Olympic cheating: Badminton and chess

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 15, 2012 in Chess, Non-chess, Politics |

Chessbase has started a little online debate thanks to King-Ming Tiong’s comparison between chess and the deliberate losing by some of the teams in the Olympic badminton.  Unfortunately, as often happens in online chess forums, the debate has really missed the mark, focussing solely on ‘grandmaster draws’ and pointing out (rightly) that badminton doesn’t have any draws, and so any comparison is irrelevant.

This is really not the point, in my opinion.  The Chinese, South Korean and Indonesian teams who deliberately threw matches to get favourable pairings in the next round absolutely brought the game into disrepute, and in fact this was the cited reason for their eventual expulsion from the event.  And that’s the key point: the game is disrespected, and the fans suffer. As one of the officials publicly stated, “Who wants to come and watch that?”

Can we draw a comparison to this principle with chess?  Couldn’t it be argued that two grandmasters who are getting paid to compete, but barely move the pieces before sharing the point, are doing exactly the same thing?  I’d argue yes, but regardless of your opinion, the debate really needs to be better centred on this issue of disrespecting the sport and its supporters.

Another issue coming out of this little saga is whether a country with multiple teams (or players) can conspire to maximise its overall performance.  On the badminton circuit, the Chinese usually has several teams dominating the early rounds, and it’s apparently well established that they occasionally throw matches to ensure they won’t be paired against each other until the final.  For example, this might  maximise the chance of them picking up both a gold and silver medal.  This is hard to prove conclusively, of course, but the statistics are pretty convincing.  In 2011 on the badminton circuit, for example, a fifth of all matches between Chinese players were not completed.

This has been known to happen in other sports too, unfortunately, with a few twists.  For instance, it used to be in grand slam tennis that Russians would play a “one set match” against each other, so that the victor could conserve strength for the remaining rounds.  The two players would seriously battle out the first set, and the loser would just throw the remaining sets.  Does this make it any less disgraceful?  Maybe half disgraceful?  Or, in a five set match, just one-fifth disgraceful?

I wish I could say this doesn’t happen in chess, but that’s not true.  The most famous example is from Curaçao in 1962, where the world’s top player, the American Bobby Fischer, accused the Russian grandmasters of colluding to ensure he wasn’t the victor.  There’s a really great paper written a couple of years ago in the Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organisation where a couple of academics cleverly and rather conclusively showed that a Russian cartel did exist during this event, and that Fischer really did get a raw deal.

But you occasionally also see this sort of behaviour at world youth events, unfortunately.  It’s even to the point where quite often now organisers don’t allow participants of the same country to be paired in the last round.  Before this rule came into effect, I remember watching in disbelief in 1998 when the now super Grandmaster Teimor Radjabov lost his last game in the World Under 12 Championships to his countryman Kadir Guisenov.  Radjabov already had the gold medal sewn up before the last round, but his loss in under an hour to Guisenov (culminating in the two of them walking out of the playing hall arm in arm, all smiles) allowed the latter to snatch the bronze medal away from Australia’s Zong Yuan Zhao.  To be fair to the 11 year old Radjabov, if indeed the game was thrown, it’s highly likely that it was the result of an official directive from the Azeri coach.

All in all, I can’t really agree with the pundits on Chessbase.com who claim that the badminton-style cheating doesn’t occur in the chess world.  If anything, I’d say it was so prevalent that we’ve come up with regulations now to prevent it, unlike the shuttle sport.  Is chess ‘clean’ now?  Almost certainly, especially at the very top, although there was the infamous French cheating scandal at the last chess Olympiad.  I’m optimistic that there won’t be anything as controversial as this badminton scandal at the next Olypiad in a fortnight in Istanbul.

At the very least, I’m pretty sure our doping tests will come back negative.


David C
Aug 15, 2012 at 10:30 am

Dave I disagree… I think it the onus is on organisers to make sure that in any given situation a win is the most beneficial outcome for the players concerned.

Sport is a metaphor for war – if fighting a battle and allowing a loss gives you the long-term advantage (so winning the war) then it is good strategy, not disrespectful, certainly not disgraceful.

If organisers create a situation (deliberately or inadvertently) where a loss or draw is more beneficial to the long term success of that player (or team) – in any sport – then the player is correct in taking the best path forward; that being a loss or a draw.

Radjabov had nothing to gain by winning his last round, but by losing his ‘team-mate’ was able to gain… fair enough. Good play I say.

Aug 15, 2012 at 3:54 pm

The amorality of David C’s comment is astonishing. It seems that according to David C, cheating is OK if it benefits you and you can get away with it. Throwing a game is always illegal, let alone immoral, but David C commends it as good play – incredible.

Peter (not that Peter, the other one)
Aug 25, 2012 at 11:32 pm

There were suggestions that Spain deliberately lost early matches in the men’s basketball in the London Olympics so that they would meet the US in the Gold medal final rather than the semi-finals. It showed how naive I am: I had never realised that teams might deliberately manipulate the pool system in this way. I will now look on the pool results in competitions like the FIFA World Cup more sceptically.

May all the Aussies peak for the Chess Olympiad and play “up to and beyond” their potential. May inspiration be with you. May the more experienced players help the younger players to refocus in difficult situations. May you all enjoy the experience. Best wishes.

Sep 2, 2012 at 5:07 am

Recently Mark Huizinga (olympic gold medal winner) lost on purpose in ‘De Slimste Mens’ so he would be directly seated in the final. It seems the general opinion was that it was a clever move (and he was not disqualified).

Sep 5, 2012 at 12:48 am

I’d would love to have a read of that paper when you’re done winning at the Olympiad!



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