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Chess

Let Me Explain This Amazingly Petulant Chess Drama To You

Petrosian, Tigran L. waits to compete wit Clarsen, Magnus on the Day 6 of the King Salman Rapid & Blitz Chess Championships on December 30, 2017 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The Championship is taking place in Saudi Arabia for the first time with participation of 236 players from 70 countries.
Photo: Salah Malkawi/Getty Images

Armenian chess grandmaster Tigran L. Petrosian took part in and won the Chess.com Pro Chess League Championships last week for the Armenia Eagles. Last Thursday, his team’s win was overturned and he was banned for life by both Chess.com and the Pro Chess League for as-yet “unspecified fair play regulations.” Petrosian became extremely mad online about it and is lightly threatening legal action. Let’s unpack this chess drama.

The Eagles came into the final match of the PCL playoffs as the decided underdog against the St. Louis Archbishops, who are led by American champion and recent World Chess Championship challenger Fabiano Caruana, as well as fellow American grandmaster Wesley So. Petrosian—no relation to his namesake, Soviet-era Armenian grandmaster Tigran V. Petrosian—led the Eagles with a 3.5-of-4 performance, with wins over both Caruana and So. The three players he beat were ranked sixth, 11th, and 21st in the world at rapid chess, while Petrosian barely cracked the top 100 at 97.

Shortly after Petrosian led his team to victory, So raised an eyebrow in the comment section of the Chess.com recap of the Eagles’ win, writing, “Yeah, Petrosian played better than Magnus Carlsen yesterday. I need to have some of that secret gin also.” (So was referencing the gin that Petrosian said he was sipping on during the match.) He also pointed to the fact that two of the Eagles’ players had not been active on Chess.com since mid-April, which suggested they had run afoul of the platform at some point this year. So furnished no proof for his accusations but wanted a rematch, adding, “Anyway I think the Finals should have had proctoring. Lots of work were at stake, and weeks of playing through the qualifying phase.”

I was initially confused as to how a player could cheat in an online rapid chess tournament with limited time between moves. There’s no single optimal chess strategy to employ game-by-game, because each decision depends on the board the opponent gives you, so any means of cheating would have to offer you an advantage in real time. As a friend who has gotten into watching chess on Twitch during the pandemic explained to me, there are engines like Stockfish, where players can load in their boards and be told the most optimal move. Theoretically, Petrosian could have had Stockfish or something similar running in another screen to advise him on the best moves to win, since players don’t play in front of proctors because of the health risk.

Hikaru Nakamura, a prolific streamer and the world’s fourth-ranked rapid chess player, broke down Petrosian’s games and found a handful of suspicious moves as well as a series of consecutive moves that were as good as they possibly could have been. While Chess.com hasn’t explained Petrosian’s ban, fans and viewers fixated on his lack of reactions and habit of looking down away from his screen.

Shortly after So commented on the article, Petrosian responded with an instant classic of a forum post. (So and Petrosian’s exchange appears to have been since deleted from the comment section.) Say what you want about the ethics of allegedly cheating to win $20,000, but Petrosian accusing his opponent of “doing PIPI in your pampers when i was beating players much more stronger then you!” is the good shit. Calling them a nobody “who are crying every single time when loosing” is excellence in the field of arguing online.

Chess.com did not specify what Petrosian did when it made the decision to ban him for life for cheating. “It’s always unfortunate when the league is presented with evidence of fair play violations,” PRO Chess League Commissioner Greg Shahade said in a statement, “but we stand behind the evidence presented from Chess.com’s Fair Play team.” While this scandal is nice and spicy, there’s still a mystery at the heart of it. I messaged Shahade on Twitter to ask about the reason for the ban, though he hasn’t responded.

Coincidentally, Petrosian was once on the other side of an infamous cheating scandal. In 2015, he accused Georgian grandmaster Gaioz Nigalidze of unfair play at a tournament in Dubai. Petrosian noticed that Nigalidze always went to the bathroom between moves at critical junctures, and he somehow also noticed that he would visit the same commode each time. Authorities checked Nigalidze’s person multiple times without finding anything, but they eventually checked the can and found a cell phone hidden in a pile of toilet paper that was analyzing his game for him. He was banned for three years and had his grandmaster title revoked.

Petrosian held a press conference last Friday to defend his name. Though it was only in Armenian, a Reddit user posted a translation that was good enough to get the seal of approval from Petrosian’s team. Petrosian explained that he kept looking down throughout the tournament because he plays with a touchpad, not a mouse, and did not want to slip and make the wrong move. The Eagles said they’d leave the PCL immediately in protest over Petrosian’s removal. Petrosian said that even though he was told he couldn’t “take legal action because I have signed such-and-such document,” he was interested in pursuing legal action even if there was a “0.1% chance of solving this issue through legal means.”

So initially agreed to Petrosian’s $5,000 challenge, with the condition that it be played in front of proctors, although Petrosian’s ban makes the matchup unlikely. Petrosian’s proclamation that “Liers will kicked off…” may have come true after all.

H/t Steven and Ian