Examples of Unfair Tactics in Chess Competitions
by Ron Kurtus (updated 28 May 2023)
Chess is a head-to-head competition where psychological tactics are often used to get an advantage over the opponent or to try the rattle the player. Usually, these tactics are straightforward and not considered dirty or unfair.
Also, since there are certain rules in tournament play, the tactics must fall within those rules. Still, there are players that go beyond the limits of what is allowed to gain an advantage in an effort to win the game.
Josh Waitzkin, a child chess prodigy who won his first National Chess Championship at age nine, told in his autobiographical book The Art of Learning about several times opponents used unfair tactics to try to beat him. They included an adult playing a 10-year-old boy and two Russian youths.
Ultimately, the cheaters lost out, while Josh gained from the experiences.
Questions you may have include:
- What did the adult do to try to beat Josh?
- What underhanded tactics did the Russians use?
- What were the results of the tactics?
This lesson will answer those questions.
When Josh was 10-years old, he played in a tournament against adults in Philadelphia. Players are allowed a maximum of 45 minutes to make a move. One adult knew that children do not have the endurance or patience of adults, so he would stall for the full 45 minutes to make even obvious moves. The game took nine hours to complete.
Although within the rules, this competitor was ruthless in his successful effort to beat a 10-year-old child. I am sure the adult player was quite proud of his achievement.
When Josh was 15, an influx of Soviet immigrants came to the United States, with the fall of the Soviet Union. Included were many highly trained young Russian chess players. Many of these players had been schooled in the use of psychological tricks to gain an advantage over their opponents.
One of Josh's opponents was a strong player and a good rival. But for some reason, Josh always seemed to make mental errors in critical parts of the game.
It was then discovered that during critical parts of the game, the Russian boy would tap a chess piece on the side of the table. The sound was barely audible, but the pace was such that it affected Josh's mental process, resulting in careless errors. Apparently, this technique was an offspring of the Soviet studies on hypnosis and mind control.
This type of cheating was difficult to detect. It certainly was a creepy form of getting an advantage in a game. Once Josh was aware of the tactic, he was able to ignore it and actually get an edge on his opponent. Later in an international tournament, the Russian boy was disqualified for this antic.
Another Russian player would purposely kick Josh under the table during critical moments of the game. He would also get up from the board at a tournament and talk to his coach—a famous Grandmaster—in Russian. Although getting advice from the coach was forbidden in the tournaments, the American judges could not understand was what said and let it pass, perhaps since they did not want to offend the famous coach.
The kicking not only disrupted the flow of concentration, but talking to the coach infuriated Josh and other opponents of this player. Such a tactic surely reduced the confidence of the Russian's opponents. Some boys broke into tears of frustration in competing with this player.
Outcome of tactics
In the first example, the adult won the chess match. Although what he did was within the rules of chess, usually adults do not act so ruthless in playing such a young player, even if there was a the chance of losing to a 10-year-old. This person probably also used this tactic against other adults to some success. But you can win the battle and lose the war, because I am sure no one would want to play even a friendly game with such a person.
Although these two young Russian players used underhanded tactics to try to get an advantage in a competition, this does not mean that all Russians were cheaters. Also, these tactics may have been acceptable in the Soviet culture that they came from. Unfortunately for these players, their tricks were later exposed and they were ultimately disqualified from play.
Upon realizing what was happening, Josh said that he learned to cope with those using underhanded tactics. He learned to have patience with those who used stalling tactics. He learned not to get angry at cheater and to increase his focus. His game improved by his experiences, while the cheaters depended on their tactics to win, thus actually reducing their own skills.
Surprisingly, psychological tactics are often used to get an advantage over the opponent in chess. Josh Waitzkin, a child chess prodigy told in his book The Art of Learning about several times opponents used unfair tactics to try to beat him. They included an adult playing a 10-year-old boy and two Russian youths. Most cheaters may win in the short term, but they usually are caught and lose out in the long run. One big problem is that they depend on cheating instead of increasing their skill. Meanwhile Josh gained from the experiences.
No one likes a cheater
Resources and references
(Notice: The School for Champions may earn commissions from book purchases)
The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence by Josh Waitzkin (2007) - Excellent book on how Waitzkin developed his championship competitive skills in chess and martial art Tai Chi.
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Examples of Unfair Tactics in Chess Competitions