The people who police chess cheats: ‘We built a crime scene analysis for every player in the world’ | Chess

did cheat a teenager to beat the world chess champion? This question has stirred the chess universe since September 4, when the top player, 31-year-old Magnus Carlsen, abruptly withdrew from the $350,000 Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis after a stunning loss to lower-ranked 19-year-old Hans Nieman.

Carlsen has not explicitly accused Niemann of cheating. But chess watchers drew Carlsen’s accusation from a cryptic post-game meme that said he would be in “big trouble” if he spoke — fueling wild theories, including one that Niemann cheated by receiving messages through vibrating anal. beads.

The uproar continued on Monday, when Carlsen faced Niemann in an online game and resigned after just one move. Carlsen gave a brief interview on Wednesday in which he declined to explain his actions, but said that “people can draw their own conclusions and they certainly have”. He said he was “impressed with Niemann’s game and I think his mentor Maxim Dlugy must do a great job” – another obvious accusation, as Dlugy is a chess master who has been accused of deceiving himself.

Niemann denied cheating against Carlsen, noting after the earlier match that the world champion “should be ashamed to lose to an idiot like me”. But he admitted to cheating twice on the online platform at age 12 and again at age 16, which resulted in his being kicked off the website in his own words. The controversy deepened when the platform announced that it had banned Niemann again, citing “information contradicting his statements as to the amount and seriousness of his cheating on”.

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But that move contradicts other top chess arbitrators, including the Sinquefield Cup organizers, who say they 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 watchers — from authorities to armchair theorists — aren’t analyzing Niemann’s achievements correctly. “They are not anal beads. The problem is that our position is so different in how we look at it and measure things.”

A man prepares to move his piece in a chess game.
Magnus Carlsen had declined to say why he resigned after just one move from an online game with Hans Niemann. Photo: Sri Loganathan/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

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

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“Occasionally deviations happen. But if you’ve got a lot of smoke, a lot of evidence, and a lot of reason to believe in the DNA of who someone is, and you walk into the room and they just say, ‘I lifted that fridge with one arm, you’re like,’ Fucking bullshit, motherfucker.’”

Rensch refused to comment on Niemann. “I’m not going to tell you anything I think about the Hans or Magnus scandal, but you can imply whatever you want based on what I say,” Rensch said. In forum posts this week, CEO Erik Allebest hinted that his company could release more information soon.

That could help answer one of the central questions in this controversy: what’s 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 mix of artist, athlete and scientist: not only do they have the creativity and mental stamina to solve very complex problems, they also spend thousands of hours researching previous chess games and coming up with new game lines. The problem is that modern chess software, called chess engines, has become so powerful and widely available that even the world’s best players don’t stand a chance against software that anyone can now download for free. For the chess industry, which is enjoying a pandemic-driven explosion of interest in everything from amateur online games to live streams from top masters, detecting cheating has become an existential challenge.

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Tanya Karali is the chief referee or chess umpire for the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, the online tournament in which Carlsen dramatically stepped down this week. The main way the cup protects against cheating is through surveillance, she said. This means, among other things, that multiple players must set up multiple cameras that prove they are alone with no other electronics. “At random times, we surprise players by asking them to move the side camera to show the whole room,” she said. The arbiters also ask the players to share their screens so they can see what programs they are using, and point the side camera at their ears to inspect for bugs.

But the main authentication tool Karali uses is a screening program from Fide, the international chess board. Ken Regan, a chess master and computer scientist, said he began developing the model in 2006 after a high-profile accusation of cheating by Bulgaria’s Veselin Topalov against Russia’s Vladimir Kramnik in their world championship game. Regan’s model analyzes the possible moves in a chess position and projects the probability that a player of a certain skill level would make a move that matches the best chess engines. “Then, through what is really a human judgment process, one arrives at the final probabilities and decides whether they are extreme enough to reject the null hypothesis,” that is, the fair play assumption.

Because the software analyzes the moves of the game itself, it works on both over-the-board games and online, where the cheating rate is “100 to 200 times” higher, Regan said. Sinquefield Cup officials asked Regan to run the program on Carlsen and Niemann’s game and the results were unequivocal: “I haven’t found anything,” he said. Regan’s model showed that Neimann’s performance was “one standard deviation higher” on some metrics, “but by definition the standard deviation happens by default”.

But that has led to an apparent disagreement between believers in Regan’s model and that of’s model, which cannot be resolved without more evidence being made public. “It’s’s move,” Regan said. The platform, he suggested, should “reveal or explain the reasons for their further action against Niemann”.

A close up view of a white robotic hand moving a chess piece on a brown and dark brown wooden board.
Matthew Sadler, an English grandmaster, says that computers have the ability to perceive the totality of the game in a way that is better than humans. Photo: Andriy Popov/Alamy

This is just the latest 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 ranked 14th in the world in the pre-computer era, left the professional game in 1999 amid fears the rise of AI would “kill the game.” He is now a researcher who has written several books on chess engines. While he can occasionally beat computers in a few moves, he says, there’s no way to match the consistency of top engines. “In a 60-move game, the accuracy that engines have is just at a level that is totally impossible for humans.”

Computers have the ability to perceive the totality of the game in a way that dramatically surpasses humans, Sadler said. “Motors are just incredibly good at visualizing the whole board and finding maneuvers that use, say, three corners of the board to re-deploy a piece and achieve a winning attack angle. If you see people at a lower level doing that, well, they’ve had a moment of inspiration or there could be something funny going on.”

Contrary to Sadler’s fears, technology hasn’t killed the game – it has made it even more popular. Chess engines have become invaluable learning tools for players: they delve into game databases and run scenarios through the engines, trying to remember the main variations. Since even the best brains can’t remember everything, the game has evolved into a game where you try to throw your opponents off balance with unexpected play. And for spectators, the engines provide a dramatic way to see who is winning games in real time.

Would it be possible for a human player to detect computer-aided play without advanced technological tools? Sadler says being able to smell deception comes with experience. “If an opponent has made a very complicated decision and only takes a minute to do it, when you would expect, well, any normal top player would take 15 or 20, then that’s a bit wrong.” Other red flags: If your opponent “seems unnaturally calm when the position is very tense”, or “if someone is taking suspiciously long walks off the board”. But these stories aren’t infallible: “I had a case like this once, and it was just that the poor guy had prolonged nosebleeds and had to run to the toilet all the time.”

As for Carlsen’s accusation? Sadler says his experience leaves him in disbelief. While Carlsen is still clearly the best player in the world, “my stance is still that top-level cheating doesn’t really happen,” he said. “There is an awful lot to lose. And chess is one of those games that you dedicate our lives to and it’s just a little hard to imagine the top players throwing all that away.”

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