Just the Rules: Old School and New School Cheating

Just the Rules logo


Cheating in chess has been around for a long time. Old-timer Ruy Lopez is reported to have sat his opponents so that the sun was in their eyes. Nowadays there is a lot of electronic gear involved in the underhanded cheating process. Is the use of that gear the same or different than the good old days? Let’s take a peek.


Bathroom Stalls

Using the shield of the bathroom stall to cheat during a game is not new. Taking a book, or pocket chess set, into that out-of-sight location was an early try to gain an advantage. That morphed into the “phone-a-friend” practice. With more technological advances, a player can now hide inside a stall while consulting with chess-playing software on their phone. Some Super Swisses have hired staffers to help stem that software tide by “wanding” tournament players before they enter the restroom. They even sometimes secure a player’s phone before the facilities are entered. Those anti-cheating measures have cut back on electronic cheating opportunities. Plus, it generates a lot of “peace of mind” for the honest wood pushers.

The old school method of using books or a pocket set in the stall is still very hard to prevent.



An analog clock’s timer is pretty easy to fool with. The timing mechanism is essentially a spring that unwinds. The tension on that spring controls how fast or slow a clock ticks off playing time. There are a pair of levers on the back of the device that help control the speed of that tension. The dishonest player can use those levers to set one clock to run faster than the other one, or they can set their own timer to run slower.

A close relative of the lever trick is the clock-winding trick. On the back of an analog clock, there is a key for each timer that allows the user to wind the spring when its tension is low. By winding one spring tighter than the other, the two clocks will unwind at different speeds.

With the new digital clocks, the time is controlled without the aid of springs. So, adjusting the playing time is very difficult. What is easier, with some of those clocks, is to adjust the amount of delay and increment time for either you or your opponent. Those clock displays are not that easy to read in order to determine if the delay or increment is set properly — and the same — for both sides. One player’s delay, or increment, could be set differently than the other’s (depending on the brand of timer). This difference can go unnoticed altogether, or at least until the end of the time control approaches.

In the above cases, how often do tournament chess generals actually check out how an opponent’s clock is set? If most of you are like me, the answer is: never.

Analog clocks have two posts on top — one for each player. When a wood pusher presses down on their own post it stops their clock from running while starting their adversary’s timer. Those two posts are typically connected internally by a bar, or rod, of some kind. Much like each side of a playground teeter-totter, when one side goes down the other side goes up. What is the trick here? The cheater can often, but not always, hold down their own post. This prevents their opponent from stopping their clock and starting the cheater’s timer. Doing that every move is too obvious. Doing the “hold ‘em down” routine only every so often works much better. Given the widespread use of digital clocks, however, this time-fiddling trick has gone the way of the dinosaur.


Cheating That Works Without Technology

Opponents can still agree to a draw before they even sit down to push a single pawn. They take their seats and whip out a move or two before officially agree to the half-point.

Opponents can also agree in secret to throw a game when greenbacks are involved. One of them gets a cash payment outright for losing — or, the opponents secretly split the prize money later when the win by either one can guarantee a payday.

Cheaters can still use a cohort — typically pretending to be a spectator — to signal them game-winning moves. This one is really hard to catch. When is a wink, nod, or scratch a signal versus something else?

Swapping player IDs is an oldie but goodie. The much better player simply pretends to be a lower-level wood pusher in order to mop up opponents and collect some greenbacks. This is a bit risky and gets caught more often than not by others who know the true identity of either player.

A player perusing books related to their current contest at the chess bookstore is still an oldie but goodie.

What have you seen over the years?


Tim Just is a National Tournament Director, FIDE National Arbiter, and editor of the 5th, 6th, and 7th editions of the US Chess Rulebook. He is also the author of My Opponent is Eating a Doughnut & Just Law, which are both available from US Chess Sales and Amazon/Kindle. Additionally, Tim recently revised The Guide To Scholastic Chess, a guide created to help teachers and scholastic organizers who wish to begin, improve, or strengthen their school chess program. Tim is also a member of the US Chess Rules Committee. His new column, exclusive to US Chess, “Just the Rules” will help clarify potentially confusing regulations.