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Games in the time of coronavirus

I came across this story in Slate by Stefan Fatsis about a recent Scrabble tournament he attended, and it got me thinking.

Before the tournament, I reminded players to wash their tiles and bags. (They’re an obvious germ vector, and also get really stinky.) There was hand sanitizer on the playing tables. My skin was so dry from spritzing and washing that my knuckles bled. But now—with “social distancing” and “self-quarantine” making early runs for 2020 Word of the Year—I’m questioning the wisdom, and ethics, of my decision to play.

When I drew my first tiles of the tournament—ADEEHIR; alas, HEADIER didn’t play, nor did the only possible eight-letter word, DEHAIRED—nobody in American society had started hanging CLOSED signs, particularly sports society. A week later, professional and college basketball are gone. So are baseballsoccerhockeyfootballgolftennisrugbyroad racescar races, and chess and esports tournaments.

But the little world of competitive Scrabble is playing on, its official governing body declining to suspend play. The debate among players over whether games should continue is representative of the debates being waged in other corners of America that haven’t gone dark. People are still grabbing subway poles and flying in airplanes, believing Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. What are the risks of doing what you love doing? Who gets to decide when you have to stop?

Scrabble is owned by Hasbro Inc., but the toymaker has almost no involvement in the competitive game. The 2,200 active players, 150 or so clubs, and 400 or so tournaments a year are regulated by the North American Scrabble Players Association, which is funded by player dues and tournament participation fees. Hasbro grants NASPA a license to use the word “Scrabble” in its name and promotional efforts.

NASPA hasn’t ignored the coronavirus crisis. Its website includes a detailed COVID-19 wiki. The guidelines are all sensible, some are obvious, and a few very specific: Don’t play if you’ve tested positive, wash your hands, disinfect your equipment, use a smartphone app instead of a communal laptop to adjudicate word challenges. “If you have to sneeze or cough, and are not wearing a face mask, do so into a tissue or your elbow and away from all playing equipment and players,” the guidelines advise. “Then pause the [game timer] and call the director to discuss whether you should withdraw from the event.”

As Fatsis points out, Scrabble tournament players tend to be older (average age 65), so they’re quite vulnerable to the COVID-19 threat. That got me to thinking about another group of mostly older people that like to congregate to play a game, bridge players. I played a lot of tournament bridge when I was younger – partners moving out of town, and a distinct lack of time, put an end to that. Bridge tournaments feature hundreds or thousands of people at a hotel or convention center, and a lot of those people are seniors. If they’re still like they were 15 or 20 years ago, a lot of them smoke, too. Definitely right in the vulnerability demographic.

And right now, one of the three annual North American Bridge Championships – the biggest tournaments on the calendar – should be going on. Fortunately, the March NABC has been canceled, though the summer (July) tournament is still on, for now. But there are smaller tournaments happening every week, across the continent – across the world, though those are under the purview of other bridge organizations – and who knows what’s happening with them. Most of the April ones have been canceled at this point, but not all, and those that are in states that haven’t clamped down on public gatherings in the same way may still happen. (Oh, and there are bridge clubs, too, though at this point the local shutdown order will have taken care of that.) With local and state governments putting out restrictions on public gatherings and the CDC’s “no more than 50 at a time for the next eight weeks” directive, this may have resolved itself, but I wouldn’t take anything for granted right now.

Oh, and after I started writing this post I saw this story about how Houston is becoming a hot city for poker clubs in the Sunday print edition. The story has a dateline of March 5, and tells of the reporter’s visit to one of these clubs on February 29, but wow, talk about inconvenient timing. I’m sure that like bridge and Scrabble, poker is more fun when played in person with other people, but in the short term we have to stick to playing the online version.

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.