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Cheating at chess

Scandal!

Gaioz Nigalidze’s rise through the ranks of professional chess began in 2007, the year the first iPhone was released. In hindsight, the timing might not be coincidental.

On Saturday, Nigalidze, the 25-year-old reigning Georgian champion, was competing in the 17th annual Dubai Open Chess Tournament when his opponent spotted something strange.

“Nigalidze would promptly reply to my moves and then literally run to the toilet,” Armenian grandmaster Tigran Petrosian said. “I noticed that he would always visit the same toilet partition, which was strange, since two other partitions weren’t occupied.”

Petrosian complained to the officials. After Nigalidze left the bathroom once more, officials inspected the interior and say they found an iPhone wrapped in toilet paper and hidden behind the toilet.

“When confronted, Nigalidze denied he owned the device,” according to the tournament’s Web site. “But officials opened the smart device and found it was logged into a social networking site under Nigalidze’s account. They also found his game being analyzed in one of the chess applications.”

Nigalidze was expelled from the tournament, which is still ongoing and features more than 70 grandmasters from 43 countries competing for a first-place prize of $12,000. The Georgian’s career is now under a microscope. His two national titles are under suspicion. And under recently tightened rules against cheating, he could be banned for up to 15 years.

But the scandal threatens to spread far beyond the gleaming white Dubai Chess and Culture Club, which is shaped like a giant rook. Nigalidze’s expulsion is a nightmare scenario for chess: proof positive that technologically enabled cheating, rumored about for more than a decade, is now pervasive. Thanks to smartphones, the game of kings is starting to look like the game of crooks.

“The basic problem is that it’s incredibly easy to cheat with a phone,” says Nigel Short, an English chess grandmaster who once was ranked third in the world and is now 60th. “You can have some application running on your phone, and it’s quite easy to conceal. … My dog could win a major tournament using one of these devices. Or my grandmother. Anybody could do this.”

I’d say chess doesn’t have a technology problem so much as it has a security procedures problem. How is getting up to use the bathroom after every single move not suspicious on its face? I presume that Nigalidze had to be doing something like that in other matches as well – surely no one test drives their cheating methodology at such a high level event. Basic measures such as limiting bathroom use to something a bit less frequent, and requiring a chaperone for competitors who get up from the table for any reason during a match would have sniffed this out quickly or prevented it in the first place. The World Chess Federation needs to hire a security consultant, stat.

My game is bridge, and the tournament bridge scene has had its share of cheating scandals over the years. The main difference is that successful cheating at bridge generally requires some form of surreptitious communication between partners, which as those examples show can be ingeniously low-tech. Still, the American Contract Bridge League does regulate the use of electronic devices at its tournaments. There are programs available to analyze the play of the hand, which I’m sure would be as useful as Nigalidze’s app, I just can’t imagine anyone getting up from the table during the play of a hand to use the bathroom and try to consult with such a program. But hey, I could be wrong about that. I hope the powers that be at the ACBL and the World Bridge Federation are paying attentio to this brouhaha.

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