Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Those Cheating Bastards

A few weeks after I noted an incidence of cheating in Indian chess tournaments, the Philippine chess community revealed that it was investigating allegations of game-fixing in local events. It seems that chess has been thrust into the spotlight all of a sudden, although I regret to say that this is obviously not the most honorable of appearances.

I've already disclosed my thoughts about the game in two previous posts, so I won't go into too much further detail on chess moves, chess strategy, or chess politics. I do find it remarkable that such a previously "pristine" community would suddenly be the focus of multiple issues at present, however. At a time when modern card-game tournaments have been able to successfully implement and enforce rules against cheating, why are the chess communities being caught unaware by these incidences?

Part of me figures that it's because the chess community is one that goes back entire generations, and the players are therefore far more trusting of each other than one would expect. Serious competitors actually go through rigorous training to be able to compete in tournaments, and it's easy to assume that they get a good education on ethics to go along with this training.

On the other hand, part of me also figures that it could simply be because the community got too secure in its complacency. Chess isn't exactly the easiest game to cheat at, and the prestige of the game does make it really difficult for most serious players to consider cheating. Nevertheless, it would still be really naive for anyone to think that these would prevent any or all possible attempts at unlawful advantage.

Of all the games out there, Magic: the Gathering is probably the best at summarizing and executing penalties for cheaters without compromising its play experience. After all, when you run hundreds of tournaments each year, organize a lot of high-profile international events, promote celebrity players and give away millions of dollars in prizes, you have to ensure the fairness and viability of your play environment. Enter any Magic tournament and you are guaranteed access to a qualified judging staff at all times.

There are, of course, a remarkable number of ways to cheat at Magic. There are any number of ways to cheat at any game, mind you; It's just that no other game can actually list down any and all possible infractions that can be committed -- and recommend the appropriate action for each one. Offenses can run anywhere from drawing a card at the wrong time, to getting coached by outside influences, to engaging in bribery or game-fixing. Penalties run a similar gamut -- they can involve actions as small as letting players get off with a warning, or drastic moves that ban offenders from the game for a number of years.

As obsessive-compulsive as this arrangement might sound at first, it's been surprisingly effective over the past ten years. Put simply, it allows judges at Magic tournaments to know exactly what to look for, and as a result it doesn't give cheaters a lot of room to plan or execute their deeds. More impressive is the fact that the strict tournament regulations recognize no "sacred cows" at all, and to be sure, high-profile players are even scrutinized far more comprehensively than other people. If there is any model of tournament security that should be followed, it's this one.

What's probably the most important thing about this whole discussion is that we can no longer expect any game to maintain a high level of integrity. There are now simply too many people out there who seek to gain any advantage possible; These people end up spoiling the experience for others, and therefore harm the games and their respective communities in the long-term. Officials who are in the position of organizing these events should therefore stop dragging their feet and moving only to pursue retroactive offenses; They should know that there is a possibility for this sort of thing to happen in the first place, and should therefore take the appropriate steps to prevent it.

If otherwise, then... well, what alternatives do we have? There are a ton of available games out there, I suppose; We could always move on to the next ones. Any game with nonexistent player security, after all, would be far better than any game with bad player security.

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