The complexities of cheating in chess

The writer is a two-time US women’s chess champion and author of ‘Chess Queens’ and the forthcoming ‘Thinking Sideways’

In 2018 Magnus Carlsen made a move that shook the chess world. He offered his opponent a draw. Given his position was much better, Garry Kasparov called the decision “shocking”. The draw forced Carlsen into a four-game rapid play-off, which he won, clinching his fourth world championship title. After his victory, Carlsen said he stood by his decision. A single game can be ruined by one bad move. Increasing the number of iterations benefits the stronger player.

That 2018 match marked the beginning of the era of thinking in chess bets. It also demonstrated the growing role of technology in helping players away from the board. Aided by ever more powerful artificial intelligence and processing power, competitors and their teams do not just seek out the best positions — they look for those in which their opponents are most likely to err.

Carlsen is skilful in calculating odds outside chess as well. In the 2019-20 fantasy football premier league, he came 11th out of more than 7mn players and, in the Norwegian Poker Championships, a creative hand he played with two aces went viral. The same technology-assisted probabilistic thinking can also be used to help detect cheating.

The importance of keeping chess fair is now very much in the spotlight due to a clash between Carlsen and the 19-year-old grandmaster Hans Niemann. Earlier in September, the former lost to Niemann. Three weeks later he revealed that he believed Niemann had cheated in the past, and was concerned he would do so again.

Niemann gave an emotional interview after the first match explaining his side of the story. In it, he admitted to cheating online twice but insisted this was the biggest mistake of his life and that he had never cheated in an over-the-board game.

In poker the motivation for cheating is clear: money. But even in online chess, where very few games are played for real gain, cheating attempts are rampant. uses complicated algorithms that show whether a player is likely to be cheating and bans hundreds of users a day. Many are caught because their moves consistently match the top choices of chess AI.

But such cheating is much harder to pull off in person, though it can also be harder to detect. A cheat would need to pass through metal detectors with a hidden device, most likely in their shoe or ear, or according to the outlandish theories being circulated by Elon Musk and talk show hosts, in anal beads.

As a result of Carlsen’s accusation, the organisers implemented a delay between the games and the moves displayed on the audience broadcast.

This technique has long been the standard in poker. In a real-time broadcast, a chess cheat could work with an accomplice to relay information. A weaker player would need constant AI assistance to play well enough to beat a grandmaster. But for someone who is already a strong player, a single signal per game could be the difference between being one of the top 100 players in the world, and the top 10.

In last week’s rematch, Carlsen resigned after just one move, before doubling down on his accusations against Niemann.

The case remains far from clear. Though he admitted to cheating in the past, Niemann is by all accounts extremely talented. The chess community is now divided between those who think Carlsen and his fans are paranoid — and data scientists who show why — and those who think Carlsen is probably right and who have their own charts to prove it.

The heart of this drama is uncertainty. But in chess, as in life, we don’t always get to be certain. There are things we’ll never know — and we should move beyond picking a side or tunnelling deeper towards confirmation bias. Because even chess players can turn a quest for truth into a fool’s errand.

Source: Financial Times