2020 has been a unique year for chess. In the first half, as countries across the world went into lockdowns to stem the spread of covid-19, millions discovered the game—online. Websites like chess.com, chess24.com and lichess.org saw a sharp jump in the number of users and games played. In the second half, Netflix released The Queen’s Gambit, a web-series about a female chess player battling her demons to beat the best in world chess. The game’s popularity surged. Unfortunately, so did cases of cheating.
In a post in August, chess.com, the biggest of the online chess platforms, said closure rates of accounts had more than doubled since the covid-19 outbreak in December 2019. The website had been closing nearly 500 chess accounts every day. Offences included using chess engines to play matches, rating manipulation, sandbagging (deliberately losing games to lower one’s rating and become eligible for lower-rated tournaments with prize money) and other fair-play violations. Those against whom action was taken include grandmasters, the elite players in world chess.
The director general of the world chess body FIDE, Emil Sutovsky, has been quoted as saying that stemming cheating is “a huge topic I work on dozens of hours each week”. Its president, Arkady Dvorkovich, has called “computer doping” a “real plague”. “In chess.com's history,” from 2007 till August 2020, “we have closed nearly half a million accounts for cheating,” the website says. “Our projections predict we will reach 500,000 accounts closed by February 2021 and one million accounts by mid-2023.” There has been a sharp jump since the outbreak. In December 2019, it had shut 6,044 accounts. In August, it closed 15,130.
So how does one stop cheating in online chess?
This was the question Sotirios Logothetis and his team at chess24.com found themselves faced with when they decided to organise online tournaments earlier this year.
“Cheating is extremely rare in offline events, especially at the top tier,” says Logothetis, who is also an international chess arbiter. “The main advantage there is, you have full visual contact, which allows the arbiter to latch on to suspicious behaviour.” In addition, marquee tournaments also use metal detectors and check the players physically for sophisticated devices, like a micro earpiece with voice transmitters. “Online chess doesn’t offer these advantages,” says Logothetis.
The solution, Logothetis’ team found, lay in the way some universities around the world conduct examinations: webcams and screen-share. In the tournaments they have conducted since March, including the rapid-chess tournament Skilling Open and the Magnus Carlsen Invitational, each player had to have at least two cameras: one in front, another at the back or the side. They also installed a software so that the computer screen could be shared with the arbiters during playing sessions.
The cameras, which the organisers sent to the players’ houses, stored the audio and video footage in a memory card even if the internet connection was interrupted. After each session, players were expected to upload the entire footage on the server cloud. These two tournaments had around a dozen players each, so it was possible to send equipment, upload and verify.
Most online tournaments conducted this year, including the FIDE Online Olympiad 2020, have used a combination of such techniques. There is even a system to scan a player’s game, study performance patterns and highlight unusual activities, such as if a player is making the kind of moves a chess engine would, or if a low-ranked player suddenly starts playing exceedingly well. Anything, in other words, that doesn’t fit the pattern.
“I think our systems can cover 95% of possible ways of cheating online,” says Logothetis. But, he accepts, it can never be foolproof. “If someone tries really hard to cheat, I think they will find a way,” he adds. “But someone who is doing this has to be truly dedicated.”
So, while marquee tournaments may have developed robust systems, for most online players cheating is only a few clicks or fingertaps away. “The simplest way is, you have a phone, enter a question and ask for the best moves,” says grandmaster (GM) Srinath Narayanan. “Stockfish (the best open-source chess engine) is free and easily accessible. There are also extensions on web browsers that show the next best move.”
It’s possible to game a platform’s in-built scanners too. “If someone is smart, they can make a couple of moves by themselves, and for some important ones, they can take the help of engines,” says GM Harika Dronavalli, India’s No.2 woman chess player.
Cheating is rampant in online chess, Narayanan reckons. It’s not just a matter of pride—some tournaments offer cash prizes too. Narayanan, who coaches the 16-year-old chess prodigy Nihal Sarin, says: “I know young kids also have cheated during games. Some of them have been caught and banned by popular websites, some haven’t been.” The penalties aren’t strict enough, he adds. “If you confess, you don’t play in prized events for a year but you can have your account back. And if a player is banned from one website, they can always play on another.”
Some platforms, however, are keen on setting an example. In October, chess.com suspended Armenian GM Tigran Petrosian for allegedly using computer assistance during the finals of the Pro Chess League—one of 46 GMs against whom action has been taken since 2007. In its investigation, the website found that some of Petrosian’s moves were consistent with chess-engine suggestions. He also allegedly looked down often, which the investigators concluded was to consult a computer. Petrosian has vehemently denied the allegations.
“I was surprised when I saw Tigron’s news,” says Dronavalli. “Most players I know won’t think of that. Even if there are people who are ready to cheat, I don’t think they should take risk of a whole career for an online tournament.”
In the past year, Dronavalli has played several marquee online tournaments, including Titled Tuesdays, Online Chess Olympiad and the Online Nations Cup. For the most part, she says, the checks were robust: You shared your screen during gameplay, you couldn’t mute yourself and you couldn’t open any other files on the computer. Before a game, the organisers would ask for a camera-tour of the room she was playing in. “If I switched off my webcam or exited the room, I would have to repeat the whole thing all over again. It would get tiring sometimes but you have to do it.”
She, too, acknowledges that anti-cheating measures can never be as foolproof as they are for an offline event. But cheating will only get you so far. “Finally, you need to have talent,” says Dronavalli. “If you are not consistent, no one will believe your performances.”