and Sollozzo in Godfather One – a scene to which Tkachiev eliptically alludes (warning: brutal, lots of fake blood):

Michael Corleone retrieving the gun to kill McCluskey and Sollozzo in the restaurant

After setting everything up Tkachiev played three blitz games against a colleague, GM Daniil Dubov, who is slightly higher on the rating list (2647). The hidden assistant was Stas Romanov, a candidate master rated 2100, who followed the action via closed circuit video and used a notebook to calculate key moves. These were transmitted to Tkachiev's earpiece via radio. Sample instruction by Stas: "Play b4, and on axb4 go a5 and gloat!"

Tkachiev (left, with invisible earpiece) won both games. When he wanted to play a third Dubov refused: "That's enough, you really thrashed me today. A circus!" He leaves fairly dejected, and the two perpetrators reveal their secret.

Now watch the five-minute video, written and directed by Irina Stepaniuk.

We have known French-Russian-Kazakh GM Vlad Tkachiev for a long time now and always enjoyed his company. He is a flamboyant personality, very frank and open, with a wide range of subjects one can discuss with him for hours. He may be a bit wild, but he is never dull or boring. Here's an extraordinary intervew we conducted with in ChessBase Magazine, him back in 2003. Read also this interview from 2004.

Earlier ChessBase reports

A history of cheating in chess (1)
29.09.2011 – 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)
04.10.2011 – 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)
18.12.2011 – 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)
28.2.2012– 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)
10/6/2014 – 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. We re-published this historical document in four parts. Here is the fifth and final section.

Cheating in chess: the problem won't go away
3/30/2011 – As you know the recent suspicion of organized cheating during a Chess Olympiad has led to three French players being suspended. One is currently playing in the European Individual Championship, where his colleagues have published an open letter demanding additional security. For years we have been proposing a remedy for this very serious problem. It needs to be implemented now.

Anti-cheating: the fifteen minute broadcast delay
5/13/2011 – For five years we have been trying to get FIDE to implement a 15-minute delay in the Internet broadcast of important games – to make organised cheating harder. A chess journalist has now pointed out a fatal flaw in the plan: it would force chess journalists to walk many yards to find out the current status of the games. Damn – and we thought it was such a good idea! What is your opinion?

Anti-cheating: the fifteen minute debate continues
6/29/2011 – Our recent reply to stern criticism leveled against us in the Dutch magazine New in Chess resulted, unsurprisingly, in a large number of letters from our readers, many quite effusive. But we decided not to publish any until at least one turned up supporting the views of our NiC critic. Six weeks went by until it at last came, authored by the critic himself. Now we can publish your letters.


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