For the past six years, Igors Rausis seemed unbeatable.
As the 58-year-old grandmaster notched win after win, his chess rating rose accordingly until it had increased nearly 200 points. He became the oldest person to be ranked among the top 100 players worldwide, coming in at No. 53 this month.
According to Chess.com, Rausis’s meteoric rise was largely the result of him scoring perfectly, or almost perfectly, in games against lower-rated opponents. But now, the sport’s international governing body says there may be another explanation: cheating.
On Friday, Emil Sutovsky, director general of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), wrote in a Facebook post that Rausis was “caught red-handed” during a recent tournament in Strasbourg, France, confirming long-held suspicions about the Latvian-Czech player. Rausis was a former Latvian champion and has since represented Latvia, Bangladesh and the Czech Republic.
“It is a cheater, who reached that high in a very suspicious and questionable way, and now was caught,” Sutovsky wrote in another post.
And how did officials bust Rausis? With a picture.
The grainy photo, which looked as though it was taken over the wall of a bathroom stall, reportedly showed Rausis sitting fully clothed on a toilet using his phone during a match.
A phone was found in a bathroom Rausis had just used, Chess.com reported. It remains unclear how the picture of Rausis was taken. Officials have denied that a camera was installed in the bathroom or that the photo was “taken on behalf of Fide or any other local, national or supranational chess authority.”
In response to an inquiry about the allegation against Rausis, David Llada, a spokesperson for FIDE, told The Washington Post in an email early Monday, that "there has been an incident, and a player has signed a letter admitting his wrongdoing.” Llada, who did not identify the player, declined to comment further on the case until an official report is submitted.
“I simply lost my mind yesterday,” Rausis said in a statement to Chess.com on Friday. “Yes, I was tired after the morning game and all the Facebook activity of accusers also have a known impact. At least what I committed yesterday is a good lesson, not for me — I played my last game of chess already.”
Rausis told the British Times that he used chess software on his phone, adding that he knew he had been “committing my chess death.” Players have been banned from bringing cellphones and other electronic communication devices into events since 2014, according to FIDE rules. Breaking the rule could result in a player losing their game.
Beyond Rausis’s premature exit from the Strasbourg Open, he was also reported to the French police, Sutovsky said, and the federation’s ethics commission is now involved. On Facebook, Sutovsky said Rausis was suspended from the tournament, but the event’s organizers said he forfeited and left.
“FIDE has fundamentally toughened its attitude,” Sutovsky wrote in Russian on Facebook, according to the Times. “Completely rooting out cheating is impossible, but the risk of being caught has significantly increased and the punishments will become much more significant. The war against cheating will last years, and we’re in it for the long haul.”
Though long considered a “gentleman’s sport” in which a premium is placed on respecting rules, chess has not been without its share of cheating scandals — largely made possible by technology. More creative attempts have included the use of a wireless device sewn into a player’s cap, as well as a hidden camera and Morse code. But the most common, and perhaps most pervasive, tool is a smartphone.
“The basic problem is that it’s incredibly easy to cheat with a phone,” Nigel Short, an English chess grandmaster, told The Post in 2015. “You can have some application running on your phone, and it’s quite easy to conceal. … My dog could win a major tournament using one of these devices. Or my grandmother. Anybody could do this.”
Several years before Rausis was photographed perched cross-legged on a porcelain throne with a phone in hand, Georgian chess grandmaster Gaioz Nigalidze was accused of doing the same.
At a tournament in Dubai in April 2015, Nigalidze’s competitor observed that he would “promptly reply to my moves and then literally run to the toilet,” The Post’s Michael E. Miller reported. A search of the stall Nigalidze had been frequenting turned up an iPhone wrapped in toilet paper that had been concealed behind the toilet.
The ethics commission later found Nigalidze guilty, sentencing him to a three-year worldwide ban and revoking his grandmaster title.
On Thursday, Yuri Garrett, secretary of FIDE’s Fair Play Commission, wrote on Facebook that officials had been “closely following a player for months," crediting “excellent statistical insights” from a model created to detect cheating in chess.
“Trust me, the guy didn’t stand a chance from the moment I knew about the incident: FPC knows how to protect chess if given the chance,” Garrett wrote. “Today was a great day for chess.”
At least one person, however, wondered why it took so long to nab Rausis.
“Amazing Rausis wasn’t stopped earlier,” English chess grandmaster Daniel Gormally tweeted. “Seems completely naive to me that people think that someone can improve that much in their fifties. Worrying for the future if there is no way to stop a cheat other than taking a furtive photograph of them on the toilet with their phone.”
For at least 10 years, Rausis’s chess rating appeared to plateau. Then, in 2013, much to the surprise of chess experts, he started improving — a lot. His success was especially noteworthy given his age because chess is widely considered to be a sport dominated by younger players. There is no evidence of Rausis cheating before the incident in France, the Guardian reported.
“Has anyone else been mightily impressed by GM Igor Rausis’ ELO gains lately?” Trent, the English international master, tweeted in July 2018, referencing the popular rating system.
Deviatkin, the Russian grandmaster, wondered in March whether “modern training methods plus persistence and passion for the game” had made Rausis’s success possible.
“I always considered huge progress in #chess to be highly unlikely after 30,” he tweeted.
Earlier this month, even the FIDE director general addressed Rausis’s recent 40-game winning streak and pointed to his strategy of playing “very weak opponents.”
“Everything seems to be honest,” Sutovksy said in a Facebook post written in Russian on July 4.
But on Thursday, Deviatkin suggested that Rausis’s “'inspiring' story” likely could have continued, if only his rating hadn’t gone so high, tweeting, “he would have been still fooling many, even at his age.”
“I wonder how many dozens of regular players cheating selectively for norms or some lucrative prizes haven’t been caught yet,” he wrote.