The complexity of cheating in chess
The writer is a two-time United States Women’s Chess Champion and author of ‘Chess Queens’ and the upcoming ‘Thinking Sideways’.
In 2018, Magnus Carlsen made a move that shook the chess world. He offered the draw to his opponent. Given that his position was much better, Garry Kasparov called the decision “shocking”. The draw forced Carlsen into a quick four-game play-off, which he won, earning his fourth World Championship title. After his win, Carlsen said he stood by his decision. A single game can be ruined by a single wrong move. Increasing the number of iterations benefits the stronger player.
This 2018 match marked the beginning of the era of thinking about chess betting. It also demonstrated the growing role of technology in helping players move away from the board. Aided by ever-increasing artificial intelligence and processing power, competitors and their teams aren’t just looking for the best positions, they’re looking for the ones their opponents are most likely to err in.
Carlsen is also adept at calculating odds outside of chess. In the 2019-20 Premier Fantasy Football League he came 11th out of more than 7 million players, and at 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 in the spotlight due to a clash between Carlsen and 19-year-old grandmaster Hans Niemann. Earlier in September, the former lost to Niemann. Three weeks later, he revealed he believed Niemann had cheated in the past and feared he would do it again.
Niemann gave a moving interview after the first game explaining his side of the story. In it, he admitted to cheating online twice, but insisted it 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, attempts at cheating are commonplace. Chess.com uses complicated algorithms that show if a player is likely to cheat and bans hundreds of users a day. Many are taken because their moves consistently match the chess AI’s best picks.
But such cheating is much harder to pull off in person, although it can also be harder to detect. A cheater would have to pass through metal detectors with a hidden device, most likely in their shoe or ear, or according to the wacky theories circulated by Elon Musk and talk show hosts, in anal beads.
Following Carlsen’s accusation, organizers implemented a delay between games and moves displayed on the broadcast audience.
This technique has long been the norm in poker. In a real-time broadcast, a chess cheater might 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, just one 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 quit after just one move, before doubling down on his charges against Niemann.
The matter remains far from clear. Although he has admitted to cheating in the past, Niemann is obviously extremely talented. The chess community is now divided between those who think Carlsen and his fans are paranoid – and the data scientists who show why – and those who think Carlsen is probably right and have their own charts to prove it.
The heart of this drama is uncertainty. But in chess, as in life, you don’t always have certainty. There are things we will never know – and we should go beyond choosing a side or dig deeper into confirmation bias. Because even chess players can turn a quest for the truth into a mad dash.