Titled Tuesday "cheating": cheaters or victims?

IM Cryptochess

By now, many users have heard of the recent incident involving two alleged cheaters during the previous Titled Tuesday event. In a departure from usual practice, chess.com elected to publish the usernames of the alleged cheaters, ostensibly to establish a "tough on cheating" stance. The community reaction was swift and decisive: the members in question were condemned, the statement praised, and chess.com became an industry leader in handling cheating. 

Unfortunately, just 24 hours after the announcement, the narrative exploded and chess.com was reminded of the dangers of public handling. Both players purportedly responded with strong denials, one of which is below (note: these were posted through other accounts, and so it is unclear whether these are the statements of the actual players in question. Nonetheless, they appear authentic):

Dear Denny,


Do you really want me to agree with that lie which you want thrust to public and me under the pretext of eternal ban?

I didn't use the help of computers. And I have some arguments for it:


• Last game which I won against Nakamura (after which scandal began) – I won only thanks to preparation in a opening. I know this trap from 13 years if black instead of RD8+ would do 0-0-0+ as well as play in this position –an equal end-game will be. The player with such level had to know it. I didn't make practically any move of my own and it is logical – the game ended in opening!


• I won game with George Meyer only thanks to his elementary miss. He gave me chance to win him in one move (simply to take his Knight ). If he saw it, the position would remain equal (honestly, my even worse).


• In many games I had the worst position. I won only because of overlooks and misses of my rivals or won in a time trouble. In opening I always played with a good speed, it is nothing like cheaters play. Because I played without any help, just according to my memory. To call it “cheating” – it is ridiculous.


• In the 7th game I won an end-game without 3 pawns in time trouble. How does the cheater came to this? I was played all game, I tried but I could not create any problems to my rival and only in a time trouble won! How you can explain it?


• All my life I am the extremely unstable player. When I catch spirit I really play very well. I won not one strong tournament in a blitz. For example, in Pardubice (it seems, in 2008) I reached the final where played 9 strong MG including (Shakhriyakh Mamedyarov and Rauf Mamedov) and I, for that time I was only CM. At the same time I play too weak, when something without any reason goes badly.


• When I catch spirit – I play very strongly in bullet. It can confirms many victories on chess.com over TOP-GM (including Andreykin, Meyer and others).


• I make good money on my work, and chess is my hobby. I am lucky that I don't need to earn with the help of chess, as well as I don’t need to cheat to earn this money.


• And yes, it is my best tournament on the Internet in my memory! I didn't expect to get even to the top three. I offered a draw in some games, but they refused and by a lucky chance I won.


It turns out if IM (not GM) wins a tournament –he is a cheater. I understand that you wanted to please Nakamura (to whom I treat with mad respect and recognition) and also his fans, for whom it was a pity that in the last game Nakamura loses to some unknown IM. But who is at fault that Hikar got in the children's trap known for everybody who plays this variant in Alapin’s system?!


I didn't see any proofs of cheating, just only proofless charges. You dared to publish publicly article with charges without real facts. On what grounds? Who gave you the right to write about me in such way?


I treat your charges with a smile. I don't need even that money which I won honestly-give this money, as you planed, to those who will benefit you more. Though, I also don't approve your act. I am afraid to remind that the public slander is a crime.


Are you criminals? I don’t think so…


Publish my full original answer in the same place, in article, if you want to continue this silly subject.

Also don't forget to specify that if you IM, you have no right to win such strong tournament.


Best regards,

Simply international master.


(P.S Sorry for English, it is not my native, hope you understand)

And now, the chess world is a house divided, but it appears the majority are against chess.com's actions. And though chess.com has acknowledged the situation should have been handled privately, their words ring hollow to the two accused whose reputations have been - perhaps permanently - tarnished. Much more distressingly, at this point it's questionable whether the accusations were even warranted, and the case where they were not is a nightmare scenario for all involved.

Of course, this question is not new in the chess world. Cheating has become rampant throughout all levels of play, and suspicions of such have permeated even the highest levels of play. The issue, of course, is mainly about detecting cheating, but it extends even further than that: when a suspected cheater is identified, what actions should be taken? Everyone agrees, of course, that some punishment must be applied, but should it be a lifetime ban or something less severe? What type of appeals process, if any, should be in place? These questions are important to ask and answer, but the most important of all is: at what point do we label someone a cheater?

Absent physical proof, which is difficult to collect and detection of which often runs afoul of privacy concerns, our only countermeasures are statistical anaylses. This problem is magnified on the internet, where physical proof is - quite literally - impossible to obtain, and heuristic methods must be the sole basis on which to make a decision. Many feel that such heuristic methods are always insufficient to determine a reasonable standard of guilt, but this ignores the rather real fact that statistical methods have been used to meet the highest standard of proof necessary: criminal court. So, indeed, these methods work, but it is not clear what constitutes a statistical anomaly. Opening preparation, especially at higher levels, obfuscate these statistical methods due to the possibility of very deep preparation. Due to the advent of databases and lines extending 30+ moves, it is no longer entirely unusual for even amateurs to play - again, quite literally - a perfect game, should the opponent play into an inadvisable line previously known to the player. So just how well does someone have to play before we can reasonably conclude that cheating has occurred?

In the present case, it is not at all clear that cheating has actually occurred. We, of course, cannot know what heuristics chess.com use, but it is reasonable to assume that their statistical analysis is similar to what industry leaders (and, e.g. FIDE) have been using recently. However, we also cannot know what standards chess.com use, so it is impossible for us to determine whether their decision was correct. What is evident, however, is that the accusations are - to say the least - quite suspect. Undeniably, there are clear reasons for chess.com to keep their methodology secret, as publicizing their methods would simply allow cheaters to work around them. But it is also not acceptable to hide behind the veil of secrecy and expect the userbase to simply accept the results of these mysterious methods.

Many years ago, I was informed by ICC staff that I was under investigation for cheating, following a particularly good bullet (!!!) tournament. I was given three options: allow the investigation to continue, permanently brand my account with an apology note, or have my account listed as a computer. This was, of course, a clear bullying tactic, and after I informed them that I would fight against any suggestion of cheating, they quickly and quietly dropped the case. chess.com's approach, in this case, has been even more draconian. In their statement, they offered the accused two choices: to deny cheating and be permanently removed from the site, or to admit to cheating and be given an anonymous account. Besides the fact that the second option is nonsense in view of the public accusations, there is absolutely no recourse for the accused to appeal the decision. No opportunity for them to explain their moves, to introduce their own evidence, or defend themselves in any way. Certainly chess.com cannot be expected to turn every cheating accusation into a public trial, but the "we're right and you're guilty because of reasons you don't deserve" stance is insulting and, frankly, quite terrifying.

There is also no outside recourse for wrongfully accused players. No watchdog agencies, no consumer activism groups, nothing at all. The legal system, at least in the U.S., is almost certain to be totally unhelpful for a variety of reasons: damages will be nearly impossible to prove, chess.com is well within their rights as a private entity to remove accounts at will, and nothing in the statement is technically false (even if cheating did not occur, it is indeed true that chess.com's algorithm labeled them as using assistance, etc.), so defamation/slander/libel is not applicable. So what are these players to do? They face an uphill - and drawn out - battle to fight for their innocence, a situation that no player should be in.

So are these two players innocent or guilty? I have absolutely no idea. Certainly I want to trust chess.com's methods are sound, but at the same time I simply don't see the evidence they're referring to. There is also the more cynical interpretation of the situation: the players in question took points off of GM Nakamura - something he was quite vocal about - and were banned shortly thereafter. Certainly I don't want to believe that the opponent had any bearing on the investigation (beyond being very strong), but it's impossible to ignore the fact that Nakamura's presence is a huge catch for the site, and jeopardizing that is hardly in chess.com's interest.  

Finally, chess.com's altering of the standings is notable for being a far cry from precedent. All players who played one of the disqualified players were given a full point for that game, notably moving GM Nakamura into shared first. In contrast, a similar case at the last USCF nationals saw the scores of affected players increased by just half a point, with the reasoning that it did not sense to let someone lose to a cheater in round 1, beat significantly reduced opposition for the remainder of the tournament, then be crowned a national champion without having really touched the top players. This wasn't quite the case here, but to some extent it was: in round 5, where the top players were already facing off, Hikaru's opponent was... yours truly (in light of this case, maybe it's a good thing that I lost!). Also, in the recent ICC Open, which was a cesspool of engine users, scores of affected users weren't adjusted at all. I doubt their decision affected things much, but it's definitely interesting to see if they continue this rather novel approach. 

The irony of criticizing chess.com's actions on their own platform is not lost on me, and should they so wish, I'll take down this entry. But I have to condemn their handling of this situation in the stronger possible terms. Regardless of whether or not the individuals in question actually cheated, the public accusations are simply inexcusable, and their subsequent acknowledgment of this fact smacks of insincerity and "damage control". The lack of an appeals process is also extremely worrisome - not just for the players involved this time, but for anyone who might be planning on having a good result in the future. chess.com, whether they like it or not, has been thrust into the spotlight as the clear leader in internet chess today. As such, they must realize that they are setting the tone not just for how chess is played on the internet, but also how it is being conducted throughout the world today - and that includes cases of potential cheating. In a very real way, the world is watching, and they will follow the example chess.com puts forward. In the future, there are a few things chess.com absolutely must do when handling cases like yesterdays:

  • Firstly, these cases must be handled privately. When it is necessary to give a more public explanation, a blanket statement such as "xxx's account has been closed, and xxx is aware of the reason(s) why" leaves open the possibilities of cheating, conduct unbecoming, some other breach of chess.com rules, or the user requesting that their account be closed. Hence, it is far preferable to "xxx's account has been closed due to the results of a cheating investigation" which, while not legally a problem (since this is a true statement regardless of whether cheating occurred), directly implies an accusation and effectively amounts to defamation. These types of statements have their place, but only when the cheating was proved - not just suspected.
  • Secondly, investigations of cheating should handled by an outside source. This may not be practical at this particular point in time, since there hardly exists an agency with the purpose of performing chess cheating investigations, but having it handled "out of house" performs two important functions: it squashes any suggestions of nepotism (like are present in this case due to GM Hikaru's relationship with the case), and it establishes a clearer standard of what is considered sufficient evidence - even if we don't know precisely what criteria are used, we at least know that the criteria are consistent. Something like FIDE's online system for evaluating cheating, if that has come to fruition yet, is a decent example.
  • Thirdly, there must be an opportunity for the accused to defend themselves. There are a variety of potential extenuating circumstances - e.g. opening preparation or similarity to a previous game - that can invalidate statistical analyses, and the "defendant" should have the opportunity to, for example, provide the recording of a recently played game that demonstrates a good reason for high computer matching. Blind faith in heuristics is simply too rigid for the chess world.
  • Finally, a public apology - and not the passive-aggressive "we should have handled this privately, and profusely apologize for that" half-hearted attempt - is absolutely in order to the two individuals in question here. Mistakes happen, but amends need to be made.

If we look at almost any professional organization today, their handling of analogous cases generally follow the above points. You will never hear, for example, a sports team state that a player was released due to drug offenses (the most severe statement you may hear is something like "xxx was released due to team rule infractions", and even that is unlikely) without the case first being analyzed by the court system, and even then their statements are along the lines of "we respect the decision that the justice system handed down today, and hereby terminate our involvement with xxx". When you have to look at Webster University's abhorrent treatment of GM So just to find something even comparably unprofessional, you know that you've made some baaaad decisions.


None of this should be taken as insulting towards chess.com; instead, it should be viewed as a constructive criticism of their actions in this particular case. The site remains afloat - and has become the industry leader - only due to the herculean efforts of a very small group of people (IM Rensch in particular, not withstanding his comments towards this case), and their efforts should be respected and commended above all else. But when they, as in this case (and for lack of a better term), blow it, we cannot sit idly by and attribute it to expected incompetence. We expect better, we deserve better, and we can all do better.