Chess amid Covid-19: The stories no one tells: Part 1

“Proudly serving the capital since 1886” and faced with a worrisome pandemic, the London Chess League Committee has developed a separate online competition which kicked off on Wednesday 21 October, on Tornelo.

I had the chance to first meet some of my potential rivals on Tuesday 20 October, on Zoom, when FIDE Arbiter and Organiser Adam Raoof hosted a pre-tournament platform test session. As the great International Master Zoltan Sarosy continued to play chess online even after his 100th birthday on 23 August 2006, it was both heart-warming and inspiring to witness quite a few Senior players joining the Online London Chess League.

Using a tablet or their personal computer, many have managed to join correctly and rather swiftly both the test platform for that evening and Zoom, unlike myself who ended up on the wrong page, staring blankly at the participants list for the first round on Wednesday. The test session has not gone as smoothly as the organiser would have liked, but the more Senior players in the group provided feedback until the very end, facing several problems ranging from poor internet connection, insufficient battery on their tablet, to server issues on the chess tournament test platform.

Their patience, boundless energy and enthusiasm have been contagious. Already tired after a couple of very busy days at work, I was not planning initially to stay behind for any chess games and only joined the session to get accustomed with the Tornelo platform. Witnessing such perseverance, it only took moments to forget about the tiredness felt and to express my interest in being paired with someone for an actual match.

That evening represented food for thought, as it made me question how accessible are online tournaments in general to Senior players, especially as they might be the only option one has to continue playing competitive chess amid Covid-19.

It took place not long after Archie Bland’s article in the guardian on “Chess cheating crisis: ‘paranoia has become the culture’” had been published. The ongoing debate about ‘computer doping’ and whether anyone should even consider playing competitively online was distressing from the very beginning of lockdown. This pleasant experience, one night before the Online London Chess League commenced, slightly changed the manner in which I perceived and prioritised current challenges faced by the chess world.

Credit: YouTube / Archie Bland / Guardian Media
Online Chess cheating, the new barriers

There is no secret that cheating in chess has been an increasing concern globally, as multiple tournaments decided to move forward with a new online format. Prestigious competitions such as the Online Nations Cup have already implemented substantial measures to diminish the likelihood of online cheating and identify such unethical behaviour, including a request to all players to be visible on cameras at all times accompanied by a set of technical guidelines on the resolution of one’s webcam and speed of one’s internet connection. Everything from lighting to peripheral equipment has also been covered in the aforementioned requirements.

Other competitions such as the European Online Chess Championships have adopted a milder approach, only asking the top 16 players to be on camera – with audio also on – on Zoom.

While certain online competition requirements may be considered reasonable, I feel uneasy thinking about IM Zoltan Sarosy – who took his game online, buying his first computer at the beautiful age of 95. I tried to visualise the IM amid this pandemic when online cheating surged, having to comply with current regulations and install the latest version of Zoom. Would he have have known what “a resolution of at least 360p” means? Would “a download speed of at least 25 Mbps with a latency (or ping time) of 100ms or less” make any sense to him or to anyone without some IT knowledge?

In the midst of a crisis, it is easy to forget the people who might have spent their entire lives infatuated with chess, the ones who might now coach us, the ones who took on a role in your local chess club maybe post-retirement and are doing a wonderful job at supporting the chess community, the ones who are likely to be less tech-savvy as a big chunk of their lives was devoid of the technology we boast about nowadays.

Apart from inspiring me to write this article, I thought the London Online Chess League preparations were alright. Using Zoom, while recommended, is not mandatory in this tournament. International Arbiter Adam Raoof is overseeing the matches and any cheating suspicions should be signalled to him, more so when there is reasonable evidence as well. The Tornelo platform test organised prior to the first round of the tournament was efficient in identifying some of the issues players come across and solving these in due course. The platform is a simple and very straightforward one, which also makes it more accessible to a wider range of chess players.

Everything considered, I have some questions for the potential readers:

Questions for any ‘cheater’:

Who taught you chess? Do you know that an increase in online cheating will lead to tougher anti-cheating measures? ‘Tougher’ does not mean tougher only for cheaters, it means tougher for the entire chess community.

Have you ever thought that some of these measures, such as the use of a camera and always being visible on video, might prevent a specific group from participating in and enjoying online competitive chess?

Is your reputation, the family/social circle/peer pressure or any other justification you might find for the act of cheating, worth the price? Are you aware of the extensive meaning ‘price’ has in this context? It could include someone suddenly questioning their goals in chess. It also includes someone whose lifelong passion was chess, now being unable to attend a future online tournament as the old tablet his grandson bought does not comply with the requirements of that competition.

There would be no need for these measures – or even stricter ones in the future – if cheating would not be a growing concern.

Are you creating new barriers to chess? How can you contribute to the chess community?

Questions for any ‘organiser’:

Are your online chess tournament official regulations or terms & conditions encouraging diversity? Is your tournament platform user-friendly?

Are you creating new barriers to chess? How can you contribute to the chess community?

Questions for any ‘chess player’:

Why are you playing chess? What does this shift to online chess during the Covid-19 pandemic mean for you? Do you love chess or only over the board chess, and are your current choices reflecting your answer to this question?

How concerned are you about online cheating? Have you shared these concerns with your team captain, coach if any, arbiter, or all of the aforementioned?

Are you aware that not reporting genuine concerns might only encourage further unethical behaviour? Have you stopped to consider the effect of spreading unfounded rumours, not only on the subject of your rumour, but also on the target audience? This target audience will not be able to support you in carrying out an investigation as the tournament arbiter would.

Does your wish to play on a more complex online platform, with a wealth of add-ons, trump having access to a straightforward & simple to use platform that caters for the needs of a wider poll of chess players? The attractiveness of an online platform is not directly proportional to the quality of its anti-cheating mechanisms.

Are you creating new barriers to chess? How can you contribute to the chess community?

Raluca Stroe.
Hammersmith Chess Club – Diversity Officer


Post-script: IM Zoltan Sarosy

I found this 1964 game between, at that time, Zoltan L. Sarosy and IM Lawrence Day at the Canadian Open very interesting. I hope you enjoy it:

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