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Journalism of Courage

Is it easy to cheat at chess? Apparently yes. Here’s how

Did Hans Neimann cheat against Magnus Carlsen? It's one of several questions that chess is facing these days.

Magnus Carlsen, left, and Hans Niemann in the third round of the Sinquefield Cup. (Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club)

Weeks after his loss to teenaged US Grandmaster Hans Neimann, world chess champion Magnus Carlsen said it was easy to cheat in chess. Going beyond simply hinting at his opponent’s use of unfair means, Carlsen on Tuesday (September 27) released a strongly-worded statement about cheating being “an existential threat” to the game.

Carlsen said that while he wanted to continue playing chess, he did not want to play against those who have cheated in the past and alleged that Neimann is likely to have cheated more than he has publicly admitted. With these claims, the focus is back on the matter of cheating in chess – one of the several questions the sport is facing these days.

Is it that easy, as Carlsen says?

Digital chess engines, data clouds, personal server space, and high-tech miniature wireless devices have been handy tools to hoodwink judges and arbitrators. The new-age cheaters have come a long way since the days when Anatoly Karpov would allegedly be tutored about his next moves by the colour of the drink he would be delivered. While cheating in over-the-board chess remains difficult, more so since players are scanned by electromagnetic wands these days, the scrutiny in online tournaments is less intense. The easy availability of a free-to-download chess app that gives the ‘best moves’ option for all situations has sickeningly levelled the playing field. Now even a novice, aided by an app, can beat a world champion 10 times in 10 games.

Is it impossible to stop cheating in online chess?

Most cheaters use a chess engine to analyse game positions. To stop this from happening, tournament organisers have a software that detects if a player was toggling between programmes. But in case a cheater is operating the chess engine on a different device, it becomes impossible to detect.

Is it possible to know if a move has been made by a human or a computer?

Yes and No. In his book The Art of Cheating in Chess, Grandmaster Bill Jordan touches on this issue. “A high correlation between the moves of a human player and an engine could indicate cheating. To prevent a correlation from being found, the cheat may only use an engine to help in a few critical positions. Even using an engine to help in just one critical position, could help a player win a game against an opponent of roughly equal strength, especially if the players are strong.”

How scientific is this process?


Globally-renowned chess cop Professor Kenneth Regan explains. Called to check if Neimann had cheated during his game against Carlsen, he gave the American GM a clean chit. In a 2015 Ted Talk, he explained the process. “Computer programmes don’t just play better, they also play differently. So, I use data to analyse patterns. I vandalised half a million games over 30 million, all from real competition, not simulation. This includes the entire history of top-level human chess and computer chess. These reveal a pattern not just for chess but also cheating,” he had said.

Magnus Carlsen and Hans Hiemann. (Express Illustration: Suvajit dey)

So should online chess be taken seriously?

On this issue, Jordan mentioned chess.com, the website on which Neimann confessed that he had cheated in what he called “random games”. “I have heard tens of thousands of accounts on chess.com have been closed recently due to computer cheating. The bottom line is that it is easy to attempt cheating with online chess. Consequently, online chess is best taken not too seriously and online events should not have prize money. Another issue is there is a perception that cheating has happened when it has not.”


But haven’t computers been around chess since the last century?

Yes, but back in the day they were too clunky to be sneaked in as seconds. Back in the late 80s, when the pioneering chess computer Deep Blue challenged world champion Gary Kasparov, it was called the “alien opponent”. Kasparov would later ridicule it by calling it as “intelligent as your alarm clock”. Opinions changed with time. By the turn of the century, as computers shrunk in size and clouds started saving data from millions of games, players were better prepared – those who played by the rules, and also those who cheated.

What about pre-computer days?

Cheating is as old as the game. The Karpov vs Victor Korchnoi match in the Philippines was the classic game around which several myths got weaved. There was talk about Karpov getting orange juice during the game at a particular time and the colour of the drink gave him clues to decide his moves. There were allegations that Karpov had in his team a hypnotist who would sit in the front row of the audience. Korchnoi started wearing dark glasses to avoid his stares.

Have there been any recent cases of over-the-board cheating?

Several. The latest involved Italian amateur Arcangelo Ricciardi. He hid a tiny camera in a pendant he was wearing, apparently a good luck charm, that transmitted moves and received messages in Morse code. There are some who are still sticking to the old-school trick of a ‘washroom break.’ Georgian GM Gaioz Nigalidze, during a game, repeatedly went to the loo to allegedly check the phone hidden in the toilet flush. In 2010, French GM Sébastien Feller had a team of two give him signals during a game. He was banned for three years but is now back on the circuit.


Finally, so did Niemann cheat against Carlsen?

Easily, the million-dollar question. First a bizarre theory, followed by the conspiracy. Niemann reacted to the allegation of hiding an electronic device inside his body by saying he was ready to play ‘naked’. The other was about someone from Carlsen’s team leaking tactics to the opponent. The world champion has kept it vague too. “I have to say I’m very impressed by Niemann’s play and I think his mentor GM Maxim Dlugy must be doing a great job.” Dlugy had been banned for cheating in 2017.

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First published on: 27-09-2022 at 06:53:03 am
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