He soared from anonymity to notoriety in the chess world in a series of well-calculated moves, beating a slew of Grand Masters before his 25th birthday. But now a Bulgarian chess champion has left opponents enraged – and amateurs envious – following allegations he had been cheating the whole time.
Dubbed the "James Bond of chess" by an excitable Bulgarian press pack, Borislav Ivanov has won top prizes in chess competitions across the continent from Croatia and Spain. But a number of grandmasters – those awarded the game's highest title – are now refusing to sit across the chess board from him.
Ivanov, who strongly denies cheating, was ejected from the Navalmoral de la Mata tournament in western Spain earlier this month after players claimed he had used devices hidden under his shirt and inside his shoes to enhance his chess-playing skills.
In a series of increasingly bizarre scenes, officials examined Ivanov's shoes at the end of the tournament's fourth round because it was "widely remarked that a hidden device could be placed inside his footwear". Finding nothing, they also used a mobile app to scan for hidden metal, but again nothing was found that, as the tournament's organisers said, could "imply the existence of a hidden device inside his footwear".
Then, at the same tournament, competitor Andres Holgado Maestre spotted a "suspicious bump" under Mr Ivanov's shirt, officials said. He later grabbed the bump and claimed "he could touch an oblong object, similar to an MP3 player, attached to Mr Ivanov's body".
After a third incident in which Ivanov was strip searched and officials spotted "a kind of strap crossing his chest", the Bulgarian left the competition – voluntarily. When asked in a recent interview with the website Chess Base how he reacted to the allegations, Ivanov said: "At first I wasn't surprised about the speculations but suddenly they turned very ridiculous. Some people accused me of using technical equipment that only Nasa has. I even heard that I had had my own satellite that transmitted moves during the games."
Commenting on his strip search, Ivanov added: "Although they checked my pockets very slowly and my jacket, and after they found nothing... maybe they were a bit disappointed, [because] they were 100 per cent sure I was cheating and of course that's a total lie. I'm not a genius, nor a cheat, but just a normal boy that wants to have fun playing chess."
Experts say that cheating in chess is not common but not unknown, and a recent spate of alleged incidents have prompted calls for the game's governing body to launch more thorough checks on players.
Once considered pure folly, attempting to cheat at chess in tournaments has become more widespread than ever, as the relevant cheap technology becomes readily available. The most popular technique is to download chess engines, which use data from previous world famous games to help calculate the player's best possible moves.
James Pratt, editor of the world's oldest chess journal, British Chess Magazine, said: "Boris Ivanov is not a well-known name in the chess world, nor is he even now a lovable anti-hero. Where cheating is concerned, chess is small beer; there aren't many big prizes, not really. Thus exposed as he now is, Ivanov has little more than shame to claim as his award. In one form or another, the problem is not new to the 64 squares."
While the elite players are refusing to engage Ivanov in battle, chess amateurs have welcomed him as a cult hero. Dozens of chess forum threads are now devoted to analysing his games and investigating his tactics. In one thread, titled "Cheating is our religion and Ivanov is our god", fans rallied around the Bulgarian.
"I'm officially an Ivanov worshipper from now on. I don't understand all the hate that he gets. You people ought to love him. He is a true legend. [He is] the man who never got caught," one user wrote on the chess.com forum. "I support Ivanov!" another user roared. "I hope he is out from this issue fast! We all know he didn't cheat."
The game's governing body, Fédération internationale des échecs, said in a statement that it was "aware of the damage caused by this unfortunate incident" and was "now preparing a whole system of measures against all kinds of cheating".
The Bulgarian Chess Federation said Ivanov has been excluded from its membership.
Ivanov was unavailable for comment last week.
Chess cheats: A brief history
Loris Cereda, an Italian former mayor, was kicked out of the Italian Chess Federation last January. Investigators alleged his unusually thick dark glasses concealed a secret camera, through which he received game advice from another player. Mr Cereda denies all the allegations.
Master in a Box
Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen fooled 18th-century chess players with "The Turk", which purported to be a mechanical chess-playing machine, but which actually concealed a human chess master. Exposed as a hoax in 1820, the contraption was destroyed by a fire in 1854. Similar machines include the Ajeeb (1868) and Mephisto (1886).
What's My text move?
Three top French players were suspended in 2011 from the nation's chess federation after the body's vice president found a text message to one of the players asking him to "hurry up and send me some moves".
Garry Kasparov, Russian former world champion, caused a stir when he changed his move during a 1994 match after momentarily taking his hand away from the piece. His opponent Judit Polgar complained, but video tape footage revealed Kasparov's hand let go of the piece for less than a quarter of a second. He went on to win the game.