Chess cheating: when technology comes into play

E. M.

Hans Niemann was not the first chess player to be accused of cheating, and he probably won't be the last. The use of technological devices as a resource to beat opponents is the order of the day, worldwide, in this sport, especially after the arrival of the internet in our lives, despite the fact that its use is prohibited both in face-to-face confrontations as 'online'., the most famous online chess platform, combats this problem on a daily basis. “Since the creation of, as of August 18, 2020, we have closed almost half a million accounts for cheating. According to our predictions we calculate to reach one million by mid-2023. Currently, we are forced to close more than 500 accounts daily due to cheating and up to 6% of the complaints made by users on our platform are related to this topic » , explain the creators of the platform on their website.

The most surprising thing is that, "of those accounts, almost 400 belonged to titled players," they say. “Of the total cheaters detected to date, 46 (12.6%) are Grandmasters, of which eight (17.4%) exceed 2600 Elo (method for calculating the relative skill levels of players ). Furthermore, 80 (22%) are International Masters and 118 (32.4%) are FIDE (International Chess Federation) Masters. Of all of them, 95.43% are men and 4.57% women.

When they are discovered, it is common for some of them to repent and apologize, in an attempt to recover their account and be able to continue playing. In fact, the website itself anonymously publishes the confessions and apologies it has received from cheating players over the years. “You will be surprised to know that some of them are among the top 100 in the world,” they say.

Common and surreal traps

The use of technology to cheat in chess ranges from the most basic to the most sophisticated and surreal. The most recent and difficult to believe, but which has not yet been disproved, is the theory that Hans Niemann could be using anal beads that, through different vibratory signals, blow his moves as if it were Morse code. The platform already suspended Niemann twice on suspicion of manipulation, when he was 12 and 16 years old, but the American apologized saying that it was "the biggest mistake of his life". Immersed in this new plot, Niemann denies the accusations and has offered to play naked to prove it.

Another unique strategy used by high-level chess players was the one developed by the French Sébastien Feller, Cyril Marzolo and Arnaud Hauchard, in 2010. The deception consisted of the following: Marzolo, from another city, had to follow Feller's game online and calculate the best movements with the help of a computer program. Afterward, he would send encrypted phone messages to Hauchard, Feller's coach, who was in the room where the tournament was taking place. Then, Hauchard would walk around the tables and stop surreptitiously in front of certain players – they had previously assigned each of the eight players in the championship an alphanumeric code from the board – and with this Feller knew from which square he should start the movement. . Finally, the three were sanctioned by the Disciplinary Committee of the French Chess Federation. Hauchard was banned from all chess events for three years; to Feller for two years and nine months; and to Marzolo, who confessed and cooperated with the investigation for 18 months.

For his part, the Hindu Umakant Sharma was disqualified for ten years after discovering that he had sewn a Bluetooth headset into his cap, through which he received the necessary information to make the plays. Bulgarian Borislav Ivanov was suspended in 2013 after verifying that all his moves were identical to those made by a computer program. And the Georgian Gaioz Nigalidze and the Russian Igors Rausis were expelled, in 2015 and 2019 respectively, after discovering that they took advantage of visits to the toilet to consult an application that monitored the game on a mobile phone that they had hidden in the bathroom.

Other technologies used for the same purpose are skin-colored headphones, through which signals about the movements to be performed can be received; or similar devices that are hidden in socks or teeth.

In online gaming, on the other hand, it is more common to find opponents who use analysis modules in their games. That is why for a few years players have been obliged to record themselves while playing with two cameras, one focusing on them and the other on the screen, to ensure that they do not use a double screen and in one of them they use an application that tells them the best moves to make to win.

Pros and cons

Although cheating is one of the worst consequences of the incursion of the Internet on the board, since it alters the rules of the game and damages the image of the players and the championships, the application of technology in this field has also brought great advantages . Among them, the improvement of the game strategies of the chess players. Magnus Carlsen, for example, is known for having used artificial intelligence to become the best chess player in history. The young man explained in an interview that much of his inspiration comes from AlphaZero, the artificial intelligence engine developed by the DeepMind company to dominate this game with which he has learned many of the moves he uses.

Even more important is that the learning obtained from the application of artificial intelligence to chess, whose initial objective was to make a machine beat the best chess players in the world, is now in use in many other fields, such as medicine (for example, for the manufacture of medicines), agriculture (crop planning) or meteorology (forecasting).

Likewise, online championships, television series such as the Lady's Gambit or commented broadcasts on Twitch and YouTube have democratized the sport, which is now available to anyone, even with limited means.

Cheat Detection Methods

While in live tournaments players are subjected to scanners to detect any illegal devices they may try to use during matches, algorithms are used on the internet to detect suspicious behavior.

That is the case with, whose cheat detection system has been approved by Natesh S. Pillai, a statistician from Harvard University who, in 2016, confirmed the effectiveness of the system. “In addition, we have shared our methods with strong title players (some of them among the top 20 in the world) and with tournament directors, and on June 3, 2020 we received full approval from the United States Chess Federation” , celebrate on the platform.

When the system detects any type of fraudulent activity, the player's account is automatically closed. The unsportsmanlike conduct detection team is completed with the work and collaboration of analysts, computer scientists, Grandmasters and International Masters.