Arguments Concerning the Efforts to Detect Chemical Enhancements in Top-level Chess Competitions

by Eric C. Johnson
(Copyright 2001 All Rights Reserved)

In recent months, there has been much attention given to the notion of drug-testing in higher-level chess competitions. FIDE, the world body charged with governing chess affairs, has tried for several years to have chess events included in the Olympic Games. One of the requirements for inclusion is the adoption of a testing program for various performance enhancing and illegal substances. This represents a change in focus and direction for chess, which until now had operated under the assumption that no such performance enhancing substances existed with regard to chess skills.

The USCF's delegate body discussed the issue at their annual meeting in August 2001, and passed several motions on the subject. The general focus of these motions was to express opposition to the notion of testing per se, and to direct USCF representatives to push for limiting testing to higher-level competitions such as the world championship cycle.

This paper seeks to evaluate some of the underlying issues and arguments concerning testing for chemical assistance with regard to chess competitions, and to relate such testing to the overall framework for all rule issues in chess. As such, it deals primarily with theoretical or philosophical arguments, leaving discussion of specific substances to another time.

When Two Players Play Chess, Should it be Anything Goes?

The first question that must be answered is whether it is appropriate to set any limits at all on the players during a game of chess (either at amateur or professional levels). By this, I do not refer to the formal rules of the game -- obviously the moves of the pieces, the mechanics of checkmate and other such game operations must be defined and set down in advance. Otherwise, we wouldn't have anything resembling a game at all!

Rather, the question of limits refers to the meta-rules that players in good standing must follow but which are either unspoken or defined less rigidly in the formal rules of the game.

For example, the formal rules may specify how the knight moves. And they may specify how a player's move begins (e.g., by touching a piece) and how it ends (e.g., by pressing the clock). But they are silent on whether the piece must be picked up by two fingers, three fingers, the entire hand...or one's foot. They are silent on whether one raises the piece six inches into the air, or merely slides it along the board. Yet one of the defining characteristics of veteran players (compared to beginners) is that they have reliably picked out these and countless other unspoken meta-rules.

Some of these meta-rules have developed out of the traditions of chess. For example, the players are prohibited from relying on books or analyses during play. This restriction even applies to handwritten notes made during the actual game -- the creation of such notes is a serious infraction.

But why is this the case? Surely, if the object of the game were to create the best possible level of actual chess play , then reliance on outside materials or the generation of notes should be encouraged, not banned. Why are moves played on the board different from analyses written down while thinking? One might imagine that the history of chess would have developed quite differently if, in addition to 64 squares and 32 pieces, the players had been equipped with pads and pencils right from the start! 

Today, however, the notion that the players must be left on their own devices, without access to books, papers, analyses or notes is taken as self-obvious, in part because of a long-ago decision (intentional or coincidental) that such "enhancements" were not part of the meta-rules of the game. 

We can generate a long list of such meta-rules, which include:

* No access to books, magazines, or handwritten notes
* No contact or help from other persons during play 
* No distracting or annoying the opponent
* No outright cheating

The very fact that one might have to add "no cheating" to this list of meta-rules gives one room for pause. However, chess has a rich history of both endorsing the notion of good sportsmanship and at the same time winking at ever-more-creative ways to bend the rules (and meta-rules).

And in complex rules situations, where it is not possible to stipulate every possible rule violation, part of the "game" is finding out which "bendings" are permitted and which are not. It is also probably fair to say that the meta-rules evolve over time.

It was the Spanish cleric Ruy Lopez who encouraged players to place their opponents so that the sun shone in their eyes during play (something that, while not against the formal rules, is clearly against the spirit of the meta-rules). Part of the endearing quality of this "advice" is its quasi-legality. One might guess that if too many players starting arranging to have their opponents play on the sunny side of the room, we would soon find the meta-rules about fairness evolving into new formal rules about board placement.

Similarly, back in the days when adjournments were common, the first meta-rule was that players should not analyze their adjourned games during the dinner break. Players were "on their honor" not to do so. However, as more and more players began to break this unspoken rule, it became harder and harder for the others to enjoy their supper knowing that they were at a competitive disadvantage. Over time, instead of enforcing the meta-rule against analyzing adjourned games, the pendulum swung 180 degrees in the opposite direction so that now the assumption is not only that players will analyze their adjourned games, but that they will employ seconds and entire teams of helpers to do so.

So, when we ask whether it is appropriate to place limits on what players can do during a game of chess, we are referring to these sorts of meta-rules and meta-behaviors. We are referring to the general expectations of players (i.e., can I expect to enjoy my supper break in peace, or must I skip dinner entirely and feverishly analyze my adjourned game because everyone else is doing it?).

It should be clear by now that the answer to the original question is that OF COURSE it is reasonable to expect there to be limits on such behaviors. The notion of limits per se is nothing new. The real issue refers to the form(s) that such limits may take.

What Constitutes Acceptable Limits for 21st Century Chess?

Given that some type of limits are inevitable (history shows that the players will set them themselves even if the governing rules bodies do not), what types of limits strike us as reasonable for chess in its current form(s)?

The formal rules (both USCF and FIDE) define chess as a contest between two players. Under that paradigm, it seems reasonable to continue to enforce the restriction against access to books, magazines, analyses and notes. Allowing one player to consult his dog-eared copy of MCO while his unfortunate opponent (who forgot to bring the proper reference works that day) must battle not only his opponent but a battery of GM analysis in printed form is just too far removed from the notion of a "contest between two players." Few would object to this sort of limitation.

But even this type of limit is being "bent" in novel ways. Garry Kasparov has popularized a new variant of chess, the so-called Advanced Chess, in which players are paired with computer programs and databases during play. The ideological underpinning of this new form of chess is that by spot-checking one's analyses during play with the help of a computer, a more "pure" or "error-free" form of chess may emerge. However, the few practical applications of Advanced Chess have shown that the games are decided more by technical factors (i.e., who is more skilled at manipulating the computer database during the allotted time) than by chess knowledge.

We can take this notion of human-plus-computer a step farther and imagine a time when players may use "electronic implants" to improve the performance of their brains during play. No less an authority than Stephen Hawking, the famous physicist, has suggested that a man-machine interface is critical to our survival, lest machines overtake biological brains in the evolutionary pecking order. Indeed, there may come a day when most of the population has such implants.

This "cyborg argument" would run something like this: Player A wants to keep his electronic implant "in" during play to speed up his calculations. Player B objects that this would be a type of unfair "enhancement" that would dramatically alter the traditional notion that chess is a "contest between two players." Who is right? And, most tellingly, does the answer depend on when you ask the question?

Which brings us (finally) to the question of drug-testing in chess.

Is Drug-induced Enhancement Acceptable?

The preceding sections made the strong case that "enhancements" that provide the player with outside "help" are, in general, considered to be a violation of the meta-rules of chess. Players may not consult books, magazines or notes during play, as this constitutes illegal "help." Similarly, players were at one time honor-bound not to analyze adjourned games because of this notion of receiving "help." during play. Our colorful "cyborg" example points out the potential problems associated with mechanical enhancements of one's body and mind during play.

What about chemical "help" during a game of chess?

To answer this question fully, we must first clarify our notions as to the purpose of a game of competitive chess and (unsurprisingly) the meta-rules associated with such purposes.

First, let's say what a game of competitive chess is NOT. A game of competitive chess is not about finding the best moves or crafting the most well-played game possible. If that were the true purpose, then rules about receiving outside help would be abolished. If the true purpose of a game of chess were to craft an error-free work of art, then players would be free to consult reference works or other strong players so as to avoid silly mistakes. (And, in a futuristic world, they would be free to use electronic implants...even though currently they are not free to do so.)

That is not to say that conducting a well-played game is irrelevant. Indeed, everyone strives to create good games. But "good games" per se are not the object of the rules. Rather, they are a by-product of the rules, not their overriding purpose.

We made mention before that the formal rules (USCF and FIDE) state that chess is a contest between two players. Let us go further and specify that the unstated assumption of such language is that chess is a SPORTING contest between two players. 

This notion of chess as a sporting contest is important because it introduces the idea that the competition must also be FAIR. Being "fair" does not mean being "equal" however, as players can and do bring differing levels of skill, preparation, and fitness to any sporting contest. The "fairness" aspects with regard to chess refer to the player expectations about what they need to do in order to prepare and remain competitive.

Using some of the previous examples, a player from the turn of the century might think it was "unfair" to be forced to skip his dinner break just because other players were doing so to analyze their adjourned games. A player might think it was "unfair" to be forced to bring a full set of ECO to his next tournament on the off-chance that his opponent will also lug reference works to the board and use them during play. Fifty years from now, a player might find it "unfair" if his opponent used an electronic implant to increase the calculating power of his biological brain.

All of these examples refer to impositions on the opponent due to changes in the meta-rules surrounding play.

With regard to chemical "help" during play, a player might find it "unfair" to be forced to ingest certain substances to increase performance during play just because the opponent chooses to do so. The very heart of the "fairness" argument refers to those actions that a player must undertake simply to match the actions of the opponent (i.e., skip dinner, use books, wear an implant, ingest substances).

We might drive home the point by reference to a timely issue about online chess: some players don't like the fact that their opponents use computer assistance for online games, hiding behind the relative anonymity of the Internet to mask what would otherwise be a serious violation of the meta-rules about receiving outside help. Others say they want to face the strongest possible opposition, and if that means human-plus-computer opponents, so what? 

But that answer avoids the real objection, which is that what the players really want is a "fair" outcome -- they do not want to be forced to also use a computer or otherwise face a performance deficit.

The same situation is true for chemical "help" during play. The objection is that players do not want to be forced to ingest certain substances or otherwise face a performance deficit.

On this basis, drug-induced enhancement can be seen as a general violation of the meta-rules regarding receiving outside help and also the general notion of fairness in a sporting sense.

What Exactly Counts as Chemical Help?

If the theoretical case for claiming that chemical "help" is a meta-rules violation has been made, we are still left with the daunting task of actually deciding what counts as chemical enhancement.

For example, every living organism needs to ingest nutrients to survive, and it would be absurd to equate "eating" with a rules violation.

Similarly, one could debate the merits as to whether or not eating or drinking should be allowed within the time parameters of an actual game of chess (e.g., perhaps eating a candy bar or a peanut butter sandwich during the fifth hour of play counts as an unfair bit of assistance?), but considering the healthful nature of "eating food" and the general abundance and ease of access to such materials, the argument will be made that simple "ingesting" of what is normally considered to be "food and drink" does not count as a rules violation per se. In this assertion, we are buoyed by the example of the physical sports where examples of players drinking water or Gatorade (or eating a sports bar) are too numerous to list.

Real chemical enhancement would have to be the ingestion of substances that, absent some sporting purpose, the players would not ordinarily ingest.

Some might add the extra provision that such substances must not only bestow some proven competitive advantage...but also impose some significant negative health impact. But this "negative health impact" restriction overlooks that the "unfairness" stems from the need to ingest the substances per se, not the positive or negative health benefits.

Suppose that substance X is shown to enhance aspects of one's chess playing skill while at the same time providing a POSITIVE health impact. Is there still room for an objection? Yes, because the competitive environment is being altered such that all players now must face the question of whether to ingest this substance OR face the possible performance deficits resulting from not using it. This is particularly true if substance X is costly or hard to acquire, or otherwise imposes a burden on players (suppose it provides health benefits to 90 percent of the population, but imposes a negative health impact on only 10 percent of persons - what then?).

Those that argue for a "negative health impact" only restriction overlook the other ways that such substances affect the overall perceived fairness of the playing environment.

If Chemical Help is "Out," How Do We Detect It?

The first objection to the plan to test for chemical enhancements in chess (i.e., substances that enhance chess performance, either with or without a negative health impact) is that no such substances have been shown to exist.

On the surface, this looks like a strong argument. After all, why bother worrying about searching for things that don't exist? However, deeper examination shows that this line of argument is superficial and is based on an overall misreading of the fairness objection presented above.

There are without doubt classes of substances that have been shown to have a mildly positive impact on overall alertness, endurance, concentration, and attention to detail, just the sorts of things one might reasonably believe would be related to performance in chess. Similarly, at the highest levels competitive chess is a very stressful and fatiguing activity, and any substances that tended to reduce fatigue or increase overall stamina (even in the short-term) would tend to give the player(s) using them a competitive advantage. 

The fact that none of these substances have been shown to provide an enhancement of chess skill per se is not the issue. The issue is whether or not there is a growing class of players who might be tempted to use such substances, either on a long-term or short-term basis, in the hopes of gaining a competitive edge. As high level competitions attract more sponsorship (e.g., the annual world championship offers $3 million in prizes), there will be an increasing temptation to "bend" the meta-rules in both the long-term and short-term timeframes. Moreover (and this will be addressed in greater detail shortly), the idea of testing for chemical help is partly to ward off any increase in the numbers of players seeking to gain such an edge.

For example, there was widespread speculation that World Champion Karpov was using some combination of stimulants during the latter half of his marathon title match vs. Kasparov in 1984-85, and that the combination of prolonged use (the match dragged on for 48 games before ending in a no decision) and the nervous tension of a high-level sporting contest nearly led to a physical and emotional collapse on the champion's part. Thus, what might be viewed as a meta-strategy of using chemical assistance to boost endurance for what was assumed to be just a few additional games (Karpov led 5-0 at one point) quickly backfired when the contest dragged on longer than expected (the final score was 5-3 with 40 draws when the match was annulled).

Given the new elimination-style format for the world championship tournament, one might expect more players to be tempted to gain the temporary benefits of endurance-enhancing substances, on the belief that any ill effects would occur after the competition is over.

From a simple fairness perspective, players do not want to be forced to ingest these substances just to remain competitive. And they want some guarantee that their opponents are not, in fact, using such substances. Whether or not such substances confer a real advantage is almost secondary. This fairness objection is different in kind from the notion that players merely do not want to study or do not want to remain physically fit or otherwise do not want to accommodate themselves to "progress" in the sense of adapting to new ways of preparing for chess games. The notion of having to ingest a particular substance to remain "competitive" should be readily apparent as a common-sensical example of "fairness" as applied to other sports.

What About Illegal Drugs?

Although most of the debate about drug-testing in chess has been about performance enhancing substances, one must also address the issue of testing for illegal substances (i.e., marijuana, cocaine, etc.) that do not directly relate to performance questions.

Major sports leagues (e.g., NFL, NBA, MLB, etc.) have drug policies that include testing for illegal substances as well as performance enhancing ones. Partly this is because players who use such substances tend to perform *less well* over the long-term than those who do not, and team sports require a high level of performance from all participants. Such leagues also have an interest in avoiding the negative publicity surrounding cases where athletes are found to be using illegal substances.

Do issues of fairness relate to cases where players might be using substances that REDUCE performance? Do players have a reasonable expectation that their opponents will not only be trying their best, but will be competing without using illegal substances?

In general, the answer appears to be yes, and it is reasonable for high-level sports organizations to test for performance enhancing substances AND illegal substances on precisely those grounds (i.e., overall performance and publicity reasons).

The Olympics Argument

FIDE has opted to pursue a program of entering chess in the Olympic Games. The IOC imposes its own policies with regard to testing for performance enhancing substances and illegal substances, and FIDE has attempted to bring high-level chess into compliance with IOC policy on that basis.

There is no doubt that having chess in the Olympics would increase the visibility of the sport and also unlock substantial sponsorship money in the West, as well as significant governmental support in the Third World.

The sticking point, however, is whether the need to follow IOC drug-testing rules is too high a burden to face for these sorts of other advantages. Some have argued that a "mental sports" exception" should be granted, on the basis that no performance-enhancing substances have been shown to exist.

Even if one grants a "mental sports" exception as a possibility (though not very likely), one is still left with the issue of testing for illegal substances. Plus, it does seem inconsistent to argue, on the one hand, that chess should be treated the same as the other sports as far as entry into the Olympics is concerned...and then to simultaneously argue that it should be granted special exemptions from the rules that such sports must follow.

Although some flexibility or variability in the exact testing protocols may be possible, it does seem unlikely that IOC would waive *all* testing requirements on the basis of such a "mental sports" distinction.

Arguments Against Drug-Testing

The general arguments against testing for chemical help in chess often boil down to some variation on the following themes:

* We don't want to do it because it is a colossal waste of time.

* We don't want to do it because it is expensive (and a colossal waste of time).

* We don't want to do it because it invades the personal freedoms of players (and it is expensive and a colossal waste of time).

* We don't want to do it because FIDE (or IOC) wants it, and FIDE (or IOC) is bad.

The first argument (that testing is bad because no such substances exist) does carry substantial potential merit. Nobody wants to be involved in what amounts to a wild goose chase, testing for rules infractions where none exist. 

However, this "no such substances exist" argument has been addressed previously. It is not absolutely necessary to show that such substances currently exist -- only that significant numbers of players may believe them to exist, and may be using particular substances on that basis. Also, there is a value to setting up a testing regimen so as to ward off future use of substances by players seeking to bend the meta-rules regarding such chemical assistance. Finally, the issue of testing for illegal substances is separate and apart from the issue of performance enhancing ones.

The second argument refers to the practical considerations of cost and time involved in testing. Chess is notorious for being a financially poor activity where even higher-level contests (except the championship matches) offer meager prizes and conditions. Under such circumstances, adding any additional costs has to be weighed in terms of the likelihood of future gains. 

Yet one might add that the sports that have gained the most financially -- tennis, golf -- have done so while at the same time imposing regulations in the form of dress codes, behavior codes, and so on. Indeed, one of the prerequisites for growth is the imposition of a modest regulatory function (with the emphasis on modest).

The third objection is a personal liberty argument, that testing in any form is contrary to Western traditions of personal liberty and freedom. If so, then major sports organizations are guilty of the same infractions. As attractive as it may be for chess to consider itself the last vanguard of 18th century principles, one has to admit that testing per se is no different than prohibiting the use of outside notes or books or access to other strong players or using electronic implants. In each case, the goal is to impose some uniformity on the meta-rules followed by all participants, under the overall objective of a fair sporting contest.

The fourth and final objection, that FIDE (or IOC) is full of bad people and that we should oppose testing on that basis, is perhaps the real one (at least for many people). Issues of projection and sublimation aside, the notion that one should use the subterfuge of opposing testing (i.e., something that FIDE/IOC wants) in order to achieve some other goals or political objectives is not new. But it is outside the scope of this paper.


The attempt has been made to show that testing for chemical "help" is no different from the ordinary prohibitions against use of outside books, analyses or notes, or access to stronger players or such fanciful conceptions as electronic implants. The notion of chess as a contest between two players includes the idea that chess is a sporting contest where the emphasis is on creating a fair (but not necessarily equal) playing field, one where players have a reasonable expectation that they will not have to perform certain behaviors (such as ingesting specific substances) in order to remain competitive.

Even in the case where a given substance may be performance enhancing AND have a positive health benefit, there is a fairness case to be made. Chess (like other sports) is about a fair and level playing field, not simply about boosting performance per se. Absolute maximum performance is a side benefit, not the first priority of the rules (or the meta-rules).

The argument is made that no substances have been shown to increase chess performance. Yet the goal of testing is not simply to eliminate particular substances, but to affect the meta-rules such that players are less likely to attempt to use substances of dubious efficacy (but possible negative health impact) in the future. Also, one must note the very real possibility that such substances will be found in the near future. Plus, there exist many substances that DO have some positive effect on a host of factors that tangentially impact any sporting competition, such as endurance, concentration, and so on. A testing regimen seeks to establish a new meta-rule that such chemical "help" is outside the bounds of expected behavior for top-level competitions.

Finally, the practical matter of chess and the Olympics must be considered. IOC imposes its own testing rules on all recognized sports federations, and if chess wishes to receive the benefits of IOC recognition then it must accept the obligations (regardless of the general wisdom of those obligations). One is free to lobby against them in the future, but one cannot simply ignore them in the present.

Chessnews.org homepage