In this digital age of ever-smaller handheld computers and smartphones, we’ve seen a slew of cheating in chess of late. So this begs the question: How do you prove you are not a chess cheater? The answer is simple, really - don’t ever have an amazing winning run, as happened recently to Romanian Michaela Sandu at the 16th European Individual Women’s Championship in Chakvi, Georgia.
Because there, it turned out to be not so much as a king hunt as a witch hunt for Sandu, as paranoia set in among higher-rated players that led to a rather unfortunate incident. The 11-round Swiss had 98 players with at least 14 spots available for the Women’s World Championship. Natalia Zhukov - the wife of Russia’s top player, Alexander Grischuk - won with her score of 9.5/11.
But the 45th ranked player, the relatively unknown Michaela Sandu (Elo 2300) made the big mistake of winning her first five games against higher-rated opponents. ‘Naturally’ suspicions grew, given all the recent high-profile cheating cases. So first, 32 players wrote a letter to the organisers, naming no names but requesting all live game transmissions be delayed by 15 minutes; a common measure used to prevent outside assistance.
The organisers agreed to this measure, while they stated that did not think cheating was going on. But in round seven, when Sandu unexpectedly beat former Women’s World Champion Antoaneta Stefanova, the witch hunt began with a second open letter - this time with 15 players, led by Zhukov, that specifically named Sandu and asking for anti-cheating measures be in place for each of her remaining games.
The organisers bluntly refused, stating ‘We consider this accusation unfair, insulting and creating psychological pressure.’ But unfortunately, the damage had indeed been done, and Sandu collapsed under the pressure and the media spotlight by losing her four remaining games, thus losing out on a lucrative qualifying spot for the Women’s World Championship. The Romanian Federation have made an official protest and are said to be threatening legal action.
Expert analysis by several top grandmasters of Sandu’s games, including her wins suggested very, very strongly that she was not getting any computer help. There were errors and outright blunders on her part in all her games that you wouldn’t expect with someone using a computer - and more importantly, there was even bigger errors and outright blunders from her opponents that assisted Sandu enormously in winning.
Michaela Sandu - Antoaneta Stefanova
16th European Women’s Championship, (7)
Pirc Defence, Classical variation
1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nf3 c6 4.Nc3 d6 5.Be2 The Classical variation against the Pirc became popular in the mid-1970 as it was a big favourite of new World champion Anatoly Karpov. 5...Nf6 6.0-0 0-0 7.a4 Qc7 8.h3 a5 9.Bf4 It doesn't stop Black from playing the freeing ...e5 - but to play it, there's a slight mis-alignment of Black's knight. 9...Nh5 10.Be3 e5 11.dxe5 dxe5 12.Nd2! Taking advantage of the misplaced knight on h5, created by 9 Bf4, and relocating the White knight on the excellent c4 square and the weakness on b6. 12...Nf4 13.Nc4 Be6 There's no time to hit the queen on the d-file, as 13...Rd8 14.Bb6! Rxd1 15.Bxc7 Nxe2+ 16.Nxe2 Rxa1 17.Rxa1 as White will win one of the two weak pawns on a5 or e5. 14.Nb6?! It looks tempting, but better was 14.Qd6. 14...Nxe2+ 15.Qxe2 Now, with the bishop-pair, Black holds a slight advantage - and such advantages are often turned into wins by the higher-rated player, such as Stefanova. 15...Ra6 16.Nc4 b5 17.axb5 cxb5 18.Nd2 b4 19.Nd5 Bxd5 20.exd5 f5?! It does threaten to win the bishop - but this is easy to prevent, and the most obvious move returns the advantage to White. Instead, Black had to play on the possible long-term endgame advantage on the queenside with 20...Qxc2. 21.Nb3 f4 22.Bc5 f3 23.Qe3?! Well, if Sandu was cheating by using a computer, she would have quickly have played the much stronger 23.Qb5 hitting the queenside pawns - and possibly supporting the advance of the d-pawn. 23...fxg2 24.Rfd1 Rc8 25.d6 Qc6 26.Ba7 Nd7 27.Nxa5 Qb5? Stefanova would have held an advantage after the correct 27...Qa8! 28.Nb3 Rxa1 29.Rxa1 Rxc2 . Instead, she blunders and runs into a forcing sequence of moves that wins her queen. Granted, it is a little difficult to see - but not if you subscribe to that well-known chess maxim that you should never miss a check! 28.Qb3+ Kh8 29.c4! (See Diagram) While the check looked 'harmless', the follow-up is the deadly move that's not so easy to spot, as it traps Black's queen for little or no compensation. 29...Qxa5 30.Rxa5 Rxa5 31.Be3 Rb8 32.c5 Rxc5 33.Bxc5 Nxc5 34.Qf7 Rg8 35.Qc4 Nb7 36.Qxb4 Nd8 37.Qc4 1-0 And this was the win - and the sequence of moves starting with 28.Qb3+ - that led eventual winner Zhukova and 14 others to sign the open letter that falsely accused Sandu of cheating.