By Ian Rogers
*Photo by Fiona Steil-Antoni*
Fear of ‘cheating – exposed so often this year – has resulted in a particularly sad case at the recent European Women’s Championship in Chakvi, Georgia.
Most recent cheating cases – from the Indian with a mobile phone attached to his leg to the Australian junior at the national schools final – have seen unusual behaviour reported. Later computer matching’ programmes revealed computer assistance on almost every move, confirming guilt.
The ‘intelligent cheating’ supposedly found in Chakvi was, however, a form of paranoia.
The theory of intelligent cheating holds that a player may use computer aid only at critical moments, rendering computer matching useless. Of course a player must still be receiving information in some way, yet in Chakvi some players decided that no behavioural evidence was needed. ‘Proof’ of smart cheating can be shown, they seemed to believe, by reverse engineer computer matching such that any time a player finds a move which matches a computer program this can be used against them.
Of course clairvoyance is needed to determine which players might be smart cheating in this way, but the best part (for the accuser) is that there is no other evidence needed and therefore there is no defence against the allegation. (Everyone’s moves match a computer program’s moves some of the time, rather more often if you are winning.)
And so it came to pass that after five rounds of the European Women’s Championship 37-year-old Romanian Mihaela Sandu (cover and top – credit: Fioan Steil-Antoni) was leading with a perfect score, having beaten a number of the top seeds.
Natalia Zhukova, one of the main contenders for first place, became convinced that Sandu, seeded 45th, must be cheating, without any reason apart from Sandu’s fine performance.
Zhukova (above, credit: Cathy Rogers) demanded that the organisers take action but they refused unless they received a written complaint.
However in round six a person or persons unknown decided to take matters into their own hands, with Sandu’s game disconnected from live transmission for the first three hours of the session. (The organisers blamed a technical problem.)
The sabotage upset Sandu – who had already predicted, days earlier, that her stellar performance might engender cheating allegations – and she lost her first game of the tournament.
Zhukova took Sandu’s loss as confirmation of her theory, but next day the organisers made sure that all games were connected for round 7.
That day Sandu, playing White against Antoaneta Stefanova, reached the diagrammed position after 26 moves.
Stefanova could have retained some advantage via 27…Qa8 but played
and ran into
28.Qb3+! Kh8 29.c4!
when Black’s queen was trapped and Sandu soon won.
Those two good moves were too much for Zhukova, who gave up her verbal complaints and wrote two letters and spruiked for signatures.
One, asking for all games to be delayed, was signed by 32 of the 98 players. Another, accusing Sandu specifically, was signed by 15 players, though only one of the players Sandu had beaten signed, with others defending her. (Zhukova later tried to claim that her letters were not intended for general viewing and were only placed on a public notice board by the organisers – yet she had already shown them to many players and asked them to sign.)
Zhukova, who was due to play Sandu in round eight, presented no evidence to support her complaints and notably did not ask for Sandu to be searched, saying later “The rules provide for examination of the suspect, [but] I was sure that this would not yield anything. Why bother?.” (Sandu later said Zhukova nonetheless was “making psychological attacks right before our game.”)
Zhukova’s bullying tactics, supported by the two petitions, had their effect.
The organisers folded and agreed to delay transmission of all games by 15 minutes – a method intended to prevent an off-site accomplice helping a player through, for example, a secret earpiece. This was a huge misstep by the organisers, appearing to give credence to Zhukova’s allegations even though Sandu had done nothing to indicate she was doing anything other than playing her games normally, spending most of her time at the board concentrating.
At this point it should be noted that concentrating in Chakvi was no easy task. The tournament venue, supposedly a five star resort, had turned out to be a construction site and the noise from the workers disturbed many players (and made it more likely that upsets would occur).
Sandu was, not surprisingly, affronted by the turn of events and lost her game to Zhukova and then three further games.
Sandu later wrote, “I tried to stay calm and play as usual after this attack, but I have learned it’s impossible. There is enormous psychological pressure.”
Zhukova, the 15th seed, went on to take the first prize of 11,000 Euros and the title of European Women’s Champion.
Allegations of cheating have been made wrongly in the past, but always with a genuine reason for suspicion. For example top GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov has suffered grief for accusing an opponent who crushed him at the Aeroflot Open in Moscow of getting outside help, but there his opponent, a chain smoker, kept disappearing from the board.
Post-tournament analysis showed that Sandu’s moves correlated with computer suggestions at a rate of around 50% – typical for a player of her strength. Yet Zhukova has remained adamant that Sandu was cheating, arguing that an ‘old’ player like Sandu (who would be the highest ranked active female player in Australia if she resided here) could not possibly beat so many high seeds and people are naïve not to recognise a new form of ‘intelligent cheating’ when they see it.
“Cheating is one of the major problems in modern chess,” she explained to Chess-news.ru after the tournament. “The methods used are becoming more sophisticated and no check will help. In the tournament in any case there was an unhealthy atmosphere and to put an end to this, there needed to be a delay in the live broadcast. This was as much in the interests of Sandu herself as everybody else. Let her show she was playing by herself, and so wonderfully – that’s great, we’ll be happy for her.” (Shorter version: I made allegations so Sandu must prove her innocence.”)
Whether Zhukova will suffer any repercussions for her role in the intelligent cheating lynch mob is difficult to predict, though the world body FIDE’s anti-cheating commission is reviewing the case and has already flagged the possibility of a rewrite of their anti-cheating recommendations because of this case.
However Zhukova has already realised that majority opinion of her actions is negative. (The first hint may have come while standing on the stage receiving her gold medal when, through the applause, a voice was heard to cry out “Sandu! Sandu!”.)
Two players were sufficiently embarrassed to withdraw their signatures from the most damning letter while others said privately that they were wrong to accuse Sandu. Not a single player or observer in Chakvi that I have contacted could see anything about Sandu’s over-the-board behaviour to encourage suspicion – except that she was winning games.
Zhukova, however, remains convinced that she was right all along; “I’m not ashamed of any of my words or actions and if the same situation arose again, I would do the same.”
To believe otherwise might tarnish her new European Women’s Championship title and large first prize.