What to do about computer cheaters

I've been thinking a lot lately about what is being perceived as the main problem with playing chess over the Internet: Cheaters who use a computer to calculate moves rather than their own chess skill. It has been suggested (in the "Report of the USChessLive Subcommittee of the USCF Internet Committee" on page 52 of the June 2001 Issue of ChessLife magazine) that software be bundled with the USCL interface that would detect such deception and alert the authorities.

While I admire their efforts, I respectfully submit that this will not work, and would eventually be discarded, having proved to be only a waste of time and money. Allow me to explain why and offer an alternate solution to the problem.

We are used to traditional chess, played over a board with both players present and observing each other. In this scenario, both chess players are in the same environment. Cheating is quite difficult. Chess games played over the Internet, however, are completely open to environmental influences:

As a professional software engineer, it is my opinion that it is possible, though not easy, to write detection software to examine various aspects of the computer system for signs that it is computing chess moves. This is largely dependent on the operating system being used, and would likely not be very reliable. The detection software could be told about popular chess programs, such as ChessMaster and Fritz, so it could better look for signs that these programs are running. Due to regular releases of new versions of chess software and operating systems, this program would require constant maintenance. This is expensive, especially as programmers come and go and need to get up to speed on a complex program.

Dedicated cheaters will still figure out ways to outsmart the program. That will become a game in and of itself, the reward being the ability to use a computer without getting caught. There goes any hope of honor; these people will have earned the right to cheat (in their minds) due to their perceived cleverness. There are many ways to circumvent detection software, such as simply running a chess program on another computer (either sitting next to you, as is usual in college labs, or remotely connected). In addition, hackers will probably come up with a method to fool the detection software.

The detection software approach has the unfortunate effect of encouraging dishonesty by trying to enforce proper conduct in an unenforceable environment. Also, consider the side effects of this approach: I often have my computer analyze a game while I am doing other things on my computer, including playing chess. In fact, as I write this letter my computer is calculating moves on the game I just finished. If I were playing chess right now, and detection software were in place, I would be incorrectly flagged as a cheater.

Blind faith in a technological solution is not the answer. I propose that a simple mechanism be put in place that encourages honor and gentlemanly conduct, and discourages cheaters by taking all of their cleverness away and making their dishonesty seem petty and cheap.

When a game is started, but before the clock starts, a negotiation window appears allowing both players to specify conditions of play. Either player can opt to refuse to play the game during this negotiation. Chatting is available in this window. Once the conditions are accepted by both players, the clock starts and play begins.

The negotiation window includes the following settings:

as well as, for each player: Pressing the button that reads "I promise to follow our agreed conditions for this game" allows the game to begin.

For example, if I were playing a much stronger player than myself, I might suggest that I be allowed to use a printed book on chess openings to help me out. If my opponent agreed, he would likely enjoy a better game (I wouldn't just die in the opening). He also might accept on condition that the game not be rated. The negotiation window encourages honest chess without pretending to force obedience.

While there will still be cheaters around, the real chess players will be supported. Cheaters don't last long anyway because playing for a computer must get old after a while. Once a player has artificially inflated their rating by using a computer, they can never play alone without a major rating drop.

Say a computer cheater has inflated his rating up to 2000. So he plays other people, and what is the result? Well, he plays like a 2000-rated player, as expected. No big deal. The only time anyone cares is when a player enters a tourney that has tangible rewards for winning. He enters as a rated-1500 player, but using his software plays like a rated 2000 player. The result: he wins the tourney, and the non-cheating players lost unfairly. This would only work once, because this cheater's rating just went way up. Now he's got to get it back down before the next tourney. For-prizes tournament games should be closely scrutinized for suspicious patterns, and rating histories kept for all players to identify cheaters of this type. A pattern of losing to lesser-rated players followed by winning important tourneys easily identifies them.

I've heard of people using a computer to cheat because "I KNOW my opponent is cheating." That is no excuse. Play your best, maybe you'll learn something from the computer. Your opponent has already lost.

In summary, this is only a perceived problem. A few dishonest people make very little difference one way or another. If a person has such a dismal life that they get a big ego boost by watching good chess players lose to their computer, then I say let them have their fun. They must really need it.

All true chess players are winners. Let's have Spanish openings, not a Spanish Inquisition.

Eric Wadsworth
"wad" on USCL, FICS