Adults, children, cheating, and online chess

by Alexey Root
12/14/2020 – In the 1993 film “Searching for Bobby Fischer”, disruptive parents are locked out of the playing hall. After the lockout, their children play chess games following fair play guidelines. When children play online, however, maybe parents should be looking over their shoulders. National Master Jeff Ashton and WIM Alexey Root tell why.

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Online chess: incredible, constructive, educational

While playing chess online has been around for a few decades, during the pandemic homebound players have grown the game exponentially. CBS News quoted Grandmaster Maurice Ashley as saying “the pandemic has driven people indoors, and they’re looking for something incredible, constructive, educational to do.”

Moreover, the Netflix hit series The Queen’s Gambit has sparked increases in searches for learning chess. For the most part, the mainstream media portrays chess as a worthy, honest game. A CNN article stated, “Chess is a game of intellect. Remember intellect? In a world where every news development seems more implausible than the last, there is something infinitely reassuring in retreating to a series about a cerebral game, in which (this is not spoiling anything, I think) nobody cheats.” 

Chess cheating

Notwithstanding that CNN article’s positive interpretation of The Queen’s Gambit, there is a long history of over-the-board cheating in chess and more recent incidents of online chess cheating. And there have been some mainstream news articles recently, such as this one from The Guardian, about a recent rise in online chess cheating.

Increased cheating could derail the chess publicity train. Rather than being seen as a game that encourages intellect and truth, chess might be dismissed as a game for cheaters. Chess websites have stepped up their anti-cheating efforts, though perhaps with some unintended consequences.

Cheating accusations

Cheating accusations may harm streamers who are trying to grow the game. During ChessCoachJohn’s Twitch stream on November 17, someone in his Twitch chat suggested a move, on the fifth move in a standard opening. The suggestion was made despite John Hendrick, aka ChessCoachJohn, having a warning against suggesting moves in his chat rules and Hendrick regularly reminding his viewers not to offer suggestions. Nevertheless, the lichess4545.com moderators forfeited Hendrick in that game. Hendrick said, “As a result of almost being banned from the lichess4545.com league, I implemented prohibiting all the 64 squares in my chat. For example, if someone tries to type ‘a4’ it won’t appear in my chat. In addition, I added a banner below my chess board as a reminder to not suggest moves. Despite making these changes, I still feel vulnerable to future cheating accusations.” When streamers such as Hendrick share their thought processes aloud, to help their viewers improve at chess and to entertain, they may make themselves vulnerable to cheating accusations.

Chess cheating accusations against children may be even more troubling than accusations against adults. No parent wants to get an email from a chess website accusing their child of cheating.

Reverse the lockout?

Searching for Bobby FischerIn the 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer, at an in-person scholastic tournament, the parents accuse each other of cheating and then physically fight. The tournament directors lock the parents in a different area, away from the playing hall. The children cheer and continue their tournament games, playing honestly. 

At national tournaments for kindergarten and first grade students, parents are not allowed in the playing hall. For older children’s games, parents may be in designated areas but not in the aisles between the boards. See the US Chess National Scholastic Chess Tournament Regulations. In contrast to these over-the-board regulations, perhaps parents should be with their children, and especially their very young children, during online chess tournaments.

According to National Master Jeff Ashton, owner of Panda Chess Academy, having parents nearby may be necessary for very young children, who cannot navigate technical glitches on their own. Recently, a six-year-old student of Ashton’s, left alone during a tournament, missed a round because he kept waiting for the game to start. He was scared to touch the screen because he wanted to follow all instructions to the letter. But he should have refreshed his browser to make the game begin. Parents can help by refreshing screens, reminding children to close all open tabs and avoid switching windows, turning off phones, contacting help desks, etc.

On the other hand, some chess parents can barely contain themselves during their children’s games, wanting to kibitz their suggested moves to their offspring. Just like the children in the Searching for Bobby Fischer playing hall, children competing online from home may hate for their parents to be in the room. 

Yet, as children grow older, and improve at chess, they have more incentives and means to cheat. For example, an older child understands Stockfish’s decimal point evaluations. They may be tempted to use their knowledge to help them win. Winning feels good, and gaining rating points means admiration from parents and peers. Older children may also socialize in ways that leave them vulnerable to online predators, such as chatting, joining teams and groups, or using their real names. 

Online chess seems like a perfect babysitter, but it’s not so simple. Fair play and child safety may be compromised. Here are some steps to take before, during, and after children’s online chess games. 

Before games

According to Ashton, coaches should regularly discuss integrity and sportsmanship with children. Cheaters never win, winners never cheat, and other sayings about honesty might come off as corny but should be repeated to children before chess games.

Coaches and parents should also advise children to avoid multi-tasking. Phrase that advice in a positive way, that having a singular focus on a chess game is a great way to improve at chess. What it takes to be a good chess player, such as entering flow (deep concentration), also avoids cheating. 

During games

If parents are not in the room with their children, technology can help. Ashton said, “I saw one parent use an old baby monitor to keep tabs on a first grader, who, to my surprise, seemed happy to play on camera. Parents must supervise, so they can say with certainty, ‘I am 100% sure that my kid never cheated.’” If parents don’t want to use cameras, then they should check on their children regularly. They could also install software that manages how children use their computer time.

Parents should understand that online sites’ rules are strict, and that their children’s reputations are at stake. The following checklist is for parents or coaches to share with children:

1) Have no phones or devices other than the one used to play chess. 2) Do not disturb mode on! No siblings or friends should be able to message you or talk to you while playing. This is your time. If they tell you a good move, you have received unsolicited advice. 3) Make sure you have no notes, books, or any tools on your desk. 4) Close other apps. Stay with one tab. It should be you and the chess board. 5) If you are playing in an online tournament, the only modification to this advice is to have a backup computer, and possibly a backup Internet solution. Or just play the odds, and be willing to lose a game because of technical problems.

After games

If your child is accused of cheating or actually cheats, there are several steps to take. According to Ashton, who earned an undergraduate degree in psychology from The University of Texas at Dallas, very young children sometimes don’t know what is right or wrong. However, Ashton believes that most scholastic chess players understand what is fair and not fair. Ashton advises parents to ask your child what happened. 

Remember that many children have cheated at chess. Parents may feel that they and their children should not admit guilt, as if chess cheating is a legal mistake. In chess, however, it’s best to say sorry, and move on

Before your child loses access to a chess website, due to being banned for cheating, download all of his or her games. The parents should do this on their own, to avoid conveying to their child that they support cheating. At the same time, chess games are very valuable. If the child is going to continue at chess, then he or she should not have his chess games erased. 

After downloading, close or delete the child’s account. Create a new account when you, as a parent, feel that your child has learned a lesson. 

Jeff Ashton

Jeff Ashton teaches at his own Panda Chess Academy

Websites

It is very rare for websites to falsely accuse a child of cheating. Ashton has only seen one case, out of dozens that he has personal knowledge of, where a cheating conviction against a child was reversed by a website. However, if you believe the cheating accusation is in error, send a polite email asking for another review. Some websites have a formal appeal process. 

It’s best to have an open and honest conversation with the chess server’s administrators. Mention your child’s age, and how you really want to learn from what’s going on so that your child can also learn something. 

Expect the website NOT to overturn its decision. Encourage your child to avoid misunderstandings in the future, by focusing on chess, just as they would when playing in an over-the-board tournament. 

Research

Many tournament chess players are children. Research outside of chess shows that children cheat. For example, a study of children, ages 8-12, found that “58% of participants (55 out of 95) cheated at least once during the guessing game.” That guessing game was predicting what side a coin would appear on a computer screen, with 10 points awarded for a correct guess and 10 points taken away for a wrong guess. As the game started, the “children were encouraged to try their best to obtain the highest score possible so they could compare their scores with their classmates.” The researchers found that “children with better inhibitory control and working memory will choose to cheat less often. However, once they decided to cheat, children with better cognitive flexibility will use a greater variety of tactics to cheat.” 

An analogy to children’s cheating during chess tournament games is possible. Children are often encouraged to do their best, to compare favorably with their chess peers. In chess, wins gain rating points and losses take away rating points. Children cheat in multiple ways, such as consulting via chat, using engines open in other windows or on phones, etc. Older children may cheat infrequently, such as only during key moments of a game, following an optimal strategy to gain rating points.

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Just chess

Parents may inadvertently encourage cheating, by emphasizing wins over fair play. However, research shows that most children cheat. Parents must both try to prevent cheating by children and deal with the fallout when cheating happens. 

Streamers are poor role models for how to play tournament chess online, since they chat during games rather than modelling concentration and silence. Streamers educate and entertain, which is not what children should do as they play online tournament games. Remind children to concentrate fully during online tournaments as they would over-the-board: no chatting, no engines, just silent individual contemplation of the best moves to play. Just chess.


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Alexey was the 1989 U.S. Women's Chess Champion and is a Woman International Master. She earned her bachelor’s degree in History at the University of Puget Sound and her doctoral degree in Education at The University of California, Los Angeles. She has been a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas since 1999 and is a prolific author.

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