Outrage Over Ivanchuk: The Great Chess Doping Scandal

By Maik Grossekathöfer

Grandmaster Vassily Ivanchuk refused to submit a urine sample for a drug test at the Chess Olympiad in Dresden and is now considered guilty of doping. The world of chess is outraged that he could face a two-year ban.

Professional chess player Vassily Ivanchuk, born in Berezhany, Ukraine in 1969, has been a grandmaster for the past 20 years and is currently ranked third in the world. The man with black hair and bedroom eyes is known as "Big Chucky" by his fellow chess players. Why? Because, after losing a game, he goes into the forest at night and howls at the moon to drive out the demons. Because he walks around in shorts in freezing temperatures. Because he likes to sit in dark rooms. Because he usually looks at the ceiling instead of the board during a chess match. Because he tries to fold the oversized winner's check handed out after a tournament down to pocket size. And because he, as World Champion Visvanathan Anand says, lives on "Planet Ivanchuk."

International chess player, Vasili Ivanchuk.
AP

International chess player, Vasili Ivanchuk.

Who knows what was going through Ivanchuk's head when, on Nov. 25 in Dresden, the last day of the Chess Olympiad, he lost to Gata Kamsky? What we do know, however, is that when the game against the American ended, a judge asked Ivanchuk to submit to a drug test. Instead, he stormed out of the room in the conference center, kicked a concrete pillar in the lobby, pounded a countertop in the cafeteria with his fists and then vanished into the coatroom. Throughout this performance, he was followed by a handful of officials.

No one could convince Ivanchuk to provide a small amount of urine for the test. And because refusal is treated as a positive test result, he is now considered guilty of doping and could be barred from professional chess for two years.

The incident in Dresden and the possibility of a professional ban for Ivanchuk has caused outrage in the chess world. The players, who fraternize with one another, say that accusing one of them of doping is an insult to their honor and intelligence. Letters of protest were issued, and players are accusing bureaucrats in the world of championship chess of destroying the game, because, as they insist everyone should know, doping provides no benefits in chess.

That is not entirely correct. Combining chess and doping may be a highly unlikely combination, but it's not impossible.

Drug tests were introduced at international chess tournaments in 2001. The World Anti-Doping Agency classifies chess as a "low risk sport," and so far no one has been convicted of doping. But what exactly does that mean?

It makes sense that anabolic steroids, the bulk-producing drug of choice for weightlifters, and EPO, the wonder drug of the cycling world, would not improve a chess player's performance. But when a chess player nears the end of a match and comes under mounting pressure, he can hyperventilate, and his pulse can shoot up to 160 and his arterial blood pressure to 200. In that situation, beta-blockers could help a player keep his head clear.

German grandmaster Helmut Pfleger, an internist and psychotherapist from Munich, says that because a player cannot know in advance exactly when these symptoms will begin, "a performance-enhancing dose is hardly possible." Pfleger tested the effects of beta-blockers on himself in 1979, in a match against Russian player Boris Spasski. "My blood pressure and pulse plunged, and my game fell apart completely."

It is undisputed, however, that caffeine can give a chess player a leg up, but the stimulant is no longer on the list of banned substances. Many players are passionate coffee drinkers.

It would certainly make sense for a chess player to take Ritalin or Modafinil. Both substances increase the ability to concentrate. Students take the drugs during exams, and doping inspectors test chess players for both substances.

A Cultural Asset, Not a Sport

The only reason there are doping tests in chess in the first place is that the World Chess Federation (FIDE) has been trying, since the late 1990s, to make chess an Olympic discipline. And anyone wishing to be part of the Olympics must submit to the rules of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Not all players agree. Cologne native Robert Hübner, for example, once ranked third in the world, stopped playing for the German national team in protest against doping tests. He refuses to accept the rules of modern sports, because he does not consider chess a sport. Instead, Hübner believes that it belongs in the "realm of cultural assets." He considers doping tests to be a bureaucratic show of power, and he believes that the tests are degrading and deprive the individual of rights and responsibilities. Drug tests will be introduced into Germany's federal chess league next year, and when that happens, says Hübner, he will give up his career immediately.

FIDE has three months to decide whether Vassily Ivanchuk will be allowed to play in the future. The medical commission, which has been vigorously searching for a way to exercise leniency, may already have found the suitable gap in its own anti-doping regulations. Under Article 6, Paragraph 1a, a player must be acquitted if he can prove that he is neither guilty of the offence nor that he acted negligently. The fact that Planet Ivanchuk is on its very own orbit could work in the Ukrainian player's favor. Hans-Joachim Hofstetter, a member of the medical commission, has already said that Ivanchuk will "certainly not" be banned, but that there will be "a clarifying conversation" with him.

Ivanchuk has been in Spain this week, where he played and won a tournament in the resort town of Benidorm. "What happened in Dresden is total insanity, but these kinds of dramas happen in our world," he says. "I simply left after the match. I didn't listen to the man who was speaking to me. I had never seen him before. In fact, to this day I don't know who he is."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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