Luke McShane

Unfair play

Twenty players were disqualified from the Fide World University Online Championships, out of almost 900. Does that call for moral despair, righteous jubilation, or just a weary shrug? It is no revelation that policing the game has become a major challenge, made all the more urgent by the shift toward playing online.

The first obstacle is a technical one — how to identify all the bad apples without picking up false positives? Kenneth Regan is a computer scientist and international master whose statistical research has shown that the raw moves are packed with clues. Using the suggested moves from a top chess engine as a benchmark, his software can quantify how precisely a player has played. If an amateur player outperforms top grandmasters on these measures, there are reasonable grounds for suspicion. Further information may come from a player’s webcam stream, or an unnatural pattern of thinking time.

But it’s the second challenge, the social one, which hasn’t received the attention it deserves. It’s not enough to be good at cops and robbers — organisers (in this case Fide) must convince the wider public that their procedures have moral force. It is conceivable — though we don’t know — that the organisers of this event aced the technical challenge. They utterly failed the social one, because the stated reasons for disqualifying 20 players were terse in the extreme. The report from the tournament’s ‘fair play panel’ notes that they considered a) statistical evidence, b) Host internet platform (HIP) evidence c) physical evidence, d) expert opinion. ‘The statistics included several parameters, which combined with the other criteria lead to the decision for disqualification.’ That’s about it.

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