In the late 80’s through the mid ‘90s, throughout my childhood, I played chess competitively in scholastic tournaments most weekends in New York City and, occasionally, nationally. Tournaments lasted all day, with breaks between rounds if your game was short enough and an hour for lunch. The other kids ate pizza; I ate lentil dal. I played alone or with my school team. Other than someone whom I only occasionally saw in passing — also with frizzy hair and a retainer — I was the only girl.
There wasn’t much technology back then. But there was cheating.
Pairings were typed then printed and taped to the wall, telling you where your board was and who you were playing. When you’d finished the game, you were supposed to raise your hand so the tournament director could come check your board and confirm a win or a lose. The tournament director was always easily identifiable as the frazzled, screaming person with multiple pencils stuck behind their ears, surrounded by papers. They’d write your score in marker on a whiteboard in the hallway. This determined who you’d play next and, eventually, who’d won the tournament. Even if it wasn’t a checkmate or draw, if both of you said it was, they’d mark it that way.
Sometimes an opponent I’d beaten would try to convince me to let him (it mostly was a “him”) give our results to the tournament director rather than waiting with hands raised for the director to come over to us. I never did agree to that. Sometimes, as a last resort, they’d run off crying. Then I’d give the results alone.
At 13, I became a chess teacher and stood on the other side of the tournament door with coaches and parents, watching students lose games that weren’t truly lost, convinced by their opponents they’d been beaten.
It was not usual but it did happen. An overbearing, chess-obsessed parent would sometimes, occasionally sneak over to the board and … change the result. I recall one mother shouting that her son, who was a chess prodigy, shouldn’t have lost that game. She was justified in altering the score, she added. Her son, who very likely was a chess prodigy and probably shouldn’t have lost that game but did anyway, later suffered a breakdown and never played again.
Chess was never considered a sport then, but the National Scholastic Chess Championship, the biggest tournament of the year, was held in stadiums. Parents and coaches sat in stadium seating by the hundreds, staring down at us. I began wearing a baseball cap. When it was rumored certain games were only won because parents – and coaches – mouthed winning moves, tournaments were moved to rooms and parents and coaches kept out, to their displeasure. One coach taught his players to play “dirty.” They’d intentionally drum on the table when it was your turn to move, “accidentally” kick you, or knock over pieces then put them back incorrectly.
I wanted to win too, but I needed to know I’d done it for real. Once, after I was studying a game I’d played earlier (I wrote everything down in my scorebook), I realized I’d moved my knight illegally, leading to a winning combination. But the most blatant attempt at cheating I experienced happened to me on round three of a long tournament day.
My teammates were there and they circled protectively as the kid, a large older boy, looked at me and grinned. “Score!” he shouted, slapping his teammates five, “I get a girl! This is gonna be sooo easy.”
“Kick his ass,” one of my teammates, who didn’t usually curse, said.
I nodded grimly.
“Do you want to take your move back?” my competitor asked me continuously throughout the game, trying to psyche me out. I pulled my hat lower and ignored him.
Then he blundered (chess lingo for “gave away”) his queen. Mouth quivering, eyes tearing up, he pounded the table. “Let me take that back,” he said.
“No,” I replied.
He reached across the table suddenly to pull the fire alarm, knocking over the board. I picked it up and put everything back from memory.
These were simpler times. No online games or high-tech cheat-threats. Infamous Bobby Fischer, the only world champion America’s produced (if you don’t count Paul Morphy), was known for his psychological warfare, keeping opponents waiting alone onstage while the clock ticked away his time. He used all the tricks at his disposal and his wins were his alone.
There’s been much talk of the “cheating scandal” rocking the chess world this year, too. Hans Neimann — who has admitted to cheating before — stands accused of cheating in his most recent games by the reigning world champion, Magnus Carlsen. If FIDE experts aren’t involved, they should be. While bizarre theories about anal beads have abounded, the real ways people cheat at chess nowadays reportedly range from artificial intelligence to Morse code.
Chess is an unusually personal battle. To quote former world champion Garry Kasparov: “The only goal in chess is to prove your superiority over the other guy, and the most important … and total superiority … is the superiority of the mind.”
For me, chess was the great equalizer. No matter who you were or where you came from, all that mattered was how you played. There’s no point if you’re cheating.