Match-fixing as a form of protest

How to deal with players who refuse to play proper moves?

Daniil Dubov and Ian Nepomniachtchi doing the knight dance in Samarkand.
Daniil Dubov and Ian Nepomniachtchi doing the knight dance in Samarkand. (screen grab from youtube)

In round 11 of the 2023 World Blitz Chess Championship, Daniil Dubov was playing as White against Ian Nepomniachtchi. The game lasted 13 moves: 1. Nf3 Nf6 2. Nd4 Nd5 3.Nb3 Nb6 4.Nc3 Nc6 5.Ne4 Ne5 6.Ng5 Ng4 7.Nf3 Nf6 8.Ng1 Ng8 9.Nc5 Nc4 10.Na4 Na5 11.Nc3 Nc6 12.Nb1 Nb8 13.Nf3, and they agreed a draw. The arbiters analysed the moves, and, after round 12, the Chief Arbiter of the tournament, Ivan Syrovy, made the decision to reduce the points both players scored in the game. Chief Arbiter Syrovy explained his decision: “In my eyes both players are responsible for it, I consider they prearranged the result of the game. My opinion is based on the moves they played”.

This incident may be amusing on the one hand, but on the other hand it raises serious questions. The issues at stake call into question the concept of match fixing and, in particular, the rather broad limits of this concept in the sport of chess. It should be noted that chess is the only sport where it is possible to end a match in a draw at a very early stage of the game; moreover, chess is the only sport one can agree a draw rather than it being forced. It is important to note that usually pre-agreed draws in chess are not related to betting, so the aspect of betting-related fraud is not (yet) as central as in other sports.

When contemplating the concept of match fixing in the case No. 2/2020, the FIDE Ethics and Disciplinary Commission (EDC) noted that “arranged draws are widely known to occur in both national and international events. The reasons for an arranged draw may vary. For example, both of the players may want to save energy for later games, or may be satisfied with their tournament standing and are therefore averse to taking risks. There is an argument for regarding arranged draws as contrary to the concept of sportsmanship and fair competition as it takes away the competitive aspect already before the start of the game. The EDC Chamber does not however find arranged draws as unacceptable match fixing per se, primarily due to the fact that chess players are allowed under the Laws of Chess (art 9.1.) to propose and agree to a draw, admittedly only during the course of the game, and none of the parties thereby agree to lose the game. The EDC Chamber in the aforementioned case also emphasised that there are situations where arranged draws may be in violation of the concept of sportsmanship and fair competition to such an extent that it would qualify as match fixing. One example is where one of the players is offered some kind of remuneration to agree to a draw.”

It is clear that the sport of chess is distinct in the context of match-fixing since there is ample room for the ‘grey area’ of some actions that are on the verge of disciplinary breach and tactics of the game. The question is, where do you draw the line between legal and illegal behaviour? In simple terms, what were the two men punished for when they performed their (already famous) ‘horse dance’? 1) For a pre-arranged result? 2) For showing disrespect to the game of chess?

The decision of the Chief Arbiter to declare a game as a loss to both Dubov and Nepomniachtchi (0–0) implies that the emphasis was placed on both the first and the second component. But is this really the case? How many games are pre-agreed but there is no penalty? This happens not just because it is all too common and there is no consensus on whether it is bad, doubtful or neutral. The main reason is procedural: it is hardly possible to prove a pre-agreed game. In the Dubov – Nepomniachtchi case, there was video footage that left no doubt, and which showed that the draw had been agreed beforehand. For the sake of objectivity, it is worth noting that, even in the absence of such material, the existence of a prior agreement would not in itself leave any doubt. It is virtually impossible to carry out a spontaneous ‘horse dance’. Thus, in essence, the men were punished for showing disrespect for the game of chess and for bringing chess into disrepute. Strictly speaking, these are more ethical violations than disciplinary violations. In other words, such an act of defiance is closer to an activism or a dissent than to the manipulation of a sporting competition. This was also the point made by the players themselves, eg in this vlog, who attributed the behaviour in question to a protest – organised against the unsatisfactory playing conditions of the competition and the poor organisation of championship in general.

By the way, the author of this text is unaware of any other sport where match-fixing has taken the shape of a protest. As for the sport of chess, it is worth noting that this is not the first time a similar type of protest has occurred: a comparable incident happened more than 50 years ago between Robert Huebner and Ken Rogoff. “Both were tired from previous long games and Huebner offered a draw to Rogoff without making any moves. However, the arbiters did not like this and refused the game. So, the two players put together a scoresheet of a game that looked like this: 1. Nf3 Nf6 2. Ng1 Ng8 3. Nf3 Nf6 4.Ng1 Ng8 and so on … Draw. The arbiters were not amused. They insisted that the two play some real moves. So, the next game went 1.c4 Nf6 2. Nf3 g6 3. Nf1 Bg7 4.Qa4 O-O 5.Qxd7 Qxd7 6.g4 Qxd2+ 7.Kxd2 Nxg4 8.b4 a5 9.a4 Bxa1 10.Bb2 Nc6 11.Bh8 Bg7 12.h4 axb4 draw. The arbiters were not amused. They insisted that the two play a valid game. Rogoff agreed but Huebner did not, so Rogoff was given a win and Huebner was given a loss. The Russian team pressed for a double forfeit, but Huebner insisted that he alone bore responsibility. Years later, the main arbiter, Sajtar, admitted he was wrong in ordering a rematch of the games.” It can be observed that both more than 50 years ago and presently, players were punished for comparable behaviour.

In reality, the current motivation appears to be deeper (or at least different) than ‘not wanting to play’ as it was in the previous situation. With that in mind, perhaps it was worthwhile considering sanctions other than the ‘template’ 0–0 in the World Blitz 2023 championship. Financial penalties, for example, would seem to be pretty logical. Admittedly, this could hardly be done in 2023 WB – in order for the Chief Arbiter to consider financial penalties, they must be included in the tournament regulations and announced in advance.

In the authors’ opinion, a less severe sanction, such as a warning, would not suffice since a protest is not the same as a joke. As Sergey Shipov aptly pointed out, protesters tend to be more focused, serious and responsible. In this case, on the contrary, the grandmasters were relaxed and mischievous. The author of this article takes a similar view. The indeed, unsatisfactory conditions of the championship could have been challenged in other ways. Dubov (or Nepomniachtchi) could have made a much stronger case for better conditions by becoming World Blitz Champion – then his voice would have been louder. The same players also drew with knight moves only at a Titled Tuesday online tournament, and Hikaru Nakamura did so in yet another game with Nepomniachtchi, which suggests that these grandmasters feel that the protest about unsatisfactory playing conditions has not been heard.

Salomeja Zaksaite is professor of sports law at Mykolas Romeris University (Lithuania) and member of the FIDE Fair Play Commission.
Salomeja Zaksaite is professor of sports law at Mykolas Romeris University (Lithuania) and member of the FIDE Fair Play Commission. (photo: private)

To sum up, chess is perhaps a unique sport where manipulation of the course or result of a sporting event can have a whole range of elements: it can be a serious form of corruption, cartel agreements, it can be a competition tactic to save energy, and in the case at hand, it can be a blatant, albeit original, hint to the organisers that they need to take better care of the exhausted players during the World Rapid and Blitz Championships. Such a hint is in fact a potential abuse of freedom of expression – which, not surprisingly, has not been tolerated by the Chief Arbiter and the Appeals Committee.

It is evident that pre-agreed draws in the sport of chess are primarily a cultural issue. In order to curb this phenomenon at least to some extent, it would be necessary to gradually change the culture. This would involve already existing practices, but they should be applied more consistently and more frequently. These practices include the Sofia rules; the refusal to invite excessively ‘peaceful’ players to prestigious tournaments; as well as the creation of a humane competition design that avoids two (classical) rounds per day. Attention should also be paid to the distribution of the prizes: it should be as even and proportional as possible, avoiding large ‘clippings’ between the first and the subsequent prize places. In this case, the probability of a financially motivated prearrangement would be lower. Legal aspects are not the last consideration either: seeing that it is possible to penalise pre-agreed draws, one would be less inclined to be frivolous in similar situations.