How do you even cheat in chess? Artificial intelligence and Morse code
It’s the story that has rocked chess and shown no sign of abating.
The cheating scandal which has engulfed the sport, involving five-time world champion Magnus Carlsen, is all anyone is talking about.
On Monday, Carlsen explicitly accused fellow grandmaster and rival Hans Niemann of cheating for the first time in a lengthy statement on Twitter.
The accusation comes weeks after the Norwegian withdrew from the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, Missouri, on Sept. 19 following his surprise defeat to the American.
“When Niemann was invited last minute to the 2022 Sinquefield Cup, I strongly considered withdrawing prior to the event. I ultimately chose to play,” Carlsen wrote.
“I believe that Niemann has cheated more — and more recently — than he has publicly admitted. 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 me as black in a way I think only a handful of players can do.
“This game contributed to changing my perspective.”
Niemann, for his part, admitted to cheating at the ages of 12 and 16 and said that he had been banned from competing on Chess.com, but said in an interview with the St. Louis Chess Club that he had never cheated in over-the-board games.
But for a game that seems so simple in its structure — one chess board, two players, 32 pieces in total and, theoretically, a lot of creativity — the question a lot of people are asking is: “How does someone even cheat in chess?”
The rise of technology
Despite it being an ancient sport, chess has been dragged into the modern age in recent years.
Computers and the internet have made competition more accessible and connected players around the world, and artificial intelligence now gives players the tools to plot out their moves before the match even begins.
It all really began in 1996 when grandmaster Garry Kasparov, widely recognized as one of the best players ever, faced off against an IBM supercomputer called ‘Deep Blue’ in a series of matches.
Although Kasparov won the first match, ‘Deep Blue’ won two games, becoming the first computer program to defeat a world champion in a classical game under tournament regulations.
A year later, the two faced off in a rematch with ‘Deep Blue’ defeating Kasparov, in doing so, becoming the first computer program to defeat a world champion in a full match.
Although Kasparov’s performances against ‘Deep Blue’ have been reevaluated over time, the significance of the results can’t be overstated. It was a totemic moment in the progression of technology’s ability to play the “perfect” chess match and signaled the rise of artificial intelligence’s effect on chess.
Since then, with improvements to computer hardware and software, chess engines have helped shape the sport into a 21st century game.
As defined by Chess.com, a chess engine is a program which “analyzes chess positions and returns what it calculates to be the best move options.”
Chess engines have become much stronger than humans in recent years, with many exceeding a 3,000 Elo rating — the Elo rating system measures the strength of a chess player relative to their opponents. For context, Carlsen holds the record for the highest Elo rating ever achieved by a human player when he reached 2,882 in 2014.
Stockfish is one of the most advanced chess engines with a rating of more than 3,500, which means it has a 98% probability of beating Carlsen in a match — and a 2% chance of drawing the five-time world champion, essentially rendering a Carlsen victory impossible.
Although chess engines have helped players hone their craft — training against the perfect moves to prepare themselves for every eventuality — they’ve also allowed some players to cheat more easily.
As a result, online chess sites, like Chess.com, have developed anti-cheating technology to detect when players are using outside computer software during games in an attempt to curb foul play.
Even though the anti-cheating technology has improved, Emil Sutovsky — director general of chess’ governing body FIDE — says chess needs to develop a “social contract” with online players to stop cheating.
“Now, what has happened in the past was that the culture of cheating online has been seen as much less of a crime compared to if you were trying to cheat over the board,” Sutovsky — who says cheating in online chess is a “massive problem” — told CNN Sport. “It was like you are playing a computer game, online game, online chess, so it was not taken as seriously.
“And many players suspected that other players are cheating and then they were naturally more driven to try themselves. That’s something that’s not happening in over the board chess. Now, this culture or heritage actually must change and people should realize that be it online cheating or over the board cheating, it is cheating.
“Especially now when the situation changed as there are serious prizes at stake, hosts tours like Magnus [Carlsen who] conducted his own tour, so this whole perception naturally must be replaced by understanding that online cheating is a very serious sin and the punishment should be also very serious for that.”
While FIDE is battling to combat online cheating, there has been a level of purity to over-the-board chess with cheating proving to be much more difficult.
Andy Howie, arbiter and a member of FIDE’s anti-cheating Fair Play Commission, outlined some of the measures in place to prevent over-the-board cheating such as metal detectors, signal scanners, non-linear scanners and thermal imaging.
But safety measures haven’t stopped people from attempting to cheat and the history of the game is rife with scandal.
Accusations of cheating and foul play flew back and forth during the 1978 World Chess Championship Final, which one grandmaster who was there described as “the most bewildering and dirty world championship match in the history of chess.”
At one point, the young Soviet champion Anatoly Karpov claimed Russian exile Viktor Korchnoi was trying to blind him with his mirrored sunglasses, reports El País.
Later, waiters served Karpov a blueberry yogurt and Korchnoi suggested it could be used for coded communications from his opponent’s analysts.
Karpov ultimately won the match, which is recreated in a 2021 Russian film called “The World Champion.”
More recently, FIDE stripped Georgia’s Gaioz Nigalidze of his grandmaster title and banned him from competitive chess for three years in 2015 for repeatedly visiting the bathroom in the middle of a game to check his phone to find the best move to make.
Also in 2015, an arbiter caught Italian amateur Arcangelo Riccicardi using Morse code and a camera to cheat in a competition.
Ricciardi was reportedly hiding a video camera inside a pendant around his neck, wires attached to his body and a small box under his armpit.
“I kept on looking at him. He was always sitting down, never got up,” chief arbiter Jean Coqueraut told La Stampa. “Very strange, we are talking about hours and hours of play. Above all, he always had his arms folded with his thumb under his armpit. He never took it out.
“And he blinked in an unnatural way, as if it was concentrated on the board, but lost in some other thought. Then I realized: he was deciphering the signals in Morse code. Point line point line. That was it.”
Riccicardi denied cheating.
It is uncertain whether or not Niemann did in fact cheat against Carlsen — the American vehemently denies the accusations.
In any case, theoretically, if someone were to input Carlsen’s moves into a chess engine like Stockfish, for example, they would be able to either beat or draw Carlsen with an almost 100% probability.
There has been no conclusive evidence either way, yet the five-time world champion seems convinced that there was foul play involved at the Sinquefield Cup.
It’s much tougher to cheat when you’re sitting directly across the board from your opponent, with them staring into your eyes and with an official over your shoulder, but that hasn’t stopped players trying throughout history.
Howie says top players who rely on their chess careers are less likely to cheat with more to lose on the line.
“You have someone like Hikaru Nakamura or Magnus Carlsen or Levon Aronian or Ian Nepomniatchtchi. If they were to be caught cheating, it would be devastating for them, for the careers,” he told CNN Sport. “This is their careers. They cannot afford to do that because it would be utterly devastating for them.
“They would lose all credibility, all sponsorship. They just have too much to lose. Now, that doesn’t mean we treat it as if they’re never going to cheat, far from it. When we’re dealing with their tournaments, we’re actually very, very strict, just to make sure that there’s no… I never expect to find any of these cheating.
“I would be really be shocked if I did find one of these guys cheating. But as you come down to the lower ranks, that’s when you’re more likely to find people cheating, your weaker players. People who see it as, it’s not important for them, they get banned for a couple of years. ‘So what? I’ll come and play in a couple of years’ time. I’m not too fussed about it.’ It doesn’t have the impact on them as it does on the top players. It’s not their livelihood.”
And as the Carlsen-Niemann controversy continues to dominate the sport, who knows what truth the events will bring forth.