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Strap in for Drama and Stats: Major Cheating Scandal Rocks Online Chess

Chess ScandalIf you’ve ever typed “chess” into Google or YouTube’s search, then your feed is probably blowing up right now about the Hans Niemann cheating scandal.  Reading about it is a fascinating dive into the world of online cheating detecting, with lots of charts, data, and stats.

First things first.  Hans Niemann is an American Grandmaster in the game of chess.  He is presently ranked 39th in the world and 7th in the US.  That is based on “over the board” play – two people sitting at a chess board under the eyes of a tournament organizer playing under standard time controls.

However, much of the chess action is online these days.  While there certainly have been incidents of cheating in face-to-face play, it’s obvious much harder and involves looking at your phone in the bathroom or having a coach in the audience tug his right ear to move your bishop or his left ear for the knight.  Cheating online is trivial: using your computer chess program, running an engine on your phone, having your girlfriend tell you the moves while she watches reruns, etc.  For serious tournaments, there are security procedures (multiple cameras, process history on computers, etc.) but for 99.9% of online play, it’s the honor system, backed up by the platform’s internal cheat detection.

Let’s Get Into the Drama

Coming back to Hans, here are recent developments:

  • Last month, Niemann played in a tournament and surprised the world by beating Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion.  Even more shocking, Carlsen was playing with the black pieces, which is considered a disadvantage since white has the first move.
  • Afterwards, Niemann seemed to struggle with explaining his moves, which shocked GM Hikaru Nakamura (himself one of the top ten GMs in the world) and others.
  • Magnus withdrew from the tournament with an enigmatic tweet.
  • On September 19, Carlsen and Niemann played in an online tournament, and Carlsen resigned after one move.  It was an obvious protest.

Afterwards, Carlsen said:

Unfortunately, I cannot particularly speak on that, but people can draw their own conclusions, and they certainly have. I have to say I’m very impressed by Niemann’s play and I think his mentor Maxim Dlugy must be doing a great job.

I felt a burning in my brain after that because it is so acid.  Parsed carefully, Carlsen is praising Niemann’s “play” (not Niemann) and refers to Maxim Dlugy.  Dlugy is a GM, former title challenger, and of Niemann’s coaches.  Dlugy also has been embroiled in several online cheating scandals and admitted cheating himself multiple times online over the years.

Niemann denies any cheating but does admit that he cheated online when he was 12 and 16, and was subsequently caught and suspended by chess.com.  The staff there eventually reinstated them, and were upfront in saying that they tend to give 12-year-olds the benefit of the doubt when they make a mistake.

But all this cheating was in the past, Niemann said.

And Then The Report Came

Today, chess.com released a 72-page-report that is dense with charts, stats, and more charts.  It’s amazing how many charts are in this thing.

Long story short, it accuses Niemann of cheating in over 100 games, including tournaments with cash prizes.  Keep in mind that with modern hardware, even a five-year-old smart phone can defeat Magnus Carlsen, so the question in cheating is never “is it possible” but rather “was it done”.

The investigatory method they use is interesting.  If you played a game of chess.com and used only the moves recommended by a chess engine, you would be immediately detected because your moves match the computer’s output and they have computers as well.  But what if you’re subtle – maybe you’re a good player and only use the computer in tough positions?  The report quotes a GM who says that a GM would only need to consult a computer two or three times during the game.  Or what if you only cheat in some games, or throw the analysis off by playing some bad moves and then “catching up”?

Even in those cases, you’re likely to be caught.  The chief problem for the cheater is that humans calculate moves very differently than a computer.   Think of chess as a tree of moves: white plays, then black has many choices, and then white has many choices, and pretty soon you are into a combinatorial explosion.

Humans cope by only looking down branches that look promising.  A computer, however, examines everything.  What invariably happens is that a human will never go down to move 7, 8, 9, etc. in an unpromising branch, but the computer “sees further ahead” and may find something surprising.

Yes, occasionally human players do find astonishing moves.  In Bobby Fischer’s Game of the Century, move 11 required incredible depth and vision to know that it’d win the game 30 moves later, yet since it was played in 1956, we know it wasn’t a computer that made the suggestion but rather Fischer’s genius.  That is one example and there are certainly many others, but even then, when you talk to the GMs, you can understand that they simply had an unconventional idea.  With cheaters, they really don’t understand the moves they play.

Another key factor is that there are multiple phases to chess: opening, middlegame, and endgame, and also layers of strategy and tactics.  In the latter, computers are lethal.  The precise calculation often exhausts or simply outmatches even strong GMs.  And in some positions, computers are unchallengeable.  For example, if there are 7 or few pieces on the board, computers have a database of all possible moves and the best any opponent (even a computer) can hope for is a draw.   By the time someone reaches IM or GM, they are already very strong in tactics, but no one plays with the precision of a machine.

There’s a lot more in the report, which goes into extensive detail (pretty sure those are SPSS statistical graph plots).

The final beat in this story is a tweet from Magnus Carlsen saying that he believes cheating to be an “existential threat” to chess.  This is an appropriate alarm for a world champion to sound, and certainly if cheating was rampant in the NFL or NBA, leading players there would be speaking out.

What’s Next?

Obviously, the next plot point will be a response from Niemann.  It’s clear he won’t be playing on chess.com anytime soon.  However, web cam hoster Stripchat has offered him $1 million to play online nude.

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