Chess: How hard is it to cheat in a tournament?

The world’s top-ranked chess player has accused the teen who punched him of cheating “more — and more recently — than he’s publicly admitted.”

The controversy stems from a Sept. 4 match in St. Louis between Norwegian world champion Magnus Carlsen, 31, and novice American Hans Niemann, 19. cheating, which Niemann has denied. When the two grandmasters faced off online again on September 20, Carlsen retired after just one move.

Niemann is currently ranked 49th by the International Chess Federation, while Carlsen has been the reigning World Champion since 2013. There is no evidence that Niemann cheated against Carlsen in either match, experts say.

“It is extremely difficult to cheat in over-the-board games and tournaments,” Vladimir Drkulec, president of the Chess Federation of Canada, told CTVNews.ca. “Over there [was] no apparent cheating in the game. Magnus just played badly; he played at my level in terms of the number of mistakes he made.”

Drkulec, a national master, describes himself as Canada’s chess expert. He must be: The federation he leads is the governing body of the game in Canada.

“Normally people get caught, so it doesn’t pay off,” Drkulec said. “They’ll Be Banned From” [the International Chess Federation] probably for at least three years, but maybe for life. A top player isn’t going to do that, because if he does, he loses his livelihood.”

Drkulec’s position is supported by Kenneth Regan, a chess expert and professor of computer science and engineering at the University at Buffalo. After a computer analysis of the initial controversial match and all of Niemann’s games over the past two years, Regan found no reason to suspect the player was cheating against Carlsen.

“There is no concrete basis on which to evaluate his allegation,” Regan, who consulted with the St. Louis tournament, told CTVNews.ca. “Neither I nor the tournament staff found any evidence of cheating in that game, or in any combination of Niemann’s other games during the tournament.”


‘There are many cheaters, but most of them are online’

Cheating in online chess is easy – you just need to enter moves in a chess program on another device.

“Computers on phones have been king since 2010, and this is a major factor to worry about during tournaments,” said Regan. “Deep Blue was a supercomputer in 1997, but you don’t need that much hardware anymore.”

Deep Blue was the towering computer that defeated the famous Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov.

Niemann himself admitted to cheating online when he was 12 and 16; a confession that contributed to his recent ban on the online platform Chess.com.

“I don’t want to play against people who have cheated repeatedly in the past because I don’t know what they can do in the future,” Carlsen wrote in a statement dated September 26 on the scandal.

For his part, Niemann recently said, “I’ve never cheated in an over-the-board game.”

This would be far from easy in a top-level tournament, where players are closely monitored and it is forbidden to keep electronic devices such as telephones on themselves. Some tournaments even bypass spectators, find participants with portable metal detectors, or use a 15 to 30 minute broadcast delay to ensure players don’t get outside help.

Despite the precautions, the chess world has previously been rocked by controversies over cheating. Tactics include consulting with a co-worker or hidden phone in the washroom; or receive instructions using a hidden camera and earpiece, via Morse code, or through signals from an accomplice in the crowd. A more outlandish theory suggests that Niemann might have even received messages via a vibrating sex toy controlled remotely by a co-conspirator who uses a device to find the best moves.

Still, cheating remains relatively uncommon for over-the-board competitions. Regan estimates cheating at one in 5,000 to one in 10,000 for International Chess Federation personal tournaments, which equates to about five to 10 credible cases per year. On the other hand, he calculates the cheating percentage for online games is significantly higher, namely one to two percent.

“There are a lot of cheaters around,” Drkulec added. “But mostly they’re online, and the platforms catch them. But they also catch some people who aren’t cheaters, who just improved very quickly.”

Drkulec says he has seen several players falsely accused of cheating after making significant progress practicing online during the COVID-19 pandemic, when in-person tournaments stopped. Only personal games are included in the ranking of the International Chess Federation.

“A lot of kids worked really hard during the pandemic, and now they upset the higher rated players,” Drkulec explains. “Niemann is only 19 and he was invited to the tournament for a reason, because he has made a very rapid improvement.”


With files from Reuters.

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