A Corus of Rumors
By Macauley Peterson   
March 7, 2007
Ivan Cheparinov with Silvio Danailov

By Macauley Peterson

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Allegations can, by themselves, do harm. If repeated often enough, an allegation comes to function like propaganda, poisoning the reputations of the alleged offenders.

The rivalry between World Champion Vladimir Kramnik and world number 1 (by rating) Veselin Topalov, has, of late, been marked by rumors about computer assistance received by both players. The latest came in January, during the final weekend of the Corus tournament in Wijk aan Zee, The Netherlands, when a German newspaper reporter published his own personal suspicions of collusion between Topalov and his manager, Silvio Danailov. The story, printed the day of Topalov's game with Kramnik at Corus, shares key traits with suspicions lofted against Kramnik by Danailov, during the Elista World Championship match: Both "crimes" were casually alleged, but pitifully evidenced.

As is often the case with rumors, when pressed, the proponents artfully qualify their statements so as to maintain a plausible deniability. While at Corus I asked Danailov about Elista, and comments that Topalov had recently made regarding the computer networking cable that was alleged to have been found in the ceiling of Kramnik's private bathroom. Danailov affirmed the existence of the cable and showed me a handful of digital photographs that he said document the official inspection during which it was discovered. The photographs are blurry and ambiguous at best, but assuming they indeed show what Topalov's team claims, I asked how they demonstrate that Kramnik received computer assistance.

"Oh, I don't know," replied Danailov. "We just show what we have and everybody can make his own conclusion. I never said that we have evidence that he used this cable."

Topalov's answer was even more nuanced. He said that the closed circuit video of Kramnik's pacing in his rest room, and the computer cable in the bathroom constitute "enough reasons to believe it could be possible," that Kramnik was cheating.

What could have been possible, in the absence of any genuine evidence, nearly derailed the World Championship unification match.

The allegations against Topalov at Corus were covered in Chess Life Online at the time. They were rejected by the arbiters, and remain specious. In the newspaper, the rhetorical question was in full force: "Does the 31-year-old [Topalov]…secretly receive help in some of his games? If so how?"

In the press room Danailov openly mocked suggestions of collusion by joking that the reason Topalov lost his game against Svidler was that Danailov was not in the playing hall to put on his glasses and give signals at the critical moments of the game!

Even if we doubt these specific claims of collusion, many experts argue that at the elite grandmaster level, one or two signals about key positions checked by computer, could influence the outcome of a game. This begs the question as to whether a player's manager or spectators in general really should receive greater scrutiny. I doubt organizers will want to evoke the Stasi, or turn tournaments into gulags, but preventing computer assistance will continue to be a grave concern.

As you read the Chess Life March cover story in the coming days, consider too the public response to rumor-ridden scandal. It's clear that chess fans devour news of controversy in the chess world, mirroring public interest in tabloid gossip. Kramnik's Elista bathroom is our version of Britney Spears' buzz cut. If we truly want to elevate the level of chess reporting, and move beyond the "he said / she said" rumor mill, the trick may be to learn not to care. Meanwhile, we could all use a healthy dose of skepticism.

Macauley Peterson is reporting live from Linares all this week on the Internet Chess Club's Chess.fm webcast. He can be reached at MacauleyPeterson.com.