Last week, when I read about the recent cheating scandal in the German Bundesliga, GM Falko Bindrich's open letter responding to the accusations and especially the comments below the article, I immediately thought of a book on cheating I happened to be reading: Dan Ariely's The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How we Lie to Everyone - Especially Ourselves.
In his new book, psychologist/economist Dan Ariely (best known from the bestseller Predictably Irrational) demonstrates, using of countless examples and scientific experiments, how practically everyone once in a while 'cheats' to a certain degree. The most obvious example is probably speed driving: almost everybody drives a little too fast from time to time, breaking the law and thus deserving, to a certain degree, to be called a 'cheat'.
Another obvious one is walking through a red light with no (or little) traffic around: though formally forbidden by law, in some countries, such as The Netherlands, this is even considered to 'default' behavior. (But not everywhere: in Berlin, when you walk through a red light, bypassers actually comment on it, which I've experienced myself recently.)
Ariely argues that although most people will cheat when given the opportunity (such as reporting more 'correct' answers in intelligence tests when it is known that the results are not checked by the supervisor and every correctly solved puzzle results in a financial reward), people usually cheat only a little.
For instance, students who participated in Ariely's experiments reported, when given the chance, a few extra solved puzzled, but not all that many. Cheating too much just doesn't feel right for most people, or as Ariely puts it: "Essentially, we cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals." (We can easily explain our excessive speed driving away by saying we are really good drivers.)
Whilst Ariely’s conclusions are as confronting as they are undeniable - just the other day, I left a public toilet without paying the compulsory 50 cents, just because I didn’t spot any ‘toilet lady’ waiting to collect her money (I justified my behavior by telling myself that paying for public toilets is unfair anyway) - it’s interesting to observe how indignantly people respond to other people cheating (or possibly cheating).
Take the Lance Armstrong doping scandal. Personally, I’ve never trusted any cyclist claiming not to have taken any doping (and sadly, I’m being proven right all the time), so why would Armstrong be any different?
But even if you don’t happen to think, like I do myself, that taking doping isn’t more ‘unfair’ than, say, training just a little bit harder, or having just a little bit more wealthy dad to pay your private teacher, there’s no need to drag the sevenfold Tour de France winner through the mud so radically as some journalists, columnists and sponsors have recently done. Don’t we all know the temptation to bend the law in our advantage a little bit, and haven’t we’ve all succumbed to it from time to time?
Or take, indeed, Falko Bindrich’s case. His open letter
, though perhaps not the most shining example of rational eloquence, contains sufficient food for thought to at least give his point of view some credit. His accusation of “invasion of privacy” and his fear that arbiters could “investigate and harass any player who has visited the toilet two times” seem reasonable and realistic, to say the very least. Yet by judging from the comments below the article, most readers hardly agreed with this perspective and call for strong measures in any case.
But in fact, even if Bindrich had, in a weak moment, switched on his phone on the toilet and glanced at the position on his chess app, I’m not sure this would be any worse than discussing the position with friends or colleagues, as I’m sure happens hundreds of times per tournament in both serious and friendly chess competitions (and which I have done myself, I regret to inform you, on numerous occasions – never intending any real harm, needless to say.)
This seems to be the problem with cheating in general, both in chess and elsewhere: it is often considered to be an ‘absolute evil’, justifying any counter measure and punishment. Thus, all attempts to discuss the pros and cons of such measures, or indeed the very nature of cheating itself, are nipped in the bud efficiently.
However, as Dan Ariely shows, this is completely contrary to everyday life, where, in his words, “lots of people cheat, albeit just by a bit.” Yet as far as I know, nobody has so far asked the question: “Even if Bindrich cheated, did he cheat a lot or just a little bit?” (At any rate, this cheating 'scandal' seems much less extreme than the Sebastien Feller case!)
Clearly, any kind of cheating, be it little or big, should be discouraged as much as possible. So far, so good. But at what price? Perhaps, as someone suggested in the comments below Bindrich’s open letter, all phones should be handed in before the game, as is, after all, done in some other sports, too. But what if I hand in one phone but hold on to another? Will arbiters ever be in a position to search players physically? What if someone refuses? What about female players?
Personally, I think the difficulties of preventing cheating are much bigger than the problem of cheating itself. It’s a typical case of the cure being worse than the disease. Although we have no objective way of knowing whether Falko Bindrich cheated in his Bundesliga games, that very fact should make us cautious of accusing him of anything – let alone punishing him.
Actually, the scientific fact that most of us cheat a little from time to time anyway should make us a little more understanding in cases where someone does turn out to have cheated. So let’s give Bindrich a break and let’s not pretend the world's more beautiful than it really is.