Recent Chess Cheating Scandal

Recently there was a really well written and well researched article about a cheating scandal that happened in Virginia during a scholastic tournament. 

It is a very interesting read.  I sent a copy to all of the active tournament directors here in Colorado. 

I feel it is a good “cautionary tale” for all the Colorado Chess tournament directors who are rather lax (in my opinion) in terms of what devices are being used to notate games (iPads, iPhones, etc).
I got a lot of responses from the tournament directors.

Right now the only USCF approved devices are the Monroi ( and a program called eNotate, which runs on a limited number of PDA devices (not phones).  (

There are no approved chess scoring devices for iPhones, iPads, iPods, blackberry’s, Android phones, personal computers, etc.

However here in Colorado you will see people using the above devices.  People are using various unapproved programs to keep score of their games, including Microsoft “excel”, and various programs such as “Fritz” and “shredder”, supposedly with the “analysis” features turned off.

Here is a photo taken from Fred Spell’s Eagle and King July 2012 Colorado Springs Chess Night newsletter:

Dean Brown vs Rhett Langseth Colorado Springs Chess

You can see that Dean (left) is using an iPad to keep score of his game. If you look closely you can see that Mark McGough playing Isaac Martinez in the background, is also using some sort of phone device to notate his games.

Do I think that these players are cheating?

No, I don’t.  I have known both for years, and I think they are honest players.

But I do think that they are both breaking the USCF rules.

Tournament directors are allowed to post exceptions to the rules.  For example a tournament could choose not to enforce the “touch move” rule.  This is to be announced in advance, so that anyone that chooses to play in the event will know that these are the rules they are expected to play under.  Otherwise, players can come to a tournament expecting to play under the rules defined in the USCF rule book.

I am not aware of any efforts by any Colorado tournaments to announce that non approved computers are allowed to notate games.

Jerry Maier, who is a very experienced tournament director, wrote to me in response to the above article, quoted the USCF as saying:

The TD tip for rule 43 Scoresheets is

Tournament directors are advised to be flexible on the above [type of scoresheet being used, paper vs electronic, and the various flavors thereof]. Many players have their own scoresheet in the form of notebooks or recording devices, and prefer to keep their games in an orderly fashion within that book. If a player can provide a copy of the score from their notebook, or a printout or downloaded from the electronic scoresheet, this is acceptable. You have the score and the result of the game. Contact the USCF office regarding the policies and guidelines for electronic scorekeeping devices.

pages 16 & 17 of Rulebook Changes [2003-2012], Effective 1 January 2012.

Several of the tournament directors responded to me that all players at these tournaments are required to have their phones and devices in “airplane mode”. 

But this would only prevent a player from getting a text or phone call.  It would do nothing to prevent the use of an analysis engine.

I was an early adopter of the “Monroi” device for keeping score.  While it has its flaws, it does its job well.  It is designed as a combined hardware/software solution that does only one thing – keep score of a game.  You can’t load any “apps”, there is no “open source” operating system that you can hack at, you can’t do anything besides notate a game on it.

I got a comment from Randy Reynolds that said

Monroi owners are always going to be mad at those using their ipod/ipad apps to record games, because Monroi-ers dropped $370 on the USCF sanctioned product.

There may be some truth to this, and I could see how I could come across as “sour grapes”, since I “followed the rules”, and now it is the “wild west” for electronic scoring devices. 

But this is always the risk of being an “early adopter” of any technology.  You pay more, you risk it being replaced by a cheaper better model, etc.  The plus side is that you get it early.  Everyone that goes out an buys an iPhone 5 knows they will be giving them away a year from now, but they don’t care.  They want it NOW!

Most everyone agrees that paper score sheets have lots of problems with them and archaic.  They are hard to read, filled with mistakes, error prone, etc.

Fred Spell said

I am always dismayed as to what is turned in to the TD. Smears, smudges, chicken scratchings, coffee stains.

Fred said that he uses the following rules in his tournaments:

  • First, the device must be placed in “Airplane” mode.
  • Second, you can only record moves that have been played, not search possibilities.
  • And thirdly, the device can never leave the table.

Penalties for the first violation is a loss of 10 minutes on the players clock, or if they are under 10 minutes, half their remaining time deducted. Second penalty is the forfeit of the game and the third time it happens, forfeit of the tournament with no refund of entry fee or eligibility of prize money being awarded.

Some TD’s said that they know the players are using Shredder to notate their games, it would be easy to cheat, but that it doesn’t make any sense to cheat.  Since the prizes are so low, why would anyone cheat?

Well, the truth is that not everyone in society is honest.  That is why we have jails, police departments, locks on our doors, “mall cops”, etc, etc.

I know of lots of shady things that have gone on at chess clubs, tournaments and organizations. 

  • People playing under fake names,
  • notebook computers getting stolen,
  • club funds being ripped off,
  • etc.

Even using the computer for one or two moves per game could be a huge advantage.  It sounds like the player in the tournament was using his computer for every move of the game.  He could have probably won the game using it for less than half the moves.

Paul Covington, the past Colorado Chess President, said that he approves players using the non official devices, so players can have “a perfect scoresheet”. 

I totally understand the desire to have a perfect scoresheet, which is why I use a Monroi.

My buddy Francisco sent me this screenshot from his Shredder lite program that he has on his iPod Touch.

iTouch, “Shredder Lite”

Francisco writes:

“On my iTouch, I can use “Shredder Lite” (no chess engine) and still get hints from the computer by pressing the “?” button.. I would beware of anyone using Shredder as a notation device.”

My Friend Pete Short added:

Monroi was approved because to date, it is the only electronic device that can be used because the programmers and hardware developers who made the device were ensuring that it could not give an unfair advantage to a player or be modified to allow cheating. It should not be viewed as a crutch to say all chess players have a right to use electronic devices of their choice to avoid paper scoresheets. The whole point of the ability to “notate” in Fritz and other chess engines is the enter a played game for analysis – it also gives you the opportunity to see analysis as you enter. Not approved. Everybody on this email chain has demonstrated their hard work and commitment to advancing chess in Colorado. If anything – we should all remain committed to ensuring great playing environments and a level playing field. Not pushing entitlements.


  • I feel that tournament directors do have the right to modify the USCF rules, but these modifications should be announced and advertised in advance.
  • The Monroi continues to be the only electronic device that I would truly trust.
  • Tournament directors should read the above story about the cheating scandal in Virginia and draw their own conclusions.
  • The desire to have a “perfect scoresheet”, does not justify the rights to ignore the USCF rules.
  • Tournament directors need to become educated on the technology if they are going to allow “rogue” devices.  Turning on “airplane mode” will not prevent you from switching to a computer with a grandmaster level analysis engine with one or two clicks. 

Comments are very welcome!

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11 thoughts on “Recent Chess Cheating Scandal

  1. This is a horrible thing. I wish there were some way to better detect cheating and allow players to use whatever they feel more comfortable with to take their notes and record their moves. I guess if / when I play OTB I will take paper and pencil with me. (This is what I thought was all that was allowed anyway.) I have had to face charges of cheating before in online correspondence chess and though I did not cheat, there really was no way to prove it. I dislike both sides of this event. On the one hand, it seems there is a need for stricter conformance to the rules and to monitor players more to avoid cheating. On the other hand, I fear this will cause people to become even more paranoid about cheating and result in many (mostly false?) accusations. It had not occurred to me that cheating would be happening in OTB matches, but I was also unaware you could bring electronic devices of any kind to the table. Well, I see problems but no real solutions. Perhaps some smarter person will find some solutions to this quandry but I won’t be holding my breath. Anyway, thanks for another good article.

  2. Hey Tim,
    I have been a bit enlightened by this article. As you know I play in as many tournaments as I can and have had several opponents use invalid electronic devices for score keeping. I never thought much of it or said anything. The other day one of my buddies refused to let her opponent use one. I thought that her logic made scene. The computer was “alerting him that an illegal move was being made”. After reading your article I will not let my opponent use illegal devices.

  3. I’ve used Stockfish two player mode to record my games for all of my tournaments. There are no hints in two player mode and I can email the PGN afterwards.

    I use an iPad and I always show the program I’m using to my opponent before the game starts and ask their permission if it’s okay to use it. I also leave the iPad, with it’s pretty big screen, on the table in the open for both me and my opponent to see.

    The grantland article seems to suggest that people were looking pretty closely at their devices or wearing earpieces where they could get information, etc. The bottom line is that it seems that suspicious behavior is the key indicator of a cheat. I think this is what the TD should be on the lookout for.

    TDs and the USCF should open up tournaments to the use of these devices, because cheating isn’t as rampant as the grantland article seems to suggest and the cheaters will get caught, because as the proverbs says “the guilty flee when none pursue.” Cheaters actions reveal them as such.

  4. Back in the early 90s, I played in several USCF tournaments. As I recall, our score sheets had carbons so that I would have a copy and the TD had a copy. (And didn’t I and my opponent also sign our sheets after the game to verify the results?) How does this work with electronic devices? Does the TD still keep a record of the game?

  5. No, no, no!
    The only devices that should be allowable for use during a Chess tournament, or even a friendly game of Chess are paper scoresheets, or a Monroi.

    I am a lowly rated player and a gadget freak. Probaly I was among the first 50 players to obtain a Monroi. In addition I own a Blackberry with a nice Chess program in it, an Itouch, an Ipad and a laptop with various Chess programs. I efficent in the use of all of them, and I can safely say that, one has to be an extraordinary human being to use any electronic device with an analysis feature in a tournament and not cheat. (yes there are exceptions to every rule).

    Wether, the winning rewards are money the majority of people will not resist getting or having an edge.

    Lets be honest, and please keep the playing field balanced and even.

    P.S. Anyone advocating allowable use of any electronic device apart from a Monroi, is either not honest, do not know much about the use of these gadgets, or ill-informed.

  6. It has been years since I played in a tournament. Back then we used a scoresheet and a pencil. It is way to easy for someone to cheat using anything other than a Monroi. I haven’t played chess over the Internet for the same reason. There is nothing like playing face to face on a nice tournament size chess board. I think in a tournament all cell phones should be shut off and put away as well as every electronic device. Why should someone be allowed to listen to their MP3 player or phone? How do I know they aren’t listening to something they shouldn’t be listening to? Maybe I’m just suspicious but the playing field should be level. As far as using the shredder app on an iPhone (like the above article shows), what about that little arrow that shows you who is winning? If your opponent just blundered, the arrow will be a dead giveaway which isn’t fair at all. I love all of the gadgets, but there is a time and a place for everything.

  7. Herbert’s idea that honesty is an extraordinary trait, is ridiculous.

    The idea that chess is lousy with cheaters is also ridiculous.

    Necessary precautions should be taken for the few bad apples, but there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bath water. We should think about how to accommodate helpful advances in chess. Sticking to the view that its either handwritten notation or Monroi is antiquated.

  8. One product that can be used on the iPad to notate nicely is ‘Chess Score Pad’. Unlike Shredder, all this app does is chess notation. With the Tournament Edition, you can only notate in airplane mode, and there is no opportunity for the device to give you assistance. They’re currently working to try and get USCF approval. I just purchased it for casual league play. Why? Because I dislike wearing reading glasses simply to notate. The Monroi isn’t much better with it’s small screen. On an iPad, I can easily play and then record moves. As long as the device stays flat on the table (as it should), my opponent can easily see my screen as well. At the end of the game, I can get a nice record or printout of the game. One drawback for those not paying attention is players who might make their move on the device BEFORE they make their move on the board. This might provide a slight advantage to see what the move looks like before they make it (if you need that type of assistance).

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