Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Elementary Cheating Accusations

At Elementary Nationals this year there was a big team cheating accusation story. I heard about it from various coaches, but nothing more than vague stuff -- "I watched them talking," "I heard the floor chief refused to do anything," "They all go to the bathroom together," things like that. Polly Wright reprints the accused coaches story here. Let me say before I start that I don't know which team was accused, who was doing the accusing, or even what section they were playing in (although I heard it was an under section). I never went on to the tournament floor, nor did I spend any time watching the fishbowl from above. I'm an entirely disinterested party.

Here's my 2 cents: it's impossible to cheat as described. There is no way that two elementary school kids rated under 1200 can systematically help each other by talking. This is not because they are bad at chess, it's because they are terrible at describing things. You know how many times a day one of my students answers a question with "e5" when he means "Queen e5" or "take and then play Rd1" when there are 3 things you could take and either rook could move to d1?
A lot.

OK, there might be certain very specific situations where one kid notices mate in one and the other doesn't, but anything short of that and the chances of helping are close to nil. Let's run through a couple scenarios:

1. The position is tactical and the teammate sees a winning line. They go to the bathroom and teammate tells player his variation.

Problem: The stronger kid will say something like "trade bishops and then play queen check." First of all, kids can't visualize, so there's a chance that the stronger player says it wrong, plus there's an excellent chance that whatever is said is ambigious, and add to that a reasonable chance that the player remembers it wrong. Even if the kid remembers it perfectly, if his opponent plays a response the teammates didn't discuss, good chances the player panics and blunders.

2. A kid sees a plan and tries to describe it.

Problem: Seriously now, a kid walking by who is in an under section is not capable of conceiving of or articulating a reasonable plan in the minute he/ she looks at the friend's board. And even if he could, the kid playing will not be able to understand what he's being told when he's in the bathroom and can't see the position.

Try this experiment. Set up a position where you understand the plan for one side, let's say this one:

Find an elementary school age kid rated 1200 or less and ask him to tell you what to do. I think you will find the results amusing.
(This is a very standard pawn structure-- it can come out of many openings in this form or reversed. White's plan is to play on the kingside, using the open e file and e5 square, i.e. Bg5, Ne5, R3e-h3 Q=> kingside. Black's plan is a minority attack, i.e. Rb8, b5-b4, Rfc8, Na5-c4, Q=> queenside. )

Just to be clear-- I'm not saying cheating is impossible. If I were hiding in the bathroom stall telling my players where to go and what their plan should be, I think I could be helpful. But this is because I know extremely well what my kids understand and what they will understand by what I say. Plus I'm good at chess. I also suspect my older and stronger students could help each otehr, but I'm talking about 13 years old and 1500.

Quite seriously, if I thought another team was cheating in this way against my students, it would not even cross my mind to complain. I would just laugh and add it to my list of Stupid Things Other People Do. There's a quote from Kramnik, "If you think your opponent is going to play the Dutch, don't do anything to discourage him." That's how I feel about this.


Anonymous said...

Elizabeth, this seems like iron-clad excellent attitude about the issue -- I have a follow-up question. Round 6, and one of my kids went to the bathroom and was accused of being on that team. The TD planted himself at my kid's board for 20 minutes or something and the result of the game, you guessed it, a donut. Question is this -- it seems about a little less than once per major event, like 0.6 times per Nationals, I have a kid unwittingly get pulled into the wake of some nonsense, no fault of their own, but the result is always kid gets rattled, loses. Is there some general advice or exercise to steel them against this? I just assume that so many kids, so many tournaments, you've probly been round the block on this too.

Temposchlucker said...

You are quite right that in terms of the outcome of a game or a tournament cheating will not or hardly play a role. But in terms of people accusing other people without a possibility to proof innocense is another matter. That is a worrisome development.

Greg Shahade said...

I don't think kids get rattled that easily in general. Most of the time parents are about 100x more concerned about every little detail than a kid who is 6th grade or under will ever be. If they end up losing, then it's probably just an excuse.

The general advice to steer them against it is to not make a big deal of it and teach them to not make stupid excuses (and especially don't make stupid excuses for them). It probably affected their game not much at all, but if you give a kid an opening to make an excuse for why they lost, you can be sure that most of them are going to jump on it, and it's not only going to teach them a bad habit for this one tournament, but a bad habit in life (they are going to learn that it's accepted and encouraged to constantly make excuses for failure, instead of taking responsibility and trying to figure out what actually went wrong).

Anonymous said...

And then they'll have no choice but to join the NBA.

Elizabeth Vicary said...

Ian, yeah, like Greg says, it doesn't happen to my kids. Probably they are older and better able to say "You're confusing me with someone else."

But I definitely have a talk with my kids before I take the to Nationals/ adult tournaments about the unknowable degree to which any adult they may interact with might be insane. I make it clear that they can never be rude per se, but I also say that adults who confront them should not be taken seriously unless I'm there. Every chess kid should be told this-- there are far too many psychopaths out there. Any responsible/normal adult will get a kid's coach/parent before reprimanding them.