Drug testing in chess and bridge

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

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

This press release comes from Chessbase.com

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 http://www.olympic.org 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 http://www.wada-ama.org 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.

Entry filed under: chess. Tags: , , , , , , , .

Talking to GM Yuan, Australia’s new #1 How long does it take to learn to play bridge?

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