La Perfide France

After three French players were banned for cheating in March, the game must find a way to prevent technology ruining contests

Dominic Lawson

The Entente cordiale is a fine thing, but in the field of sport France and England should never give quarter. Cheating, however, is quite another thing, and that is what seems to have happened in the match between the two nations in the most recent Chess Olympiad.

To be precise, the 20-year-old French Grandmaster Sébastien Feller has been found guilty by his own national federation of using a computer to defeat England’s David Howell, another precociously talented 20-year-old. It was a crucial game for the match’s outcome: France had been losing  and it was only as a result of Feller’s victory that the encounter ended all square. At the time — this was last September in the Siberian city of Khanty-Mansiysk — the English team thought nothing of it, except feeling disappointment at failing to win. Only later did the full extraordinary story emerge.

The vice-president of the French chess federation, Joanna Pomian, had been paying for a mobile phone for one of her team, Cyril Marzolo. This gave her access to the contents of all Marzolo’s text messages. To her consternation, she discovered that there had been a very large number of texts to the French team captain, Grandmaster Arnaud Hauchard, suggesting the moves Feller should play at every stage of his game against Howell. Transmitted while the game was in progress, these moves were all the top choices given by the very strong chess computer program, Firebird, used by the French team. They were also the moves played by Feller over the board.

It seems that after Marzolo texted the suggested moves to Hauchard, who was inside the playing hall, Hauchard was able by a signing method to communicate the computer’s suggestions to Feller. The text message which convinced Mme Pomian of the true purpose was one she actually saw on Marzolo’s phone during the game: from Hauchard, it read “Hurry up, send moves…” By January Hauchard had confessed his role to his team mate, the top French grandmaster Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who, together with a number of his colleagues, urged the French Chess Federation to launch a formal investigation, and act on the findings.

One can see why: this was a team event, in which the honour of the nation was at stake. More to the point as far as the players were concerned, if the now widely known circumstances were not properly dealt with by the French authorities, suspicion may have fallen upon other French grandmasters as being in some way implicated.

In March the French Chess Federation duly held a judicial session, which found that Feller, Hauchard and Marzolo were “guilty of a violation of sporting ethics” and that there was “enough proof that the three players cheated during the Olympiad”. Text messages during two of Feller’s other games were also considered. Marzolo was given a five-year ban from the game; Hauchard (who absented himself from the proceedings on grounds of ill-health) was given a lifetime ban from the captaincy of the French team. Feller received a three-year ban. The federation added that it had “taken into consideration the age of Sébastien Feller — he was 19 during the Olympiad”.

Feller’s lawyers said that the French Chess Federation had no jurisdiction over an event which had taken place in Siberia, while Hauchard’s attorneys protested that the text messages between him and Marzolo were not admissible evidence, being protected by laws governing secrecy in private correspondence. These might seem technical rather than substantive defences; but legally speaking the matter is by no means concluded. Nevertheless, the chess world seems convinced that a great infamy has been detected and that it must now act to ensure that nothing of the like occurs again. 

The professional game is clearly vulnerable, as even chess computer programs attached to mobile phones are now strong enough to give faultless tactical advice. If there is insufficient invigilation, both of players and coaches within a playing arena, then a dreadful situation could arise in which no competitors would be exempt from fear or suspicion of cheating. The organisers of the Olympiad erred in not banning all mobile phones from the playing arena, but with the advance of miniaturisation we can already envisage individuals having receivers on their person which would be undetectable except through the most stringent scanning — a degrading prospect for eminent grandmasters.

One person who has not commented publicly about this scandal is its proximate victim, David Howell. However, I have now spoken to him about it and he told me the following: “Feller’s behaviour during the game was odd. He seemed unusually nervous and got up frequently from the board; on these occasions I could see him looking around distractedly. It didn’t occur to me that this was anything to do with cheating. But after the game I looked at it for over an hour with a computer and was amazed to find that at every turn he played exactly what the computer recommended which is highly unusual for a game of such length.”

What does Howell think of the sentence meted out to his opponent? “I think that three years is much too lenient; and his age — the same as mine — should have nothing to do with it. He is an adult and a professional. He should be banned for life.” I should add that David is a calm and reasonable individual, not given to extremes of opinion. His anger is not so much at the fact that he was personally the victim, but that grandmaster chess as a whole is at risk if exemplary sentences are not handed out to those found guilty of cheating in a way unthinkable (and indeed, impossible) until very recently.

Here, for those of a forensic disposition, is the game at the centre of the scandal, with Feller (and Firebird) playing Black. 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.Bd3 c5 6.c3 Nc6 7.Ne2 cxd4 8.cxd4 Qb6 9.Nf3 f6 10.exf6 Nxf6 11.0-0 Bd6 12.b3 0-0 13.Bb2 Bd7 14.Nc3 Rac8 15.Na4 Qa5 16.Ne5 Nb4 17.Bb1 Nxa4 18.bxa4 Qc7 19.a3 Nc2!! (A “computer move”, instead of the weaker but more “human” Nc6.) 20. Ra2 Bxe5 21.dxe5 Ne4 22.Bc1? (Howell blunders, not seeing the tactical shock that follows) Nxf2! 23.Qxc2 Nh3+! 24.gxh3 Qb6+ 25.Kg2 Rxc2+ 26.Bxc2 Rxf1 27.Kxf1 Qc7 28.Rb2 d4 29.Ke2 Qxe5+ and Black’s Queen and central pawn mass are too strong for Howell’s uncoordinated pieces. White held out for a further 19 moves, but the result was no longer in doubt. One cannot say the same for the method by which it was achieved.

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