Some years ago, a scandal broke out over whether a young man was cheating in an international chess tournament. Nobody knew for sure, but the strange goings-on suggested other forces at work.
In December 2012, a 25 year old man from Bulgaria, Borislav Ivanov, turned up at a strong international chess tournament in Zadar, Croatia. Arriving as a rank outsider, bottom of a field of 36 players, he beat very strong players and finished fourth in an astonishing performance. He jumped up 15,000 places in the world rankings at a single bound. Though a good player, he was not a star. How did he do it? According to Ivanov himself:
Chess is my passion. Every day I practice three to four hours at the board. I have no girlfriend. I play brilliantly because I have good training, that is the answer 1.
This answer did not cut much ice. Teenage prodigies might pull off such a performance, but not grown men. His training program could not hold a candle to the hours top-flight players put into their game. Sometimes good players get lucky and produce a stellar performance. An American professor in statistics and computer science wrote a detailed technical report for the World Chess Federation. He concluded the odds against such a lucky chance were almost a million to one 2. Was Ivanov cheating? By 2012, you could buy a chess program able to beat the world’s best players and put it on your phone. Cheating became the main hypothesis to explain Ivanov’s success.
Chess begins with a gift. A child sees the pieces and asks what they do. An older person tells them and shows them how they move. They play a game or two, and a seed might take root in the child’s mind. Perhaps an enthusiasm springs up, but lacks depth and the young shoots wither. Sometimes, the seed finds good soil and a love is born. The ardent fledgling looks for other players and studies what other lovers of the game have found among its treasures. Every player is made from what others have given them.
Chess, like other unsolved games in life, offers inexhaustible moments to do exciting and beautiful things 3. The rules of the game make it possible, and the discipline they demand ‘exists for the sake of its opposite — for freedom, almost extravagance’ 4. The love of the game, in the career of champions, becomes a quest to find perfection, to play beautiful games with, and not exactly against, the best opponents:
It’s a dialogue. Each move is a message to the opponent. Moving the pieces you’re practically saying: ‘the game will be decided like this, so I’m going to do this and this will happen to you’. The opponent replies: ‘Go ahead, I don’t believe you’, or ‘Do whatever you like, I’ll take it calmly’. This constant conversation between the players gives chess some kind of intimacy 5.
The intimacy derives from a shared determination to find the truth in a position. Champions may be fierce rivals, they may even hate one another, but they still need each other.
Tournaments search for champions who triumph and inspire. The playing field is level. Everyone starts with the same pieces and the same time to play with. The players alternate between white and black, taking turns to use the small initiative of white’s first move. They must obey the rules of the game, treat their opponents courteously and submit disputes to the arbiter’s judgement. They must strip themselves of books, notes and devices and fight their battles unaided.
The stripping away of everything but naked strength can take us back to Eden, the garden paradise, where Adam and Eve lived naked, and met and talked with angels and with God. A rule made these encounters possible — Adam and Eve were not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve knew good but were innocent of evil, an innocence Satan wanted to corrupt. He took possession of the serpent, and told Eve the fruit would give her a gift.
Eve marvelled at the talking serpent, whose gift no other animal possessed. The gift, the serpent said, came from the forbidden fruit. The serpent put it in her mind that if a snake could speak like a person, a person could speak like a god. So she ate the fruit, and Adam ate it too, because Adam desired Eve and what she desired. They learned what evil was, but lacked the power to conquer it. Their time in paradise, in that joyful, solemn game, was finished. ‘Hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow, they took their solitary way’ into a world of death and sin. 6
The pattern of death in chess is clear enough, and its sting is sharp. Each player sets out to kill the opponent’s king by checkmate — when the king faces capture and cannot escape. The king is irreplaceable — when checkmated, all is lost. Defeat in life, in battle and in sport is painful, but chance and hidden factors reduce the loser’s shame. Bad luck, the fog of war and accidental injuries may excuse a loss. Chess offers no excuses. You start with equal forces. Every piece is visible and every move is chosen. The death of your king is entirely your fault.
Death’s mother, sin, also haunts the game. The victor and the vanquished both sin by choosing moves that leave the game’s true path, marked out by perfect play. Mistakes blemish every game and stain both sides. The players may escape full punishment, but the world finds out their errors, great and small. A grandmaster commented long ago that the victor in chess is whoever made the last mistake but one. God only knows the game’s true path, which inspires but humbles even the champions — ’my richest gain, I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride’7.
Borislav Ivanov returns to our story at a tournament in March 2013 in his native Bulgaria. Numerous strong players withdrew when they heard he was playing, but an Italian master, Alex Rombaldoni, decided to face him:
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! He was looking at the board, the clock, his score sheet, but he never calculated moves and variations. Whenever I looked at him, he never looked back at me or anyone 8.
Rombaldoni lost, but did he play Ivanov or a computer?
Nobody knew for certain, but anyone can tell if players are thinking. Each player lives in the dread of error and the shame of defeat. At night, the lost game spoils dreams and interrupts sleep. The games proceed in silence but the strain is everywhere. Nobody wants to lose. A moment’s lapse can bring immediate defeat. A clock is timing the moves. Step over the limit, and the game is lost on the spot. In players’ faces and in their bodies you can see the struggle between their will and their passions. Some steady their head in their hands, others fidget with a pen or jiggle their legs under the table. Players go cold or sweat, blanch or go red in the face.
The only unthinking player is a computer, the silicon monster. The American professor who analysed Ivanov’s performance also examined his moves. They matched the computer’s choices more frequently than any other human player, even the world’s best. The monster never forgets or tires, it hopes for nothing and despairs of nothing, and it never cries. It gives its user added power that no other player possesses. It makes mistakes, but mostly they lie hidden. With its help, a serpent’s voice may whisper, you can have the triumph without the labour. Who would know the difference between your aided or unaided choices?
Although every serious player and commentator uses a computer to study the game, it remains unsolved. The best effort to date, from a Russian supercomputer, solves ‘only’ 500,000,000,000 positions with seven or fewer pieces on the board 9. A full board has 32 pieces. Computers do not really ‘play’. They dredge the ocean for chess’s possibilities. They catch weird creatures from the deep. One position requires 545 moves of perfect play as the shortest path to victory.
For all unsolved positions, computers spill out moves according to the limits imposed by their creators. Because they do not play, their moves can seem weird and less than human. People often say ‘no human would ever play that; it’s a computer move’, and they said it about moves that Borislav Ivanov made.
In late September 2013, Maxim Dlugy, an American grandmaster, ran up against Ivanov. Dlugy knew the stories so he watched Ivanov play:
I see that his gaze is not really focused on the board…He is doing a nervous thing with his feet…He walks in a very funny gait, like he is afraid to step on a part of his shoe. He is wearing pretty big sneakers, like the ones they would force you to take off at airports 10.
Just before Dlugy was about to play Ivanov, he asked the tournament director to search them both. Annoyed, Ivanov filled in his scoresheet with ‘Machine’ in the space for his own name, and ‘Unknown clown’ in the space for Dlugy. The searchers scanned the player’s clothes. Then Dlugy took off his shoes and socks, challenging Ivanov to do the same. Ivanov announced: ‘I categorically will not take off my shoes. My socks smell’. ‘Machine’ Ivanov refused a chance to show his innocence, and forfeited his game instead. If he was playing moves dictated through his feet and not dictated by his head, then Dlugy, the ‘Unknown clown’, had exposed the truth. To make us laugh, a clown turns reality upside down. If reality is upside down, a clown sets it the right way up for us to see. The chess world read of these events under the headline: ‘The shoe assistant: Ivanov forfeits.’
Undeterred, in December 2013 Ivanov showed up at a tournament in Spain. Ranked only 23rd out of 92 players, he got off to a flying start. By the end of round five, he scored four wins and a draw and beat two grandmasters. Officials searched his shoes at the end of round four, finding no device or smelly socks. During round five, people noticed a strange lump under his jacket, so another search was made before round six. A former policeman frisked Ivanov and felt something suspicious at the armpit. He saw a tape across the chest, as Ivanov pulled away from him. Ivanov stopped the search. To avoid disqualification, he withdrew from the tournament, and ended his brief international chess career 11. The chess community generally concluded that Ivanov was not playing the game, but making computer moves, passing off what the computer spilled out as a substitute for the mastery he lacked.
Devices, tools and things we make extend our power and cover up our weakness. When Adam and Eve broke Eden’s rule, paradise was lost. As they took their solitary way into the world outside, God clothed them in garments of skin to protect them from the thorns. The garments covered up thin and tender human skin. Rule breakers cover up their weakness. Ivanov would not take off his shoes or remove his shirt to show himself to the world.
Before the world began, other creatures quit God’s company. Satan and his rebel angels felt a sense of injured merit, of themselves impaired, because God appointed Christ the head of angels. They sought to tear him from his place. Defeated, hurled headlong flaming out of heaven, Satan and his monsters took counsel together in the mournful gloom of hell. What could dull the pain of exile? One of them, Mammon, suggested making hell resemble heaven. Make some light, forge some magnificence, and who would know the difference? 12
Nobody knew for sure if a silicon monster played Ivanov’s games. Life and chess present us with countless uncertainties. Mammon does not tell humanity that hell’s dull light and forged magnificence will never pass for love, or truth or beauty. We have to work that out for ourselves.
Michael Dunn, Sydney, a former competitive chess player