DEPT. OF GAMBITS
Winning by Rook or by Crook
By Paul Hoffman
Sunday, November 18, 2007; Page B02
It’s been a banner year for cheating scandals in sports. In baseball, allegations of steroid use and a federal indictment on charges of lying to a grand jury tainted Barry Bonds‘s record-breaking 756 home runs. In football, the New England Patriots got caught videotaping the defensive signals of the New York Jets. In cycling, the Tour de France became the Tour de Pharmacie when officials stripped Floyd Landis of the 2006 title after he tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone. In Formula One racing, the leading team, McLaren Mercedes, was fined a bracing $100 million for stealing confidential technical specifications about rival Ferrari.
I’m not much of a sports fan, so my couch-potato juices started flowing only when the cheating epidemic spread to chess. I’ve been playing since I was 5 years old and have spent untold hours practicing sequences of moves such as the Fried Liver Attack and the King’s Gambit Accepted. Chess, I’d always thought, is an ennobling cerebral contest between two determined players armed only with their intellect and free of all drugs, except perhaps caffeine.
So you can understand my chagrin when Azerbaijani adults attending the European Union children’s championship last month accused the 8-year-old Russian winner of receiving illicit help from a third party during the game. Tournament organizers ultimately rejected the allegations and berated the adults for smearing the child’s good name.
But his was not the only indignity the royal game endured recently. The gentlemen’s-club respectability that chess once enjoyed was flushed away last autumn at the 2006 World Chess Championship when Bulgarian contender Veselin Topalov accused the reigning champion, Vladimir Kramnik, of making a suspicious 50 trips to the bathroom during a single game. The implication: that Kramnik was secretly consulting chess-playing software on a Palm Pilot or talking on his cellphone to a confederate armed with a chess computer. Officials hastily boarded up his private loo. “I had to go to the bathroom urgently,” Kramnik said later. “I asked the arbiter to open my toilet. He just shrugged and offered me an empty coffee cup.”
The charges looked too much like an underhanded attempt by Topalov to rattle the taciturn Kramnik, who was forced to explain his hydration and evacuation habits to a prying press corps, and the International Chess Federation ultimately decided that they were spurious. Nonetheless, organizers of future tournaments are now debating whether they should herd grandmasters — the black belts of the chessboard — through metal detectors and all but strip-search them before a match. Already, playing halls have been bombarded with electromagnetic signals to jam secret wireless communications.
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– GM Susan Polgar