The Queen’s Real Bet: Catch Chess Chess


The year everyone went online to play chess, and even online to watch a chess TV show, players developed a nasty new habit. They started cheating at online chess.

As newbies and grandmasters flocked to platforms like and Lichess in 2020, admins noticed an increase in suspicious activity like they had never seen before. So they turned to a bunch of nerds with an expertise so obscure that there is only a handful on the planet: chess narks.

They are international masters, lawyers and computer scientists, sometimes all three. Their job is to eliminate any patterns that reveal that the player on your virtual board might be looking for outside help. This is why chess has been able to make the once unthinkable leap from a board game of waning popularity to a hugely popular esport in a matter of months.

“It’s a constant struggle,” said Emil Sutovsky, the executive director of FIDE, the world’s governing body for chess. Without the chess police, “it would be impossible to host serious events”.

As countries around the world began to shut down due to the pandemic, online chess exploded. And while the world’s best players had to flee a tournament in Siberia last March, the most popular chess websites suddenly had to grapple with the regulation of online competitions in which anyone with a smartphone can beat Garry Kasparov.

Chess narks did more than just make sure online games were fair. They made sure that chess could make the biggest transition in its millennial history. They reinforced complex algorithms to detect suspicious movements. They installed complex video surveillance systems in players’ homes. They’ve gone through literally hundreds of millions of games and caught tens of thousands of chess cheaters, including grandmasters.

In November alone, closed 18,511 accounts for violating the site’s fair play rules. That’s thousands more than any month in the company’s history – and it happened in the same month that a Netflix chess show, The Queen’s Gambit, became the most popular streaming show. most popular in the United States.

The data showed something curious. More people were playing chess. Still, fair play violations were growing even faster than the total number of matches. “Which makes us think there has been a slight increase in the cheat rate,” said Gérard Le-Maréchal, cheat detection manager for

“What has happened with computer programs getting better than humans and chess not adapting has definitely slowed down the potential of online chess for at least a decade,” said Hikaru Nakamura, top player in the world. blitz failures in the world.

The fact that this is even a problem in chess today is a testament to the progress chess engines have made over the past 30 years. Powerful programs that were once rolled out only for high-level human versus machine shows are now available to any glorified checkers player with Wi-Fi. The analysis that 18 peers move into the future and eliminate the great masters is just one click away.

World chess champion Magnus Carlsen (top) plays an online match against Hikaru Nakamura. “If you get caught cheating, your whole career is over,” says Nakamura.

It’s also why Chess insisted on hosting in-person events until the pandemic. Using technology to cheat in over-the-board tournaments usually required a small-scale conspiracy. Famous cases have involved hidden devices, members of the public with secret phones, and even spectators communicating movements based on their position.

But on the Internet, no one knows that you are a fraudster. “This is where the algorithm and the secret sauce do the heavy lifting,” said Danny Rensch, chess director of has a team of two dozen people who are constantly tinkering with complex code that goes through more than 5 million games a day on the platform to eliminate this behavior from the average pawns to the gaming elite. Its systems the most basic research how often a player matches the movements of popular computer engines. His advances are so complex that they essentially decode a player’s chess DNA by understanding their abilities and tendencies so well that they can signal when moves stray too far.

Rensch concedes that there can still be players who cheat and get away with it. They only close an account when they have compelling statistical proof that they are right. The systems were proven successful when they flagged several of the world’s top 100 players for cheating – and those players later confessed.

“There’s no way seven years ago I would have shut down a player in the top 100,” Rensch said.

These systems have now enabled major tournaments hosted by FIDE and the American Chess Federation. A handful of players were excluded from FIDE’s top online competitions during the pandemic because they were flagged by the mechanics. The algorithms are bolstered by requirements that players turn on at least two cameras – one showing their face, another behind them – and share their screens while playing to prevent them from viewing other sources.

“We have set the bar pretty high,” said Sutovsky of FIDE. “If you play well, you wouldn’t be suspicious. If you are playing exceptionally well and there is a 1 in 50,000 chance of it happening, then we investigate.

There are now online tournaments featuring World Champion Magnus Carlsen with hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake thanks to this fast growing cheat detection infrastructure. But the modern genesis of this cottage industry dates back over a decade to a scandal known simply as Toiletgate.

Controversy erupted at the 2006 world championships when Vladimir Kramnik of Russia was accused of making a suspicious number of toilet visits. Although no wrongdoing has been proven and Kramnik won the title, the incident caught the attention of a computer scientist – and an international chess master – in the northern state of New York. His name is Ken Regan and he has become obsessed with eliminating cheaters.

“I saw the game that I love potentially breaking,” said Regan, associate professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Buffalo. “I am by no means a vigilante. I don’t go out looking for trouble.

Trouble comes looking for him. Before the pandemic, Regan personally investigated a handful of tournaments per year. Now, he says, the volume of online gambling he has been asked to sift through is “more than I can handle.” In 2020, Regan alone handled over 80,000 performances.

The underlying principle is based on evaluating a player’s chances of hitting the best possible move during a game. Sometimes this movement will be obvious. But in key situations, finding the optimal movement can require a level of forethought that is beyond the ability of most humans working under a time constraint. Finding those slightly better moves over and over again is what sounds the alarm bells.

“I am by no means a vigilante,” says Ken Regan, professor at the University of Buffalo, who investigates chess chess. “I’m not looking for trouble.”


Douglas Levere / University of Buffalo

“If there are four moves and one of them is slightly better than the others and you match the computer 10 times in a row under those circumstances,” Regan said. “That’s a million odds for face value. “

With the great masters, these shady patterns are more difficult to spot. They are more expected to find the smarter moves and they also tend to be more careful. Instead of using chess engines to explode defenses, they cheat for extra gain, making perfect mid-game moves that increase their chances of winning. In other words, when the best players in the world cheat, they don’t throw wild 80-yard touchdown passes – they steal a few yards in the second and third.

Sutovsky called this “smart cheating”. In an infamous incident in September, Armenian grandmaster Tigran Petrosian – not to be confused with the greatest Armenian player of all time, also named Tigran Petrosian, world champion in the 1960s – was caught in the process to cheat in the semi-finals and finals of an event. (He denies any wrongdoing.) Petrosian has been banned for life from and the PRO Chess League, a prestigious team competition.

Getting caught by chess cops is bad. To be condemned by the chess judges is worse.

“If you get caught cheating,” Nakamura said, “your whole career is over.”

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