Chess’s Sinquefield Cup scandal: More tech-based cheating allegations in mind sports

Haley Hintze
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Posted on: September 14, 2022 11:36 am EDT

The world’s best chess player would rather quit a match than be cheated, and his recent withdrawal from a competition has gotten the attention of players in another arena where the champion spends a lot of his time.

Magnus Carlsen recently withdrew from the Sinquefield Cup chess competition in St. Louis and made oblique cheating accusations against an opponent. To some onlookers, Carlsen’s allegations cast a bright light on cheating in both chess and poker.

Bonus.com’s Alex Weldon recently explored Carlsen’s exit from the invitation-only tournament and its parallels to cheating allegations in the poker world.

Weldon’s piece traces the history of noted cheating episodes within the professional chess world and tied them back to cheating in poker through some of the in-common themes. Carlsen, the international chess grand master who took up poker as another way to wield his otherworldly analytical skills, served as a convenient bridge between the two mind sports.

Carlsen’s jarring Sinquefield withdrawal

Carlsen’s withdrawal from the renowned St. Louis chess tourney followed his unexpected loss to 19-year-old Hans Niemann in a Round 3 pairing. While not offering a full explanation for leaving, Carlsen tweeted a link to a video featuring Portuguese football (soccer) manager José Mourinho and his infamous response to allegations of corrupt officiating.

“I prefer really not to speak,” said Mourinho. “If I speak, I am in big trouble.”

Most observers within the chess world took Carlsen’s tweet to be an indirect accusation of cheating lobbed at Niemann, the American up-and-comer with at least a questionable past. Over the span of just two years, Niemann rose quickly up the highly competitive International Chess Federation’s (FIDE) numeric chess-rankings

Niemann is also reputed to have been booted off of Chess.com on two separate occasions for using a standalone-software chess engine, chess’s equivalent of poker’s solvers or real-time aids (RTAs). Chess-playing software has moved decades beyond the era of Deep Blue, to the point that no human player limited by a time clock can hope to regularly triumph against a computerized opponent.

The impact of strategy engines in chess has been so profound and potentially damaging that prominent chess events are run with strict security designed to block electronic or computerized cheating. Such live-event chess cheating often involves a nearby accomplice communicating computer-recommended moves to the cheater. Anti-cheating methods already employed in high-level chess involve frequent scans with metal and RFID detectors, temporary bans on phones, wallets, and other possible ways to communicate with accomplices, and isolating the players from easy view of the attending audience.

Though interpreted as an indirect accusation of cheating by Niemann, Carlsen’s tweet could have been a salvo fired at the St. Louis club as well. Despite Carlsen’s claim of enjoying playing in St. Louis, there could have been security gaps exploited by Niemann, if he did indeed cheat. Sinquefield Cup organizers quickly employed what the event’s Fair Play arbitrator described as “enhanced security measures,” but the damage to the event had already been done.

Carlsen’s withdrawal effectively annulled Niemann’s upset win. Had Carlsen played his Round 4 match, all previous results would, by rule, have stayed as part of the event’s overall standings. Instead, his results — one win, one loss, one draw — were all tossed out.

Long history of cheating in mind sports and gambling continues

As long as games and competitions have existed, particularly when big money and prestige are at stake, cheating has been a sad component. It’s not just chess and poker; it’s almost any game, and it’s an ever-present peril. Artifacts from ancient games involving dice and other markers show indications of having been slightly altered in shapes, which would have created deviations from expected outcomes. Loaded dice, it turns out, have been around forever.

Card games? Cheating in those games goes back many centuries, even before poker existed. The old game of cribbage, for example, is widely credited to have been invented by Britain’s Sir John Suckling. (He probably just popularized the game, which was based on an even earlier game called noddy.) Suckling traveled far and wide with scoring boards and decks of cards. Research later showed, however, that Suckling was a card cheat; the decks he brought along were the then-infamous “longs and shorts.” All playing cards were hand-cut in those days, and Suckling’s decks were trimmed so that certain lower or higher cards were either narrower or shorter. When the cards were cut by the non-dealer in this two-person game, the player could cut by gripping either the sides or by the top and bottom of the deck and thus avoid certain ranks of unhelpful cards.

Marked cards would play a major role in poker cheating history, but the cheating technology appeared in other ways, too. By the riverboat era, the first true technological cheating aids had appeared, with such devices as holdouts hidden up a card cheat’s long sleeve. And when the miniaturized computer era arrived, would-be cheats had a whole new arsenal of possible cheating devices to employ.

How the chess world already fights cheating

As a game of perfect information, chess is more vulnerable to computer-based cheating than a game of imperfect information such as poker. That’s why the chess world has taken such extreme measures against computer-based cheating. Chess faces the same online challenges that poker and other pastimes deal with on an industry-wide basis, but anti-cheating measures become extreme in the live chess environment, almost to the point of absurdity.

FIDE maintains an extensive list of recommended security and anti-cheating protocols, but they’re still only effective to a certain point. A determined cheat can craft a way to defeat detection technology. In the wake of the Carlsen/Niemann affair, chess wags have proposed (and not for the first time) playing matches naked, or within what’s termed a “Faraday box” that’s designed to block all outside input.

Exactly how Niemann is supposed to have cheated against Carlsen remains a mystery as well. The scandal deepened when Niemann was seemingly unable to explain the reasoning behind the strategy he employed against Carlsen’s lines. Niemann claimed to have studied a game of Carlsen’s using a similar opening that turned out not exist.

Speculation regarding Niemann centers on a compatriot running current moves in the Carlsen/Niemann match through an app-based chess engine then somehow communicating best moves to Niemann. How Niemann is supposed to have received the info led to wild speculation, including a suggestion regarding wireless anal beads that would evade detection. Even Tesla-founder Elon Musk took the wild conjecture and amplified it on Twitter, though he later deleted an inflammatory and outright weird tweet.

Shahade speaks on cheating issues in chess and poker

Prominent poker and chess champion Jennifer Shahade was among those immediately offering support to Carlsen after his shocking withdrawal from the Sinquefield Cup.

Shahade, who appeared here recently in one of our new “Voice of the Pros” segments, shared a bit more on the unusual Carlsen situation. “I think chess and poker are both booming industries,” she told Poker.org, “and [they] both face existential threats from cheating. The threat of cheating can be as pernicious as actual cheating. For example, an amateur-rated player makes an astonishingly good backwards knight move, or a mid-stakes player makes a turn overbet with an underpair, choosing the exact same suits that a solver would choose.

“Both things could easily happen once in a while by chance and thus be total inconsequential. But if the perception is that cheating is plausible and not that hard, such things can be maddening. The situation with the Sinquefield Cup is sad because it’s not clear there will be a resolution anytime soon. At the risk of being overly optimistic, I’d say one silver lining is that more rigorous game-integrity policies may spread, like the 15-minute stream delay the Sinquefield Cup implemented after round 3.”

The 15-minute stream delay Sinquefield organizers instituted after Carlsen’s withdrawal is an anti-cheating strategem that mirrors the tactics widely employed in prominent, streamed poker events. If there was any surprise to poker observers who became aware of the Sinquefield mess, it’s that such a delay wasn’t already in place in a tournament of such prominence, given chess’s leading role in implementing anti-cheating measures.

Still, each “mind game” universe has to learn these lessons on its own. There’s little organizational crossover between various pastimes, and reactions to cheating are just that — reactive measures to cheating that’s already taken place. It’s a neverending battle.

Technology didn’t create problems with cheating, but as the Sinquefield Cup saga illustrates, it often magnifies them.

Featured image source: Haley Hintze