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64 squares & a few bad men

The history of world chess is replete with allegations ? proved or otherwise ? of cheating, writes B Shrikant.

india Updated: Aug 12, 2006 03:56 IST
B Shrikant

In the 1978 World Chess Championship final, Viktor Korchnoi’s team raised the heckles of the Russian chess establishment by alleging cheating by Anatoly Karpov’s team. Korchnoi and Co suspected that Karpov’s seconds (trainers) were communicating to their man, suggesting moves by serving him yoghurt in different colours.

Korchnoi, who had defected from the then USSR a few years ago, complained to the arbiter — the referee — and though his team had no actual proof of cheating, the German gentleman adjudicating the match took the matter seriously. The result was that he set restrictions on the colour of yoghurt Karpov could consume during play and if he wished to have some other variety, his team had to apply through a written request.

Korchnoi was not the first chess player to suspect that the opponent was using underhand tactics to win and — he certainly was not the last, either.

Bobby Fischer, widely considered the greatest ever in the 64-square game, alleged the use of black magic by Boris Spassky’s team in the 1972 World Championship title clash; the Russians, on their part, had the chairs used during the final tested for chemicals they alleged helped Fischer. The eccentric American genius even had all his teeth fillings removed because he was convinced that the Russians were beaming waves at him through his teeth, advising him to play weak moves.

Interestingly, Indian Grandmaster Pravin Thipsay believes cheating is not possible in tournament play. “Yes, there have been suspicions and some actual cases in the US and Europe, but cheating is not possible in tournament play. In over two decades of playing chess, I have never come across any cases of  cheating in any tournament, and never certainly in India,” he told HT.

That may be so, but the incidents mentioned above, that too involving the top chess players of the world, prove that suspicions and allegations of cheating have plagued the mind game for centuries. The latest incidents at the 34th World Open Philadelphia, in which two players — Steve Rosenberg and Eugene Varshavsky — were suspected of receiving help from computers, are not isolated cases.

In the latest case, Rosenberg, who played wearing a hearing aid and refused to get it tested, was expelled midway through the event but Varshavsky was allowed to complete the tournament. According to reports, Varshavsky came to his games wearing a big blue bucket hat that drooped low and covered his ears. Not an exceptional player, he managed to defeat some very strong GMs in the tournament, including top seed Ilia Smirin (2659).

When suspicion arose that he might be wearing an electronic device under the hat to get advice, organisers decided to search him. But before they could carry out the frisking, Varshavsky bolted to the toilet and remained locked for over 20 minutes. Nothing suspicious was found.

Interestingly, he played the last two rounds without the hat and lost easily: With the hat, his performance rating was of 2707 and without it, a modest 2233!

Though organisers failed to convincingly prove Varshavsky’s guilt, there have been some proven cases too. Like in 2003 at Lampertheim, Germany, when a player was caught using a pocket-sized chess programme, Pocket Fritz, to analyse moves in the toilet before playing the best option on the board. One of his opponents complained about his frequent toilet breaks, and the arbiter followed him to the loo and caught him red-handed.

Another famous case is that of German Clemans Allwermann, who won the Boeblingen Open in 1998 but was accused of using computers. While finishing with 7.5 points from 9 games, Allwermann made a sensational checkmate in eight moves — something no one had ever managed! Allwermann’s deceit was exposed when a German journalist discovered that the chess programme Fritz had came out with games with the same sequences of moves that he played.

There were allegations even at the 2005 San Luis World Championship when one of the competitors accused Veselin Topalov of cheating with the help of his trainers who, he claimed, analysed Topalov’s moves and advised him. No one took notice of the allegations because of Topalov’s excellent form at the time, and also his attacking style of play, something that is not favoured by the machines.

Things like settling for pre-arranged, mutually beneficial draws, seeking advise from fellow players and trainers during a game and even copying moves and looking at them during toilet breaks are passé. In these modern times, when computers and communication devices are getting smaller and stronger by the day, checking such incidents is becoming next to impossible.

And with prize money spiralling and the difference between first and second places entailing a difference of huge amounts, players have more incentives to indulge in deceit. To check the cheats, the organisers have their plates rather full.