Games that tolerate cheating play with their future

In Ian Fleming’s 1955 novel moonraker, James Bond is recruited to punish Sir Hugo Drax, a sinister industrialist who cheats at the fictional Blades Club in London by the Bridge. Bond repairs the cards and crushes Drax with an impossible-looking grand slam: “Thirteen single lashes, the scars of which no card player would ever lose.”

“I haven’t had a case of fraud since the 14-18 war,” the club chairman muses. If so, Blades either have a remarkable code of honor or terrible powers of observation, as International Bridge have suffered many real-life cheating scandals, from an Italian team using foot signals to two German players coughing in code.

Bridge isn’t the only game prone to cheating. Online platform Chess.com issued a report this week that US grandmaster Hans Niemann “probably cheated” in more than 100 online chess games. She released her investigation after world chess champion Magnus Carlsen accused Niemann of cheating when the latter defeated him in a personal tournament.

Dishonorable behavior is also common in sports. Two fishermen competing for a $29,000 prize in a competition in Ohio were accused of cheating and surrounded by angry rivals last week. “We have weights in fish. Get out!” screamed the judge who announced they had made their catch seem heavier by stuffing it with lead weights and fish fillets.

But technology has expanded the possibilities to bend the rules. It didn’t just make cheating in games easier Fourteen days to poker, but it blurred the lines between rule-breaking and creative hacking. When computers can offer people invaluable help, whether in training for games or in suggesting plays, it’s dangerously tempting.

This makes rule violations common. Players who get stuck at one game level jump to the next, and a study by Pokémon Go found that players often fake physical locations to make their game more exciting and faster. Even children playing Whyville in the online world manipulated the virtual currency shells.

Most players expect some transgression from others and accept it, within limits. Finding loopholes in games and using them for entertainment is not only expected, it is often admired. But the codes of honor agree on one principle: Don’t cheat with computers to outwit opponents who play by the rules.

The line exists in chess, where programs like Stockfish can now beat humans. They are used by grandmasters and others for preparation, but cannot be consulted in-game. If players could look at their phones during their games, it would break the game.

That doesn’t stop many from trying. Niemann is a master at playing unaided: he has been called “an incredibly strong player” by Chess.com. But just as high-performing students were found to be more likely to change answers on tests, so he admitted to his leaders that he had cheated at computer chess.

Technology can find deception and enable it. A sign of cheating is unnatural consistency: “It could be a fantastic stroke of luck . . . He’s always a big winner,” says a character about Drax in moonraker Chess.com delved into Niemann’s online chess record and found that “the chances of a single player doing so well in so many games is incredibly slim.”

But just uncovering fraud is not enough; You also need to take effective action against it. What is most striking about the Niemann report is not that it broke the rules, but that the computer game is permeated with similar behavior at the highest level. Chess.com announced that it had privately penalized hundreds of title-winning chess players, including “four of the top 100 grandmasters.”

The first instinct of institutions is to keep all problems under wraps. Bond is called to the Blades Club to avoid a scandal over Drax’s cheating, and Chess.com officials conclude their report by saying that they “seek stability, fairness and joy in the chess community, not turmoil, conspiracies and allegations”.

Her misguided reluctance forced Carlsen to make his own public stand. Chess has been taken to a risky place by the combination of technology that enables cheating and weak sanctions for those who do. The couple, who were accused of fixing their fish in Ohio, were pilloried, but Niemann was still allowed to compete in tournaments even after he was caught (there’s no evidence he cheated in personal fights).

The penalties used to be harsher. When Sir William Gordon-Cumming was accused of cheating at baccarat with the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) in 1890, he was publicly denounced. “He committed a deadly crime. Society can no longer know him,” thundered The Times after Gordon-Cumming lost his subsequent Supreme Court case for defamation.

It was brutal and no one wants a return to Victorian-style social disgrace given the possible miscarriage of justice that may have occurred in the case of Royal Baccarat. But when cheating becomes endemic and there is little incentive for players to stay honest, games are devalued.

john.gapper@ft.com

https://www.ft.com/content/4cc64f25-9468-4563-a539-f0f7c02bedb3 Games that tolerate cheating play with their future

Adam Bradshaw

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