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Elite World of Chess Rocked by Machine-Driven Scandal

A young player’s astonishing rise in the standings is linked to illegal use of a chess computer

After withdrawing from matches in protest, on September 26, world champion Magnus Carlsen accused Hans Moke Niemann, a grandmaster at 19, of cheating. He described cheating in chess as “a big deal” and “an existential threat to the game.”

How is it possible to cheat in elite chess and how is cheating detected? Well, in many matches, the moves are made online. Chess.com is a website that detects cheating by comparing players’ moves with those of powerful machines. As Ella Feldman explains at Smithsonian Magazine, the Wall Street Journal got hold of a 72-page report from Chess-com on the problem:

Did a player make a critical move that aligns with what a chess engine might suggest? And if the answer is yes, did the player make that move after toggling to another screen? If they did, that would suggest that they used another window on their computer to generate their next moves.

According to the report, Chess.com has found evidence that Niemann performs better when he toggles to another screen during his moves.

Ella Feldman, “The Cheating Scandal Rocking the Chess World” at Smithsonian Magazine (October 5, 2022)

In over 100 games, Niemann is thought to have cheated in this way — as Gizmodo puts it, “he might have sneakily used an illegal chess engine to inform him of his best move options.” He is also accused of cheating in games played in the traditional way, on a board, but that’s a separate story.

Chess is unusually susceptible to complete domination by machines because, as tech philosopher George Gilder points out, in chess the map is the territory There is nothing apart from the boards, the pieces, and the rules. A big enough machine can win over any human playing by doing more calculations faster. Big machines are not nearly as successful in situations where much that we need to know is not — and maybe can’t be — written down.

Is the larger question whether chess can survive as an elite game when it is dominated by big computers? As noted at Financial Review, the scandal “has revealed the extent to which computers have transformed the game.”

They transformed the game such that — if the allegations are correct — 19-year-old Niemann beat the world champion dramatically by improperly using them. From The Atlantic: “At the Sinquefield Cup chess tournament in St. Louis earlier this month, an upstart American teenager named Hans Niemann snapped the 53-game unbeaten streak of world champion Magnus Carlsen, perhaps the game’s best player of all time.”

At The Atlantic, Matteo Wong spells out the implications:

Whatever really happened here, everyone agrees that for Niemann, or anyone else, to cheat at chess in 2022 would be conceptually simple. In the past 15 years, widely available AI software packages, known as “chess engines,” have been developed to the point where they can easily demolish the world’s best chess players—so all a cheater has to do to win is figure out a way to channel a machine’s advice. That’s not the only way that computers have recently reshaped the landscape of a 1,500-year-old sport. Human players, whether novices or grandmasters, now find inspiration in the outputs of these engines, and they train themselves by memorizing computer moves. In other words, chess engines have redefined creativity in chess, leading to a situation where the game’s top players can no longer get away with simply playing the strongest chess they can, but must also engage in subterfuge, misdirection, and other psychological techniques. In that sense, the recent cheating scandal only shows the darker side of what chess slowly has become.

Matteo Wong, “Chess Is Just Poker Now” at The Atlantic (September 17, 2022)

Cheating over-the-board is said to be much more difficult.

Worried about the future of chess

If chess is “the new poker,” what will be the new chess?

You may also wish to read: To win against AI poker programs, humans need to identify their blind spots. Each pro separately played 5,000 hands of poker against five copies of Pluribus and Pluribus won. Now this, in itself, was an astonishing result. Eric Holloway: I’d be curious if down the road with all these game-playing AIs, people start finding out these blind spots and figuring out how to control the game AIs.

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Elite World of Chess Rocked by Machine-Driven Scandal