The last few days have seen a remarkable level of bad news. So far, we've seen James Brown die, we've seen Gerald Ford die, we've had an earthquake disrupt communications to and from Taiwan, we've had a bunch of armed men divest an entire mall of its weekend sales... it's as though 2006 decided to spring its misfortune at us all at once.
If there was anything that raised my hackles about the year-end news, however, it was this little piece about how an Indian chess player was caught cheating with a wireless device. In an era where the game's traditionalists are grappling with the encroachment of technology upon their "sport", this is a particular slap to their collective faces. Having been all of a chess player, a chess technologist and a tournament organizer at various points in my life, I can see why.
The offense is just wrong on so many levels. For standard players both casual and professional, it represents the fringe attitude of using competition to promote personal superiority. Games are supposed to help you improve certain mental and social skills. They're not supposed to assist you in amassing wealth and fame, crushing your opponents, seeing them driven before you, and hearing the lamentations of their women. Sharma's move can be compared to consulting a dictionary in a game of Scrabble or opening up Wikipedia in the middle of Trivial Pursuit: It illustrates a desire to win, regardless of cost or consequences -- and it must be heavily discouraged.
For programmers and tech conceptualists, the offense represents nothing more than a perversion of their efforts. Technology is usually created to benefit society, not to provide advantages over others. Using the same technology for dubious areas implies that a certain amount of greed or want goes into the justification. Dynamite was not created to blow people up. Chatrooms were not conceptualized to cater to peoples' paedophiliac tendencies. And despite what some opportunists may think, wireless phone technology was not created so that they could cheat at chess.
And then there's the fact that such a practice is detrimental to the concept of tournaments as a whole. When you're trying to put together a safe venue for fair play, the last thing you want is for some idiot to walk in and muck everything up just so that they can steal a few more points from the community. It insults an organizer's efforts at security and offends each player's sensibilities. What's worse is that it's clearly an area where the player should police himself, as opposed to waiting for an official to tell him that he's doing something wrong.
Put all this together, and you can see why cheating offenses like these are tantamount to any criminal charge: You know perfectly well that it's wrong, you know perfectly well that it will affect multiple people on so many levels, and you do it regardless.
Sharma received a ten-year ban from competitive chess play as a result of his efforts; This was expected, in a way. Because you can't level much in the way of criminal charges against cheaters, most competitive bodies organize their own sanctions against erring players. Various ban lengths seem to be the norm, especially at higher offenses. It's a lot like suspending a student for plagiarism, if you want to look at it that way.
Ten years is usually the second-longest length of ban time that can get imposed as a sanction. On the one hand, it's not so long that an offender can carefully consider his crime and possibly return to the game after the period of censure is over. On the other hand, it's long enough to guarantee that the offender's presence won't darken any doorways in the near future. The highest penalty -- the lifetime ban -- is usually only reserved for people who bring actual criminal offenses to a tournament (graft, assault or anything beyond that, for instance), but cheating brings about its own stigma that won't easily be forgotten even after ten years. Sharma will find that he will have quite the long road uphill to climb, if he ever decides to return to the game after a decade's wait.
Seeing that this is chess, however, I figure that Umakant Sharma will likely run into more than a few problems in his life outside the game. This isn't some diversion like badminton or Magic: the Gathering where whatever you accomplish in the tournament scene will probably stay in the tournament scene. This is chess, ladies and gentlemen. This is the game that practically half the world plays, a game that is widely considered to rely on one's personal talents. Tell a person that you cheated your way into the World Poker Tour, and they might still forgive you for it; Tell that same person that you attempted to cheat your way into a national chess championship, and they'll close their doors to you. Chess is considered to be the utmost formality of all the games out there: If you can't conduct yourself properly when playing it, then what more can be done for you?
The most ironic aspect of this incident is that Sharma's offense will make the chess-playing community feel far less secure about their tournaments. Yes, the officials in his case were able to prosecute and penalize him properly, effectively handling the issue well. Despite that, however, it must be noted that the man was able to win a lot of games prior to his being found out. He was able to note an astronomical rise in his personal ranking. He was able to compete in tournaments without anyone knowing that he was up to no good at all.
Chess players and officials, I fear, will now be hard-pressed to prove that any person sitting across a black-and-white board isn't manipulating things in some way. What are we looking at here, really? Will officials end up banning all electronic devices at chess tournaments? Will they begin cordoning off entire audiences? Will they start setting up metal detectors?
One single cheater in a high-profile game may not necessarily have realized what he has done. But the repercussions are there, mind you. They've already sent the first ripples through a game community, unmindful of the deaths of entertainment pioneers and former presidents.