The People Who Watch Chess Cheaters: ‘We’ve Built a Crime Scene Analysis for Every Player in the World’ | Chess

Ddid a teenager cheat to defeat the world chess champion? This question has thrown the chess world into turmoil since September 4, when its best player, 31-year-old Magnus Carlsen, abruptly withdrew from the $350,000 Sinquefield Cup in St Louis after a stunning loss to the lowest ranked 19 year old. Hans Nieman.

Carlsen did not explicitly accuse Niemann of cheating. But chess watchers picked up Carlsen’s accusation from a cryptic meme he tweeted after the game saying he’d be in “big trouble” if he talked – fueling wild theories, including one that Niemann cheated by receiving messages. through vibrating anal beads.

@STLChessClub, and hope to be back in the future

— Magnus Carlsen (@MagnusCarlsen) September 5, 2022n","url":"","id":"1566848734616555523","hasMedia":false,"role":"inline","isThirdPartyTracking":false,"source":"Twitter","elementId":"e42ee875-bbff-4409-82ea-4ee9f4db3dbe"}}'>

The uproar continued on Monday, when Carlsen took on Niemann in an online game and quit after a single blow. On Wednesday, Carlsen gave a short interview in which he declined to explain his actions, but said “people can come to their own conclusions and they certainly have”. He intoned that he was “impressed with Niemann’s playing and I think his mentor Maxim Dlugy must be doing a great job” – another apparent accusation, as Dlugy is a chess master who has been accused of deceived.

Niemann denied cheating on Carlsen, commenting after the previous match that the world champion must have been “embarrassed to lose to an idiot like me”. But he admitted to cheating twice on online platform when he was 12 and 16, which he says got him kicked out of the website. The controversy escalated when the platform announcement that he again banned Niemann, citing “information that contradicts his statements regarding the amount and severity of his cheating on”.

But the ruling contradicts other 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 explicitly accuses Niemann of cheating, why do many in the chess world think Niemann is a cheater?

Danny Rensch, a chess master and director of, told the Guardian that chess observers – from authorities to armchair theorists – do not properly analyze Niemann’s performance. “These are not anal beads. The problem is that our position is so different in terms of how we look at it and measure things.

Magnus Carlsen had refused to say why he quit an online game with Hans Niemann after a single blow. Photography: Sri Loganathan/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

Rensch said his platform has developed an industry-leading anti-cheat model, trained on a staggering amount of real game data from games played on his platform. “What we did is really different from everyone else – and it’s because we were a private company that made money and were able to invest – it was that we went out and built what I would call a crime scene DNA analysis for every chess player in the world,” Rensch said. This means that has a very detailed model of what the legitimate behavior of millions of chess players looks like. users on hundreds of millions of games, which it can use to detect discrepancies.

“From time to time anomalies occur. But if you’ve got a lot of smoke, a lot of evidence, and a lot of reasons to believe in who someone’s DNA is, and you walk into the room and they just say, “I just lifted this refrigerator with one arm’, you’re like, ‘Holy shit, motherfucker.'”

Rensch declined to give details about Niemann. “I won’t say anything about what I think about the over-the-board scandal with Hans or Magnus, but you can imply whatever you want depending on what I say,” Rensch said. In forum posts this week, 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 mixture of artists, athletes and scientists: they not only have the creativity and the mental stamina to solve very complex, but they also spend thousands of hours researching previous 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 have no chance against software that anyone can now download for free. For the chess industry, which is experiencing a pandemic-driven 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 head arbiter, or chess arbiter, of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, the online tournament which saw Carlsen’s dramatic resignation this week. The main way the cut protects against cheating is through surveillance, she said. This includes requiring multiple players to set up multiple cameras that prove they are alone with no other electronics. “At random times we surprise players by asking them to move around with the side camera to show the whole room,” she said. The referees are also asking players to share their screens so they can see what programs they’re using and point the side camera to their ears to inspect for bugs.

But the most important authentication tool used by Karali is a filtering program used by Fide, the international chess governing body. Ken Regan, a chess master and computer scientist, said he started developing the model in 2006 after Bulgaria’s Veselin Topalov made a high-profile cheating accusation 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 will make a move that matches the best chess movers. “Then, through what is really a process of human judgment, one arrives at the final odds and decides whether it is extreme enough to reject the null hypothesis” i.e. the fair play hypothesis. .

Because the software analyzes the moves of the game itself, it works on over-the-board games as well as online, where the cheat rate is “100 to 200 times” higher, Regan said. Sinquefield Cup officials asked Regan to run the program on Carlsen and Niemann’s play and the results were unambiguous: “I couldn’t find anything,” he said. Regan’s model showed that Neimann’s performance “was one standard deviation better” on some measures, “but by definition, standard deviation normally occurs.”

But it has led to an apparent disagreement between proponents of Regan’s model and those of’s model, which doesn’t seem like it can be resolved without more evidence being made public. “It’s’s decision,” Regan said. The platform, he suggested, must “disclose or explain the reasons for their new action against Niemann.”

Close-up image of a white robotic hand moving a chess piece on a light brown and dark brown wooden board.
Matthew Sadler, an English grandmaster, claims that computers have an ability to perceive the whole game in a way that surpasses humans. Photography: Andriy Popov/Alamy

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’ era, quit professional gaming in 1999 when he feared the rise of AI was ‘killing the game’. He is now a researcher who has written several books on chess engines. While it can sometimes outrun computers in a few moves, he says, there’s no way to match the consistency of the best engines. “In a 60-shot game, the precision of the motors is just at a level completely unattainable for humans.”

Computers have the ability to perceive the entire game in a way that dramatically surpasses humans, Sadler said. “The engines are just incredibly good at visualizing the whole board and finding maneuvers that, for example, use all three corners of the board in order to redeploy a piece and get a winning angle of attack. When you see people on a lower level do 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 engines have become invaluable learning tools for players: they run through 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 to try and throw your opponents off balance with unexpected play. And for spectators, the engines offer a spectacular way to see who is winning games in real time.

Would it be possible for a human player to detect computer-assisted gambling without sophisticated technological tools? Sadler says being able to sniff out cheating comes with experience. “If an opponent has a very complicated decision and it only takes a minute, when you would expect any normal top player to take 15 or 20, then it’s a bit off. .” Other warning signs: if your opponent seems “abnormally calm when the position is very tense”, or “if someone is taking strangely long walks away from the board”. But these accounts aren’t foolproof: “I had a case like this once, and it was just that the poor guy had prolonged nosebleeds, having to run to the bathroom all the time.”

As for Carlsen’s accusation? Sadler says his experience leaves him in disbelief. Although Carlsen is still clearly the best player in the world, “my position is still that cheating at the highest level just doesn’t 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 just kinda hard to imagine that the best players would throw it all away.

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