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Chess player accused of cheating with hidden camera and Morse code messages

(Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

There were plenty of reasons to be suspicious of Arcangelo Ricciardi: The way he kept his thumb tucked into his armpit throughout several rounds of chess; his refusal to get up from his seat after hours of competition; the fact that a chess player ranked 51,366 in the world had speedily dispatched several superior opponents during one of Italy’s most prestigious tournaments.

But in the end, his eyes gave him away.

The 37-year-old was “batting his eyelids in the most unnatural way,” referee Jean Coqueraut told the Italian newspaper La Stampa. Perhaps that explained the mid-caliber player’s strange success at the Imperia Chess Festival, which featured several masters and grandmasters.

“Then I realized: He was deciphering the signals in Morse code,” Coqueraut said, according to Chess.com. “Point line point line. That was it.”

After refusing to remove his shirt when confronted by the referee, Ricciardi was sent through a metal detector. Hanging beneath his shirt, the detector found a pendant containing a tiny video camera connected to a small box underneath his armpit.

[Chess grandmaster accused of using iPhone to cheat during international tournament]

It’s believed Ricciardi was using the video camera to transmit his games to an accomplice or a computer program, which then signaled suggested moves via tiny beeps sent to the armpit box, according to the Telegraph. Ricciardi said that the pendant and box were good luck charms — never mind the tangle of wires coming out of them.

“It’s only envy,” he told La Stampa in Italian, according to Chess.com. “I always knew my potential, but I was never able to express it. It’s all false. I’ve played for 30 years, it’s a genuine passion. But only now, thanks to yoga and self-training I managed to free my mind from tensions and emotions.”

The player was expelled from the tournament, and the Italian Chess Federation is mulling charges of sports fraud, the Telegraph reported. Coqueraut told the Guardian that he thinks Ricciardi was testing the cheating system for another player, since the Imperia festival’s prize of 1,000 euros ($1,117) seems a poor reward for risking a career.

As the Guardian’s , who has written extensively about the chess world, pointed out, cheating seems to be growing more and more pervasive — and insidious — in recent years. Computers are now capable of beating even the best players, and there are a million ways a crafty cheat can turn that to his or her advantage.

In April, the 25-year-old grandmaster and Georgian chess champion Gaioz Nigalidze was disqualified from the Dubai Open when officials found an iPhone with an open chess application wrapped in toilet paper and hidden in a bathroom stall. Nigalidze’s opponent had become suspicious when the young player kept getting up to go to the bathroom after every move.

Four years earlier, one of the world’s top players was suspended from the French Chess Federation after an official found out that he was being sent suggestions from a computer program via text message.

In chess, a game of strategy and statistics, using a computer is the equivalent of taking steroids in sports. Some say it’s even worse. Performance enhancing drugs boost a body that’s already there — the athlete still has to do the mental and physical work of playing the game. But an online chess program renders the player almost entirely irrelevant.

“It would be like an amateur baseball player putting on a bionic suit to hit the ball 500 feet out and hitting a home run every time; it is that equivalent of aid,”  Tony Rich, the chief arbiter for the U.S. Chess Championship, told NPR in April.

According to mathematician Claude Shannon, the number of possible ways for a chess game to play out is somewhere in the region of 1 with 120 zeroes after it. That’s the equivalent of a trillion multiplied by itself 10 times. There are more possible combinations of moves in any chess game than there are bacterial cells on Earth or stars in the observable universe.

Put more simply, chess is far, far beyond the scope of the feeble human mind. Even computers, with their high processing speeds and unrestricted access to data, are outmatched by the sheer possibilities. Shannon writes that it would take a standard machine longer than the age of the universe just to analyze all the possible outcomes of its first move.

But computers do have a better shot. In 1997, an IBM supercomputer named Deep Blue became the first program to beat a reigning world champion in a match under standard time controls. Since then, data processors have only gotten smarter. The standard iPhone is now capable of the feat that Deep Blue performed less than two decades ago.

According to the Wall Street Journal, experts believe the current best chess computer programs would be rated between 3200 and 3300 on the scale used to measure chess performance. Magnus Carlsen, the world’s top living chess player, is is rated 2862. Humans are officially, irrevocably outmatched.

“The basic problem is that it’s incredibly easy to cheat with a phone,” English chess grandmaster Nigel Short, who once was ranked third in the world and is now 60th, told The Washington Post after Nigalidze, the Georgia grandmaster, was caught cheating. “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.”

If anybody with a phone can win a chess tournament, then nobody is going to bother, chess fans worry. They believe the best way to keep the game competitive is to keep iPhones — and hidden cameras, and Morse code messaging boxes — out of it.

But, as Rich pointed out, that is no easy task.

“You know, if we asked players to take their shoes off and strip-searched them before every game, I doubt you’ll find many people who’d want to come out to the chess tournament,” he told NPR. “So it’s a balancing act between providing comfortable conditions and a welcoming environment with providing fair play and equal ground for everybody.”

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