License to Cheat?


Park City, Utah, Aug. 9, 2006 — -- Seems as if every occupation has been tarnished of late by accusations of cheating. Corporate America (the list is too long to cite specific individuals), the news industry (that Reuter's photographer who manipulated pictures of Qana, Lebanon, under attack), and steroid-obsessed professional sports (Floyd Landis, Rafael Palmeiro, et al). All have had their share of notorious, high profile accused cheats.

Now comes word that the so-called gentleman's game -- chess -- has been caught in allegations of improper play.

Two players reportedly received help from computers or from friends using computers during the biggest chess tournament of the year, the World Open, in Philadelphia, over the Fourth of July weekend. Steve Rosenberg was expelled from the tournament and Eugene Varshavsky was searched before each round, although Varshavsky was allowed to finish the tournament.

In Rosenberg's case, a small, wireless earpiece was found.

Bill Goichberg, director of the World Open and the Continental Chess Association, told, "A tournament official noticed something in [Rosenberg's] ear and asked what it was. He was told it was a hearing aid."

That device turned out to be something called a Phonito. An Internet Web site describes it as a "wireless earphone" that "goes in the ear, providing clear and discrete audio," with no wires protruding "above the user's neck." The implication was that Rosenberg had received wireless advice on various chess moves, possibly with the help of a computer.

Rosenberg was "expelled under suspicion" from the competition, said Goichberg, "because of the wireless earpiece and because he wouldn't allow us to search him."

In Varshavsky's case, his nearly flawless moves were run through a computerized chess-playing program called Shredder. The last 25 moves of Varshavsky's win against the grandmaster matched the moves generated by the computer. Coincidence? Perhaps, though previously, Varshavsky had played disappointing chess and was among the lowest-ranked in his division.

Goichberg suggests that cheating at chess is not new. "It's quite disturbing that this goes on, and I suspect it has been more extensive than a lot of people wanted to believe."

Is a first-place victory -- the quest to claim that trophy or prize money -- in any competitive tournament really worth the risk of cheating? In the case of the Tour de France, money was only part of it. Pride can be another motivating factor.

Floyd Landis, in interviews with ABC's "Good Morning America," NBC's "Today Show" and the "CBS Morning News," told television viewers he was innocent of drug charges and would now fight to restore his good name, especially among fans of cycling. "I hope they'll keep watching, because the race [of proving his innocence] isn't over yet," he told ABC's Robin Roberts. "I had a bad day before, and I kept fighting." In a previous statement, Landis said, "I have never taken any banned substance, including testosterone. I was the strongest man at the Tour de France, and that is why I am the champion. It is now my goal to clear my name and restore what I worked so hard to achieve."

"Make no mistake about it. Money is the root of all evil," said sportswriter Stephen A. Smith. "And ego is tagging right along with it."

Sports psychologists and sociologists (yes, they really do exist) have opined that athletes are trained to take on adversity, so fighting allegations of cheating is simply one more challenge. Besides, they said that with time -- whether they're proved guilty or not -- a lot of athletes bank on fans forgetting the specific details or at least remembering that the charges were contested. More ominously, they suggest that the frequency of cheating is leading many young people who idolize sports heroes to copy their behavior.

It may also be a generational divide that's at work here. Recently, during a dinner conversation in this mountain sports town, adults and teenagers alike discussed the Landis case. The adults held the position that cheating to create an unfair advantage was wrong and should be punished vigorously. But the teens, some of whom compete professionally in winter sports activities, saw it in a different light. "This is so lame," said one of them. "Everyone in sports knows doping is everywhere -- get over it. Just deal with it, and let the best or the strongest athlete win."

The suggestion was that steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs or supplements should be tolerated, even accepted. Never mind the physical damage continued use can bring on. As one of the adults said later, "We thought we were indestructible at that age, too."

But David Karen, a sociology professor at Bryn Mawr College, suggested that cheating is incentive-based, making it increasingly enticing in today's world.

"We live in a 'winner takes all' society," said Karen. "The stakes are just so high ... and if you win, the rewards are beyond belief."

Absent a change in moral direction, cheating will likely continue. As for chess, players beware. The World Open and Continental Chess Association plan to take countermeasures to halt the wireless computer-driven cheating. Director Goichberg hints at one possible solution: "We have been looking into some sort of jamming device that would interfere with the radio signal," he said, but quickly added, "That could be a problem, because it may be illegal." Or perhaps, the association will simply check the ears of chess players.

Now about that title ... the "gentleman's game"?

Bede Moore contributed reporting for this story.

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