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Few folks have accused chess of being a sport, let alone trendy, since Sports Illustrated put Bobby Fischer on the cover in 1972. But recent activity in the chess world, which converges at the Wyndham Hotel this weekend for a major tournament, indicates that the oldest of board games is right with the times.
In terms of cheating, the Tour de France has nothing on last month’s World Open in Philadelphia, the most moneyed event in the competitive-chess calendar. Local chessmen had hands in busting up one of the biggest scandals to hit the game in years. A performance enhancer of a nonchemical sort was at its center.
Chris Sevilla, an Oxon Hill resident and occasional player at the Arlington Chess Club, became a little annoyed when his opponent, a Michigander named Steve Rosenberg, sat down for their match in the final round wearing headphones.
Such gear, in the age of the iPod, isn’t unusual in a more casual setting, and in a recreational game Sevilla would let an adversary wear a motorcycle helmet if he so desired. But this match was for first place in the Under 2000 category, a division for players not rated as Masters—sort of the chess equivalent of a black belt. More important to Sevilla, about $20,000 was at stake.
“I’d never won anything close to that,” says Sevilla, 27, who took up the game in his early teens. “That’s a lot of money for chess.”
So Sevilla invoked a rule that World Open organizers had put in place that said a player may demand at any time and for any reason that an opponent remove headphones or any sort of speaker, including hearing aids. And when Rosenberg complied without complaint, Sevilla’s spider-sense stopped tingling.
Then, after Sevilla made his seventh move, Rosenberg excused himself from the table and went to the bathroom. Sevilla noticed that other folks followed his opponent to the restroom, but he was too engrossed in the game to comprehend anything odd going on.
“A lot of people were watching my match,” he says. “I didn’t think that was weird, because this was a big tournament, and a lot was at stake.”
When Rosenberg returned to the table, Sevilla says, his opponent started cupping his hands over his ears very tightly while staring down at the board. Again, this type of deep-thinker pose isn’t at all an odd one for a chess player.
But Sevilla noticed a definite upturn in Rosenberg’s level of play upon his return. He didn’t connect any dots between the visit to the bathroom and the enhanced performance, though. Luckily, at least one of those watching his game wasn’t just a casual observer.
Mike Atkins, an Alexandria resident and longtime officer of the Arlington Chess Club, was serving as the tournament director of the Under 2000 bracket. Other competitors had told him about Rosenberg’s headgear and odd behavior after being beaten by him earlier in the competition, so Atkins had become concerned enough to do some computer research on the player’s background before the final match took place.
“The guy had won 18 matches in a row in his previous three live tournaments,” says Atkins. “That’s unheard of. And we saw that Rosenberg had also been serving as a tournament director for online tournaments, and every one he directed, he won. He lost only once in a blue moon in online games.”
Atkins had come across chess cheaters before. In the mid-’90s, he turned in a Northern Virginia player and tournament director named Allen Cooley after he realized that Cooley was submitting results for matches that never took place in an effort to boost his rating with the U.S. Chess Federation, the national sanctioning body. Such a scam didn’t bring a dime in purse money to Cooley, who later had his tournament-director status revoked by the USCF; he’d apparently devised the ruse just to give him unwarranted prestige around the water cooler at the chess club.
In Rosenberg’s case, however, money was on the line. So Atkins was watching Rosenberg’s every twitch a lot more closely than anybody else’s that weekend in Philly. And when Rosenberg uncupped one of his hands to make a move, the tournament director became sure that he’d nailed a cheater.
“We saw that he had a small earpiece in his ear,” Atkins says.
Atkins stopped the game and asked Rosenberg to come to the tournament office to chat. He then requested the player turn over the listening device, but Rosenberg instead removed it from his ear and put it in his pocket. Rosenberg protested that it was merely a hearing aid, but when Atkins insisted, he complied with the request. Atkins looked at the product name on the earpiece—Phonito—and searched for more info on the Internet.
He immediately learned that this was no hearing aid. The Phonito is a multipart receiving apparatus that could be used to get playing instructions from somebody else on site. Rather hilariously, the device, which retails for about $270, is manufactured by Phonak, the Swiss electronics firm most renowned as the sponsor of world-famous Tour de France cheat Floyd Landis.
Atkins surmised that Rosenberg had a friend nearby armed with a computer and that the cohort was typing each of Sevilla’s moves into a computer program and reporting the preferred response via the Phonito. He asked Rosenberg, who was wearing several layers of clothing on the hot summer day, if he would submit to a body search so the other parts of the device could be found.
Rosenberg casually denied the request.
“He was so calm and cool and collected during the investigation,” Atkins says. “That told me he was guilty and caught. If you’re going to lose $20,000, you’d scream bloody murder. Instead, he just said, ‘If you’re going to forfeit me, just give me my thing back and I’ll go home.’ And he left.”
Whether or not Rosenberg was getting outside instruction, his wearing a receiver was by itself enough for him to be kicked out of the tournament. Rosenberg, whose residence is listed in chess publications as Canton, Mich., could not be reached for comment. His case is being referred to the USCF, and further sanctions, such as revocation of his lifetime membership with the organization, are possible.
Ed Mandell, a tournament promoter in Warren, Mich., says that cheating accusations were leveled against Rosenberg during one of his events, last November’s Motor City Open. Rosenberg, wearing headphones, came in first and won “about $500,” says Mandell.
“I wish now I had done my due diligence when those accusations came to me,” says Mandell, who attended the World Open and witnessed the Rosenberg episode. “He was close to getting away with it again in Philadelphia.”
Sevilla says he was slow to discern what was unraveling in front of him. The match was at the four-hour mark at that point. He thinks that the match was nearing a draw when it was ended; Atkins thinks the cheater was closing in on a victory, and $20,000, when the earpiece was spotted.
“It finally hit me that this guy was cheating, that he was trying to take away everything I’d worked hard for, all the preparation I’d put in,” says Sevilla. “And he was trying to steal my money. I saw him pick up his things, but he never came near me or said anything. He just left. That’s good for him, because I was pretty hotheaded.”
Sevilla was credited with a forfeit win. All Rosenberg’s previous opponents were given draws. In the retabulation, Sevilla was handed a tie for first with another victim of Rosenberg’s, and they split the first- and second-place monies, each receiving $13,258.50. It’s not $20,000, but in chess, that’s still a haul.
The biggest win of Sevilla’s career hasn’t really changed the way his peers at the Arlington Chess Club view his play. He wasn’t playing against the best, after all.
“That wasn’t in the Open Division,” says John Campbell, a veteran organizer with the club. “But it was a lot of money. So if it’s changed his status with the club, it’s just that now we’re going to try to collect a couple years of back dues from him.”—Dave McKenna