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Chess, Cheating, and Callousness

The European Women’s Chess Championship recently concluded in the Georgian (Slavic) city of Chakvi. Ukrainian Grandmaster Natalia Zukhova emerged victorious, but that victory was overshadowed by questions and accusations of cheating directed not at the champion, but at Romanian WGM Mihaela Sandu (rated 2300 ELO). Thanks to a letter accusing the young chess player of cheating by utilizing computer assistance, WGM Sandu was tried and convicted in the court of public chess opinion before she even had a chance to defend herself. What terrible thing did she do to warrant such negative attention to herself? Simple: she holds a lower ELO than the opponents she was mercilessly destroying.

The Supernatural Power of the ELO

Chess is famous for its ability to equalize the playing field by eliminating the social, cultural, racial, and practically every other kind of sociopolitical differentiator out there. However, chess replaces all of these differentials with a single number, called the ELO rating system. The ELO system was designed by Arpad Elo, a Hungarian physics professor and chess player. Although the methods for determining the exact quantification of a player’s exact ELO rating can vary between countries and federations, the basics of the system are mostly universal and give chess players, fans, clubs, and anyone else involved with the game an idea of the player’s strength. Just like people around the world with high IQs like to brag about them, chess players have most, if not all, of their existence within the chess world determined by their ELO.

For example, the best that Campfire Chess can hope to promote in its current state is amateur chess because your friendly host has a blitz rating of ELO 930 and a standard rating of ELO 1010. Unfortunately, I have not played in an official USCF tournament as of yet and have not established a baseline ELO outside of my online training efforts. If you consider that a player rated 900 who wins a game against a player ratined 1100 will gain approximately 11 ELO points, you might get a sense of how much work is required to advance an ELO rating to the Grandmaster or Candidate Master levels!

In the context of the European Women’s Chess Championship, it was the simple crime of having a lower ELO than her opponents that brought the claws of her challengers out against Mihaela Sandu.

The Accusations

The accusations against WGM Sandu are that she was using some kind of electronic assistance to win games against her higher-rated opponents. After only five rounds into the event, the Romanian Grandmaster was leading the event with an amazing score of 5.0! I am not sure that I see this being a problem for most Grandmaster-level players, but at least 32 players in the tournament took exception to Sandu’s games and submitted a letter to the tournament organizers demanding that they take actions against her for cheating. Here is the text of the letter:

  • We, the participants of the 16 European Women Chess Championship would like to express our grave concern regarding raising suspicion of cheating in the tournament. We would like to ask organisers cooperation in this regard. There are a few ways to fight with advanced technology, and we believe organizers should do their utmost to avoid such situations. We have already asked for a 15 min delay in the live transmission of all the games. It is a common solution, used in many top level tournaments. If this is technically not possible, then we would like to ask organizers to propose another solution of this problem for the remaining rounds of the Championship.

It was not long after the first letter was published that a second letter was posted that specifically requested a blackout of WGM Sandu’s games for rounds 8-11.

  • We, the participants of the 16th European Individual Women’s Chess Championship want to express concern about the situation with M.Sandu’s performance. We would like to ask organizers not to include her games from round 8-11 in a live transmission and publish them after the rounds. We do not see any important reason to dislike this precautionary measure for both sides. We hope that such a decision will prevent all possible suspicions.
Credit: ChessBase

The letter is correct in that there are few ways available for tournament directors to fight against advancing technology. As smartphones become smaller and more powerful, other devices that can transmit data in amazingly inconspicuous ways are popping up all over the chess world. In some ways, the suspicions surrounding WGM Sandu are not surprising given the recent cheating cases that continue to arise in tournament chess. However, do the actions of some individuals represent the actions of the whole? There are hundreds of thousands of chess games played every month in professional tournaments around the world, but what percentage of those players participating are outright cheating the system?

The Cheater and the Cheetah

I like to think that chess is different from other activities because its players (for the most part) tend to be among the most intellgient, analytical, and creative thinkers in the world. However, that does not elminate the human desire to break the rules at times or for the desire to win at all costs to overtake a person’s mind. As I mentioned above, cheating has a long and unfortunate history in professional chess. While it might make sense in some ways that the 32 players on the letter might suspect cheating, there are many systems in place at top professional tournaments that are designed to sniff out players who might be receiving information from remote computer systems or other forms of outside assistance. In June 2014, Chess Life ran a fantastic article on Dr. Ken Regan of the University of Buffalo and his customized algorithm designed to search live game broadcasts for moves that might indicate a player is receiving information from outside sources.

Surely it is not possible to catch every cheater in a tournament, but even cheaters utilizing advanced technology are not likely to work hard enough to draw attention to themselves. No one that I am aware of even broached the possibility that Fabiano Caruana was cheating during his historic run at the 2014 Sinquefield Cup. Immediately after his 7-0 winning streak, Fabiano swiftly returned to his mere-mortal status, just as many chess players before him have done. Unfortunately for WGM Sandu, the fact that her game performance deteriorated significantly following the institution of the 15-second delay and the continued attacks on her character.

Many skeptics will point to this deterioration of performance as validation of their cheating claims. To me, this seems rather asinine given the fragile nature of the human psyche and the intense amount of focus necessary to win at top levels of professional chess. Who could perform flawlessly after they are mercilessly smeared? I wish WGM Sandu the best in her future chess tournaments and hope that someday the professional chess world will be able to find that delicate balance between calling out true cheaters and letting great winning streaks continue to be the great pieces of chess history that they are.

Not convinced? Check out all of WGM Sandu’s games from the tournament:

Further Reading