Sports

Chess Fans Think Big Scandal Is Causing More Online Cheating

Magnus Carlsen plays chess.

Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos (Getty Images)

Remember the anal bead cheating controversy? As much as I’d like to forget, it turns out that a lot of people are still thinking about it. Some chess players have reported an uptick of computer-aided cheating in Chess.com matches ever since the story about Hans Niemann broke. One player has dubbed the recent surge in cheaters as the “Hans Effect.”

Two weeks ago, there was a high-profile controversy that rocked the chess world. World Champion Magnus Carlsen unexpectedly lost to Grandmaster Hans Niemann, and Carlsen eventually withdrew from the tournament. Both his sudden exit and the difference in level were so drastic that spectators started to accuse Niemann of cheating. Chess streamer Hikaru “GMHikaru” Nakamura pointed out that Niemann previously admitted to cheating on chess.com as a youngster, hence the current controversy.

Since the competitors played live, it’s difficult to pin down a potential cheating method (One outlandish theory involves anal beads). But you don’t require any…uh…special equipment to cheat over online chess matches, and Chess.com players who participate in online matchmaking are increasingly convinced that more and more people are cheating.

If you look up interest in “how to cheat chess” on Google Trends, you’ll see a significant uptick of interest in the weeks after the famous chess match, the number of searches doubling during the month compared to the rest of the year. Clearly, whatever might really be happening during matches, the subject is on people’s minds.

A graph showing an upward trend of searches.

Screenshot: Google / Kotaku

This is somewhat consequential for Chess.com users because they can lose more points for losing matches against a lower ranked player (in one instance, Chess.com refunded points to a player who lost in a suspect match). Kotaku has reached out to Chess.com to ask if there is a notable uptick in cheating, and what measures their monitors are taking to ensure fair games.

Dr. Kenneth Regan

How do chess players figure out that someone is cheating? Several players have posted to Reddit saying their opponent suddenly improved drastically in the middle of a game.

Said Quay_Z, “I’ve had so many games lately in blitz online where the opponent is obviously cheating, since the Hans stuff starting picking up steam. I’ve gotten like 3 people banned in the last 2 days. Ridiculous.”

i_have_chosen_a_name discussed how players would be performing badly, then come back for a perfect win, adding, “And then 3 days later you get that email from chess.com and you get your points back.”

“What hurts the most,” says soghff, “is when you have a better position or your opponent blunders a pawn or piece, then proceeds to take 2-4 minutes “thinking”, then suddenly starts playing perfect engine moves after 5 seconds of thinking on every move. Like are you really that undisciplined and helpless?”

Another felt that it was suspicious if someone took the same amount of time on each move. But the vast majority of victims checked their opponent’s play history. Several perfect matches in a row was enough to set off red flags for one player. Another noticed that their opponent was only losing against new accounts.

On the flip side, some players say that they have been wrongfully accused of cheating. One Reddit user was accused of cheating because their opponent had blundered an early move. Another mentioned that people had accused them in other games once they had achieved a “flow state.”

Several cheaters were just annoyed that the newcomers were so bad at cheating. “Everybody cheats online,” said one player. “The only difference is that some are smart cheaters and others are stupid cheaters.”

Are they just imagining it or is it actually happening? While every instance may not be an actual cheater, there’s plenty of evidence that hijinks are afoot. Scroll.in reported this morning on the increase in apparent cheating, speaking to grandmaster R.B. Ramesh. “It is widely accepted that many are indulging in online cheating,” he told the outlet, “especially at the younger level, where the stakes are not high.” He goes on to say that during Covid lockdowns, online play became more common, with big cash prizes, adding, “As a result, what is happening, even some professional players, not many, some professional players are indulging in this. So this is becoming a major issue.”

Chess.com itself ran a piece on cheating yesterday, beginning with the statement, “Cheating is the dirty not-so-secret of chess.” They go on to explain they close an extraordinary 800 accounts a day due to cheating, and that six percent of support tickets are related to the subject.

We reached out to world-renowned expert on cheating at chess, Dr. Kenneth Regan of University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, to ask if he had observed a recent uptick in accusations of cheating. “ I hadn’t heard about a spike among the general ranks of players,” he told Kotaku, “but it does not surprise me.” Seeming to cast doubt on the veracity of such a spike, he adds, “One thing that has been amplified is all the pseudoscientific ways to do cheating detection.”

In live play, cheating is still exceptionally marginal, explains the professor. “The prior rate counting instances of player-in-tournament is variously quoted between 1-in-10,000 and 1-in-5,000 and that accords with what I sense.” But he adds that’s dramatically higher online. “The prior rate is 100x—200x higher, one percent to two percent, less in heavily vetted high-level events but higher in scholastic events—for the latter, note Sarah Longson’s figure two years ago.”

Wonderfully, Dr. Regan also linked us to a TEDx talk he gave in 2014, during which he “put the ways people had cheated to that date in in-person chess to a Dr. Seuss rhyme.” He then adds, “and actually forgot to deliver the couplet ‘Some had computers in their shoes / or stashed them, hidden, in the loos’.”

If nothing else, the wider chess scandal is definitely bringing more high-profile cheaters to light, with Niemann’s Grandmaster coach now also being accused of admitting he once used AI to help him pick moves. And if the pros are likely doing it, chances are good average people might be tempted to cheat, too.

Additional reporting by John Walker.

 

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