Italy’s Unlikely Chess Superstar Exposed As Webcam Cheat

Arcangelo Ricciardi's rise in the world of chess seemed too sudden. And it was. Caught using hidden mini webcams to defeat international chess masters, his board is tipped.

Maurizio Vezzaro

IMPERIA â€" Arcangelo Ricciardi was a rising star among Italy's chess players after a string of victories. The 37-year-old had gone from obscure amateur to defeating renowned opponents. But Ricciardi, a former beekeeper with a passion for chess, has been exposed as a fraud for cheating during the 56th International Chess Festival in Imperia, which he had been dominating.

Tournament organizers expelled him Sunday after a referee found a tiny webcam under his shirt connected to a receiver and other cables.

Ricciardi had been playing suspiciously well day after day. After seven days, he achieved five victories and two ties against players far more experienced and successful than he, a low-ranked player who seldom participated in tournaments until a few years ago. His rise was too sudden â€" in the first round in Imperia, he defeated a French grand master and an international master from Slovakia, both among the world's top 3,000 players.

So for a player ranked No. 51,366 in the world, Ricciardi's exploits seemed improbable. He had attracted curiosity from chess specialists in previous tournaments too, playing masterfully for a few matches before falling into carelessness and losing. The Italian chess federation had identified him as a player under observation, and the events in Imperia sparked an official investigation.

He was caught when he was asked at one point to pass through a metal detector at the arena where the tournament was being held. He initially refused but ultimately complied and set off the machine. Ricciardi told the festival referee Jean Coqueraut that a good-luck charm was to blame, but after being asked to remove his shirt, the camera, cables and other contraptions were exposed.

Arcangelo Ricciardi â€" Photo: La Stampa

He was promptly expelled. "They didn't let me play," he mumbled as he left the arena, again claiming the camera was just for luck.

Fraud is not a new phenomenon in the world of chess, so much so that one of Edgar Allen Poe's essays is dedicated to the topic. In 1770 Wolfgang von Kempelen, an inventor counselor to the Austrian empress, created an automaton chess player called "The Turk" that managed to defeat even Napoleon Bonaparte. The elaborate hoax was a team operation, and the identity of the person who actually controlled the automaton from below â€" a dwarf? a legless soldier? â€" remains unknown.

More recently, Georgian champion Gaioz Nigalidze was expelled from the Dubai Open Chess tournament after being caught cheating on his smartphone in the toilet.

One question that remains from this latest case in Imperia: What grandmaster would join Ricciardi in this daring imposture and suggest the right moves?

M. Tagliano contributed to this report

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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