Cheating in Chess


Mr. Barrett

A Complex Case


As you’ve perhaps heard, chess World Champion and Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen recently lost to a young Hans Niemann and subsequently accused him of cheating. While it’s true that cheating in competition has been a growing concern in chess (as recent examples in poker and competitive fishing demonstrate), many doubt Carlsen’s allegations. What is the gossip here that lends to hesitation?, a popular online chess site, is buying Carlsen’s training app for $86 million. Is it a coincidence that they are also publishing a 72-page report revealing that Niemann cheated in over 100 games? Carlsen may also be motivated to use this cheating scandal to break away from the International Chess Federation (FIDE), so that he can have more freedom in choosing his opponents.

One theory as to why Carlsen is making these accusations says Niemann and Carlsen are in cahoots, both shamelessly promoting their own ventures. Niemann wants more followers on streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube while Carlsen wants support to break from the current international structure. Regardless, neither player looks particularly good now, one for looking guilty and one for accusing the other without definitive proof. 

Chess is no stranger to cheating scandals. Bobby Fischer observed that Soviet players from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s would throw games to allow countrymen to win a given tournament. A match between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi had its own scandal in 1978: Korchnoi shunned political interference and defected to Switzerland, got nervous when a strange man (maybe KGB) appeared at the World Championship, and promptly lost. His public flight prompted further speculation.

Various other methods have been used to help chess players cheat. Players have been caught in bathrooms checking phones behind toilets or concealed in the trash, wearing baggy sleeves which hide devices, earpieces or lenses. Amateur Borislav Ivanov beat several grandmasters, winning money with signal beacons in his shoes, but was eventually betrayed by his strange toe-tapping habit. The common thread in all of these methods is the use of a computer program.

Before computers, chess was a very different game. Opponents would sometimes allow the opposition to meet in groups to consult during games. As machine learning has progressed, chess programs can now predict the perfect move for each turn and the outcome based on a singular move. Professional chess matches are often won or lost by one move, which is why outside communication in this era is so dangerous.

Korchnoi wearing an interesting pair of glasses

The Method


In chess, assistance is defined as any outside resource, whether a book, friend, notes, or computer. Online tournaments require multiple camera angles to prevent assistance, but aren’t flawless. Over-the-board matches use metal detectors and wands, limit spectators, delay start times, avoid live feeds, and more. 

What makes computers such helpful accomplices in chess? Ply is a measure of depth (how many moves ahead someone can think). Computers typically cover 30-40 ply compared to a Grandmaster’s eight. A computer might check 120 million positions after merely three moves. An accurate algorithm considers number, point value, mobility, threats, and defenders: essentially everything humans have learned over centuries plus new observations using deep calculations. In other words, humans don’t stand a chance. A computer plays the single best sequence it finds, but can be asked to create multiple lines for the strongest handful. Smart cheaters avoid detection by playing the second, third, or even fifth option in many positions to defeat strong players. Analysts might see that not all moves were the best possible option, and their suspicions are assuaged. 

For humans, chess is a game of decisions, emotion and psychology. In society it is also a game of morality. For computers, unless guided by players themselves, the thread is narrowed to an indifferent perfection-seeking line. A human obviously cheating for personal gain injects immorality into this equation. Naturally the psychology that motivates straying from the path of honesty, often a need for validation rather than an especially nefarious intent, takes part as well. At Priory, our Honor Code addresses these questions directly, and the penalties are quite clear. But as a Benedictine institution, we also know well the value of forgiveness. How would we address such an issue here? Can these past indiscretions be rectified and, regardless, can we move past them? 


Ramifications uses complex algorithms which study move correlation to the computer to determine accuracy. A game in which the opponent makes a mistake makes cheating harder to detect because the solution of both the computer and player is simpler. Stubborn defense is a way to detect a cheater because to win naturally requires more accuracy each turn. Niemann may have cheated before. Is he still, or is he just playing near-flawlessly? The airtightness of the proof plays a role in the conclusions here. In the recent competitive fishing scandal, the weights found inside the fish revealed indisputable evidence of cheating. In games like chess and poker we are sometimes confined to calculations of odds. Experienced chess players have a host of rules or principles to apply to each position. When positions defy principles over and over and are confirmed by computers, odds move to the realm of virtual impossibility. At what percentage of moce accuracy can we draw the line of reasonable doubt? 95%? 99%? What about in a given game or in a series?

Since huge amounts of money are won and lost in prize tournaments, moral questions arise. An important decision arising from this scandal is (in the absence of proof of current deception) whether Niemann should be forgiven for his past mistakes. After all, he was supposedly between 12 and 16 years old during his previously-admitted cheating binges. Are these youthful indiscretions or permanently markable character flaws? Should we assume him to be fully reformed and allow him the opportunity to compete at the highest level? Some in chess circles say yes. Some no. What would St. Benedict say? What do you say?