My experience as a Fair Play Officer at the Sardinia U-20 Youth Championship

IA Alon Shulman

In this article I would like to shed a light on my experience as a Fair Play Officer at the World U-20 Youth Championship which took place in Cala Gonone, Sardinia.

I don’t recall any article published anywhere about the experience and duties of the fair play arbiters.

My nomination as FPO was a surprise for me since in my 40 years as an arbiter (Of course, the fair play entity is a novelty) I never operated in a Fair Play position.

However, I’ve decided to embrace the new challenge as an experience. The whole Fair-Play issue has raised its ugly head only recently with the great increase of computer power and cellphone power. When I started my arbitering career in 1982, Fair-Play challenges were basically limited to intercepting players who were talking to each other during game. No one suspected a player would sneak out of tournament hall to browse the new edition of Chess Informant.

My first personal experience with electronic Fair-Play scheme came as an arbiter at the 2010 Khanty-Mansiysk Olympiad.

That Olympiad saw a fair-play issue which was only uncovered months later.

I was a sector 1 arbiter and in one of the matches I was assigned to arbiter with the team involved.

I remember how impressed I was with the dedication of the team’s captain who was so much involved with observing the games of his team. Most other captains would just show up, sit their teams and then either fall asleep (sometimes on my shoulder) or if felt more energetic go hit the bars and shopping malls.

This captain, however, was like an energizer bunny. Little did I know – he was just waiting for an opportunity to relay moves to one of his players.

It might be hard to believe today, but back then, in the pre smartphone era, cellphones were allowed in tournament halls and captains were allowed to stand facing their teams.

Chief arbiters then, were more concerned with anti doping tests. Back in the stone age era, a decade ago, like in 2010 K-M Olympiad, arbiters were given a list of players to hunt down after the game, for anti doping tests. The same as we take players now for extra screening.

Fast forward to 2022. When I was informed about my duty and doing it for the first time I had to devise a strategy.

The first question I asked myself was what is the threat. In order to formulate a defense we need to know which attack are we need to fend against.

The concept was that it is unlikely for a lone FP violator to orchestrate a violation alone. In this day and age trying to smuggle a cellphone to a tournament hall is like trying to smuggle contraband to an airport. Most chances it would be detected.

What we were worried about are transmitters. Small devices who might be attempted to be smuggled inside the tournament hall, to be used for communication with a person outside of the tournament hall who can relay computer moves to the player.

Transmitters are small and could be attempted to be concealed in a shoe, a bra, a belt, or other dark places. All those places while scanned would beep because of the metal.

We were equipped with only 2 hand held metal detectors so that increased the challenge.

So if we decided that transmitters were the threat, that would involve other participants in the FP violation if there is to be one.

Because of that we had decided that the main strategy would consist of 2 elements:
ISOLATION – Isolating players from the outside world during game.
Playing Zone Control – Establishing a controlled playing zone where players don’t have uncontrolled positions where they can obtain unsupervised contact with another symatheticc element.

In a perfect world we would have been happy with a tight sealed playing zone with one entrance, occupied full time during the round and completely locked before and after.

Palmasera resort in Cala Gonone where all players stayed and played is a great place. Nice rooms, friendly staff, Good food and pristine beaches. However it’s not a military base and can’t become one. We had to compensate for that.

As part of the FP operation, we were assisted by Professor Kenneth Reagen, the oracle of FP violation detection.

Prof. Regan analyses the games of each round and uses million algorithms to try and determine if there is any suspicion with the player’s play.  Of course, if we would have an unrated player beating Grandmasters at ease, we would not need the assistance of the honorable professor. However, there are more minute performance algorithms which in some cases would trigger a red flag and we need to know about it and on the spot.

Professor Regan is very dedicated and we had the reports each day on time before the next round so if we would have a player of interest, we can address the matter already for the next round.

Prof. Kenneth Reagen’s daily reports were encouraging with very little to worry about. 2 players were of relative interest and we paid special attention to, but as the event progressed it was proved to be false alert. I believe that if a player opts for simple concrete positions, it is natural he would pick computer best move choice in maybe too many cases for the algorithm.

Our daily Operation

I would now elaborate a bit more about what we did, the measures conducted by our team:

  1. We tried to limit the playing zone as much as possible to obtain maximum control of all players during game.
  2. Toilets were checked constantly.
  3. There were ventilation windows in toilets, we made sure no one had access to the area on the  other side of those windows.
  4. The team would circle the playing venue making sure no one attempts to get too close. Especially individuals with cellphones with apps containing chess positions.
  5. Live boards transmission had a 15 minute delay. (This is not so easy to do, you need to inform the live boards team in advance about your plan to impose a delay)
  6. Every player / visitor were scanned prior to entry.
  7. We had 2 lines, one for boys, one for girls with 2 gender appropriate checkers positioned on each line.
  8. Boys were not allowed to bring in backpacks at all. Ladies were allowed small ladies bag. That’s why scanning the ladies took around the same time as scanning the boys even though there were around 120 boys and only 60 girls.
  9. No person other than players/arbiters/staff was allowed in tournament hall during the round. In some events they allow trainers to enter with supervision like for 5 minutes every 2 hours to watch their players. We did not allow that at all. They could enter before the round but had to leave before starting of games.
  10. Players after finishing their games were politely requested to leave and were not allowed to re-enter.
  11. In each round, 3 boys and 3 girls were randomly selected for another post game screening.
    After me being given the list, I would discreetly relay the names of the selected players to the respective arbiters.
    Arbiters were requested to escort those selected players to me after they finish their games.
    Those screenings were conducted in a special private room upstairs. That meant that for that purpose only, I walked up and down from tournament hall to checking room 66 times during those 11 rounds. Those scannings were conducted by one of our team members of the respective gender.
  12. Now for you head of the Fair Play team. Do the screenings in pairs if possible so you always have a witness for any irregularity which might occur, and for any statements/admissions by the player.
  13. When entering the checking room the player would be instructed to put all belongings on the table. Those items should be inspected too. Best if the player does not beep at all. That’s the easy check.
  14. When scanning shoes it’s best to have a pedestal or something of that sought. It would be easier on your backs and also many floors have metals and scanner would falsely beep.  
  15. The playing zone was clearly marked and toilets were controlled monitoring too frequent visits and too long visits.
  16. Those too frequent toilet visitors were sometimes checked entering/leaving the toilet. Now This is something that organizers need to prepare. The problem is that if we have let’s say a female player I wish to randomly check, lets say she went to the toilets too often. I need to stop her. Call a female team member, go all upstairs. It’s time consuming and during a game. This is a matter that has to be planned. Maybe a place near toilets/playing hall to allow a quick in and out random check. Like a McDonald’s drive thru (they can have there Burgers and fries too).

The airpods incident

The 6th round of the championship looked like any of the other previous rounds. The tournament was progressing in order and players and staff were anticipating the free day tomorrow for a well deserved rest or excursions, as you please.

Players were already accustomed to the routine pre round scanning prior to the 15:30 starting of games, so as usual 90% would arrive at 15:29.

At around 19:40 one of the arbiters had escorted one of the female players for a random check. The lady was one of the 3 ladies selected for that day. Everyone of the team knew his part. I walk first with the keys. The player walks after me and the lady checker trails. The instructions for the arbiters and FP arbiters were clear. Once a player is informed about the post game scan, you don’t take your eyes off him/her and you make sure the player collects everything he/she came in with. We will not allow an opportunity for a violator to discard of a forbidden item.

After opening the room I would allow the player and checker in. Then, leave the room and close the door. The lady scanner would conduct her check and open the door when it’s completed. After re-entering the room, the lady checker would inform me the result of check and I would decide further. For some reason I decided to check player’s jacket which was on the couch. Our FP lady scanned it with the metal detector but there was lot’s of metal parts in the jacket so the beeps were interpreted as legit metal beeps. I decided on a jacket pat down search.

There I found the air pods.

The look of shock and horror on player’s face was obvious. It seemed she was truly shocked.

Now, FP team colleagues, remember, you also have an investigative duty. If an unpermitted item is found in a possession of a player, ask immediately the necessary questions;

  • Is the item yours?
  • Is the jacket yours?
  • Did you put the item in the jacket?
  • What is it used for?
  • Why is it there?

Those statements, obtained from the player in the initial stage, would not allow the suspected FP violator to build up a story and try and distance himself from the forbidden item/s.
In our case, the lady seemed to be truthful and genuine throughout the ordeal. There was an acceptance of responsibility by her from the start. The facts of the matter were established and all was left is to submit them to the chief arbiter with my statement of events. My job regarding this matter was completed upon doing so. We the FP team are like a police investigative division while the Chief Arbiter performs as district attorney and judge.
The outcome of the event was that lady’s win that was reversed to a loss and an expulsion from the tournament. An appeal which was submitted by player and her federation was unanimously rejected.

I was aware to the heightened emotions in social media about what many people saw as a too severe punishment.

Everyone is entitled to an opinion and in the emotional level it is easy to associate with a pleasant lady than a faceless entity like FIDE or organizers.

Without prejudice, I would like to present the arguments less emphasized in social media.

FP violations are a thorn at the tournament experience. The pressure and temptation of winning championships and tournament and prize money is leading some of the players to attempt and do what we don’t want them to do, and what no honest opponent wants them to be able to do.

I believe it is reasonable for us to demand from players a standard of care which is not too complicated.

When you head to an airport, you make sure you don’t happen to carry by mistake any forbidden items. If you fail to do so you will carry the consequences (ask Brittney Griner).

Heading to a chess game is far easier than heading to the airport. You basically just need to bring yourself.
It is not too farfetched to demand a minimal standard of care from the players to help the FP team? If all players would be encouraged to bring nothing, it would be easier for us to concentrate in the FP violators.

Another argument is to send a message. If we don’t, and the punishment is lenient, we risk players treating the cat and mouse game like a tiktok challenge – who is best in outsmarting the FP team and cheating.

My heart goes out to the expelled pleasant lady but rules have to be observed and all are equal under the law.

The general effect of the event on the tournament was positive. I felt players felt that there is law and order in control and they can play in confidence knowing there is FP control.


Performing a Fair-Play position is not for everyone. Hard to say how many chess arbiters would like it but you should try it at least once. It has the somewhat advantage for you are not manacled to a game/match/sector and can technically move around. On the other hand you must operate as a policeman and be always on the lookout.

Don’t be discouraged if you believe there was FP violation and you failed to discover it.

It’s a long stretch battle against a rogue minority but we have a huge integral advantage.

In the Netflix series Narkos there are the DEA (US Drug Enforcement Administration) agents in Colombia fighting the cartel. One of the lead agents Stephen Murphy said “The bad guys have to be lucky every time. We only need to be lucky one time”. So to all those FP violators out there. Cheating is about winning too many and playing too well. If you cheat and lose you are risking for nothing. If you cheat and win sooner or later you will be on our radar.

In the famous novel Crime and Punishment protagonist Raskolnikov murders an elderly woman and her sister. The FP investigator in the novel, Forfiry Petrovich investigates Raskolnikov and is convinced he is the murderer. Forfiry tells Raskolnikov that anything he does would only get him closer to be exposed and there is nothing he can do to distance himself from this inevitable fate. Raskolnikov can’t withstand the pressure and eventually confesses and imprisoned.

Forfiry employs many tricky psychological tactics against Raskolnikov. Fiodor Dostoevsky could have been a lead figure in the FBI.

Closing ceremony

I must mention the closing ceremony. Closing ceremonies are sometimes a necessary evil with million repetitive speeches. The organizers decided to spice things up a little with a nice duo dance performers and topped it up with a great tenor singer. Now, if you take on Nessun Dorma – you’ve got to be good. Pavarotti would have been smiling.

This was a true taste of Italy which made it unique for Italy and one can say that the Nessun Dorme (no one shall sleep) order of Princess Turandot, from that famous Puccini opera, could be attributed to our Fair Play team.

Vincero! Vincero! Vincero!

IA Alon Shulman