18 “Devilish” ways to cheat in chess (Explained!)

Chess like many other similar display of competition has rules, and such is vulnerable to acts of cheating.

Over the years the game has seen a significant amount of people that have attended such trickery, and we’re going to look at them.

As a chess player here is what I know:

Cheating in chess involves a wide variety of selections ranging from taking a piece back illegally, relay of moves from a spectator, using chess computers, sandbagging, bribery, or even fixed matches, online chess to be specific made cheating so rampant.

The official committee responsible for regulating the games have of course done its best, but to no avail since it’s still an occasional occurrence.

Here are the most common ways to cheat in chess:

1.) Sneaking a piece/pawn back

This problem is primarily applicable between games of beginners rather than more advanced players, since awareness is an issue.

Resurrecting a captured piece of per se can be easily noticeable by competing players of skill, since they’re likely to have a solid view of the position.

Still, between hustling games (street chess) where money is on the line, people will try any trick they can.

Having an extra piece in your disposal waiting to be brought back is an indefinite advantage, after all, even just being up by a single piece is usually considered winning both from beginner and professional play.

2.) Illegal pawn promotion

Having a pawn reach the last rank would make it eligible to undergo a rule of promotion where it can be converted to any other piece of choice by the player’s discretion, which can also be used in cheating!

Promoting the pawn in adjacent tiles over the forward push is one of the primary ways this method of cheating is witnessed in more casual (less regulated) kind of environments.

Even small tournaments with a degree of formality can simply resolve the issue by replaying the recorded notations, and even larger ones have cameras and spectators specifically in place to deal with this type of antics.

However, it remains rampant in simple games of street money (or without bet) where players just want to win no matter what, take this player for example:

3.) Discussing a game in progress

Just like the earlier sample, this is commonly observed in the low-tier tournaments or casual games (informal).

It involves people within the player’s association (a friend) conversing the intricacies of the position even before the game finishes.

Due to this, participants came up with valuable insights that they may not have otherwise noticed, a good move or blunder for example.

This of course is not an issue in official games since there is even a rule regulating distractions; but that has not always been the case.

Curaçao Candidates’ tournament

An uproar has been created when a sport illustrated manifesto has published an article authored by Bobby Fischer himself (Chess legend) against the Soviets.

Entitled “The Russians Have Fixed World Chess”, he expressed his sentiments on the Russians with the alleged cheating during his time at Curaçao.

With a little bit of knowledge in Russian language (Fischer knew a little bit Russian), he stated the following:

“They would openly analyze my game while I was still playing it. It is strictly against the rules for a player to discuss a game in progress, or even to speak with another player during a game — or, for that matter, with anyone.”

Bobby Fischer on Russians (Curaçao)

Even though such incidents may be less possible now due to strict enforcements, it can still happen in environments where there is less monitoring.

4.) Intentional loss

Looking at this, you might think that there’s no way someone would willingly try to lose, but you’re wrong!

A deliberate loss can take the form of cheating with the purpose of helping a friend with their chess ratings (or titles), gaming the swiss system, or straight-up bribery (fixing a match).

Helping a camaraderie with the acquisition of their rating may just be the most common scenario, since after all, there’s an element of uncertainty that shroud every games whether you can win or not, making the collection of ratings less predictable.

Another reason is the swiss system!

The Swiss system is a chess tournament format that pairs corresponding players with similar running score over the players having to face every competitor.

In swiss there’s an argument that losing early rounds can be beneficial for a player long term, prompting participants to take advantage of the system (to be paired with weaker players later on).

Some even lose by having the outcome of the match predetermined before the actual game is played, which is obviously cheating.

5.) Uncalled draws

Accepting draws although looks innocent in appearance, can be a problematic issue that takes a form of cheating due to tournament formats.

Results are announced before the start of the next round, and if there’s a way to safely earned half a point without losing, it is to draw.

Fun fact: Fischer also claim the collusion of several Soviet players by drawing their games to save both energy and a spot to play the finals; a Soviet grandmaster once confirmed his suspicions.

Skeptical draws from small amount of moves may be eligible for protests, not because you can’t draw, but because of the possibility of fixed matches.

Agreeing to draws before the actual game is a form of conspiracy that’s needed to be eliminated, but even worse are negotiating the results (not just the draws).

6.) Fixed matches

Fixed matches are a conundrum less experienced today due to the high traction and observation of modern chess games, but it always hasn’t been that way.

Soviet chess players who lived in the era of cold war (supremacist) has been a common example for collusion of matches that fixed their results.

Orders from the government to draw or lose games has been a controversial accusation by competing opponent of Russians which may have a solid basis.

“I have experienced myself that orders were given. In 1948 I played with Keres, Smyslov, Reshevsky and Euwe for the world title…during the second half in Moscow something unpleasant happened. At a very high level, it was proposed that the other Soviet players [i.e. Keres and Smyslov] would lose to me on purpose”

Botvinnik (Soviet World Champion)

Now there may not be a valid confirmation for such suspicion, but the testimonials from Soviet players themselves have proven the ground of complaints.

7.) Bribery

There hasn’t been a lot of noise concerning exchange of outcomes between matches for some financial or opportunistic value.

But it definitely is possible, after all if such occur, both proponents would do their best for the activity to not come unto surface.

It’s hard to determine to how much extent a player can bargain to make a fair trade for such loss, since this is unlike the previous example where one party (government) is too powerful.

But veering for a grandmaster title or strong finishes to important tournaments are some of the ways one side can have the incentive to engage the negotiation.

8.) Relaying Moves 

Chess played in an informal-based setting (street chess) is always vulnerable to instances of having non-participating party directly/indirectly expressing moves.

This is an annoying form of cheating since it takes a player’s skill to the same level as the one directing the moves, which makes it harder to compete.

These kind of spectacles are usually noticeable and easy to identify, but is still hard to call in a place where there’s no officials to regulate the games, but you can at least try.

The interesting part is someone actually attempted this in an actual tournament! the methods are obviously more sophisticated and indirect to avoid suspicion.

39th Chess Olympiad

Frenchman Grandmaster Sebastian Feller scored an outstanding performance in the 39th Chess Olympiad, scoring 6/9 (5 wins, 2 draws, 2 loss) easily winning a gold medal as a board five.

Controversy strikes when a series of suspicious text message have been found through his affiliations (GM Hauchard and IM Cyril Marzolo), which allegedly can be coded to indicate moves from computer (sent by Marzolo).

Hauchard then would position himself through other players table, indicating the moves through a coded system of chess notations to Feller.

Fun fact: Over 200 message was sent to Hauchard over the course of the tournament.

Feller denied the accusation but still gets to face the sanctions imposed by fide and french federation (after some investigation).

9.) Using computer in toilets

Most things that have been discussed before are frequent occurrence in lower levels of play, this is actually the opposite!

Using computer in toilets (a place where players can legally acquire privacy) has been a center of controversies and suspensions on high-level tournaments.

Take this case from Grandmaster (honorable chess title) Gaoiz Nagalidze participating in the Dubai Open, a very prestigious event.

Gaoiz Nigalidze (Toilet Incident)

The Georgian player was caught in the incident after the arbiters have discovered an iPod and a headset in the toilet cubicle where a chess game is being analyzed.

The iPod is logged into a social network from Nigalidze’s account, indicating some form of ownership.

Apart from this, Nigalidze’s current over the board game is on display at the iPod, clearly a sign that whoever is using this wants to win that particular game.

Nigalidze admitted guilt, easily earning him a 3 year ban and revocation of his grandmaster title; yet still gets to keep his International Master title due to good cooperation.

10.) Hidden devices

This is a method to carry out most forms of cheating that has been discussed before, which is to embed a hidden device during play.

An earpiece to communicate moves with an affiliating party that has a computer, or a watch that has a chess app installed are just few ways people have used this tactic.

Tournaments usually have a rigorous set up with digital detection, making this approach risky when participating in major events.

However, lower rated tournaments with lesser form of inspection are more vulnerable to such incidents.

11.) Sandbagging

This refers to intentionally inflating (making lower) one’s rating to be significantly lower than their actual skill, usually used to qualify in lower-end competitions.

Sandbagging is particularly prevalent in countries that host major winning prices even in lower sections, such as the United States with 10,000 USD pool in some lower categories.

Stronger players of course are not eligible to play against weaker opponents, so people willingly lower their rating to legally play in the field.

Such unfair setup is so rampant that USCF (United State Federation) has enforced minimum ratings based on previous rating (or prize wins) of a player to limit the activity.

12.) Limited Opponents

This has something to do with chess ratings; it involves limiting the pool of opponents to players of less superior skill.

The result is an inflated rating far from the reflection of the player’s true status, since the person in question only ever plays with weaker opponents.

This is exactly the case for a long term prison inmate Claude Bloodgood.

Claude Bloodgood (1996)

Claude Bloodgood has been put under suspicion of manipulating his USCF rating by only playing with a small selected pool of players.

His peak rating has hit a climax in 1996, where he achieved an excess amount of more than 2700 Elo (Fide Elo 2880 was the highest rating ever by WC Magnus Carlsen) easily making him the second highest ranked player in U.S.

Bloodgood claims that there’s a unique quirk in the rating system surrounding his inmate situation that limit his opponents, not done willfully.

The authorities however still considered the situation as intended after some investigation.

13.) Not honoring a touch move/release

The touch move rule states that a player is required to move a piece or pawn if contact is already made.

Similarly, a touch release indicates that a  move is officially in play whenever a player has let go of the holding position.

This is a close etiquette among chess players, even casual games often apply the same principle to keep things more organized.

Failure to submit to the rule in any way is considered a form of cheating, look at the video below to see an example from a match between Hikaru (White) and Kasparov (Black):

As clearly seen in the footage, Kasparov has already released the piece to its intended square only to be taken back, a case of cheating that Hikaru should’ve called.

14.) Reneging a call

This involves taking back an agreement (call) and taking advantage of such to exploit an interest.

This is usually an issue when offering draws in the end game, where one player may be careless enough to make a mistake when expecting the draw.

The opposing player then would have the opportunity to take back the call and play the game entirely! since it is winning.

Games can be lost with this little phony trick, and it is up to the arbiter and the regulatory board to actually settle the dispute.

15.) Tampering with the clock

This is most commonly seen in lesser privileged tournament where there is lesser observation to confirm the time.

Classical games (longest and most common time format) usually last for hours, and players are allowed to take walks to refresh their memory.

This also means another opportunity for the opponent to be with the clock unmonitored! a strolling player may be shooked with the illegally adjusted time.

Higher-end tournaments where the commentators are focused with details are safe, but it can be frustrating if it occurs in lower-rated competitions since the accusation is harder to confirm.

16.) Electronic Scorekeeping loops

Electronic Scorekeeping devices are well, the modern way of notating the moves and scores within matches in a more efficient way.

Even though they are very precious piece of equipments, cheaters have found a way to embed a software (chess engine) to subtly prompt effective moves.

The suggested moves (by the chess computer) can occasionally display light signs upon tiles to signal moves to be played (sometimes intentionally).

Although there hadn’t been any controversial case in large official tournaments, less privileged ones are vulnerable (to having the scoresheet hacked).

17.) Copying moves

This one makes me laugh when I’m researching this, and frankly what most beginners will come up with in their first tournaments.

The idea is to imitate the positions occurring on other boards, essentially making your opponent play against another opponent.

It might sound reasonable, but frankly is the worst way to cheat due to the following reasons:

  • Simultaneous- it only works on environment where all the participants play their game at the same time.
  • Visibility- the cheater would only have limited access to the boards they can see, which impedes their ability to copy moves.
  • Colors- only half of the players would have the same color as you, further limiting those you can copy from.
  • Variations- chess is a game of branches, what your opponent will reply with would be different from the opponent of the people you copy from.
  • Skill- Copying moves only ever puts you in the skill level of the person you copy, and unless they are higher rated than it might not be worth it.

Take note that all of the disadvantages come from relying on copying moves as strategy entirely, smaller scale however can be effective.

If one board witnessed an opening similar to the one played in yours, it might be used as a precursor to determine which line can work better.

Even copying an entire line prepared by someone sitting beside you can work, but unlikely since your opponent can notice the trick and diverge from the situation.

It can work wonders though in less prestigious events, where the opposition are less meticulous.

18.) Manipulation of records

Tournament reports today are very conclusive and accurate with the results, but there is a time where that is not the case.

Intentionally falsifying results from imaginary tournaments has been a way to temporarily or even permanently inflate a player’s chess rating.

Take this interesting example from the Romania Federation President, Alexandru Crisan.

Alexandru Crisan 

The Romanian has been suspected of fabricating several of his results to earn a grandmaster title and be ranked 33rd in the world during April 2001.

The regulatory board has proposed to erase his records and remove the title, which the Romania Federation initially agreed, until Alexandru became the president of RCF himself.

He changed the policy, creating a sticky situation where Fide (international body) cannot intervene with the records along with several other aspects of RCF.

Crisan however eventually got arrested from an unrelated charge of fraud from the management of his personal company Urex Rovinari, allowing Fide to take over RCF.

Final thoughts

Every game of interest is vulnerable to acts of cheating, it happens everywhere not just in chess.

Remember that such malicious acts tells more about the person than the weakness of the system, which is always trouble brewing.

Avoid engaging in any of this major blasphemy even if you could get away with it, so we can all foster a fair environment where the best truly wins.

Sleep well and play chess.

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