How Feller Became Jolly Good
by Ian Rogers
Cheating has been in the spotlight this week, with the announcement by the world body FIDE that French Grandmaster Sebastian Feller (cover and left) would be allowed to play again.
Feller was banned after he pulled off a sophisticated scam at the Khanty Mansiysk Chess Olympiad in 2010 which resulted in him picking up a gold medal and 5,000 Euros.
The scheme worked as follows: IM Cyril Marzolo, sitting in France, would watch Feller’s Olympiad games live on the net and feed the moves into a computer program, Firebird. He would then text the computer’s suggested continuation to the French captain, Arnaud Hauchard, who would indicate moves to Feller by standing behind or in front of certain Olympiad games.
This system is similar to the notorious Russian plan of having eight buttons on a shirt indicate ranks 1 to 8 and having the fingers, wrists, elbow and shoulder on each arm indicate files a to h. However the French system required no obvious signalling at all; just movement around the playing area which a captain does as a matter of course. (In response to the Feller case, FIDE later banned Olympic captains from standing in the line of sight of their players.)
The scheme was uncovered late in the Olympiad by the Vice-President of the French Chess Federation (FFE), Joanna Pomian, who, visiting Marzolo’s house for an unrelated reason, noticed SMS messages being sent between Hauchard and Marzolo during the games.
Feller, the team’s star in Khanty Mansiysk, was dropped for the final key match of the Olympiad, with Hauchard confessing privately to his team.
Extensive legal manoeuvres led to no serious action being taken against Feller in France. After bans were imposed by the FFE, the Firebird Three appealed to the civil courts and received a ruling that, for privacy reasons, the text messages could not be used as evidence unless a formal trial was taking place. The FFE bans on all three participants were overturned, with a number of FFE office-bearers resigning their posts in frustration.
However the world body FIDE were eventually able to implement a two year and nine months ban on Feller, extended until Feller returned his gold medal and the prize money, which he did last month.
While Feller was front of mind last week – many wondering if organisers might implement an informal boycott of Feller – FIDE Vice-President Zurab Azmaiparashvili (below) decided that the time was right to call for only a minor penalty be given to Georgian Champion Gaioz Nigalidze, who was caught red-handed using a chess program on a mobile phone during the Dubai Open (Like Feller, Nigalidze had been under suspicion at earlier tournaments but nothing was proven.)
While Azmaiparashvili – whose career on the wrong side of the law included winning a fabricated tournament and becoming European Champion by retracting a move – was calling for respect for the human rights of cheaters, Kazakh GM Vladimir Tkachiev was showing in a Chess24.com article and video just how easy it had become to use technology to cheat.
Using just an invisible earplug and the help of an accomplice, veteran Tkachiev’s video showed himself demolishing an unsuspecting Danii Dubov, Tkachiev receiving advice only at critical moments of the game.
The technology involved for turning an amateur into a superstar is rather more involved, as shown by the Indian player caught last month with mobile phones strapped to his legs. Even then, the amateur needed a convoluted foot tapping system to convey the move played by his opponent to his accomplice.
Tkachiev’s efforts have also shone a spotlight on the absurdity of FIDE’s anti-cheating regulations, which strongly discourage reporting suspicions.
Under the new FIDE rules, a player must report any incident to the arbiter in writing – effectively preventing a player from doing so during a game when a cheater is most likely to be caught.
In addition, the accuser will face a three month ban if they twice report suspicions where the method of cheating cannot be identified.
FIDE seems to have taken a leaf out of the cycling’s anti-doping book; if you target whistle-blowers then all cheating will be seen to magically disappear.