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French Disciplinary Meeting (March 19th)

On cheating at chess using computers following French Federation verdict in Feller case

French Disciplinary meeting on March 19th. Photo © Yann Buisson.

French Disciplinary meeting on March 19th. Photo © Yann Buisson. |

I came rather late to covering the French Federation disciplinary case against Sebastien Feller, Cyril Marzolo and Arnaud Hauchard and computer cheating during the last Olympiad in Khanty-Mansiysk. Even after the French meeting on March 19th 2011 in which they found the players guilty it seems very unlikely to be the final word as they continue to protest their innocence. In this article I talk more generally about where we are with computer cheating, give a summary of what has happened so far and link to three excellent articles on the internet.

Cheating, sport and how chess relates

Athletics and Cycling have been scarred by doping scandals for many years, where there is money and glory to be had, there are those prepared to take short cuts to achieve success. In fact many in these sports excuse their behaviour because they assume everybody else is cheating.

Chess joined the Olympic movement in 1999 and with that they agreed to introduce doping tests, much to the derision of many players. That is because the real doping that can help a chess player is that of receiving aid from the outside with suggestions for the best move, sometimes just one key move is all the aid a strong player requires.

Computers get strong at Chess

Ever since Garry Kasparov lost a match to the computer program Deep Blue in 1997 it was only a matter of time before computers would over-take humans in playing strength. It took about 10 years of development in chess playing programs and computer chips for this power to be available to the ordinary player but we are certainly there in 2011.

Do we need new methods?

However catching someone red-handed is not an easy matter. Divining that someone is cheating purely by examining their games using the chess-engine-du-jour and seeing whether their moves are also the top suggestion of the computer is pretty much discredited. Players use computers to prepare their openings (one player has computers examine every, even remotely, sensible and half sensible move in every line that he plays). They also prepare types of position that their openings lead to. They are far more inclined to choose computer type solutions to over the board problems as these are the kinds of ideas they are looking at. If a patzer suddenly starts playing like a computer we can be pretty sure he is cheating, the higher you go the harder it is to be sure this is the case.

Cheating happens online

Chess servers such as PlayChess and ICC have held competitions for both money and qualification for physical events. Whilst I wouldn't quite call cheating rampant it is certainly the case that there have been some quite high profile disqualifications. They both claim to have methods to detect computer cheating but for obvious reasons they don't say what they are. Chess Lane signed a contract with FIDE for various promotional ideas for chess. This included the Billion Dollar Tournament where they envisaged millions of players online for unprecedented sums in prizes. Nothing has been heard of it since and the website is dead. At the moment I can't see how to run such an event without cheating being endemic.

Accusations in the past

There have been no proven examples of elite players computer cheating at chess. Accusations about Veselin Topalov were started on various Russian chess websites around 2005 and the whole "Toiletgate" controversy in the Kramnik-Topalov match of 2006 was all about this. Real evidence has been vapour thin and I am certain in my own mind neither Kramnik or Topalov have ever cheated in this way.

My favourite story, which always struck me as some kind of student prank, and a witty one at that, was at the World Open of 1993, almost pre-historic computer-chess times.

As the Wikipedia Cheating in Chess section puts it "a dreadlocked, headphone-wearing, unrated newcomer, who took the name "John von Neumann" (matching the name of a famous computer science pioneer), scored 4.5/9 in the Open Section, including a draw with a grandmaster and a win over a 2350 player. This "von Neumann" seemed to have a suspicious bulge in one of his pockets, which appeared to make a soft humming or buzzing sound at important points in the game. "When quizzed by the tournament director, the "lesser" von Neumann was unable to demonstrate even a rudimentary knowledge of some simple chess concepts, and he was disqualified."

The choice of name always suggested to me they never intended to get away with it. I'd be curious to find out at this remove the full story about this. But this is the first real recorded case of cheating with accomplices which is widely regarded as a threat to the professional game.

Mobile computers in your pocket

In addition to the power of chess computer playing programs there also has been a dramatic leap in technology people carry about their persons. Mobile phones are moving in two directions, either they can be incredibly discrete and small, or they can be incredibly powerful in terms of computing. There is some anecdotal evidence that at club matches and weekend swisses that a small number of people are slipping to the toilet to consult their Pocket Fritzes and reference material. I'm not sure there is much that can be done about this. People need their phones and so forth during a game as they have lives to live.

The future of anti-cheating methods?

In professional chess it may be seen that the time has come, and it will be incredibly inconvenient, that people won't be allowed to carry electronic devices at all. This would mean whether on or off, and never-mind them ringing, default would follow possession. I believe cheating is by an incredibly small minority and perhaps they would find ways around new rules anyway so normal players would perhaps be inconvenienced for no reason. In events with limited numbers of players, such as all-play-alls, electronic devices should now be deposited with the arbiters. However with the hundreds of players in big swisses this strikes me as somewhat impractical.

The French Disciplinary Meeting

The French disciplinary proceedings. Photo © Yann Buisson. Many more of his photos are in the Europe-Echecs report below.

All this is a preamble to the big story in chess at the moment. At proceedings on Saturday, March 19th the French Chess Association found their own player, 19 year old (at the time, just turned 20 this month), Sebastien Feller of cheating during the Olympiad in Khanty-Mansiysk (Siberia) in September last year where he won the gold medal on Board 5. Charged alongside him was Cyril Marzolo who was in Nancy, France at the time, who was accused of following the games on the internet, carrying out computer analysis and then passing the best moves back to Feller. Also charged was French team captain Arnaud Hauchard who they accused of at the very least knowing about the cheating but was also probably being responsible for passing on the moves using an elaborate code of standing behind certain boards nearby to signal the best square that Feller should move a piece to. An alternate theory is that Feller simply read the moves directly from his mobile phone.

There was no suspicion of any of this in Khanty-Mansiysk. Instead the whole matter came to light through Joanna Pomian the Vice-President of the French Chess Federation. Cyril Marzolo has financial problems and has been blacklisted by mobile operators in France. Pomian helped him out in a personal capacity getting him work with her company and paying for a mobile phone for him. In this way she had access to the content of the text messages from this phone of which there were hundreds to Feller and Hauchard on the days Feller was playing. In France everyone can check how much they phoned, and the text of any SMS messages using the mobile operator's website. In a subsequent court case the actual text messages themselves could not be used as evidence in disciplinary action but nevertheless the alleged content was made clear during the proceedings. It is alleged they contain a series of pairs of numbers that are the part of the international notation of correspondence chess. Pomian also testified that Marzolo was at her house on the 27th September (but not in the room) when she saw a text message to him saying "Hurry up, send moves..." which was the incident that prompted her investigation.

There was also an alleged confession by Arnaud Hauchard that cheating occurred during the Olympiad to French player Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in January. It seems that all the other members of the French Olympiad Team also support their Federation in this matter.

As part of his defence Feller's lawyer contended that the French Chess Federation had no jurisdiction on an event held in Siberia. The President of the French Chess Federation Jean-Claude Moingt consulted Roberto Rivello, president of the FIDE Ethics Committee during the final round of the Olympiad as they were on the same plane flying to Moscow. Rivello told him to handle the affair internally. The french team had already dropped Feller for the final round. I certainly don't think the French Chess Federation had any choice but to pursue this case given the evidence they say they have, but I strongly believe this case should instead have been brought by the FIDE ethics committee. Indeed they should still do so. If this isn't a case for them, then what is? [A late clarification is that Moingt only spoke in generalities to Rivello on the plane but there has been plenty of time since then for FIDE to come up to speed]

As ChessVibes reports the verdict was:

"After two hours of deliberation, the committee decided that Feller, Hauchard and Marzolo are "guilty of a violation of sporting ethics". The Committee concluded that there was enough proof that the three players cheated during the Olympiad."

"Marzolo was sentenced to a 5-year suspension from play. Feller received a 3-year ban followed by 2 years of community service with the federation or another association. If he refuses, the 2 years will be added to the suspension period. Hauchard was condemned to a lifetime ban from the duties of captain. The Committee said it had considered the age of Sebastian Feller in its verdict - Feller was 19 during the Olympiad."

Not the end?

I haven't written anything before this because this case is so explosive for the reputations of the people involved and even after this disciplinary case we are relying on a whole lot of presented evidence that may end up being thrown out. Feller's lawyer Charles Morel has announced the intention to appeal as has Marzolo's lawyer, Hadrien Gillier. It looks as if the whole case has barely even started never-mind finished and I think one can assume their intention to appeal is a continued denial of the case against them. If the text messages during play in the Olympiad do turn out as advertised (the suggestion from the defence that Pomian herself could have written them seems at first sight faintly ridiculous) and they are accepted legally (which they could in a criminal case) then explaining them away seems almost impossible. But we are a long way from seeing that yet.

Coverage elsewhere with more details

There is an exhaustively thorough article in French by Europe-Echecs (which translates reasonably cleanly into English using google translate) and good ones in English by ChessVibes and ChessBase

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