Archive for December, 2008

Drug testing in chess and bridge

Controversy hit the Dresden Olympiad towards the end when Ivanchuk refused to take a drugs test.

This press release comes from

Alexei Shirov: ‘Let us ban FIDE!’
02.12.2008 – “I don’t know how many times I have said to myself,” says the world class GM and world championship runner-up, “that it makes no sense at all to keep getting involved in chess politics and that I should just concentrate on my work. But the recent FIDE ‘developments’ possibly made many late great champions turn in their graves. That means the living chess players should speak out.”

He went on to say: ‘IOC has never guaranteed that chess would become the Olympic sport, so the FIDE policy in licking their posterior is at least questionable. After the success of Intellectual games festival in Beijing it’s time to STOP trying to get into the Olympic movement. I personally feel guilty for participating in the Olympic exhibition in Sydney 2000, but at least then it seemed that the chessplayers were going to be welcome with open heart. As it hasn’t happened we have our way and we cannot lose our best representatives like this.’

How little has changed since I first investigated the attempts by FIDE and the WBF (World Bridge Federation) to introduce drug testing into their games. Please read on.


(slightly revised from the original published version)

In the 2002 world championships in Montreal, bridge truly joined the world of sport as it ‘stripped’ Hjordis Eythorsdottir of her silver medal for refusing to take a drug test. If you are the typical unpoliticised bridge player who could not care less that this happened and could not even care if drug testing is brought into your local club, well stop right here. But that’s exactly how this whole sorry state of affairs happened in the first place – player apathy. I’m hoping a few people will stay for this story of how drug testing works in bridge, why it is there and what it means for all of us.

I’m guessing that the story starts in the 1970s. Sport was beginning to get big government subsidies in the West, and chess wanted to jump on the band wagon. Naturally, bridge followed. To the uninitiated, this may seem a peculiar struggle.

Scene: pub anywhere in Australia. Group of middle-aged, overweight men light up cigarettes while somebody buys the round. ‘Well, of course it’s sport’, says Joe, pausing to take a drag on his fag. Murmurs of agreement all round, though a couple of those turn into hacking smoker’s coughs. ‘Hope Fred hurries up or we won’t be able to fit in another round before we have to play.’ Beer and fags, dinner and drinks – I don’t know if the average elite sportsperson would recognise the way elite bridge players prepare for bridge.

But still it’s sport! And over the years since the 1970s it has sometimes been, on the back of chess, defined as a sport and given a little money. And then it gets redefined by somebody else.

Somewhere along the track of attempting to make the people giving out the money see chess/bridge as sports, somebody had the idea of doing it through the Olympic Games. Get the IOC to define chess/bridge as a sport and use this to convince governments.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person to whom this spelt potential disaster. Both chess and bridge have their own Olympiads. Why would we want to join an Olympic movement which is increasingly commercial and corrupt? A movement which has lost its purpose. An organisation so vast that bridge would be completely lost in it. Where bridge would become one of those sports which is ignored save for the potential humorous content. Which sport has the largest number of balding men? We all know the answer to that one.

On top of these general considerations came the burning issue of drug testing. So completely has the Olympic movement lost its way that now the overriding definition of being a sport is drug testing. No drug testing, cannot be a sport. Now that just leaves me gob-smacked.

The implications for bridge cannot be underestimated. What is performance-enhancing in bridge? What is the goal of drug testing in bridge? Never mind anything, the sheer cost involved of hundreds of dollars per test are an issue. Yet bridge, like chess, seems to have jumped on this bandwagon without the slightest consideration of what drug-testing actually means.

In chess, which is about to hold an Olympiad (2002), there is unease at national levels around the world and, needless to say, at a personal level. Already we have seen in the US, I understand, a Supreme Court case which was about the forcible drug testing of children in school chess clubs. This sort of thing is inevitable if the WBF continues to support drug testing. Don’t think that it doesn’t affect you.

‘What’s the problem’ you ask. ‘If you aren’t cheating you have nothing to hide.’ Well, that attitude got Bush started. What makes it particular rot in the context of bridge is that there is not a single drug/substance which definitively enhances the performance of mental tests. There are some which general scientific opinion sides with – glucose is the obvious one. But even if a group of students on glucose counted backwards in groups of 3 more easily than the group not given glucose, it’s a far leap from this to the idea that the performance of a complex bunch of tasks, intellectual and emotional, as bridge is, will be enhanced.

None of this seems to have bothered the WBF in the least. The WBF simply took the path of testing for everything on the IOC list of substances. The consequence of this was that in Montreal the WBF tested for an enormous number of drugs which can be presumed to be non-performance enhancing – maybe even performance damaging – and tested for not so much as one bridge-performance-enhancing drug. How could they, if we don’t know of the existence of any?

I suppose the WBF knows it is in deep water on this one. When I asked it various questions after Montreal regarding the treatment of Hjordis Eythorsdottir and the operation of its drug testing I received the public statement I wanted, but it refused to answer any of my specific questions. This is typical of the way the WBF operates at the top. Actually, it’s a group which will fit in well with the IOC as we understand the reputation of the IOC.

One of the questions I asked was whether it tested for alcohol and marijuana. I was refused an answer!

Eventually, after being unable to find anything on the WBF site or Montreal site guiding competitors to how drug testing would work, I was given an obscure .pdf file address by the WBF Webmaster. Evidently I had to click on the general rules of contest. If you wade through this tedious document, on page 10, buried between ‘official language’ and ‘ethics and deportment’ the following can be found:

6. Doping Regulations
All players are required to accept the regulations determined by the Olympic Movement Anti Doping Code. Details of these can be found at or by contacting the International Olympic Committee.

How jolly helpful. As it happens I know the Anti-Doping Code off by heart. Well, not quite, so I follow the link. There isn’t actually anything on the Olympic site that I can find on the subject of drug testing, but it does provide a link to This is the beast that has been set up to make sport clean. I believe that it stands for World Anti-Doping Association.

And dealing with it is a bit like dealing with confession as a Roman Catholic. Nobody would dare go to confession without a little sin in hand and WADA ain’t going to believe you if you say your sport’s clean. By definition – by becoming a sport – bridge has to confess its sins. We have to weed out those drug cheats and make examples of them. The notion that they might not exist is simply not to be countenanced.

Eventually one finds one’s way to a long list of substances and ‘methods’. Even if you knew what they all meant, every category concludes with a general coverall ‘and like substances’. A logistical nightmare for a sportsperson.

Back to the alcohol and cannabinoids issue. The wada document says that ’Where the rules of a responsible authority so provide, tests will be conducted….’ The same line is used for both recreational drugs.

Let’s stretch the point and call the WBF a ‘responsible authority’. Presumably there is an onus to reveal whether it is testing for these drugs. But it declined to answer my questions. Presumably, then, competitors were completely in the dark as to whether the use of alcohol or cannabis was legal.

Somebody reading this is jumping up and down. But alcohol and cannabinoids aren’t performance-enhancing for bridge or physical sports. So, why might they be tested at all? The Olympic Games, by the way, tests for cannabis but not alcohol. How tediously predictable. So a drug might be non-performance enhancing and completely legal in your own place of residence and yet make you a drug cheat out there in the spick-and-span world of the Olympic Games.

Well, whoever asked this question – why test non-performance-enhancing drugs – you’ve asked a jolly good one. And the answer is disturbing.

Let me digress, just for a second. The net consequence of the attempts of chess and bridge to become Olympic sports is turning out to have completely the opposite effect. The IOC is in the process of defining them both out of the contest permanently and completely. It hardly had a choice. If the Olympics are a chance to survive they’ve got to make them a sensible size. Not being in the Olympics never did make a sport not a sport, but bridge is going to feel like that is the consequence.

In a way, though, one would assume with a sense of great relief, that this means we can stop the whole senseless drug testing policy. Instead, in the press release I asked the WBF to make, it said the following:

Paris, 10th September 2002
At its Meeting held on Friday 30th August 2002, the Executive Council of the World Bridge Federation resolved to disqualify one of the players in the McConnell Cup. The player was informed that she was not eligible to take her place on the podium, receive a medal nor be entitled to any Master Points.
The WBF wants to remind to those concerned that:
1. The WBF was recognised as an International Sports Federation by the International Olympic Committee in 1999 on condition that it adopts:

a. the Olympic Charter
b. the court of arbitration
c. the anti doping regulations
All of the above have been incorporated into the WBF Constitution and By-laws
2. It is the absolute belief of the WBF that the anti doping regulations are:

a. to protect the players’ health
b. to ensure the integrity of the competition
and would have been enforced anyway even in the absence of IOC recognition.
3. It is recognised that some substances can enhance concentration and stamina at bridge, as well as be also injurious to the person or persons using them
4. The regulations as they are published in the 2002 General Rules of Contest are mandatory for everybody and that the refusal to take a drug test is consequently subject to penalties.

So the WBF has been hoist on its own petard. The WBF can hardly say now that the anti-doping program was to suck up to the IOC and it was going to drop it. Instead this magnificent insistence that it is being done for our own good. Disqualifying a player in Montreal was for her health and for the integrity of the competition. We can’t have players willy-nilly taking non-performance enhancing drugs. It’ll give us a bad name.
To repeat the crux of this statement:
5. It is the absolute belief of the WBF that the anti doping regulations are:

a. to protect the players’ health
b. to ensure the integrity of the competition
and would have been enforced anyway even in the absence of IOC recognition.

Do they really expect us to believe that? And if we believe it, do they really think we’ll accept it? A bit of an invasion of privacy, wouldn’t you say, the WBF deciding what’s good for us.

‘It is recognised that some substances can enhance concentration and stamina at bridge, as well as be also injurious to the person or persons using them’

Now guess what substance that would be – try nicotine. There are only three substances I’ve been able to discover that arguably might enhance the playing of bridge. They are glucose, caffeine and nicotine. Of these I’m guessing nicotine is by far and away the most likely to aid performance. And if the smoking of cigarettes were banned within the bridge world, not only would a potentially performance-enhancing drug be eliminated but, shucks, a whole bunch of us would feel better too.

So, why was the smoking of cigarettes not banned at Montreal? Because the WBF has no intention of enforcing their own avowed aims. Attempting to ban the notionally performance-enhancing-bad-for-our-health cigarette would have led to riot and boycott. (end of article)

I can’t imagine that FIDE and WBF are ever going to conduct actual tests to see what is actually performance enhancing in chess and bridge. Anybody who’s ever smoked a cigarette will know that nicotine is performance enhancing. There is much anecdotal evidence. After the above article first appeared I received an email from somebody who worked designing vessels for the US Navy. He recalled at some point a discussion of whether ashtrays should be provided on the watch. The answer was ‘yes’ not so much because smokers who are allowed to smoke perform better than smokers who aren’t allowed to smoke, but because smokers perform better than non-smokers. By preference the US Navy wanted smokers on their watch.

More recently, and less anecdotally, a test case has been written up here:
Psychoactive Drugs and Pilot Performance: A Comparison of Nicotine, Donepezil, and Alcohol Effects
again demonstrating the performance enhancing aspect of nicotine.

Since I wrote that article various things have changed in the WADA list of performance enhancing substances. Even though clearly caffeine is performance enhancing it has been taken off the lists. I wonder if that is the power of lobbyists for the companies who advertise through sport? Selling caffeine based drugs as a socially acceptable performance enhancer has become big business. Cannabis has been banned altogether, even though one assumes it is not performance enhancing for anything unless there is some sort of couch potato endurance test in the Olympics. Nicotine is not even mentioned on the list which can be seen here.

I gather that chess is still using the lot with, according to Ian Rogers, ‘the single exception of the drug I should have been taking 6 years ago but was not allowed to. (The exception was created by Jana Bellin because of me but the damage had already been done and I had to stop playing entirely.)’ How sad is that.

FIDE and WBF: you should hang your heads in shame.


December 3, 2008 at 10:54 pm Leave a comment

Talking to GM Yuan, Australia’s new #1

Early this year Zhao became part of the history of chess when he won two GM tournaments in a row – the first ones he had played in. Nobody, not Fischer, not Kasparov, not the new Norwegian wonderboy had done that. This is how it started….

If we were going to be technical, I guess we’d call him Zhao Zang-Yuan, but we aren’t. I’ve always thought of him as Yuan because that’s he wanted to be called the first day I met him.

That was in 1999. I was making my yearly pilgrimage to the Australian Masters, which used to be held at The Treasury on Collins St – a wonderful venue for a great tournament. One of the competitors was Yuan, then, I believe 12 years old. He was on the road, coming to Melbourne from another tournament and he was well, if not out of his depth, certainly out of his comfort zone.

It is one thing playing a Swiss – however tough it may be at the top, if you lose for long enough you end up at your level, amongst other demoralised souls and you can put the boot in. But the Masters is a strong, invitational round robin. Designed to give top Australians a chance to get norms, and always with some strong o/s guests, there are no easy games.

On top of this he was staying a long way from town and he wasn’t exactly being cared for where he was billeted. As I watched Yuan lose game after game (with a draw or two thrown in) I decided it was time to take on new role for me – mother. My brother was organising the event and I told him that I’d look after Yuan for the rest of it. I was living close to the city, I was going to come in every day to watch, I would cook him Chinese food and, I hoped, he’d start winning some games. My partner kindly agreed to play the father role if need be. Mostly he expected to get good Chinese food too.

So Yuan came around to stay and well, I’d thought the first thing he’d want to do was tuck into some noodles. But there was something even more important than that. First I had to play him chess. I guess I lost maybe 20 games of blitz in a row – ‘…enough Yuan?’ I asked, hoping for the best. ‘No. We start again’ he ordered. Eventually he had won enough. I could stop. This may have been good for Yuan’s career…but I have to say it was the last chess I’ve played!!

What a diligent young man he was. Iin the morning there’d be a phone call to Manuel Weeks who was helping him from Sydney. He’d play his game, come home, analyse and prepare for the next day. With my famous (well, it is now…) soya sauce chicken under his belt and clean socks to wear he did pick up a few wins after that. But although he was definitely a little boy and loved fun, you could see how important the chess was.

I could drive that point home by telling the story of what happened at the Victory dinner which ended the event. Naturally we adults we looking forward to a night of letting our hair down, having a bit of fun and staying up late. But Yuan had other ideas. He had to be in bed, he told us, by 9pm as he had to get up the next morning to go to his third tournie in a row, this time in Sydney. Fortunately Yuan didn’t wear a watch. And here is a confession which I hope Yuan will forgive – certainly it doesn’t appear to have done long term damage to his chess career – we figured we’d tell him it was 8.30 when we thought it was time to go home. ‘No, not yet Yuan, not quite’. I don’t think it even bothered him that if he left at 8.30 he would have missed the Chinese banquet. You see he was at that age where airplane food is actually exciting. Sleeping through b/fast on the plane the next day, now that WOULD have been tragic.

I suspect any number of kids have the talent at that age – but the hard work, the discipline, the ability to take the knocks when they came – those are rare traits and are 99% of what make a top player of any sport, let alone something as painful as chess can be. And Yuan had that in spades, so to speak.

So, I’ve been expecting something special from him ever since and, although he’s been getting better all the time, this year he has finally produced what I’d always thought he was capable of. I guess the question now is what next? Can he keep improving? And at what cost?

I asked Yuan some questions about his chess and his future. Here are his answers.

Am I right in thinking that chess is not going to be your main pursuit in life, that you are going to make a sensible living doing other things and playing chess as it fits in?
To be honest, I am not too sure yet what I mainly want to pursue as a career. I just graduated in pharmacy and I have found a graduate pharmacist position for 2009 so I will be definitely working next year. I have been offered a place at USYD graduate medicine in 2010 but I have yet to decide for sure to take this up as four more years of further study seems a bit daunting at the moment although I would like to pratice medicine rather than pharmacy. It may yet be that chess will be a significant part of my professional life i.e. one possibility being working part time in a pharmacy and part time chess. I think I will know better at the end of next year.

What do you think the best you can do is, at least while you are studying, working and so on. Do you feel like you are at the best point already, or that we can expect even greater things?
If I pursue work and study I think I will peak at around 2600 (so yeah, pretty much at my peak already). If I take up chess part time, I think a 2650 peak is conceivable. If I give up everything for chess (rather unlikely) perhaps I can reach around 2700 but I don’t know exactly. I think chess is very fair, what you give up you gain, if you don’t give anything then you can’t get anything. To be very honest, I am astounded at my own progress in the last year, something just “clicked” for me in chess.

To your fans, of course, your performance in Dresden looks great, but what did you think of it. I very much enjoyed watching your last game. But what happened in round 2, if you will forgive me asking. I suppose this is a game you would have ‘expected’ to win.
Halfway through the tournament, despite my win against Korchnoi I was quite unhappy with my performance. I think it’s fair to say that Korchnoi clearly played below par and I took no great pleasure in beating a man whom I hold in such high esteem. The loss against Topalov was pretty devastating for me since I played awfully (I believe someone commented that it was like watching an Australian weekender rd 1 game, where the 1800 is geting butchered by an IM except that in this case I was clearly the weakling). Of course deep down I found it hard to believe I could hold Topalov with black but the game really wakened me. Also Topalov has a magic aura around him, an air of confidence and invincibility, this rubbed off on me even though I lost against him. I think in round 2 I was far too optimistic, I followed with interest the play of Hector Leyva later on and I think he is quite a bit stronger than his humble 2400 rating. I remember 2 other quite good GM’s also lost to him later on in the tournament. I think I came in with the wrong attitude, I should have simply played solidly and looked for chances but I was too optimistic and was duly punished. I think all credit goes to my opponent. Nevertheless, towards the end I managed to steady the boat and reeled in some catches, finishing with 3.5/4 is always reassuring!

What’s next on the chess front for you?
I’m actually in China playing some club matches in the Chinese League. My team is from Jiangsu and the games should start in 2 days time. However, I believe the games are not transmitted and that the website is only in chinese. In general terms, I always aims to bring a higher level of harmony to my chess play, somehow in chess I see many similarities with say yoga or Tai Chi, whether in attack or defence everything should be done in harmony. I know it sounds a bit abstract but anyway…

A note from Ian: Yuan won his first game in China yesterday too, beating GM Li Shilong, so his great run is continuing.

December 2, 2008 at 11:49 pm Leave a comment

Dresden Chess Olympiad 2008…I ask Ian Rogers some questions.

(Tomorrow, by the way, I will talk to Australia’s Number one board, Zhao, so do drop by for that.)

My brother, Chris Depasquale, who has played in a couple of Olympiads, pointed out to me when I asked him what he thought of the new scoring changes, that it did provide some dramatic differences from the old method:

I guess for us old fuddy-duddies, at least Armenia won the thing whichever scoring method you use, but Bulgaria were bronze medallists under the old system and they finished 14th, while Canada actually scored more points than anybody except Armenia, but they finished 28th!!! Of course, if the scoring was under the old system the pairings would have been different and Canada would have had a tougher field…. Because they lost matches 2.5-1.5 to India, Scotland and Iraq in the first half of the event they only played one team that finished in the top 50!

Gaining nothing of consequence for a 4-0 victory – ie the same 2 points as achieved for 2.5-1.5 win – had a detrimental effect for Australia at least once, when they achieved the blitz and then had to play another team of the same ilk for the same result. I am pretty sure everybody would have preferred a challenge.

I wanted to know what Ian Rogers GM thought about various aspects of the Olympiad and Australia in the world of chess. As it happens he is eternally in my debt and could not say no.

Ian Rogers, GM, What do you think of the new scoring method (a) in general (b) from Australia’s point of view?

Awful – there are simply too many teams and not enough score groups with match points. (This could have been predicted, but FIDE admitted that they did no simulations before changing the system. (See Shaun Press’ blog), Also, it discourages fighting in all games since 2.5-1.5 is almost as good as 4-0.

For Australia it could have been great had our open team won our last match and moved into the top 20, since the yoyo effect is exaggerated. But overall the new system is worse for the middle teams who are all crowded around 50% and could finish anywhere.

At least under the old system you needed to lose 0-4 in the last round to drop dramatically – now a narrow 1.5-2.5 loss is enough to see you plummeting down the standings.

Is Australia standing still or dropping back in relation to the rest of the world?

The rest of the world is constantly improving. Our Open team is keeping up, barely, thanks to Zhao and Smerdon, but our women’s team without Irina really struggled (e.g. 0-4 v Venezuela).

Has the requirement for becoming a GM been lowered or do we have more GMs now because we have more players of a standard that that hasn’t dropped?

There may be more good players but certainly the standard required to get a GM title has been lowered because of many incremental factors plus the elephant in the room, rating inflation.

Given that Yuan goes from strength to strength, could you speculate on the difference it would have made to our team if you had been playing? What position might we have reasonably hoped for (ie with the usual some out of form players)? And, again on Yuan, it seems to me his solid performance on Board one was important in confirming his remarkable GM tournament victories early this year. Is that true, or were they proof enough on their own? Do you have hopes/expectations for Yuan and if so, what are they? What, if anything, is going to stop him achievement them?

Had I been playing I would probably have been selected on board two and it probably would have helped, but how much is anyone’s guess – it’s just speculation.

In Dresden Yuan scored his 6th GM in his last 7 events where it was possible. I don’t think he had anything to prove – he’s the real deal. How far he goes is dependent on his pharmacy and then perhaps medical studies. He has already been forced due to his pharmacy registration employer to pull out of Queenstown, which is not a good sign.

It seems to me that there are some players who rise to the occasion when playing for their country…and that such players might be considered for selection even if they are not in form at home. Do you agree with this notion, and if so, is there anybody you would have included in this team, and at whose expense? Ian read my mind on this one and mentioned two players I was wondering about.

No. Alex Wohl failed for years and then given a new chance was brilliant in Torino 2006. Terry Shaw, a dual medallist, failed in his final two Olympiads. Arianne was hopeless in her first two Olympiads for Australia. You have to select on current form and hope for the best.

I watched Australia’s board one woman play the Australian Masters some years ago and was astonished at her result (minor placing). Since then she has not nearly lived up to the expectations I set for her. Was that result an accident? Does she have the talent but not the will?

The result was not an accident – she had the talent but not the will. Since the Aus. Masters result, Arianne barely studied chess, concentrating on study and dancing.

Fortunately in 2008, Arianne was so stung by criticism of her play and Olympiad results that she put in some real work and played many games at close to her old strength. Going out with Aronian can’t hurt but it also cost Australia about 30 places when she spent the final round concentrating on Armenia’s fight for gold and lost her game without a fight.

What do you think about the other major change in the Olympiad, the board numbers for the Open and Women’s?

NO strong opinion, although from Australia’s point of view the change tends to expose our lack of depth in women’s chess – our lower two boards really struggled in Dresden, although Biljana pulled off some ridiculous swindles to finish with an OK score. But both she and Shannon were just outplayed in many games.

Were you asked to be Captain of the Open team?

Yes. I am glad I said no – it was hard enough to resist the temptation to sit in Yuan’s chair at the start of each round!

December 1, 2008 at 9:42 pm Leave a comment

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