Chess greats face off online, webcams, arbiters to watch movesApril 24, 2020
A well-lit room, smartly-placed roving Webcams, a Screen-share setting on Skype, an arbiter – sitting remotely while accessing the player’s computer and alert to any out-of-place ambient sound, and oodles of trust in the top respected names of the game: Those are the logistics of the Online Nations Cup in chess, perhaps the highest profile sporting action that’ll take place between May 5-10 at multiple venues coinciding with chess’ famous residential addresses.
A set of arbiters will also monitor every move (speed of reactions and patterns), vetting them on anti-cheating software to look for engine aids.
Six teams – Russia, the USA, China, India, best of Europe and Rest of the world, will go up against each other in a double round robin, blitz 25-minute team format, as the cerebral sport mainstreams playing arenas hitherto frequented by amateurs which will now be headlined by the pros: online chess rooms sitting at home. This was necessitated by a world cornered into restrictive lockdowns forced by the Covid-19 pandemic.
While players and fans are happy that atleast chess can stay afloat while global travel is at a standstill and all sporting action has paused, the biggest test for the organisers and those overseeing the competition – fashioned to be like chess’s Ryder Cup – will be to ensure that the online setting leaves no doubts about fair play, and cheating is completely ruled out.
“It is an elite event. Only the best players in the world. They would never risk their reputation,” says David Llada of FIDE, while adding that the world body will do everything technology permits to guarantee that conditions for the event cannot be corrupted by anyone participating. With names like Gary Kasparov, Vladimir Kramnik and India’s Viswanathan Anand set to be involved in playing and guiding capacities, FIDE is banking on reputations to ensure nothing silly is indulged in.
However the online setting will keep everyone on their toes, given the sheer scope for manipulations. “The players will be playing from home. They are required to have a couple of webcams, so the arbiters can see their room and their computer screen. These will be rapid games, so there are no “toilet breaks” – which would pose a challenge. Chess.com also has some anti-cheating systems that are able to track, with a high degree of reliability, when a player is making too may moves that coincide with the engines recommendations. All things combine – we can guarantee the conditions for the event to be considered safe,” Llada adds.
Online chess is not a novelty and FIDE says an estimated 16 million games were played online since the lockdown began. But this will be the biggest event to take off on an online platform. Prof Anantharam, one of India’s leading arbiters who’s also on the FIDE panel says that backroom work for arbiters will now include tracking every move and tallying it with engine databases in forensic ways.
“At this high level, players won’t take risks. But as a governing body, we have to take all precautions. There are a couple of checking tools – a fast one which flags a move for the fair play team if the software suggests the player’s analysis could be engine-aided within seconds and then detailed checks monitoring the next moves in a match. Noone is naive to think cheating doesn’t happen in online chess. Just that technology catches it,” he says, adding that cash prizes upto Rs 10000 were withdrawn after some lower-rung amateurs were found cheating. Both chess.com and the other popular website lichess.com have developed anti-cheating provisions now.
Magnus Carlsen, the biggest name in chess, is currently hosting another online tournament, and besides the livestreams and live commentary, the emphasis is on a 360 degree monitoring of the rooms via webcams. The sport is not immune to mischief with an IM using the pretext of a weak bladder to take help from his phone hidden in a dustbin in face to face chess to win an Abu Dhabi tournament. The professor, one of the sharpest arbiters in the country once caught a player in Kochi using “some kind of transmissions through a Bluetooth device.”
“It’ll be best if cameras used for the FIDE event have audio feeds. As an arbiter of online games, one would need to observe players’ movements to see if they are checking tools as well as their computer screens to make it footproof,” he says. While reiterating that cheating is unlikely at this level, Prof Anantharam maintains that as arbiters they’ll need to be on their toes nevertheless. Someone holding a placard but not in camera’s view is not a stunt anyone will try, but after a GM recently found intrepid new ways of cheating, FIDE won’t take any chances. “One person will need to keep watching the player,” he says.
GM Dibyendu Barua, while stressing that no top players will attempt cheating, adds that safety measures are important so that “no one can blame anyone later.”
“Keeping the webcam on for the whole duration, a well lit room and supervision will happen ofcourse,” he says adding that he’s heard of mobile devices being used for cheating at lower rungs. “It’ll be exciting to watch mixed teams (1 woman out of 4 players mandatory) and besides watching strong chess countries like China, interest will be high in certain matchups. Just seeing Anand match wits with Kasparov again for the younger generation, or Kasparov-captaining against the young Iranian sensation Alireza. Mischief won’t be on top of anyone’s mind, but we don’t want exceptions,” he says.
Chennai-based RB Ramesh, a former player and current coach, says that the shorter time controls (25 minute rapid) don’t lend themselves to any hanky-panky. “With technology, cheating can be curtailed in blitz games. But if it’s longer formats with 300-400 playing, it’s tough to monitor. But it’s why online tournaments are not rated officially and FIDE has software like the plagiarism tracker so to some extent you can mitigate cheating,” he says.
Captaining a FIDE age-group team once, he insists that both video and audio cameras need to be live, to erase suspicion of someone standing off camera and suggesting moves. “One can’t obviously say definitively that cheating doesn’t happen online, just the chances here are very low,” he says.
While FIDE has reacted quickly to the dramatically altered sporting scene globally, concerns of fair play remain at the back of their mind. “50 years ago there was this big “USSR vs Rest of the World” that was really massive: Now, the world is different. India, China… they are claiming their place – not only in the chess board, but also as superpowers. India is rubbing shoulders with the US, Russia and Europe,” Llada says, adding top players were “all a bit worried about having all the “over to beard” tournaments cancelled. But they were relieved to see that chess organizers, including FIDE, reacted very quickly and are now holding all top-level competitions online.
The last word of wisdom are reserved for Viswanathan Anand, who stresses that due caution will need to be taken. “Logistics is easier, but they should do some testing. Like some anti-cheating measures because you are after all playing at home.”
“The idea is you will share your screen with arbiters. In Skye you have a setting, screen-share, you can do that. The arbiter will have access to your computer and know what you are doing. He knows what’s happening in the room. The best would be if we didn’t have a lockdown, you could arrange a chess player to go to everyone’s house as an arbiter and make sure that nothing is going on. But right now I think every once in a while they will look around the room and something like that,” he explains.
The multiple world champion from India offers an insight into the future saying online chess simplifies a lot of things for the organisers: travel and venue and other minor practical aspects, while hoping online is not forced into becoming the norm. “It’s turned out very useful in this situation. Having said that, the whole world hopes that we are not living with Corona for the next 10 years. Hope it would not become necessary to play online all the time. For the moment, it keeps us going.”
While stressing that online chess has been around for ages and the world needn’t act as if it’s a new thing invented now, he reckons trust in fellow players is the key.
“I think it’s a question of trust. I think chess players trust each other. If someone is caught, it’s the end of his career, so everyone will hope it won’t happen. If they are obsessed with checking every single thing, it will get unpleasant very fast,” he says of the mild irritants that’ll be so crucial to maintain fair play in the taut-nerved sport.