If You Could, You Would, Too: Why People Cheat

This article is not about Nick Eisel. All he did was remind me of all the good reasons there are to cheat.

This article is not about Nick Eisel. All he did was remind me.

All he did was either nothing or everything, depending on who you listen to – and this nothing or everything that he did, it did prompt a storm of discussion. While weathering that storm (sitting, one somehow assumes, in a rocking chair, smoking a corncob pipe, while the rains crash down outside and lightning slams off the weathervane), I was reminded of why this issue is always so loaded.

To continue with this unbearably overdone – but somehow apt – metaphor, I should point out that while I only ventured out into the rain once, you’d better believe I was watching the storm pretty much the whole time. What can I say? The rain was really coming down, and it still is. I’ve always been a weather buff.

Enough of that.

Cheating is a loaded issue because we’re all so close to doing it. Don’t argue with me, sunshine – you would cheat in two seconds if you knew there was no chance of getting caught. How do I know this? I know this because I’ve thought about it, thought it through to the logical conclusion.

The best part about”not cheating” is that you are able to claim that you are totally honest, and have people believe you, with 100% certainty. If you never cheat, you can be 100% sure that you will always be able to do this. The best part about”not cheating” is that, under the scrutinous gaze of a million fellow players, you come up smelling like a rose, and you get your due for whatever accomplishments you have achieved. You are able to keep any praise you have garnered, and there are no footnotes or addendums embedded in that praise. It’s a good feeling, like a truckload of endorphins.

Of secondary importance is the fact that you can believe in your own honesty. This isn’t such a big deal – being able to look yourself in the mirror and say”I did it without cheating” is sorta nice… But trust me when I say that the human mind is able to cope with and justify a lot of things, not the least of which is being a savage cheater. If you take pride being honest, then I suppose this is a bonus. I know the truth about myself, though… And the truth is that after 22 years of trying to be good at something, anything, my brain wouldn’t scruple to cut a few corners towards joy and happiness.

Stop right there.

If you get caught, though stick a fork in yourself; you’re done. Any good finishes you had are kaput, any accomplishments are marred by a smear of doubt and negativity like congealed chicken gravy on the good china. Maybe someday, down the road, people will be able to call you a good player and have the world at large believe it. Maybe.

More likely, you’re marked for life, you’re a punchline, you’re sketchy, you’re shady, you find out who your friends are and”we have met your friends and they are few,” and someone better call a judge.

Okay, I’m done.

Done what? Why, listing every reason not to cheat, of course.

Really, there are only a couple.

The reasons to cheat? Fame. Fortune. Money. Success. Acceptance. Small things like that.

My name is Geordie Tait.

I consider myself a good human being.

If there were no chance of getting caught, I’d cheat in two seconds. I’d cheat all day and all night.

It’s important that you don’t take that last statement the wrong way. What I mean is that, like thousands of others, I am addicted to my own ability to claim that I did things”straight up.” I don’t think I could stand it if people were to consistently ignore my ability at Magic (or any other thing) and just call me a dirty cheater. I’d be devastated. For that reason, cheating isn’t an option. Cheating is never a sure thing, and there’s always the chance I’ll screw my reputation for all time. It’s not worth it.

So I say again – as long as there is the chance of crashing and burning, I’ll never cheat. That said, if there was ever an 100% shot, though (and I mean 100% – not 99.9%, not 99.99%), I’d take it and run with it.

That’s how close we all are.

Let me get theoretical: If I were to Top 8 a PT, maybe even win a PT, God forbid, it’d open all sorts of doors. I’d be able to command a higher price for my writing. I’d be eligible to attend all sorts of other events, which would beget more articles and tournament reports. I’d be in constant contact with excellent players, I’d be networking and making connections. I’d be making money doing the two things I love more than anything else – writing and playing Magic.

The Sideboard would want me to write articles, and they’d pay me very well. (Not that Pete doesn’t – Pete, not a stupid man by any stretch of the imagination, pays me what I am worth now. You see the difference?) I could probably snag the a position at Magicthegathering.com I’ve been lusting after. Heck, Aaron Forsythe would probably actually return my emails. It would rule.

My writing would be seen by an even wider audience than it currently is, I’d garner more widespread accolades as a result, more fuel for the puffed and carnivorous ego that all writers have when it comes to their own work.

Now, imagine I found a way to cheat my way to a PT Top 8. Absolutely foolproof, and no one but myself would ever know. (Yes, I know, a dishonest avenue of this sort would never exist, but suspend your disbelief here). Would I do it? Well, let’s see:

If I don’t cheat:

  • Everyone believes I am totally honest

  • I go 3-3 and miss Day 2

  • I write a tournament report and continue on with my life

If I do cheat:

  • Everyone still believes I am totally honest (remember, it’s foolproof!)

  • As a result of the above, any victory is attributed directly to my play skills

  • I mise the whole PT

  • I make $30,000, which is more than I would make selling cell phones seven hours/day for three years

  • I start making five times what I do now for articles, and I get offers to write ten times the number of articles that I do

  • I get tons of congratulations from everyone

  • I achieve a measure of fame amongst Magic players

  • I have a much better chance to get voted into the Magic Invitational

  • My entire life changes, almost invariably for the better.

The only caveat is that I have to be able to live with myself.

Are you kidding me? Where do I sign up for this”cheating”? Sounds like a sweet deal!

This is how close we all are. If you tell me you could entertain the scenario above and still decide not to cheat, you’re a liar. The difference between an 80% shot and a 100% shot is all that stops us. I figure adding cards to your Sealed deck at a PTQ (“Judge, you forgot to give me a registration sheet” you say, all the while sticking the one you did get into your pocket for later use) is something like a 50% shot, and you’re still not guaranteed a victory. All the cheating options we have now are lousy, and the consequences are unbelievably brutal if caught. There are no foolproof cheats – and that gives us pause.

Ever wonder why cheating in online games is through the roof? The cheats are much better, and there are no consequences to speak of. If it were that way in Magic, there would be no Pro Tour because any jabroni could cook himself up a triple-Starstorm Sealed deck and roll through the field like a Sherman tripping over pot mines.

Humans are funny. We’re like priests fighting to see who steps off of an elevator last. Who can be the most humble? We take pride in taking the least pride, we’ll take a dishonest road to be considered the most honest. Like I said before, we’re too addicted to the good feeling we get from being considered honest, to the fuzzy bit of joy we garner from our ability to claim an almost virginal innocence from cheating, to ever cheat.

If we could ever cheat and still maintain that feeling, then we’d all be screwed.

There is nothing more dangerous than a cheat where you can still believably claim to be honest. You see, cheaters aren’t the scum of the earth – they’re the guys willing to take the 80% shot, the ones who won’t wait for the sure thing. In a world with such harsh reputational consequences, you’d figure they’d hesitate a little, but hey… C’est la vie. In a nutshell – cheaters aren’t any more dishonest than you and I. Their judgement just isn’t as good.

Let me tell you a story: Boris Onischenko was a Russian competing in the modern pentathlon at the Montreal Olympic games. 1976. The modern pentathlon, which really isn’t modern at all – it’s a mishmash of weird events – consists of running, horse riding, swimming, shooting, and fencing. A precursor to the”American Gladiators.”

Onischenko, a longtime competitor with a gold and two silver medals in previous Olympiads, was no stranger to the podium. This time, though, would be different. Everything would be cast into doubt, and his previous performances relegated to footnotes in the book of sketchiness.

Onischenko’s best event was fencing. In 1976 he was lighting up the indicator over the judges desk with startling frequency (each competitor is wired to that when his sword, or epee, makes contact with the opponent, a blinking light goes on over the judges station), and his hapless opponents seemed helpless to stop him. So they started asking questions. Onischenko was so good, they said, that sometimes his hits could barely be seen!

Then the judges noticed that the indicator light would actually start flashing before his sword had even made contact with the enemy. The weapon was wired in such a way as to indicate a winning hit without ever making contact.


-Boris Onischenko

That’s apocryphal, but I’m sure that Boris made some version of that remark when the judges took a moment to examine his fencing instrument. (Deck check!)

Caught red-handed, folks. Boris insisted that his foil was faulty (it must have been the guy who registered it), but the IOC Jury Of Appeals (DCI) decided to ban him from the Olympics (the Pro Tour) on the grounds that he had cheated (cheated).

He was forced to fly home in disgrace (return to MODO). The in-flight movie was”Rocky IV.” The only question left unanswered was whether or not he had used the rigged sword to gain victory in the previous Olympics (Grand Prix).

You get the idea. Bad judgement. And yet, if Onischenko had succeeded…fame. Fortune. A triumphant return to the motherland. Front page of the Moscow Tribune. A weekly column: “Boris sticks it to those Capitalist dogs!” It’s a calculated risk. Great rewards clash head-on with great peril, and really, the result is out of your hands once you crimp that ace.

A governing body has a job when it comes to the rules, and that job is to make it so difficult to cheat that the only people willing to take the risk are the dumb ones who miscalculate. The DCI is doing a pretty good job of that so far. There isn’t anything close to a 100% shot, and I’m certainly not planning to cheat anytime soon. In a way, the DCI is saving us from ourselves.

When you want something so, so bad… You’ll do almost anything to get it.

Eddie Murphy said that as the pleasingly plump Sherman Klump in”The Nutty Professor,” a fine piece of comedic cinema… And it’s true. Money, fame, travel experiences, good times. These are all things you’ll find on the Pro Tour, if you’re successful. The rewards for Magic success are mind-boggling, especially when you’re a square peg trying to fit into a round hole (and just how many aspects of life is that a metaphor for? Too many) and society doesn’t seem to know where to put you, and vice-versa.

Yes, the Pro Tour is the dangling carrot in front of many a spellslinging, cart-bearing jackass. A small step and you’re $1,000 richer. Another step and your smiling mug graces the Sideboard coverage, part of the feature match section. Another step, and you’re holding up a giant cheque. Take the last step and you’ve gained 50 pounds (at least according to a contracted artist), morph, and you cost UU.

So many steps, right? So why not take the express elevator and fire a Faceless Butcher or two into your card pool while you’re PTQ’ing out in Wieppe, TX? To win, ya gotta Q. To Q, you gotta win. Amiright?

That’s how close we are, all of us, to cheating. If there was no chance of getting caught, all of my sealed decks would smell like my basement. While thoroughly dishonest, like most human beings, I am addicted to being considered honest – and so are you. That’s why I’ll never cheat unless it’s a sure thing. And neither will you.

Cheaters aren’t any more dishonest than you or I; they’re just dumber. Maybe not all the time – but for that one moment of weakness? Yeah. On that day, dumb enough to risk it all on a 50/50 shot. Or a 60/40. Or an 80/20.

I’m waiting for the sure thing, myself. Cause with a sure thing, you didn’t cheat. You only cheated if you got caught. With a sure thing, you just win.

Anyhow, the response to Nick Eisel DQ at GP Boston has been both typical and considerable, and that reinforces my belief that the concept of Magic celebrity is growing. It’s not full-blown yet (there are no magazines publishing unauthorized European beach photos of Eric Froelich or Jill Costigan) but the paparazzi are out there, and the rumor mill grinds away with more relentless fervor than any Millstone could ever boast. In fact, I have it on good authority that more than one mage has been driven insane by the sound of the Rumor Millstone grinding away.

Ferrett has been all over the forum topic, highlighting anything of note, so I won’t go back over it. I think the important thing to realize is that we act like this every time someone looks like they might get the axe, especially when there is an information blackout of sorts. We crave the dirt like salivating Pavlovian dogs. Like a cousin to the Grinning Demon, we’re attracted to the scent of banning.

The stories are captivating. Dave Williams and the bent Accumulated Knowledge. Dan Clegg, the misrecorded life total, and the slow play warnings. Trey Van Cleave’s bribery and now (we jokingly add), the wandering eyes. Ed Fear and the pre-Judgement Cunning Wish. Casey McCarrell and the shady shuffle. Theron Martin’s Metagame Madness 2007. Ryan Fuller and, well, numerous infractions. Don’t forget the 5th Muscle Sliver, and from the same time period, just who is that guy who is sitting on the back of his chair, and claiming it’s due to a medical condition? Don’t I know him?

These guys are floating around in territory that we all want to claim as out own (some modicum of writing success, or some modicum of PT success, or a combination of both), and when they take a tumble, there’s always a crowd, and there’s always someone with a story. Plenty of people pile dirt on the grave by busting out old standbyes like “Good riddance, cheater” and “This is disappointing, I looked up to him” or “I knew it”, while a stalwart few knock the clay off of the coffin with phrases like “Whatever, he’s a standup guy” (Mike Turian on Nick Eisel, paraphrased) or “DCI, you’ve gone too far this time” (Ken Krouner on Dan Clegg) or something similar.

Regardless of precisely how we react, we all react. We’re all over it like white on rice. People who expect restraint from forum posters in the wake of a scandal, no matter how half-assed, are fooling themselves. It’s human nature.

Look back through this article. There’s no moral here, no bit of advice that you can but to any practical use. I don’t really have anything constructive to say on the subject because I’m just as confused as anyone else. If I know something about life, the universe, the twists and eddies of the human psyche, breaking the rules, and the sharks that come a’swimming when we do, it isn’t much. If I’m wise, it’s because I alone know that I know nothing.

You think you and a cheater have nothing in common? Don’t presume too much.

You think we’ll be restrained in our discussion about it? Don’t expect a whole lot.

We’re fascinated with it because it could have been us, disgusted with it because we don’t want to admit that it could have been us, we’ll talk about it until the sun goes down and an orange, bloated harvest moon comes up over the chaff.

This article has not been about Nick Eisel. All he did was remind me. Remind me that given a sure thing, I would have cheated to be where he was at before Grand Prix Boston, with my name on the lips of the community at large, tossing out good finishes left and right, writing for the Sideboard.

There is no sure thing, though. So I’m just a sucker waiting for the next PTQ in Garden City or Kitchener, trying to eke out a berth at Nationals on a rating that won’t stay solid, hammering out an article at 3 a.m., no one to share the night with but my buddies, Pepsi Cola and Ronald McDonald.

Geordie Tait

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