A total of 20 participants of the women's rapid tournament of the FIDE World University Online Chess Championship were disqualified by the tournament's Fair Play Panel, although it stated that there was no proof of actual cheating. One player was stripped of her world titlea decision that has been questioned on social media and countered by a separate investigation.
On Thursday, March 25, IM Iulija Osmak was a world champion. Almost three days later, she was not.
Osmak had won the women's rapid title of the FIDE World University Championship but on Saturday evening, the 23-year-old international master from Kyiv, Ukraine received an email from the tournament's Fair Play Panel. It was stated that there was a suspicion of a breach of fair play regulations, that she was disqualified from the tournament, and that the decision was final.
"It was a very big shock for me," Osmak told Chess.com.
The FIDE World Online University Championships was an event open for students born in 1995 and later. It was played over three weekends: the blitz championship on March 13-14, the rapid championships on March 20-21 with finals on March 25, and the rapid and blitz cups for teams on March 27-28.
The event was played for the first time under a new formula where students are actually representing their universities, while before they were representing countries. With over a thousand participants, the turnout was bigger than ever.
The live broadcast of the rapid tournament's finals.
A report by the tournament's Fair Play Panel (here in PDF) published on March 26 revealed that 20 out of almost 900 participants of the rapid tournament were disqualified due to breach of fair play. The panel said they needed more than 70 hours to analyze 5,036 games and explained that they based their decision on the following criteria (as stated in the report):
The statistical evidence was provided by Kenneth Regan, an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University at Buffalo and FIDE's statistical expert. The host internet platform evidence was provided by Tornelo, on which the tournament was played. Physical evidence was based on Zoom video calls with players (using single webcams) and arbiters during the games and the players' screens that they shared. The expert opinion was provided by Fair Play Panel member GM Aleksandar Colovic and a few other grandmasters.
The report emphasizes that both FIDE and the hosting platform refrain from claiming that the players actually cheated. The following sentence, together with others sentences, are taken from paragraph 5.20 of the tournament regulations (here in PDF) and copied into the report:
Neither FIDE, nor the Hosting Internet Platform claims that the determination of a suspected fair play violation is proof of actual cheating or an admission of guilt by the disqualified player.
There was no way for the players to challenge the findings.The report states that the Fair Play Panel was "not subject to any appeal, review or other challenge" as had also been stated in the tournament regulations beforehand. The 20 disqualified players were not allowed to play in the team events of the tournament on the last weekend.
Their disqualifications won't have consequences in their future over-the-board play unless FIDE's Fair Play Commission decides to refer the matter to the FIDE Ethics and Disciplinary Commission. According to the report, this would only happen "in the case of a clear or gross violation, or repeated violations," and could possibly lead to excluding a player from all official chess events for a period of up to 15 years.
The case got further attention because of what happened to Osmak. The 2017 Ukrainian Women's Champion had finished in first place in the women's section with a 4.5/5 score.
However, she was one of the 20 disqualified players. She lost her world title and her five games were all turned into losses. Her opponents were given half a point for their games against her.
After the preliminary phase of the rapid tournament, several players were disqualified, but Osmak was not one of them. The final consisted of just five rounds.Below you can find all five of Osmak's games in the finals, played at 10 minutes for the game and a five-second increment:
The International Chess Federation issued the following statement on the case, specifically referring to Osmak:
In connection with the decision of the Fair Play Panel (FPP) of the FIDE World University Online Championships, FIDE confirms that the results of the women's rapid final held on 25 March have been adjusted. All the results of IM Yulia Osmak are counted as a loss - in line with the tournament's Regulations.
The decision was not based solely on cheating-detection algorithms but was made by FPP after a thorough examination, that included all available evidence. The decision is final.
"It's been a horrible time for me," Osmak told Chess.com, saying she couldn't sleep the first two nights after receiving the Fair Play Panel's email.
Because the email she received mentions that there was no proof of cheating, Osmak decided to write to the Fair Play Panel members. So far, she has not received an answer; only two arbiters sent a reply, acknowledging to have received her message.
The case has received a lot of reactions on social media, including from several prominent chess players. Former FIDE world champion GM Ruslan Ponomariov did not see anything suspicious in Osmak's games:
Another reaction came from GM Susan Polgar (replying to GM Mikhail Golubev), who is confused about players being removed from the tournament without proof of cheating and with no way to appeal:
The case has been widely discussed on Facebook as well, especially in a thread under a post by in Russian by FIDE Director-General Emil Sutovsky on March 28. Sutovsky says he has faith in the efforts of the Fair Play Panel (translation into English by Chess.com):
This is not a decision taken by the platform. FIDE takes the responsibility for this decision. I have always emphasized and keep emphasizing that our standards are high. We are not a private platform. If we take the responsibility, it means that we are ready to take this case to CAS and to present our evidence there.
The post is still being widely discussed and it was in this thread, on Monday, that a statement was posted byGM Bartlomiej Macieja. The Polish grandmaster co-organized the FIDE World University Championships on behalf of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where he is the chess coach. This university is also where Osmak studies (from her home in Ukraine, because of the pandemic), and it was the team she played for.
Macieja noted that an "independent investigation" had been conducted because Osmak is a member of the chess team in Texas. He wrote that the investigation consisted of:
Macieja gave the following conclusion of the investigation:
It quickly became obvious, that notorious misconduct could be ruled out instantly, so the task focused on finding if there existed evidence proving at least one instance of misconduct of our student during the entire competition. After thorough analysis, not a single violation has been discovered. Therefore, for the purpose of our investigation, the case is closed.
The results of our investigation are not a proof that misconduct didn't happen, but exactly the same can be said of over 1000 students that took part in the First FIDE World University Online Championships, against whom there is no evidence to claim otherwise.
Commenting to Chess.com, Macieja explained that he conducted most of the investigation himself, saying that with "independent" he meant that it was an investigation completely apart from that of the Fair Play Panel. Although he admitted that he himself was not independent in the case (as the coach of Osmak), he pointed out that by going against the Fair Play Panel's verdict, the university made a difficult decision:
"The goal of the investigation was to establish the future of the student, in this case, Iulia Osmak, within the chess program of the university," said Macieja. "Serious student misconduct has never been and will never be tolerated within the chess program. Whether she would lose her scholarship was my responsibility and cannot be based on external research."
Macieja was given the data of the games as well as the platform's interpretation and says that, based on that information only, Osmak is definitely clean: "There's not the slightest indication of cheating of Iulia Osmak in the hosting platform's information."
In addition to seeing all of the information that was available to the Fair Play Panel, Macieja also used additional information: he spoke to Osmak, while the panel didn't. Calling the Fair Play Panel's decision "controversial," he noted: "I know exactly why they took that decision of disqualification, but I have more evidence and whatever the consensus of the Fair Play Panel was, it was by far insufficient to take any measure by the university regarding the student."
The Fair Play Panel consisted of four people: Tomasz Delega, the chief arbiter of the tournament, Bojana Bejatovic, who is also a member of the FIDE Fair Play Commission, GM Aleksandar Colovic, and David Cordover of Tornelo. The latter provided his vote electronically from Australia, hours before the actual voting took place.
Multiple sources told Chess.com that only two members of the panel voted in favor of disqualification, one voted against, and one member abstained. Macieja isn't sure that, in the case of Osmak, this course of action led to a proper verdict.
"I am not even sure if formally they came to a decision," he said. "If there is a follow-up in the FIDE Ethics Commission, probably this is the first thing to decide. I know that even members of the Fair Play Panel are unsure if the decision has been reached."
So why was Osmak disqualified? Asked this question, she mentioned a "high statistic" in her games, which refers to Regan's analysis. Regan could not comment for this article because of his involvement in the case but did vouch that the main statement and other public comments by officials involved are accurate to his knowledge.
Osmak speculated that the decision perhaps was related to the fact that in one game she forgot to unmute her mic during the first few moves. Another detail that might have raised suspicion was that she had looked away from her screen a few times during games, for which she has an explanation: the limited vision of one eye, which provides for just 16 percent of normal vision.
"In cases when I'm nervous, I have to not focus on the board and try to rest my eyes and look to the side," Osmak said.
On Sunday, Macieja and Osmak spoke about what happened and decided to write an email to the Fair Play Panel that suggested a test with a lie detector. A response hasn't come yet but Cordover told Osmak that the panel isn't planning to take this up.
Three members of the Fair Play Panel refrained from commenting, but one was willing to speak: Cordover, the man behind the hosting platform. He admitted that this "double role" could have a potential influence on his decision, saying: "If it's any concern, I should not be on a panel. I have no problems with that."
Diving into the matter, Cordover explained that his website's statistical analysis is quite rudimentary: it involves only move-match percentage [to what extent a player's moves match with those of a chess engine - PD] and centipawn loss [the change in evaluation measured in a hundredth of a pawn - PD], adjusted a little for openings and obvious moves.
One difference with Regan's method is that it's not adjusted for rating. "The number has to be interpreted based on the rating of the player," explained Cordover. "We have some guidance on how to interpret the number on our website."
Like Macieja, Cordover does not think that the statistical analysis of Osmak's shows cheating: "Basically, the number that Tornelo gives is something which is standard, let's say, for an international master. Maybe a little bit on the high side, like a strong international master, but nothing that an international master wouldn't normally fall within expectations."
After the decision was reached, Cordover immediately wrote an email to FIDE's Fair Play Commission and to Sutovsky, sharing his concerns about the process that's being used in determining players who are disqualified from certain events. In the subject field of the email, he wrote: "A fair-play process must be fair."
"In just a few FIDE tournaments that we've organized in the past four, five months, I know of three blatantly obvious false positives," he tells Chess.com. "If there's a process that allows innocent people to suffer on a very frequent basis, then there's something broken about the system."
Although he emphasizes not to be criticizing any individual panel members, Cordover says he sees problems in different areas, one of them being a lack of accountability.
"The Fair Play Panel has extremely far-reaching powers but is not accountable to anybody at all," says Cordover. "There is no right to appeal, I don't know how well the evidence that's collected is documented, I don't know if there's a review process. This way, you can accuse anybody of anything."
Cordover also has problems with how evidence is collected and presented. He points out that a Fair Play Panel tries to collect evidence to prove unfair play but doesn't necessarily make any effort to actually produce contrary evidence, and points out: "In any fair trial, both sides should be able to provide their opinion."
Another point Cordover makes is about the burden of proof. He argues that the conclusion of a Fair Play Panel should sit somewhere between "balance of probabilities," like in a civil case, and "beyond a reasonable doubt," like in a murder case.
He mentions the concept "comfortable satisfaction," which is used bythe Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS): "The intention of this process should be that someone is innocent until proven guilty and only if you can reach comfortable satisfaction that a player had some assistance, even if it was just one move in one game."
Cordover also feels that the current process lacks transparency and proper communication. He argues that, in the case of an event governed by FIDE, the organization should be fully transparent, meaning that all information used by a Fair Play Panel should be shared with the public or at least be communicated to the player.
FIDE seems to agree on several points here. Sutovsky has allowed Chess.com to quote his reply email to Cordover in full:
Thanks for taking your time to raise these important issues - I greatly appreciate you care so much and you try to see the situation from various angles.
I fully agree that the procedures must be improved - and we have a long and very challenging road ahead of us.
I also agree that the issue is very sensitive and a lot of damage can be done if an innocent player is banned.
It is important to understand though - it will never be perfect - but we tackle it with utmost care, fully aware of FIDE's responsibility. We realize that no policy would save us from the critical arrows - but we can live with it - as long as we feel that our approach is not only fair, but based on a dedicated work of the team, and properly described. The urge for detailed protocols and clear handling of these complex issues is evident - but not less evident is a necessity to tackle the cases in question here and now, relying on the existing expertise.
The Fair Play Commission and the Fair Play Panel consist of people who tackle it all for several years now - and still, they are very diligently checking all the data and evidence. Of course, FIDE was focusing on OTB, and only last year we started to draw relevant online regulations. In parallel, the work is ongoing to describe the entire protocol, and FIDE Managing Director, Mrs. Dana Riezniece-Ozola overviews this work.
I can assure you that we take the issue very seriously, and issues you raise in the letter are being addressed.
Appreciating your emotional letter, I'd just want to thank you again for caring - please rest assured: we care no less, and we will keep doing our utmost - being fully aware that our work may draw criticism from left and right.
The nature of the topic is too sensitive - and often the very same people who accuse us of a witch-hunting claim we close our eyes allowing cheaters to win...
Detailed procedures must be in place to avoid all that - and I will seek this important task to be finalized to be approved by the General Assembly this summer.
Meanwhile we fully rely on our best people who amassed a great expertise and spend countless hours to come up with a fair judgement.
Thanks again for your passionate address,
Although Macieja came to a different conclusion, he still supports the Fair Play Panel:"I want to make it very clear that in my opinion, the Fair Play Panel acted in good faith and in the best way they thought should be handled during the event. But this doesn't mean they were right in their final conclusion."
Osmak said she is in touch with her federation, who might be able to help in defending her. They are considering writing a letter to FIDE.
For now, Osmak wants to focus her energy on the upcoming over-the-board tournaments she'll play in: the Montenegro Chess Festival in two weeks from now, and also the FIDE World Cup in July.
"I miss the real chess," she said. "I prefer the real chess!"
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