Sat, Apr 18, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Chess toilet scandal shows cheating is not black and white

Gaioz Nigalidze’s disgrace for appearing to use a chess program in the Dubai Open reveals the merciless pressure on lower-ranking professionals

By Stephen Moss  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Kevin Sheu

The case of Gaioz Nigalidze, the 25-year-old Georgian chess champion being excoriated as a cheat for having allegedly hidden a mobile phone with a chess program in a lavatory while playing in the Dubai Open, is a peculiar one. On the surface, it is an open-and-shut case: His opponent, Tigran Petrosian (named after the former Soviet world chess champion), became suspicious about Nigalidze’s frequent trips to the toilet, expressed his concerns to the arbiter, the toilet was searched and the mobile unearthed, apparently rather crudely hidden under toilet paper.

Nigalidze was defaulted, is now being lambasted around the world — Nigel Short, the English grandmaster who challenged Garry Kasparov for the world title in 1993, is calling for him to be stripped of his grandmaster title — and is facing a 15-year ban from the sport.

Two things strike me as odd. First, according to his opponent, Nigalidze was going to the toilet after playing his moves. Normally, the surefire way to spot a cheat is that they go to the toilet on their move so they can choose the best one. Presumably, he was using his program to look at all possible responses and memorizing them. A very strong player, he would have no difficulty memorizing numerous variations.

However, more striking was that in round four of the Dubai event he lost horribly to the Swedish grandmaster Nils Grandelius, playing a terrible move fairly early in the game that a chess program would only play if it was set on moron level. It seems that Nigalidze is either a very incompetent cheat or a very sophisticated one. A strong player using a chess program could beat everyone, up to and including world champion Magnus Carlsen. However, perhaps that would be too obvious — Nigalidze might have been covering his tracks by only using a program intermittently. One hopes there will be a proper inquiry into the case, rather than a kangaroo court.

It is only worth winning if you do it fairly, yet players in every sport and at every level cheat. Sometimes this is trivial — the scrumhalves who never put the ball in straight at a scrum. Sometimes more serious — the divers in soccer desperate to win that last-minute penalty. Sometimes it is enough to get you banned — athletes who dope, golfers who move their putts nearer the hole. For some athletes, rules are made to be broken.

That attitude infects life too: Who can forget Charles Ingram (AKA the “Coughing Major,” though it was not he who did the coughing), convicted in 2003 of cheating his way to £1 million (US$1.49 million) on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Money can make fools and knaves of us all, whatever the idealists might think. Radix malorum really est cupiditas. Perhaps we should not blame Ingram; instead we should blame the program makers for offering such an unhealthy prize. I have a dim recollection that the most you could win on Double Your Money, one of the first widely watched game shows, was £64. That seems about right for one of these space-filling programs. Offer enough dosh and someone will try to get around the system.

Similarly, the big money in sport has cheapened it. I always love the story of the great American amateur golfer Bobby Jones who, in the 1925 US Open, called a penalty on himself when he accidentally touched the ball as he prepared to hit it out of the rough on the 11th hole. No one except him was aware of the infringement; there were no cameras then to record players’ every move. The penalty cost him the title, and afterwards spectators congratulated him on his honesty. “You might as well praise me for not robbing a bank,” he said. The idea of not being scrupulously honest had never crossed his mind.

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