Why dealing with cheating in chess needs human input.

I’d like to unpack the cheating-in-chess-events phenomonen which is sweeping the globe even more quickly than Covid-19. And offer a solution.

What is cheating and how do players do it?
Cheating is the intentional breaking of rules in order to obtain an advantage over other teams or players.

The very first rule in the FIDE Laws of Chess states:
1.1 The game of chess is played between two opponents

Which is perhaps why this is such an emotional issue – players are breaking the very first Law of Chess!

FIDE Laws get more explicit with:
11.3.1 During play the players are forbidden to use any notes, sources of information or advice

And get into the procedural details in their Anti-Cheating Regulations.

The only form of cheating we are talking about here is players getting assistance from a chess engine.

Why do players cheat?
When defending players who have been accused, parents and coaches will often ask “but, what’s the motive?”, failing to understand that a motive is not required.

The lure of seeking assistance is incredibly strong and psychologically difficult to resist. We see assistance most frequently with players in their teens and early-mid 20’s, unsurprisingly, the phase of life before impulse control has fully developed in the brain. Technically speaking these players are psychosocially immature.

Psychosocial immaturity makes them more likely to:

  • make choices on impulse
  • focus on short-term gains
  • have difficulty delaying gratification
  • be susceptible to peer pressure
  • fail to anticipate consequences of their choices

It becomes even harder to resist in emotional situations, which is why many players start seeking assistance once they get into a bad position, or immediately after a loss.

Getting assistance is the path of least resistance. It’s easy and provides huge short-term emotional gains. It’s actually harder NOT to cheat! Getting assistance is like eating fatty, salty, sugary foods… both easy and delicious, with short-term rewards and a long-term, almost invisible, downside.

Everyone knows they should eat more vegetables, exercise regularly and play chess without getting any assistance. But very few people consistently do what they know should be done.

We need to be asking how we can help people to NOT get assistance, by creating environments where cheating is easier to resist. Putting players in a high-speed (ie. emotional), anonymous envrionment and expecting them not to cheat is setting them up for failure. It’s really the organisers who are being unfair by having unrealistic expectations.

What environmental factors can help?
Authenticity and empathy are the key factors which build trust. A supportive envrionment must ensure all players can be authentic and ideally know and even see one another:

  • Use verified, authentic identities
  • Provide REPEAT interactions
  • A peer group doing the right thing
  • Immediate feedback from bad behaviour
  • Visibility of the negative impact
  • A community leader / authority figure

Do you need to catch EVERYONE that cheats?
Most certainly not.  We are trying to build trust and create a supportive environment, not to catch cheaters. Game theory has explored this in detail and your community can quickly evolve into a trusting and trustworthy (ie. no cheating) place just by:

  • Weeding out a few cheaters
  • Being forgiving and trusting

See this fantastic interactive visualisation of the evolution of trust.


What about automated cheat-detection?
By definition getting assistance is only a problem if it leads to an unfair advantage. This means we need an expected performance baseline. If you have no prior knowledge about a player you cannot say if they are cheating or not.

Automated cheat-detection can easily capture Flagrant Cheating (ie. copy every move from the computer), but it can’t easily identify Intermittent Cheating (ie. start cheating once you’re losing).

Automated cheat-detection causes long-term damage to the community of Trust that you are trying to build. It’s anonymous, unforgiving and unempathetic, which may well produce more cheaters than it removes.

How do Communities solve this problem?
Only within a Community will a player get Authenticity, Repeat Interactions and Empathy.

You must be using Real Names and as much as possible be in a community where players know each other.

If cheat-detection isn’t automatic, how do we find cheaters?
Arbiters need information in order to make an informed decision. They need information about a player which can help determine an expected performance and they need information about the games played to understand the statistics of what happened in games. That’s because the same results from an IM would be acceptable, but from a 650 rated player would be clearly cheating.

A community leader (arbtier) will know the player and know if they are 600 points underrated. They will have a feel for how inconsistent that player is. They will understand a player’s mood and the tournament situation and the other players and how they will react and they will be able to have private conversations with parents or players and ‘nip it in the bud’.

There will be many times when instantly banning a player is the worst move, not the best move.

The manual identification of cheaters allows:

  • Variable tolerance for ‘false-positives’

You might be running a free tournament where you want to take an aggressive approach and are happy to end up with 1/100 false positives. But in a Nationally sanctioned event you need to be more cautious and apply a level where only 1/10,000 will be false-positives.

  • Immediate intervention and forgiveness

A quiet word to a teenager who is cheating after 3 games might be enough for them to stop forever and help build trust in the entire system. Sharing some statistics with a friendly parent might offer a ‘learning moment’ for a child and turn a negative situation into a positive.

  • Protection for the innocent

There must be a way of preventing the 2000 rated player calling “cheat” every time they lose to a 1600 rated player. This behaviour is toxic and undermines the trust you are trying to build.

Tornelo provides a round-by-round process that an arbiter can quickly eliminate those who are not cheating. The arbiter can provide confidence to the higher rated player that, despite it being hard to believe, they just played badly!

You can never build trust in a hands-off Mega-portal tournament full of anonymous usernames, no matter how many cheaters you catch.

But you can quickly build trust in a community of known players with an arbiter that has timely information and control over the process.

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[…] by which they intend to deal with assistance in games played on their platform, as can be seen here. However, like chess.com and other major playing platforms, they understandably do not want to […]

Dr Selvaraj
Dr Selvaraj
2 years ago

Your method does not seem to be working in India.
Unless players will definitely be caught if they are cheating they will continue to cheat.
Also forgive and forget is good but waht about the 2000 rated player who gets beaten by an engine assisted 1600 .next round since he is down the 1300 player also uses engine and beats him.and it goes on. Finall the 2000 player puts on the engine and regains his strength.
With such philosophies you are encouraging more peop;e to cheat .

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