As a rabbi, I’m preparing for the Days of Awe — reflecting about cheating in chess, my favorite hobby and my own experience facing off against a top player.
The 2023 version of the European Club Cup begins next week in Mayrhofen, Austria, It brings together the top chess teams from around the continent, who qualify by winning their national competitions – akin to the Champions League in football. This year, the Cup starts in the shadow of one of the biggest scandals to have hit the royal game, allegations of cheating against 19-year-old US Grandmaster Hans Niemann by no less than the chess World Champion, Magnus Carlsen. These charges have reached the ears of the mainstream press. Chess is front page news, albeit in lurid circumstances.
Jewish law has long questioned the trustworthiness of chess players. Maimonides included them in the category of professional gamblers, whose testimony would not be acceptable before a Beit Din. Chess is a game of treachery that involves weaving webs of deception. A good player must trick their opponents into making mistakes. But recent events have taken the issue of cheating in chess to a whole new dramatic level.
I once had the privilege of playing in the European Club Cup, back in 2000, for the Welsh champions Monmouth. We were minnows in European terms. Proud of my own Welsh ancestry, I made the trip to the seaside town of Neum, on the short coastline of Bosnia. Aged 20, I was about to begin my final year of studies at Cambridge University.
I had never played before in a tournament featuring so many grandmasters. You could – and I did – literally bump into former World Championship challenger Viktor Korchnoi in the corridor. Many teams sported eight grandmasters – one for each of the six boards and two in reserve. We had Chris Dunworth, a Fide Master, on board one, me on the second board, and were weaker after that.
The tournament consisted of seven rounds. On the first day, we played a Russian team and were wiped out 6-0. I played Grandmaster Vladimir Tukmakov, three times runner-up in the Soviet Championship (to Korchnoi, and two World Champions, Mikhail Tal and Anatoly Karpov). Tukmakov was 55, a little old for a chess player, which raised my hopes. He crushed me in about 20 moves.
We were paired the next day against the French team, Mulhouse. They were weaker than the Russians, but still stronger than us on paper. My opponent was a young Frenchman and International Master, Cyril Marzolo. He played an unusual variation of the Sicilian Defence. After just eight moves, an interesting variation popped into my head. Chess is full of fantasies, eventualities that could happen but probably will not. You learn to be a realist, as entertaining wishful thinking is not often the most successful strategy. Rather it’s better to imagine that your opponent will play the strongest moves and to calculate accordingly.
My fantasy began by giving up a pawn. While this sacrifice seemed to open me up to checkmate by the opponent’s queen, it could allow me to checkmate my opponent in three moves. An international master rated a couple of hundred points higher than me should have seen the trap.
But chess is a game of deception. You win from your opponent’s mistakes. There are ways of inducing them, not just with the moves you make – although strong moves are obviously the optimal way to do this – but also to a lesser extent with how you make those moves. Extravagant theatrics are often a dead give-away that mischief is afoot. The “oh my god I’ve lost a pawn” or palm slapping the forehead after an apparent blunder rarely work beyond the most green and naive opponent.
There are other methods, too. Against a stronger opponent it wouldn’t look out of place to act with nervousness and timidity and to play hurried moves. I put my inexperience to my advantage. I sacrificed my pawn timidly and hurriedly – and the elephant fell into my trap. His queen threatened checkmate with the next move. All my options looked bad, and my esteemed opponent looked confident. With rising glee, I moved my queen to the end of the board and banged it down next to his king. A queen sacrifice!
He immediately understood the game was over. Chess players – at least pre-pandemic – always shake hands before and after the game. It’s the only time when my opponent did not. He crumpled up his scoresheet, where he had been writing down his moves, stood up from the board, and walked away. My teammates were delighted: we were one-nil up, even though we would go on to lose 5-1.
A decade later, at the 2010 Chess Olympiad in Khanty-Mansiysk, I would come across my opponent. The French team had performed well, thanks to a starring performance by Grandmaster Sébastien Feller, who won an individual gold medal. Before the final round, it came to light that he was the beneficiary of an elaborate cheating scam involving the French team manager Arnaud Hauchard. A Grandmaster, Hauchard would signal to Feller the moves he should play by walking around the playing arena in certain patterns, having himself received the optimal moves by text message from none other than my former opponent Cyril Marzolo, who was sitting at his computer at home in France. All three players were banned from chess competitions for some time.
There is huge temptation to cheat at chess. Today, computers are stronger than humans, in a way that they were not when I was growing up. While the anal beads theory may be a little too outlandish, strong players have been found with tiny earpieces (the simplest) or foot-buzzers (a more complicated contraption but easier to conceal). Most tournament organisers do not have the budget to frisk players for electronic devices. When I was a teenager there were stories about players taking their pocket chess set to the bathroom during games, to move around the pieces to better visualise the possibilities. Now, of course, if you hide a phone in a cubicle, you can discover the best move in a flash. Of course, an opponent will become suspicious should you make several toilet breaks in one game.
Most players would accept that the kind of deception I used to beat Marzolo is part and parcel of the game. As in poker, chess players analyse each other’s body language almost subconsciously to try to read what their opponent is thinking about the game. Spending up to seven hours over the board with one another can be an intimate tussle. If someone plays quickly and confidently you might put faith in their moves, or there might be something that suggests you should call their bluff. While only the moves on the board are the facts on the ground, and as kids we were taught “play the board, not the man”, there is a psychological aspect to the game.
Here comes my Yom Kippur lesson. While honor amongst chess players is important, and the number who resort to cheating is quite small, it only takes a few miscreants to bring the entire game into disrepute. For chess, the current cheating scandal represents an existential crisis. The game needs to restore trust. It needs to confess its sins.