An Indian billionaire admitted using outside "help" to inflict a shock defeat during an online charity match on June 13 over Viswanathan Anand. (AFP)
An Indian billionaire admitted using outside "help" to inflict a shock defeat during an online charity match on June 13 over Viswanathan Anand. (AFP)

World of online cheating exposed in chess saga

After billionaire entrepreneur Nikhil Kamath apologised for using computer, experts in dubious win over Viswanathan Anand, online chess accounts of two more shut for unfair play
By HT Correspondents
UPDATED ON JUN 15, 2021 10:26 PM IST

After accounts of billionaire entrepreneur Nikhil Kamath, film producer Sajid Nadiadwala and actor Kichcha Sudeep were closed by Chess.com for violating “Fair Play Policy” in their respective simul against five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand in a charity event, the global online chess platform on Tuesday decided to reopen the accounts “with the full cooperation of Vishy Anand”.

A statement issued by Danny Rensch, Chief Chess Officer of the website’s Fair Play Team, read: “Given the forthcoming cooperation of the players and the clarification that not all the rules were properly understood, neither Chess.com nor Anand himself see any reason to uphold the matter any further.”

The statement added that unrated games, like some of those played in Sunday’s event, are not always played within the same parameters of the rules. “Anand, as the simul giver, has expressed no interest in further pursuing the matter. While he wants clearly expressed that he does not endorse the use of non-approved assistance in chess, he agrees fully that the games were played in good faith for the fun and good intentions of the charitable efforts, and wishes the matter by put to rest.”

Anand retweeted the statement, saying: “It’s time to move on and get closure on this.”

Also read | Not perfect, but cheating can be tracked in online chess meets: GM Barua

The accounts were immediately restored after the statement.

After Kamath admitted to using unfair means while “beating” Anand in the event, accounts of Nadiadwala and Sudeep were also red-flagged by Chess.com for violating “Fair Play Policy”, the same policy that was used to suspend Kamath’s account on Monday. Kamath apologised on social media and acknowledged receiving “help” from people analysing the game and computers in his simul with Anand. Nadiadwala and Sudeep have not publicly commented on the issue so far. They could not be reached for comments.

While Kamath played with a near-perfect accuracy of 98.9 against Anand, Nadiadwala had an accuracy of 79.1 and Sudeep’s was calculated at 68.6. The three were part of a group of nine celebrities, including cricketer Yuzvendra Chahal and actor Aamir Khan, to play 30-minute simul games with Anand in the charity event called Checkmate Covid that was organised by Chess.com India with NGO Akshaya Patra Foundation. Kamath was the only one to “beat” Anand, who resigned with seconds left on the clock.

The controversy sparked outrage on social media, even more so because it involved Anand, India’s most legendary chess player.

“It definitely upset people like us all the more, because everyone has so much respect and love for Anand,” Grandmaster Srinath Narayanan, who in 2002 became the youngest FIDE-rated player in the country at the age of eight, said. “I think it was a huge part of the reason why there was so much public anger on this—that they treated Vishy like this, apart from chess.”

It also brought to the fore the perils of playing competitive chess online, which has become the norm now as the world grapples with a pandemic. Despite the presence of strict counter-cheating measures usually put in place by organisers, online events can often become a hub for unfair practices.

“As soon as chess moved online, one of the biggest problems has been online cheating, which anyone with a rudimentary understanding of computers can do,” said Narayanan, who was the vice-captain of the Indian team that won gold in the FIDE Online Chess Olympiad last year. “It’s a bit like spot-fixing in cricket. It’s something that we see as a threat to the existence of the sport itself.”

When online chess first took off about a decade ago, cheating was the biggest obstacle to its legitimacy--it is ridiculously easy for players to run a game through a chess programme on another computer, or even their smartphones, and come up with near-perfect moves.

Even if an anti-cheating measure is in place--for example, players in online chess tournaments often have to have cameras trained on them—there are ways to circumvent it. One common method is that the player uses a tiny earpiece and receives advice from an accomplice who is following the game and running it through a computerized chess engine.

Over time, chess websites developed highly sophisticated algorithms that mine statistical data to look for signs of irregularities—these programmes are then monitored and analysed by human experts.

According to an expert who tracked and analysed the simul games in the charity event but did not want to be named, the three cases had varying degrees of unfair play and therefore the ease of spotting them (Chess.com has a Fair Play Team comprising chess experts including multiple titled players and engineers). In Kamath’s game, it became fairly obvious that external assistance was used for almost every single move after the opening. In the other two cases, it was less clear.

Also read | Zerodha’s Kamath admits to cheating after ‘beating’ Anand in charity chess

“But if one analyses how they played in their previous games (on the online platform), it was pretty clear that they were not very fluent in chess. And then suddenly there was a huge difference in the way they played the simul. So that became pretty apparent, and such things are easy to catch when an amateur does it,” the expert said.

Bharat Chauhan, secretary, All India Chess Federation, said there have been instances of unfair play in online chess but added that they have been able to eradicate them. “Online chess is really challenging. In national championships and other tournaments, we have processes in place to monitor. Because this was a charity event, we didn’t have camera monitoring because we didn’t expect any celebrity to cheat,” Chauhan said.

Narayanan said cases of online cheating can often run into thousands per day on any particular platform, and there have been instances of kids “even as young as eight” resorting to it.

In an interview to the New York Times earlier this year, Gerard Le-Marechal, an “anti-cheating detective” for Chess.com, said that suspected cases of cheating—involving amateurs as well as professionals—are brought to his notice daily.

Which is why this episode, involving celebrities with a huge fan following on social media and off it, does not help.

“It’s of the worst implications of this episode, especially for kids who follow these people. As it is, there are a lot of cheating instances even by little kids while not knowing the consequences and what it means to the sport. Unfair play sets a very, very wrong precedent,” Narayanan said. “But the message from this entire episode is that if you cheat, you will get caught sooner or later, no matter whether you are an eight-year-old or a tech billionaire. And that message will hopefully do something to deter cheating.”

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