Chess, gambling & cheating in a capitalist world


It is only too human to want to find the road to mammon’s  Shangri-la for which only a tiny few have a passport.

Money often costs too much – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Back in the 1970s I used to bet on horses. I very seldom won. But then I got a job in Brighton in a phone betting office; after a few weeks I moved to counting wins & losses. I noted that only one of all the many punters won. He would phone up – in days before mobiles – one minute before the race, and wager £100/200 (a lot back then) on “the first favourite” or “the second –”. He was calling from the racetrack. Apart from him the mass of those losing speculations day-on-day remedied my fascination with ponies.

Gaming the system

Advertising signs that con / You into thinking you’re the one/ That can do what’s never been done – Bob Dylan: Its Alright Ma

Given that honest gamblers are statistically certain to lose, leaves a number of wiseguys who try to game the system. Capitalism is full of little niches; people who will be bribed. How much is honour worth in 2016?

All the more so when the alternative is slaving away in a in bad job for subsistence wages which year-on-year are falling. Wherever you have money and or gambling you have cheating. In chess too. Some think it is endemic in Open tournaments where there may be big prize money to be scammed. Big? Everything is relative!

Cheating at chess through collusion

It may be collusion. Two players come to an arrangement to draw or to throw a game. In 2011, the USA International grandmaster Greg Shahade wrote, “…prearrangement of results is extremely commonplace, even at the highest levels of chess. This especially holds true for draws… There is a bit of a code of silence at the top levels of chess.” However the so-called ‘grandmaster draws’ have become much rarer in the last five years in a landscape where chess fans just do not tolerate them; online broadcasts of big chess events reach large audiences. And sponsors want to ensure resonance: devotees at home need to see blood spilled on the 64 squares.

Sadly there was a tradition of covert agreement if not open cheating by top Soviet experts. The worst example being Curacao 1962 where Bobby Fischer was hindered from making a serious challenge to the Soviet hegemony in chess.

As I wrote in my first article for Public Reading Rooms, chess was a suitable medium for influence in the Cold War e.g. as a trope about the supposed intellectual superiority of the Communist system; more salient factors were, for example, large subsidies for elite players, their high status, lack of other recreations for YP in dreary Soviet towns.

New trend in cheating: accessing world-beating apps

Any fool can tell the truth, but it requires a man of some sense to know how to lie well – Samuel Butler

The trend in chess cheating is virtual: a smart phone (or even a smart watch) may very well have an app that can beat the (human) World Champion Magnus Carlsen. So at most major events there are rigorous controls to stop their use; metal detectors at the entry to make sure players bring nothing with a chip inside to the board. This article in (IMO the best chess website) describes the tripwires that were used at the recent Baku Chess Olympiad.

Or should have been. The reality was somewhat different with non-authorised personnel floating thru the playing arena; they could easily have cribbed from software outside, then made signals to their matadors.

Are elite players involved in cheating? No – for they have a huge amount of personal capital invested in various ways e.g. socially in being a professional chess player with its high status. Bear in mind that playing chess is a comparatively pleasant way to earn one’s living compared to working in an office: so if grand masters lose their livelihood, they have lost their lifestyle, status etc and will have to earn a living – doing what? Working in a call-centre perhaps as many gave up education / training to follow the call of Caissa, the goddess of chess.

Given the intense mass scrutiny applied to jet set contestants if their moves paralleled the chips’ choices, unmasking by the crowd would occur pronto. And those at the top do very well: the book ‘The Panama papers’ (2016: by the Obermayer Brothers) mentions en passant unnamed jetset chess virtuosos who utilise offshore vehicles to avoid paying tax – my guesstimate is two former Soviet world champions.

That makes the case of ex-Georgian Champion Nigalidze even more surprising. What did he do? He hid his mobile phone in the toilet area. The outcome?  Because “he showed contrition” he only received a three-year ban.

In the case of a young Indian Dhruv Kakkar the photos show just how the complicated system of signalling worked; the player is wired up and makes coded signals to another member of the gang outside the playing arena. Not that every move will be transmitted. Even one move based on the supersonic chip might well be sufficient to ensure conquest, for example, when the contest has reached a ‘messy’ watershed with many concrete ‘candidate moves’ to choose from.

On the other hand accusations of cheating can easily be misused. A striking example was the European Women’s Individual Championship in Chavki, Georgia in 2015. 15 women ganged up to bully the Romanian player Mihaela Sandu, because they had been outclassed by her. They didn’t let a complete lack of evidence get in the way of the smears; ‘all’s fair in love and war’. What is disturbing is that they ganged up with each other with such a total lack of scruple in a brazen character assassination.

Was this hysteria or opportunism? It is interesting to speculate as to their motives; they felt challenged perhaps by somebody with a lower rating; more importantly a player with a different coloured (EU) passport. They were mostly players of ex-Soviet state nationalities. For once FIDE made the right call: the glaring lack of evidence was decisive

Cheating by the bookies in online gambling

Of course this takes place on both sides of equation. Imagine you have succumbed to the glitzy lure of betting online; you rack up solid victories. Well you should check out the website carefully. In a number of cases recently the Internet bookies have not paid out. The BBC Radio Four You and Yours in July 2016 took up complaints by disgruntled punters.

If you prefer to use your ears rather than your eyes, then listen up. And You and Yours  have been focusing on this problem over years e.g. in 2014

The fact that both these features are still available well after the usual limit of four weeks for programmes on BBC iPlayer, indicates that the consumer watchdogs at You and Yours consider this to be an issue of concern.

Two Quangos join up to scrutinise Online Gambling

‘You and yours’ are continuing to focus on online gambling sites; on 21st October the BBC’s top consumer Cerberus outlined the very recent intensification of pressure after complaints about these virtual bookies soared (from 3,000 in 2010 to 4,000 + in the first six months of 2016). Are these www outfits more duplicitous than a few years ago, or are their punters more sussed out and / or more liable to complain; given the mass of operators in an immature market profits must be going south; hence the surging squeeze of their clients. Whatever the reason, it has emerged that internet casinos are very loth to pay out, relying on tenuous rationales based on dubious small print cop-outs.

And that is the weak point in their silicon armoury; on the 21st of October (a coincidence…) the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced they would be examining online bookies T & Cs to see how they measure up to accepted standards of equity.

In turn this welcome initiative is in response to concerns raised by the Gambling Commission (GC); these two quangos – are they back in favour under prime minister Theresa May’s regime? – are joining forces. On the same day, 21 October, the GC too issued a press release.

There is also a lobby group agitating on behalf of punters. They define precisely just how the rip-offs occur e.g. changing the odds after bet is accepted; refusing to pay out alleging – libellously? – winner has links to crime; only accepting punts from players who have little / no chance of winning.

IMO the latter suggests these outfits in true cartel manner circulate ‘sucker lists’ compiled by using algorithms to comb thru the behaviour 5.5 millions Britons who place their wagers online. If nothing else the latter would be a clear breach of data regulations. Of course that would concern these crooked firms little: I once briefly ‘worked’ (observed is ‘preciser’) for a cold calling firm in Cologne who made no secret of the fact that they lied to the callees about where their names and numbers had been obtained.

Card-counting in Blackjack? A Hollywood hit

The box-office takings from the Hollywood hit film 21 showed the public’s appetite for the enticing whiff world of easy money in casinos. Of course there is a wide disparity between chances for the game provider and the punter.

My eye-opener about casinos was in the mid 90s; the scene a typically stylish German casino set in a spa town. Blackjack is played with five packs (52 cards) in one round. Usually, after around 70% have been used, a new set of five packs are put into the container. One night, I was as usual counting the cards. After 30% of the cards had been played, the odds were massively against the house. So the controller – the second house operative at each game -told the dealer to stop the game, and called for new packs. You can’t win!

Gambling and cheating booming in casino capitalism

The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Fact! And the middle-class? What happened to them? We see the goodies, the wares – many of them unnecessary – flutter before our eyses in the mainstream media and we internalise a need for them that is essentially false.

City boys expect a million bonus for their skill in gambling on options, commodities and our futures. What does it matter if the Planet is destroyed?

So it is only too human to want to find the road to mammon’s  Shangri-la for which only a tiny few – in UK many through family – have a passport. Redtops shout of lucky items who’ve won millions in the national Lottery. They don’t tell you that the odds in that lottery have significantly deteriorated for the punting public.

We might see it as a fetish of the economic system we live in. Isn’t it a distortion of fundamental human instincts and needs, systematically channelled so that communities are turned against each other? Headline-driven politics fill our provincial horizons; war profiteers welcome here? And cheating in chess or gambling is no more nor less than a reflection of that.

Further reading:
The Psychology of Gambling by Peter Fuller and Jon Halliday. Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1977

Chess problem

chess-problemIn 1790, the French opera composer Francois Philidoris played Captain Smith in London.  Both of them were blindfold.  The diagram here shows the board after white’s 29th move. The problem to solve is black to play and win.





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