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Cheating Accusations in Mental Sports, Too

Published: August 8, 2006

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Jennifer Shahade

Prize money at chess tournaments has been on the rise. At the World Open in Philadelphia last month, the total prizes were $358,000.

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Forum: Chess

Correction Appended

Accusations of cheating at the largest tournament of the year have the chess world buzzing — and have tournament directors worried about what they may have to do to stop players from trying to cheat in the future.

The cheating is alleged to have occurred at the World Open in Philadelphia over the July 4 weekend and to have involved two players in two sections of the tournament. In each case, the player was suspected of receiving help from computers or from accomplices using computers. Neither player was caught cheating, but one player, Steve Rosenberg, was expelled. The other, Eugene Varshavsky, was allowed to finish the tournament but was searched before each round, then watched closely during games.

Chess has always been considered a gentleman’s game, with an unwritten honor code. But the advent of powerful and inexpensive chess-playing computers and improved wireless technology has made it easier to cheat.

Although rare, cheating at chess is not new. For years, players who wanted to cheat would leave the board and ask other players for advice, or consult chess books or magazines for suggested moves. Cheating at chess may seem like a twisted exercise in ego gratification, but growing prize money has made the rewards more meaningful. At the World Open, the total prizes were $358,000, with first place in the top section worth as much as $28,000.

Bill Goichberg, the director of the World Open and the Continental Chess Association, an organization that sponsors many big tournaments, said that, if true, the incidents at this year’s tournament were troubling because of the players’ stealth and effectiveness.

“Before, a player might have discussed the position with someone who is a grandmaster,” Goichberg said. “That sounds terrible, but if the grandmaster hasn’t seen your position, I don’t know if that is going to be much help. What is happening now is that the cheaters are concealing the fact that the moves are being transmitted to a computer.”

Goichberg said the older methods of cheating were easier to spot, but there are signs to indicate when someone may be using a computer program. Programs often play sequences of moves that are different from what a player would do, and they rarely make mistakes. Another signal is if a player shows a significant improvement over a short period of time, something that is rare among adult players.

Goichberg said that he became suspicious of Varshavsky at the Open because he displayed those tendencies.

Varshavsky was among the lowest-ranked players in the top section of the tournament. In his first four games, he beat three high-ranked masters and played another to a draw. Then after losing to a grandmaster, he played almost flawlessly to beat another grandmaster in his next game.

Larry M. Christiansen, a grandmaster who did not play at the Open, ran the moves of the game through a commercially available chess-playing program called Shredder. He found that the last 25 moves of Varshavsky’s win against the grandmaster matched those played by the program.

Goichberg said that he asked to see Varshavsky before the next round but that Varshavsky hurried off to the bathroom. Goichberg waited 10 minutes outside a stall until Varshavsky came out. Varshavsky consented to be searched, and Goichberg said that no device or transmitter was found.

Varshavsky was allowed to proceed in the tournament. Directors then went to search the bathroom stall and found it occupied. Goichberg said they waited 45 minutes before a director peeked under the door and saw Varshavsky’s shoes. After Varshavsky left the stall, nothing was found in it.

In the last two rounds, Varshavsky played against two grandmasters and lost each game quickly.

Attempts to reach Varshavsky by telephone were unsuccessful.

Goichberg expelled the other player under suspicion, Rosenberg, because he was found with a wireless earpiece.

Rosenberg, who played in a lower section than Varshavsky, was leading going into the last round. A victory would have been worth about $18,000.

Correction: Aug. 21, 2006

A sports article on Aug. 8 about accusations of cheating at the World Open chess tournament in Philadelphia misstated when a tournament director noticed that one player, Steve Rosenberg, had a device in his ear. It was during a round, not before. The article also referred incorrectly to some of the identifying information that the director found written on the device, a wireless receiver. It was a Web address, not a serial number.