Chess Grandmaster Caught In High-Tech Cheating Scheme

Apr 15, 2015
Originally published on April 15, 2015 6:52 pm

NPR's Robert Siegel speaks with Tony Rich, chief arbiter for the U.S. Chess Championship and international arbiter for the World Chess Federation, about how a chess grandmaster was accused of cheating using an iPhone on Saturday. Other grandmasters have bemoaned the effect of technology, particularly smartphones, on their sport and criticized the World Chess Federation's lack of effective punishment for cheaters.

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Over the weekend, a 25-year-old chess champion, named Gaioz Nigalidze, was caught cheating. He was using a smart phone that he'd hidden in the bathroom. The iPhone was found after his opponent noticed that he frequented the same bathroom stall before each move. The player has since been banned from the Dubai Open Chess Tournament, and he faces a 15-year ban from competitive chess.

Here to talk about the scandal is Tony Rich. He is the chief arbiter for the U.S. Chess Championship and a certified international arbiter for the World Chess Federation or FIDE. Welcome to the program.

TONY RICH: Thanks for having me, Robert.

SIEGEL: When you heard the news that Mr. Nigalidze had been found going to the same toilet stall, where evidently there was a cell phone hidden, what was your reaction to that?

RICH: You know, chess players are a nervous bunch, and they certainly have their habits and preferred restroom times and restroom breaks and so on. But when a player does it frequently, move after move, especially when it's their turn to move, it's suspicious.

SIEGEL: I read one claim that the difference between cheating at chess and, say, taking a performance-enhancing drug for baseball or whatever other game is that somebody of virtually no talent given access to a computer could defeat a grandmaster nowadays. Is that true?

RICH: That's right. It would be like an amateur baseball player putting on a bionic suit to hit the ball 500 feet out and hit a homerun every time; it is that equivalent of aid.

SIEGEL: Are the ripples from IBM's defeat of the best chess player in the world still being played out here; that is, is the superiority of computers a very serious problem for this game?

RICH: Yeah. You know, Moore's law being what it is, computing power doubles every 18 months. And it was just a matter of time before computers could play chess better than human beings. That being said though, there is a real distinction between the style and quality of play from a human and from a computer.

SIEGEL: Do you think you could tell just from the moves - just seeing the moves on a diagram - that that's not a human being playing that game?

RICH: Sometimes yes, absolutely. You know, there are the types of moves that are very calculated. A human in those kinds of positions typically will not be able to calculate and find these little quiet moves; it's not a check, it's not a capture, it's not forcing, and yet somehow it ties the position together and really allows the player to win. Those types of moves are really, really hard to spot as a human being.

SIEGEL: Have you ever had occasion to disqualify someone for cheating?

RICH: Thankfully not.

SIEGEL: There's that logical paradox here, which is you may have had players who successfully cheated, but they cheated right past you.

RICH: That's right. And, you know, if we asked players to take their shoes off and strip-searched them before every game, I doubt you'll find many people who'd want to come out to the chess tournament. So it's a balancing act between providing comfortable conditions and a welcoming environment with providing fair play and equal ground for everybody.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Rich, thanks for talking with us today.

RICH: It's been my pleasure, Robert. Thank you.

SIEGEL: Tony Rich, who is chief arbiter for the U.S. Chess Championship and a certified international arbiter for the World Chess Federation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.