Did a teenager cheat to defeat the chess world champion? This question has plagued the chess world since September 4, when the best player, 31-year-old Magnus Carlsen, suddenly withdrew from the $350,000 Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis after a stunning loss for the player 19 years old. Hans Niemann.
Carlsen did not explicitly accuse Niemann of cheating. But chess watchers gleaned Carlsen’s accusation from a cryptic meme he tweeted after the match saying he would be in “big trouble” if he spoke – prompting wild theories, including one that Niemann cheated by receiving messages via vibrating anal beads.
The uproar continued on Monday, when Carlsen faced Niemann in an online game and was eliminated after one move. On Wednesday, Carlsen gave a brief interview in which he refused to explain his actions, but said “people can draw their conclusions and they certainly do”. He said he was “very impressed with Niemann’s play and I think his mentor Maxim Dlugy must be doing a great job” – another apparent accusation, as Dlugy is a chess master accused of cheating.
Niemann denied cheating against Carlsen, saying after the earlier match that “losing the world championship to an idiot like me must be the shame of the world”. But he admitted to cheating on the online platform Chess.com twice at the age of 12 and again at 16, which he said got him kicked from the website. The controversy deepened when the platform Announced that it banned Niemann again, citing “information that contradicts his statements regarding the extent and seriousness of his cheating on Chess.com”.
But that move contradicts top chess arbiters, including Sinquefield Cup organizers, who say they have analyzed Niemann’s games and found no evidence of wrongdoing. So if neither the tournament nor Magnus is explicitly accusing Niemann of cheating, why do many in the chess world think Niemann is a cheat?
Danny Rensch, a chess master and Chess.com executive, told the Guardian that chess watchers – from authorities to armchair theorists – are not properly analyzing Niemann’s performance. “It’s not anal beads. The problem is that our position is so different in how we look at and measure things.”
Rensch said its platform has developed an industry-leading anti-cheating model, trained on a vast array of real-world game data from games played on the platform. “What we did really differently than what other people do – and the reason we were a private company that was making money and could invest – was we went out and analyzed crime scenes DNA for every chess player. the world,” said Rensch. This means that Chess.com has a very detailed model of what legitimate behavior looks like for millions of users across hundreds of millions of games, which can be used to detect inconsistencies.
“Once in a while anomalies happen. But if you have enough smoke, enough evidence, and enough reason to believe in DNA who someone is, and you walk into the room and they say, ‘I lifted that refrigerator with one hand’ , you like, ‘Fucking bullshit, motherfucker.’”
Rensch declined to elaborate on Niemann. “I’m not going on the record about anything I think about the scandal over the table with Hans or Magnus, but you can infer 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.
That 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 combination of artist, athlete and scientist: not only do they have the creativity and mental stamina to solve very complex problems, they spend thousands of hours researching previous chess games this and theorizing new lines of play. The problem is that modern chess software, called chess engines, have 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. free now. For the chess industry, which is enjoying a pandemic-driven explosion of interest in everything from online amateur games to live streams of grandmasters, detecting cheating has become an existential challenge.
Tanya Karali is the main arbiter, or chess referee, of the Meltwater Chess Tour of Champions, the online tournament that Carlsen’s dramatic exit this week. The main way a cup protects against cheating is through vigilance, she said. That includes requiring multiple players to set up multiple cameras that prove they are alone without other electronics. “At a random moment, we surprise players by asking them to move around with the side camera to show the whole room,” she said. The referees also ask the players to share their screens so they can see the programs they are using, and point the side camera at their ears to inspect for bugs.
But the most important authentication tool Karali uses is a screening program employed by Fide, the international chess governing body. Ken Regan, a chess master and computer scientist, said he began developing the model in 2006 following high-profile cheating allegations made 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 predicts the probability that a player of a given skill level would make a move that agrees with the best chess engines. “Then, through a process of truly human judgment, one reaches the final odds and decides whether they are too great to reject the null hypothesis,” – that is, the assumption of equality.
Because the software analyzes the game’s own moves, it works on over-the-board games as well as online games, where the cheating rate is “100 to 200 times” higher, Regan said. Sinquefield Cup officials asked Regan to run the program on the Carlsen and Niemann match and the results were unequivocal: “I got nothing,” he said. Regan’s model showed that Neimann’s performance was “one standard deviation up” on some metrics, “but by definition the standard deviation occurs within a standard”.
But that has led to an apparent disagreement between believers in the Regan model and those in the Chess.com model, which doesn’t seem likely to be resolved without more evidence becoming public. “It’s a Chess.com move,” Regan said. The platform, he suggested, must “reveal or explain the reasons for their further action against Niemann”.
This is just the latest installment in a decades-long drama about the role of machines in one of the world’s oldest board games. Matthew Sadler, an English grandmaster who was ranked 14th in the world in the “pre-computer” age, left the professional game in 1999 when he feared that the rise of AI would “kill the game”. He is now a researcher who has written several books about chess engines. While it can occasionally outperform computers over some moves, he says, there’s no way to match the consistency of top engines. “In a 60 move game, the accuracy of the engines is just at a level that humans cannot achieve.”
Computers have the ability to perceive the entire game in a way that greatly affects humans, Sadler said. “Engines are very good at looking at the whole board and finding maneuvers that use, for example, three corners of the board to redeploy a piece and achieve a winning angle of attack. When you see people on a weaker level doing that, well, they had a moment of inspiration or something funny could be going on.”
Contrary to Sadler’s fears, technology did not kill the game – it is now more popular. Chess engines have become invaluable learning tools for players: they go over game databases and run scenarios through the engines, trying to memorize the most important variations. Because even the best brains can’t memorize everything, the game has evolved into one of trying to outwit your opponent with unexpected play. And for spectators, the engines provide a dramatic way to see who is winning games in real time.
Could a human player be able to detect computer-aided play without sophisticated technological tools? Sadler says that being able to cheat comes with experience. “If an opponent has a really complicated decision and it’s taking him a minute, but you’d expect, well, any normal player would take a top 15 or 20, then it’s a bit off.” Other red flags: if your opponent seems “unnaturally calm when the going gets tough”, or “if someone is taking suspiciously long walks off the board”. But these are not false: “I had a case like that once, and it was just that the poor guy had a long nosebleed and had to run to the toilet all the time.”
As for Carlsen’s charge? Sadler says his experience leaves him in disbelief. Although Carlsen is clearly still the best player in the world, “my position is still that cheating at the highest level doesn’t really happen”, he said. “There is a lot to lose. And chess is one of those games where you dedicate your life to it and it’s a little hard to imagine that the best players would spend all that.”