Chess board used to be honest

Horowitz – Amateur, Simultaneous Exhibition, Los Angeles 1940

White to move and mate in 4, or (6 with nonsensical delaying move). Scroll down for the solution.


There is an episode of the old TV sitcom, Leave it to Beaver, where the sleazy Eddie Haskell tries to cheat Wally Cleaver in chess by removing a Bishop when Wally is not looking. Chess players, of course, know that this is absurd; any chess player would be sufficiently aware of the position to notice such an action immediately.

Chess, unlike say poker or bridge, is a game of perfect information; both players have complete and full knowledge of the board, and success is determined solely by one’s skill in moving pieces on the board.

So, one might think it is impossible to cheat. However, now that chess computers are stronger than the best human players, cheating, especially in high-level competitions, is becoming a serious problem.

Last month, a German International Master, Jens Kotainy, was disqualified from a strong European tournament, after the director had observed that he was reaching into his pocket to check his cell phone after every move, and the cell phone was observed emitting vibrations that could have been a code. 

The problem was discussed at length in a January 2013 letter from University of Buffalo Computer Science Professor Kenneth Regan (who is also an International Master) to the Association of Chess Professionals.

Professor Regan analyzed the results of the 2012 Zadar Open, and in particular the allegations against the Fide (Fédération internationale des échecs) Master Borislav Ivanov, who scored 8-1 to win the tournament with a performance rating of 2697.  He concluded that there was a strong correspondence between the moves made by F.M. Ivanov and a computer program and the odds of such a correspondence were 1,000,000 to 1.

Regan also strongly stated that the statistical evidence of such a correlation was secondary to actual observations of cheating, but nevertheless he believed that such evidence had a role to play. Indeed, it was precisely that statistical correlation between computer moves and the moves played that led the tournament director to investigate I.M. Kotainy. 

During the course of a chess game, a player is not supposed to receive any assistance from other players, have access to chess books, or, of course, use a computer. In a recent tournament, my friend Alan LeCours was accused of cheating by his opponent because his opponent had heard me asking LeCours how his game was going even though we did not discuss the position, and, of course, I did not and would not have made any comments or suggestions about moves to play.

In the early 1980s, a friend of mine from college, who was a tournament director himself, reported an incident of cheating that resulted in an International Master’s disqualification from the World Open. The I.M., once known for his encyclopedic knowledge of the openings, stepped out of the tournament room and visited a bookseller and was observed leafing through a book describing the unusual line of a particular opening that he was playing.

However, such incidents were rare; generally, strong players do not need, and could not get, meaningful assistance during the course of the game.

Cheating in chess did not usually involve activity at the board.

To be sure, there were incidents of players agreeing to throw games, to enable other players to win tournaments or achieve “norms” for titles. (I have heard rumors that at least one United States Grandmaster in the 1980s achieved his title by such arrangements.) And some players would lose games on purpose to artificially lower their ratings, so they could win large cash prizes in lower rated sections, a practice known as “sandbagging.”

The United States Chess Federation has adopted rating “floors,” 200 points below a player’s highest rating, in a generally successful effort to stop sandbagging. However, what took place at the board was usually open and honest.

Computers changed all that. For example, the standard time control in top-level international tournaments was 40 moves in 2 ½ hours, and games used to be adjourned after five hours. If the game had not been completed, the players would customarily analyze the position overnight, sometimes with the help of an assistant.

This meant that players competing for world championships depended heavily on a very good grandmaster assistant, or, in the case of certain Soviet players, a whole team of assistants. Today, there are no adjournments: Time controls have been adjusted so that the game is completed at one sitting. 

Big-money postal chess tournaments are also a thing of the past: It is just too easy to cheat by using a computer to analyze a postal game.

However, the use of computers to cheat in over-the-board games is a relatively new phenomenon. The problem, if not addressed, could severely interfere with chess competition, not only at the highest levels, but also in recreational tournaments, where, say, a class B player accesses a computer to win a money prize in an Under-1800 section.

This week’s problem

Israel Albert (Al) Horowitz, a youthful chess hustler in Times Square, who went to Wall Street, and then left it to devote himself to chess, was one of the top United States players in the 1930s and 1940s, but was best known as a promoter of the game, as the chess correspondent for The New York Times, a founder of Chess Review, and is the author of many chess books.

He “never took chess or himself too seriously: chess was a science, yes; a sport, of course; and art, to be sure; but it was also a business,” according to Burt Hochberg, a chess expert and author who died in 2006.

Horowitz was famous for being a “chess vagabond,” giving many simultaneous exhibitions. In the position below, he has forced mate in four moves. His opponent could have made a nonsensical move, which would have delayed the mate, but would still have permitted a pretty mate in six. 

Chess Solution

11. Q:g7+  K:g7, 12. Bh6+ Kg8, 13. Rg6+ hg,  14. Nf6 mate (if 13…fg 14 Nf6 is still mate). The nonsensical move 13.. Qg7 is met by 14. R:g7+ Kf8, 15 R:g8+ K:g8, 16 Nf6 mate.