Cheating in chess tournaments is not very common. The vast majority of players don’t see value in winning a game through dishonesty and want the satisfaction of earning their successes. Still, we can’t put our heads in the sand — some people lack ethics, and there are issues to discuss.
Cheating before the game
The goal of these players is to play in an easier section than they should be allowed to.
This kind of chess cheating is especially an issue in sections with rating-based prizes.
Players are required to disclose all ratings they have upon tournament entry, and the director normally uses the highest one to determine section and prize eligibility. If a player is revealed to have another, foreign rating, they can be moved to a higher section or leven expelled from the event.
Please note: TDs are interested in over-the-board tournament ratings only; online ratings are meaningless.
A sandbagger is a player who throws games over time to lower their rating. They hope to later use this lower rating to enter a tournament with a large prize fund, playing down one or two sections. It’s also becoming more common in high-stakes scholastic tournaments thanks to unscrupulous coaches.
Events with large prize funds have strict eligibility rules to combat this practice. The Continental Chess Association even updates a list of players with assigned minimum ratings regularly. This list is so respected that other organizers use it in their events!
Sandbagging is best stopped by observant opponents and TDs. Fortunately, with the regular publication of ratings online, cheating of this sort is tougher to pull off in the past.
What isn’t chess cheating
Remember: once rated, always rated. I have seen cases where players haven’t played a USCF-rated game in decades and decide to play again. Their last rating is still valid, and they are not unrated. Whether they are stronger or weaker than their old rating indicates is irrelevant.
I competed against a player in high school who stopped playing for several years; his last rating was in the 1400s. I heard rumors he was still improving and years later he entered a few events with large prizes, finding success. This is perfectly ok. He didn’t have a hidden rating and entered sections his old rating allowed. Of course, his rating quickly caught up to his skill level.
Cheating during the game: Illegal Assistance
When this kind of chess cheating is uncovered, it becomes worldwide news. The penalties are very severe, and rightly so.
Recent high profile cases include Gaioz Nigalidze (2015) and Igors Rausis (2019). Both were caught using chess software on mobile phones during gamets. FIDE revoked their Grandmaster titles and banned them for three and six years, respectively.
Most tournaments require players to not have their phone on them. Phones can be placed in a designated location near the board or given to directors before the game. When staying at a hotel during a tournament, I leave my phone in my room and don’t even bring it to the game.
Recently I assisted in a couple of GM norm round robins. The players came into the venue handing me their phones without me needing to ask! I emphasize again: the vast majority of players are honest and look to avoid even an appearance of wrongdoing.
Before the rise of powerful chess software, players could cheat by getting hints from players, spectators…even yogurt!? Such allegations are not easy to prove, but three French players were suspended in 2012 for cheating in chess tournaments by using signals to relay moves. This requires one or more accomplices, making it less frequent than other forms of cheating.
Cheating after the game
This kind of cheating in chess tournaments does happen occasionally!
Sometimes a player posts the wrong result. This can happen accidentally, but I am familiar with players intentionally posting the wrong result, or even changing a correctly posted result!
The way to combat this is to post your result on the pairings sheet with your opponent. If they leave the board and get to the chart before you, make sure you double check what they have posted.
Many scholastic tournaments have a scorer’s table where the players give the game result to directors near the exit. Remind your child to always go to the scorer’s table with their opponent! You don’t want to deal with episodes when the players go separately and one child gives the wrong result, intentionally or not.
The bottom line
Don’t become paranoid about cheating in chess tournaments. Be vigilant, report suspicious behavior, but realize that cheating in tournaments is far from the norm. Fortunately, the people responsible for running tournaments have risen to the challenge, and arbiters now receive anti-cheating training.