In one chess tournament, five of the top six were disqualified for cheating. In another, the doting parents of 10-year-old competitors furiously rejected evidence that their darlings were playing at the level of the world No 1. And in a third, an Armenian grandmaster booted out for suspicious play accused his opponent of “doing pipi in his Pampers”.
These incidents may sound extreme but they are not isolated – and they have all taken place online since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Chess has enjoyed a huge boom in internet play this year as in-person events have moved online and people stuck at home have sought new hobbies. But with that has come a significant new problem: a rise in the use of powerful chess calculators to cheat on a scale reminiscent of the scandals that have dogged cycling and athletics. One leading ‘chess detective’ said that the pandemic was “without doubt creating a crisis”.
The problems are not confined to chess, with similar issues reported in poker, bridge and even backgammon, but they are perhaps most disruptive for a game with a reputation for gravitas and class.
“The pandemic has brought me as much work in a single day as I have had in a year previously,” said Prof Kenneth Regan, an international chess master and computer scientist whose model is relied on by the sport’s governing body, Fide, to detect suspicious patterns of play. “It has ruined my sabbatical.”
At the heart of the problem are programmes or apps that can rapidly calculate near-perfect moves in any situation. To counter these engines, players in more and more top matches must agree to be recorded by multiple cameras, be available on Zoom or WhatsApp at any time, and grant remote access to their computers. They may not be allowed to leave their screens, even for toilet breaks. In some cases they must have a “proctor” or invigilator search their room and then sit with them throughout a match.
Sutovsky has also suggested eye-tracking programmes may be a way to raise a red flag if a player appears to be looking away with suspicious frequency.
Chess.com, the world’s biggest site for online play, said it had seen 12 million new users this year, against 6.5 million last year. The cheating rate has jumped from between 5,000 and 6,000 players banned each month last year to a high of almost 17,000 in August.
Gerard Le-Marechal, the head of the site’s fair play team, said he had brought in three new members of staff to deal with the problem. “I think it’s to do with people being cooped up. It’s just so easy to do, so alluring, and it’s without doubt creating a crisis.”
The growth in cheating and a corresponding explosion in social media discussion of the problem has created a new atmosphere of suspicion and recrimination. “Paranoia has become the culture,” said Le-Marechal, whom a friend declared “the cyber chess detective” when he got the job. “There is this very romantic vision of the game which is being scuppered.”
While chess.com is reluctant to reveal details of its system, Regan describes his as “a model that detects cheating as the deviation from the proclivities of an honest human player”. With enough evidence, such models produce a high level of confidence that a given player could not possibly have played a particular set of moves unaided.
The most prominent of the recent disqualifications came in the PRO Chess League when the St Louis Arch Bishops, a team made up of top American players, lost in the final to the underdog Armenia Eagles.
The Eagles’ victory rested on the performance of Tigran Petrosian, an Armenian grandmaster and the world No 260, who stunned commentators with his victory over Fabiano Caruana, ranked second in the world.
Petrosian attributed his play to the gin he sipped during the game. But suspicious observers suggested he seemed to be glancing away from his screen frequently, and chess.com later overturned the team’s wins and banned him for life.
Petrosian later called the claims “idiotic, invented allegations”. He posted a lengthy rant addressed to another opponent, the world No 8 Wesley So: “You are a biggest looser [sic] I ever seen in my life! You was doing PiPi in your pampers when I was beating players much more stronger than you!… you are like a girl crying after I beat you!”
So, for his part, told the Guardian in an email that he felt sorry for Petrosian. Perhaps thinking of Lance Armstrong, he added: “I was a big fan of a certain cyclist and a part of me understands the pressure to succeed at all costs. At the same time I feel pain for other competitors ... Who will restore what was taken from them?”
Conrad Schormann, who has covered the cheating crisis as news editor of chesstech.com, notes that Petrosian did not appear to get help on every move, making the suspicious behaviour even harder to spot. “In his games there were abnormalities, sequences that he played godlike, but there were blunders as well,” he said.
Such controversies have been replicated even in the lower-stakes world of junior play. Sarah Longson, a former British ladies’ champion who runs the Delancey UK Schools’ Chess Challenge, said at least 100 of 2,000 online participants cheated.
The cheating was blatant, she said, with mediocre preteens at the level of the world champion, Magnus Carlsen. “But only three of them admitted it, which is pretty disgusting.” After realising the night before the final that the top three qualifiers had all been cheating, she said, “we stayed up til 3am deciding what to do” and nearly cancelled altogether.
“It’s the children from the private schools, sadly,” she said. “When I ring their parents they just get angry with me. They’re under such pressure to succeed.”
Without a significant culture change, most say, the cheats are unlikely to go straight. Regan is realistic but determined. “If you cheat on a single move I will disclaim any ability to catch you,” he said. “You can fly under the radar. But if you keep going at the same rate, you will come into the radar in the end.”