DDid a teenager cheat to beat the world chess champion? The question has thrown the chess world into turmoil since September 4, when its top player, 31-year-old Magnus Carlsen, suddenly withdrew from the $350,000 Sinquefield Cup in St Louis after a stunning loss to the lower-ranked 19-year-old Hans Niemann.
Carlsen did not explicitly accuse Niemann of cheating. But chess watchers gleaned Carlsen’s accusation from a cryptic meme he posted on Twitter after the game in which he said he would be in “big trouble” if he spoke – prompting wild theories, including that Niemann was cheating by receiving messages via vibrating anal balls.
The uproar continued on Monday, when Carlsen faced Niemann in an online match and resigned after just one move. Carlsen gave a brief interview on Wednesday in which he declined to explain his actions, but said “people can draw their own conclusions and they certainly have.” He said he was “impressed with Niemann’s play and I think his mentor Maxim Dlugy must be doing a great job” – another obvious accusation, since Dlugy is a chess master who has been accused of cheating himself.
Niemann denied cheating against Carlsen, commenting after the previous match that the world champion must be “embarrassed to lose to an idiot like me”. But he admitted to cheating on the online platform Chess.com twice at the age of 12 and again at the age of 16, which he said got him kicked off the website. The controversy deepened when the platform announced that he banned Niemann again, citing “information that contradicts his statements about the amount and severity of his cheating on Chess.com.”
But the move is at odds with other top chess judges, including organizers of the Sinquefield Cup, who say they have analyzed Niemann’s games and found no evidence of wrongdoing. So if neither the tournament nor Magnus specifically accuses Niemann of cheating, why do many in the chess world think Niemann is a cheater?
Danny Rensch, chess master and CEO of Chess.com, told the Guardian that chess observers – from authority figures to armchair theorists – are not analyzing Niemann’s performance correctly. “These are not anal balls. The problem is that our position is so different in terms of how we look at and measure things.”
Rensch said his platform has developed an industry-leading anti-cheat model based on a staggering collection of real-world gaming data from games played on his platform. “What we’ve done that’s really different than anybody else – and that’s because we were a private company that made money and was able to invest – is we went out and built what I would call a crime scene DNA analysis for every chess player into the world,” said Rensch. This means that Chess.com has a very detailed model of what the legitimate behavior of millions of users looks like in hundreds of millions of games, which it can use to detect anomalies.
“Anomalies occasionally occur. But if you’ve got a lot of smoke, a lot of evidence, and a lot of reason to believe the DNA of who someone is, and you walk into a room and they just say, ‘I just picked up that refrigerator with one hand,’ you’re like, ‘Shit, motherfucker.’ “
Rensch refused to elaborate on Niemann. “I’m not speaking officially about anything I think about the over-the-top scandal with Hans or Magnus, but you can imply what you want based on what I’m saying,” Rensch said. In forum posts this week, Chess.com CEO Erik Allebest hinted that his company may release more information soon.
This could help answer one of the central questions in this controversy: What is the best way to detect cheating in chess?
It is important to understand how computers affect the game. The best human chess players are a mix of artists, athletes, and scientists: not only do they possess the creativity and mental stamina to solve highly complex problems, they also spend thousands of hours researching past chess games and theorizing new lines of play. The problem is that modern chess software, called chess engines, has become so powerful and widely available that even the best players in the world don’t stand a chance against software that anyone can download for free. For the chess industry, which is enjoying a pandemic-induced explosion of interest in everything from amateur online games to live streams of top masters, detecting cheating has become an existential challenge.
Tanya Karali is the chief arbiter, or chess judge, of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, the online tournament that saw Carlsen’s dramatic resignation this week. The main way the mug protects against cheating is through surveillance, she said. This includes requiring multiple players to set up multiple cameras that prove they are alone without other electronics. “At random times we surprise the players by asking them to move around with the side camera to show the whole room,” she said. Referees also ask players to share their screens so they can see what programs they are using and point the side camera at their ears to check for mistakes.
But the most important authentication tool used by Karali is the verification program used by Fide, the international governing body of chess. Ken Regan, a chess master and computer scientist, said he began developing the model in 2006 following allegations of high-profile cheating by Bulgaria’s Veselin Topalov against Russia’s Vladimir Kramnik in their world championship match. Regan’s model analyzes the possible moves in a chess position and projects the probability that a player of a given skill level would make a move that agrees with top chess machines. “Then, through what is essentially a human judgment process, one arrives at the final odds and decides whether they are extreme enough to reject the null hypothesis,” – that is, the fair game assumption.
Because the software analyzes the moves of the game itself, it works on off-board games as well as online, where the cheating rate is “100 to 200 times” higher, Regan said. Sinquefield Cup officials asked Regan to run the program on Carlsen and Niemann’s game, and the results were unequivocal: “I didn’t find anything,” he said. Regan’s model showed that Neimann’s performance “was one standard deviation higher” on some metrics, “but by definition a standard deviation is a standard occurrence.”
But this has led to an apparent disagreement between those who believe in the Regan model and those in the Chess.com model, which it seems cannot be resolved without further evidence being published. “It’s a move by Chess.com,” Regan said. The platform, he suggested, should “reveal or explain the reasons for their further action against Niemann.”
This is just the latest installment in the decades-long drama surrounding the role of machines in one of the world’s oldest board games. Matthew Sadler, the English grandmaster who was ranked 14th in the world in the “pre-computer” era, retired from the professional game in 1999. when he feared that the rise of artificial intelligence would “kill the game”. He is now a researcher who has authored several books on chess machines. While it can occasionally outplay computers in a few moves, he says, there’s no way it can match the consistency of top engines. “In a 60-move game, the accuracy that engines have is at a level that is completely impossible for humans to achieve.”
Computers have the ability to see the entire game in a way that dramatically outperforms humans, Sadler said. “Mechanics are just incredibly good at visualizing the entire board and finding maneuvers that, for example, use the three corners of the board to redistribute a piece and achieve a winning angle of attack. When you see people at a lower level doing that, well, either they had a moment of inspiration or something a little funny might happen.”
Contrary to Sadler’s fears, technology didn’t kill the game – it made it even more popular. Chess machines have become invaluable learning tools for players: they study game databases and run scenarios through the machines, trying to remember the most important variations. Since even the best brains can’t remember everything, the game has evolved into a game that tries to throw your opponents off balance with unexpected play. And for spectators, the engines provide a dramatic way to see who wins games in real time.
Is it possible for a human player to discover a computer-aided game without sophisticated technological tools? Sadler says the ability to sniff out fraud comes with experience. “If the opponent has a very complicated decision and he only needs a minute to do it, whereas you would expect, well, any normal top player would take 15 or 20, then it’s a bit less.” Other red flags: if your opponent seems “unnaturally calm when the position is very tense”, or “if someone is walking away from the board for a suspiciously long time”. But these statements are not certain: “I had such a case once, and it was just that the poor guy had a long-term bleeding from the nose, he kept having to run to the toilet.”
As for Carlsen’s accusation? Sadler says his experience leaves him in disbelief. While Carlsen is still clearly the best player in the world, “my view is still that cheating at the top level just doesn’t happen,” he said. “You can get lost a lot. And chess is one of those games that you dedicate your life to, and it’s a little hard to imagine that top players would throw it all away.”