(Courtesty of Dubai Chess & Culture Club)
Gaioz Nigalidze is on the left. (Dubai Chess and Culture Club)

Gaioz Nigalidze’s rise through the ranks of professional chess began in 2007, the year the first iPhone was released. In hindsight, the timing might not be coincidental.

On Saturday, Nigalidze, the 25-year-old reigning Georgian champion, was competing in the 17th annual Dubai Open Chess Tournament when his opponent spotted something strange.

“Nigalidze would promptly reply to my moves and then literally run to the toilet,” Armenian grandmaster Tigran Petrosian said. “I noticed that he would always visit the same toilet partition, which was strange, since two other partitions weren’t occupied.”

Petrosian complained to the officials. After Nigalidze left the bathroom once more, officials inspected the interior and say they found an iPhone wrapped in toilet paper and hidden behind the toilet.

“When confronted, Nigalidze denied he owned the device,” according to the tournament’s Web site. “But officials opened the smart device and found it was logged into a social networking site under Nigalidze’s account. They also found his game being analyzed in one of the chess applications.”

A photo shows Gaioz Nigalidze's match sheet and confiscated iPhone. (Courtesy of The Dubai Chess and Culture Club)
A photo shows Gaioz Nigalidze’s match sheet and confiscated iPhone. (Dubai Chess and Culture Club)

Nigalidze was expelled from the tournament, which is still ongoing and features more than 70 grandmasters from 43 countries competing for a first-place prize of $12,000. The Georgian’s career is now under a microscope. His two national titles are under suspicion. And under recently tightened rules against cheating, he could be banned for up to 15 years.

But the scandal threatens to spread far beyond the gleaming white Dubai Chess and Culture Club, which is shaped like a giant rook. Nigalidze’s expulsion is a nightmare scenario for chess: proof positive that technologically enabled cheating, rumored about for more than a decade, is now pervasive. Thanks to smartphones, the game of kings is starting to look like the game of crooks.

“The basic problem is that it’s incredibly easy to cheat with a phone,” says Nigel Short, an English chess grandmaster who once was ranked third in the world and is now 60th. “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.”

“A friend of mine recently joked that his mobile phone will beat Magnus Carlsen,” Short said, referring to the Norwegian chess prodigy who is the world’s No. 1 player. “I said, ‘What are you talking about? My microwave could beat Magnus Carlsen.'”

Smartphones threaten to ruin the sport, Short says. He’s not alone. Another English chess grandmaster, Daniel Gormally, recently suggested that cheating with phones is now widespread.

As soon as he heard about Nigalidze, Short took to Twitter to demand the World Chess Federation (FIDE) strip the Georgian of his titles and ban him for two years. But on further reflection, Short says he’s actually in favor of even harsher penalties.

“It’s almost impossible to police,” he says. “So I think when a person gets caught in this way, there has to be really draconian punishment so that people think twice.” Short says penalties have to be even harsher than those for Olympic athletes who abuse drugs because smartphones alter the playing field even more than steroids.

“The difference is, if I were to take drugs — some sort of steroids or whatever — I will still never be able to win the 100 meters or the Tour de France, because I simply don’t have the physique for this,” he says. “But any club player could win an international tournament if he’s using this sort of device.”

Chess has a long and contentious history with technology. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a chess machine called “The Mechanical Turk” became a sensation in Europe. The automaton appeared to be capable of beating skilled opponents, most famously including Napoleon. But the machine was, in fact, a fake: A human chess player hid inside and manipulated the machine’s every move.

In the 20th century, chess was a yardstick used to measure the advance of computers. In 1996, world champion Garry Kasparov defeated IBM’s revolutionary supercomputer, Deep Blue. A year later, Kasparov stormed off a television set in New York City in defeat. He later claimed he had been cheated, arguing — ironically, from today’s perspective — that the computer had received human help.

Kasparov’s May 11, 1997, defeat was billed as a blow for humankind: demonstrable proof that after centuries of technological progress, machines had finally surpassed their creators, at least at chess.

Nearly 20 years later, Nigalidze’s cheating scandal shows just how far we’ve fallen compared with machines and raises questions about the future of a sport in which a simple cellphone can transform anybody into a grandmaster.

Chess didn’t arrive at its current conundrum all at once. There have been suspicious signs on the way. At the 1993 World Open, a newcomer with dreadlocks, headphones and a bulge in his pocket drew one game with a grandmaster and defeated another highly ranked player. But when he was questioned by a tournament official, he didn’t seem to have a basic knowledge of the sport. In 2002, an American player was accused of checking computer simulations in the bathroom during a tournament. And in 2006, an Indian chess player was caught communicating with an assistant using a wireless device sewn into his cap. In the months before he was caught, Umakant Sharma had risen rapidly up chess rankings.

But Short says that chess officials haven’t taken such cheating seriously. He points to a 2010 case in which a French player was caught cheating, but his team was never penalized.

“That is how serious or not serious they are about dealing with cheating,” Short says. “[The results of the tournament] are still there, five years later.” In another recent case, a young Bulgarian soared up the international chessboard by beating a number of grandmasters, collecting serious prize money on the way, only to be accused of hiding electronic devices in his shoes and under his shirt. Nothing was ever proved, but the Bulgarian suddenly stopped playing chess, Short says.

“The benefits of this guy cheating are clear,” Short says of Nigalidze, pointing out that the Georgian recently won $11,000 at a tournament in Abu Dhabi.

Despite the black eye for the sport, Short says he’s happy the scandal has come out.

“I’m actually extremely glad about it because it is a big issue which people have been talking about for many years, and I don’t think the World Chess Federation is serious enough about it,” he says. Speaking from a hotel in Pattaya, Thailand, where he is about to participate in a tournament, Short points out that “the vast majority of chess” is played in low-security settings where cheats can easily get away with what is, essentially, a crime.

“I would like to see criminal charges for fraud, because this is what he did. If you use some sort of electronic device to break into an ATM and help yourself to cash, if you are discovered you will be prosecuted,” Short says. “This guy is defrauding other professionals, the other participants in the tournament.”

“The World Chess Federation has been moving very slowly on this,” he adds, “but now they have to take a stand.”

Lest the game of kings become the game of pawns with iPhones.