Twinkle Toes

Borislav Ivanov’s gadget-enhanced attempt to cheat his way to sporting success could have been lifted from a James Bond film

Dominic Lawson

In the days before computer programs became too good at chess for even the best of carbon-based life-forms, cheating at the highest level consisted either of games being thrown for money — which still happens — and, very occasionally, grandmasters ignoring the touch-move rule. The most notorious offender was a Yugoslav grandmaster called Milan Matulović, who died last month at the age of 78.

In the 1970 tournament which would decide who would go through to the final stages of the world championship, Matulović — for an alleged bribe of $400-deliberately lost his last-round game against Mark Taimanov. This did not work out too well for the Russian. Though this purchased victory qualified him for a quarter-final match against Bobby Fischer, he lost every single game. The Soviet authorities — who had organised the original bribe — felt humiliated and they banned Taimanov from travel for years.

It was in a world championship elimination tournament three years earlier that Matulović took back a losing move against one of his rivals, István Bilek. This was before such events were routinely filmed: Bilek’s furious protests were of no use, because the arbiters did not see the transgression. Matulović did do jail time, but not for an offence against the laws of chess: his transgression on that occasion had been the more commonplace one of manslaughter.

One thing to be said for the late and not entirely lamented Milan Matulović is that while he had been known to cheat, he was not passing himself off as a top grandmaster-he actually was one. There was no question about his talent, whatever might be said of his character. Nowadays the scourges of the chess world are players of no particular talent who exploit the remarkable advances in computer miniaturisation to smuggle a chess app onto their person and thus defeat grandmasters against whom they would otherwise have no chance.

The latest and most outrageous example is Borislav Ivanov, a 25-year-old Bulgarian who “retired” from chess last month after he was definitively exposed as a silicon-aided cheat. Over the previous 18 months this computer engineer had won several tournaments, beating a number of strong grandmasters. Up to that point he had merely been a proficient amateur, like hundreds of his fellow-countrymen in a chess-obsessed nation. Suddenly, however, Ivanov was playing like a genius — or, rather, like a strong computer program.

One of his astonished victims, the Italian grandmaster Axel Rombaldoni, observed: “From the start of our game until the very end, it was obvious to me that Ivanov was not behaving as a chess player usually does. In my opinion he was never thinking — ever!” As doubts about his transformation from plodder to prodigy rose, Ivanov gave television interviews during which he denounced the accusations that he had been cheating as “a total lie . . . very ridiculous”. He did not improve relations when he told one reporter: “Most chess players are absolute buttheads. To be honest, sometimes I feel ashamed to say that I am a chess player.”

There had been a few body searches of Ivanov by tournament controllers faced with a walk-out by grandmasters if they had not acted; but these had not revealed anything untoward. His nemesis was the Russian-born US grandmaster Maxim Dlugy. Though now a businessman retired from full-time chess, the 47-year-old Dlugy decided while on holiday in Europe last September to enter the annual open tournament held in the Bulgarian town of Blagoevgrad — in which Ivanov had entered. 

Dlugy knew about Ivanov’s notoriety and had been told by one disenchanted older Bulgarian grandmaster that because he was young and good-looking “the organisers will do anything basically to prove that the guy is for real”. This provoked the combative Dlugy, a former president of the US Chess Federation, to get to the bottom of the matter: in fact, he had to go even lower down to do so.

Dlugy later told the leading chess website Chessbase: “I spoke to a lot of technical people about how he could be doing this. They said he is using his toes to receive and give signals, in Morse code or whatever. I figured his toes are actually tied in electronically, so he cannot actually take off his shoes . . . he walked in a very funny gait, like he is afraid to step on a part of his shoe.”

Before the start of his own game against Ivanov, Dlugy arranged for the head of the tournament’s security — who happened to be a friend — to require the two players to take off their shoes after the normal body search had been completed. As he related: “It was a very funny moment. The search is completed and my friend goes ‘OK, and now take off your shoes.’ Without a word I take off my shoes, I take off my socks and throw them on to the floor. And Ivanov just goes: ‘I categorically will not take off my shoes. My socks smell. If you have to forfeit me, forfeit me. But I will not take off my shoes.'”

That private humiliation over, Ivanov last month publicly announced the end of his chess “career”, telling a Bulgarian newspaper: “My opponent wanted me to take off my shoes and socks. I refused because I knew it would not stop there. They will punish me for everything, from improper breathing to poor posture.”

Actually, his crime was imposture. Although there is a comic aspect to Ivanov’s unravelling, the fact that technology gives increasingly undetectable means for cheats to masquerade as geniuses has conjured up the single biggest threat to the integrity, reputation and even future of chess.

Perhaps the most astounding of Ivanov’s “victories” was the following demolition of the Croatian grandmaster, Zdenko Kožul, last December. “Playing” with the Black pieces, Ivanov produced the following error-free masterpiece: 1.c4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 g6 4.g3 Bg7 5.Bg2 e6 6.d3 Nge7 7.h4 h6 8.Bd2 d5 9.Qc1 b6 10.0-0 Bb7 11.Rb1 d4 12.Na4 Qc7 13.a3 a5 14.Qc2 0-0 15.b4 axb4 16.axb4 Nxb4 17.Bxb4 cxb4 18.Rxb4 Nd5 19.Rbb1 Nc3 20.Nxc3 dxc3 21.e3 Ra3 22.Rb3 Rfa8 23.d4 Qxc4 24.Nd2 Qc7 25.Bxb7 Rxb3 26.Nxb3 Qxb7 27.Qxc3 Qd5 28.Qc2 Ra3 29.Rb1 Bf8! 30.Nc1 b5 31.Nd3 Bd6 32.Nc5? (Kožul’s only error — but it is enough for Ivanov and his nimble electronic toes.) Bxg3! 33.fxg3 Rxe3 34. Kh2 (If 34.Qf2 Qxd4 35.Nb3 Rxg3+ 36.Kf1 Qd3+ wins) Qf3 and Kožul resigned: he can defend the g-pawn with Qg2 or Rg1, but either loses the Q to Re2. Elegant chicanery.

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