USVI focuses on global chess turmoil

Shockwaves swept through the global community of zealous gamers when Nigel Short suddenly resigned as vice president of the world’s governing chess body last week. Online speculators wondered if the move was a protest against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine or if there was another scandal going on.

The alleged cheating at Sainte-Croix has the eyes of the chess world. (Photo: Matt Probasco)

The real reasons the grandmaster quit on June 21 are people pushing pawns in St. Croix, Short said by phone while attending a tournament in Acqui Terme, Italy.

Short alleged that the U.S. Virgin Islands Chess Federation was fielding players who are not residents of the Virgin Islands and engaging in match fixing.

Ranked 182 out of 184 participating countries and territories, the USVI is something of a chess backwater. This, however, did not alleviate a simmering feud between Short, the Federation and the territory’s alternative club, the USVI Chess Association.

The Lausanne, Switzerland-based International Chess Federation, known as FIDE (pronounced Fee-Day), opened an investigation into Short’s match-fixing charges and released a damning report on June 4.

The investigation committee found the best players of Sainte-Croix April Tournament intentionally underplayed, allowing draws in games they should have won. This gave lesser players valuable points, boosting their FIDE rating and further validating the tournament, for which FIDE had issued a $5,000 grant. Although the report did not ask for the money back, it stripped the tournament of its FIDE rating and suggested further investigation.

Unofficial and legalistic, the highly detailed report spans 10 pages where, at times, investigators based in Vilnius, Lithuania, seemed disgusted.

“There really is no need to explain this at all, as it’s obvious – and a chess insult,” they wrote. “The games are nonsense, and therefore the tournament does not deserve a ranking.”

USVI Chess Federation President Margaret Murphy denied the charges and disputed the findings. In a nearly hour-long phone interview Sunday from his summer home in New Hampshire, Murphy said some of the suspicious games ended in a draw because the top player simply ran out of time.

She said Short wanted to undermine her and the USVI Chess Federation.

“I’ve always had a very good reputation in FIDE,” Murphy said. “He called me a liar. He called me a cheater. He called me a thief. I do not know why.

While FIDE agreed with Short’s allegation of match-fixing, they believed he went about it in a way inappropriatelyresulting in his abrupt resignation.

This isn’t the first time Short’s blunt comments have turned the thin-skinned chess world upside down. In 2007, Short was reprimanded for calling two FIDE officials “fools”. In 2015, Short, a chess grandmaster since age 19, said he believed men were “hardwired” to be better chess players than women.

Shortly after, Murphy said she got into an intense verbal altercation with Short over the comment. She claims to barely remember the incident but that it could be the source of the bad blood.

During a recent goodwill tour through Latin America, Murphy said, Short met the local federation everywhere he went except USVI. She plans to fly to Panama soon to speak with a FIDE official about this and other rebuffs.

While Short alleged that Murphy failed to properly account for claimed travel expenses, Murphy said she amassed 2,000 printed pages of evidence against Short and members of the rival USVI Chess Association.

The association was launched in August 2021 as an alternative to the federation, said Gail Widmer, secretary of the association. Both are non-profit organizations registered with the Companies and Trademarks Division.

Widmer called the federation a crony-dominated clique, set up in such a way that Murphy could never lose power as FIDE guardian for the Virgin Islanders. Widmer said the members of the association chose his group even though FIDE did not recognize it.

Like Short, Widmer claimed the federation violated residency rules for international play – including that Murphy is a Resident of New Hampshirenot a virgin islander.

Widmer said only one player from the USVI team that traveled to Chennai, India in July for the 44th Chess Olympiad is actually a resident of the Virgin Islands. She wrote to the President of the Virgin Islands Olympic Committee, Angel Morales, asking him to appoint a team to investigate possible breaches of residency rules.

USVI Olympians must be born in the Territory or of Virgin Islands parents or live in the Territory for at least three consecutive years prior to competition. Athletes under the age of 18 may benefit from special arrangements if necessary, in accordance with the statutes and constitution of the Olympic Committee.

Although the Olympic Committee governs chess in the territory, Morales does not hold players to the same residency standard as Olympic athletes. FIDE may call its competitions Olympiads, he said, but that’s not the same as the Summer and Winter Olympics. The committee does not financially support chess players who attend the events.

“Chess is not a sport that is part of the Olympics,” Morales said. “So technically we are not looking at the requirements of each particular federation – because there are 24 federations. We leave it to the federations to do their due diligence and, you know, follow their constitution as written.

The USVI Chess Federation rewrote its constitution in March and filed it with the Lieutenant Governor’s office in May. Residency rules require a national team player to “have a residence” in the territory at least 183 days a year. Students educated abroad and military personnel stationed elsewhere are given a reprieve from the rule.

Morales suggested some changes to the new federation constitution for clarity but did not see any major problems, he said.

It doesn’t matter, Murphy said, because his reading of the FIDE rules is that any US-born player would be allowed to play for the USVI team – because they’re from the same country.

When Widmer filed a grievance against the federation over the issue in March, Morales formed an ad hoc committee to look into it, he said.

“They threw all these accusations between Ms. Murphy and Ms. Widmer about a year and a half ago,” Morales said. The chess dispute, however, had been brewing since his first days on the job a decade ago, he said.

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