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Commentary: Games that tolerate cheating gamble with their future

Computer chess and online games are riddled with rule-breaking but the penalties are lax, says the Financial Times' John Gapper.

Commentary: Games that tolerate cheating gamble with their future

US international grandmaster Hans Niemann said on Oct 5 that he "won't back down", after the chess platform reported he has "probably cheated more than 100 times" in online games. (Photo: AFP/Tim Vizer)

LONDON: In Ian Fleming’s 1955 novel Moonraker, James Bond is enlisted to punish Sir Hugo Drax, a sinister industrialist who cheats at bridge at the fictional Blades club in London. Bond fixes the cards and crushes Drax with an impossible-looking grand slam: “Thirteen separate lashes whose scars no card player would ever lose.”

“Haven’t had a cheating case since the fourteen-eighteen war,” muses the club’s chair. If so, Blades either has a remarkable code of honour or terrible powers of observation, since international bridge has suffered many real-life cheating scandals, from an Italian team who used foot signals to two German players who coughed in code.

Bridge is not the only game prone to cheating. The online platform this week disclosed in a report that the US grandmaster Hans Niemann had “likely cheated” in more than 100 online chess games. It published its investigation after Magnus Carlsen, world chess champion, accused Niemann of cheating when the latter beat him at an in-person tournament.

Dishonourable conduct is also common in sports. Two fishers competing at a contest in Ohio for a $29,000 prize were accused last week of cheating and surrounded by angry rivals.

“We’ve got weights in fish. Get out of here!” shouted the judge, proclaiming they had made their catch seem heavier by stuffing it with lead weights and fish fillets.


But technology has expanded the options for bending the rules. Not only has it made cheating easier in games from Fortnite to poker, but it has blurred the lines between rule-breaking and creative hacking. When computers can offer invaluable help to humans with anything from training for games to suggesting moves during them, it is dangerously seductive.

This makes rule-breaking common. Players stuck at one game level will jump to the next, and a study of Pokémon Go found that players often spoof physical locations to make their play more exciting and faster. Even children playing in the online world Whyville were found to be manipulating its virtual currency of clams.

Most players expect some transgression from others and also accept it, within limits. Finding loopholes in games, and using them for entertainment, is not only expected but often admired. But codes of honour agree on one principle: You should not cheat with computers to outwit opponents who stick by the rules.

The line exists in chess, where programmes such as Stockfish can now beat humans. They are used by grandmasters and others to prepare, but cannot be consulted in play. If players could look at their phones during their matches, it would destroy the game.


This does not stop many from trying. Niemann can play expertly without assistance: He was called “an incredibly strong player” by But just as high-achieving students have been found to be more likely to alter answers in tests, he admitted to cheating at computer chess to its leaders.

Technology can find deception as well as enabling it. One sign of cheating is unnatural consistency: “It might be a fantastic run of luck . . . He’s always a big winner,” a character says of Drax in Moonraker. delved into Niemann’s online chess record and found that “the probability of any single player performing this well across this many games is incredibly low”.

But it is insufficient just to detect cheating; you also need to act effectively against it. The most striking thing about the Niemann report is not that he had broken the rules but that the computer game is riddled with similar conduct at the top level. disclosed that it had privately punished hundreds of title-winning chess players, including “four of the top 100 grandmasters”.


The first instinct of institutions is to keep any trouble under wraps. Bond is called to the Blades club because it wants to avoid a scandal over Drax’s cheating, and’s leaders conclude their report by saying they seek “stability, fairness and joy in the chess community, not turbulence, conspiracy and accusations”.

Their misguided reticence forced Carlsen to make his own public stand. Chess has been led to a risky place by the combination of technology enabling cheating, and weak sanctions on those who do. The pair accused of fixing their fish in Ohio were pilloried but Niemann was permitted to keep participating in tournaments even after being caught (there is no proof he cheated in in-person matches).

Penalties were once starker. When Sir William Gordon-Cumming was accused of cheating at baccarat with the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) in 1890, he was publicly denounced. “He has committed a mortal offence. Society can know him no more,” thundered The Times after Gordon-Cumming lost his subsequent high court case for slander.

That was brutal and no one wishes for a return to societal disgrace in the Victorian style, especially since there may have been a miscarriage of justice in the royal baccarat case. But if cheating becomes endemic and there is little incentive for players to remain honest, games will be devalued.

Source: Financial Times/aj


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