Cheating and Chess

I know nothing of the accused, but as a longtime online game player and game developer, I have absolutely no doubt that the world champion is correct:

World champion Magnus Carlsen on Monday broke his silence on the scandal that has shaken the chess world, explicitly accusing 19-year-old American grandmaster Hans Moke Niemann of cheating for the first time since their controversial meeting at the Sinquefield Cup this month.

In a statement posted to his social media accounts, Carlsen cited Niemann’s unusual progress through the chess ranks and his surprisingly relaxed behavior when they played in St. Louis.

“I believe that Niemann has cheated more—and more recently—than he has publicly admitted,” Carlsen wrote. “His over the board progress has been unusual, and throughout our game in the Sinquefield Cup I had the impression that he wasn’t tense or even fully concentrating on the game in critical positions, while outplaying as black in a way I think only a handful of players can do.”

Niemann didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Carlsen’s statement. He had earlier denied any allegations of impropriety in over-the-board chess, though he confessed to cheating on two occasions in online games. Niemann chalked those up as youthful errors, but saw fit to ban him from the platform. this month also indicated Niemann wasn’t being forthright about the breadth of his cheating, saying in a statement that it had shared evidence with Niemann about his ban that “contradicts his statement regarding the amount and seriousness of his cheating on”

In Carlsen’s statement, he said he considered withdrawing from the Sinquefield Cup when Niemann was invited to participate, but he chose to play anyway. Carlsen later resigned a game against Niemann in another event after making just a single move. “So far I have only been able to speak with my actions, and those actions have stated clearly that I am not willing to play chess with Niemann,” he said.

I don’t believe it’s possible to eliminate cheating from online gaming. I first noticed the problem when playing VASL by email; my record in face-to-face and live online games was significantly better than in play-by-email (PBEM) games. I even did a statistical analysis that confirmed my suspicions; while my average dice rolls were the same in my live online games and my PBEM games and in line with statistical norms, my opponent’s average rolls were a full point lower in PBEM games than in live online games and than statistical norms would indicate.

What these cheaters were doing was playing the saved game, recording the play, then stopping when they got a result they didn’t like, reloading the game, and replaying it. While most of their moves were honest, enough key rolls just happened to go their way to give them enough of an edge to win.

In like manner, it wasn’t hard to tell the cheaters with targeting programs in online shooters. One rapid and improbable headshot is credible, five in a row are not. Unfortunately, while there has been some progress on this front over the last 10 years, most game developers are unwilling to ruthlessly apply statistical models to determine which players are cheating and punish them accordingly.

So, it’s good that champion players like Carlsen are not only willing to refuse to play the cheaters, but are willing to call them out for their cheating. And what a flex on the part of the champion, to walk away from the game, give up the points, and go on to win the tournament anyhow.