Concerned about cheaters
By Joel Benjamin   
August 22, 2006
I consider chess to be a noble game but unfortunately often hear rumors of fixed results in U.S. tournaments. There was even talk of one qualifier to the 2006 U.S. Championship not earning his spot legitimately. Tournament organizers, I hear, are in a delicate situation because such rumors are hard to prove and they fear legal repercussions if they ban someone who makes his living from chess. How extensive do you think fixed games are in U.S. chess? And what would you do to fight the practice?

Concerned about cheaters,
P.H.
Brooklyn, NY

There is no question that games are occasionally bought and sold at American tournaments. Most U.S. grandmasters are clean in this regard, and many of the dumps involve players who do not live here or have recently arrived (they eventually realize deals are not cool in this country). Most grandmasters are frustrated by these incidents, but there is little we can do about them. It is my impression - and I hope this isn't wishful thinking - that thrown games occur less frequently then they have in the past.

Of course, these cases are almost always circumstantial. The evidence in the U.S. Championship case was quite compelling (I thought the qualifying game you referred to was played by a 1400, rather than a senior master), but the USCF took no action. Bill Goichberg, both USCF President and organizer of almost all the major tournaments in America, is extremely cautious when dealing with cheating controversies. (Ed. Note: Update on Goichberg's recent stricter policies in last paragraph.) A few years ago, he was informed by a grandmaster that two players were about to fix a last-round result. They were both taking breaks for discussions with a third party. When the inevitable result came in, Mr. Goichberg simply wrote out a prize check (it is rumored that the winner asked for two checks, but that may be an embellishment that crept into the story).

Organizers are understandably afraid of lawsuits, but they must take a stand somewhere. Mr. Goichberg may balk at denying a prize, but why not start a policy of probation for suspected cheaters? A private entrepreneur has the right to refuse entries. [If a player tries to bring a lawsuit claiming lost wages, Mr. Goichberg could show that only nine out of forty-six grandmasters made a profit at the 2006 World Open.]

It helps to bring cases out into the open. Recently, Hikaru Nakamura disclosed that an opponent had offered him money for a certain result. I would happily spill the beans myself--except no one has offered me a bribe in twenty years. They know not to bark up this tree.

Fixed results have been the traditional problem in open sections, but recently electronic cheating has come to the forefront. Back in the early 90s, a man entered the World Open under the obvious pseudonym John von Neumann. He had some startling results (including a draw with GM Helgi Olafsson), but was exposed rather easily. When his technology failed, he wasn't able to make any moves at all and forfeited on time!

Nowadays computers are so strong that one can expect to cheat their way to the top. A player in the 2006 World Open under 2000 section was caught red-handed with a communications device in his ear and disqualified. A player in the Open section, produced games of such differing quality - a horrible, dropped-piece-in-the-opening loss to Kacheishvili followed by a brilliant computer-like win over Smirin - to defy credulity. Although no device was found on his person (he may have flushed it down the toilet just prior to being searched), it is easy to draw a conclusion.

It has been brought to my attention that Mr. Goichberg has already begun to take action against "dealers"  and "computers." Two prominent grandmasters have already received suspensions from CCA tournaments. He prefers to handle these cases privately, believing it would be overly punitive to shame suspects in public. Naming names might provide a more powerful deterrent, but I respect Mr. Goichberg's position and applaud his efforts to clean up the mess. Let's hope future mischief-makers appreciate that they are officially on notice.

Joel Benjamin