Cheaters sometimes prosper- how the chess scandal points to bigger problems
Updated: Oct 22
"The more people rationalize cheating, the more it becomes a culture of dishonesty. And that can become a vicious, downward cycle. Because suddenly, if everyone else is cheating, you feel a need to cheat, too." Stephen Covey
I was as shocked as everybody to learn that cheating may be going on in the brainy, orderly world of chess. How was that even possible? It appears that technology has evolved to the extent that discreet communication is now possible on undetectable devices that tip the balance in close contests. Any time there is money, prestige, and power at stake, the temptation is strong to gain an advantage through cheating, and that is what we are seeing more and more. But does this "invisible" cheating undermine the integrity of just about everything we believe in? How can we trust any result anymore?
The scandals keep on piling up.
- Lance Armstrong proved to be a prolific cheater and raised doubts on the integrity of professional cycling, which now faces doubts about blood doping and hidden motors.
- Russia was banned from the 2020 and 2022 Olympics for using performance-enhancing drugs.
- Football's Super Bowl champion New England Patriots have been accused of spying on practices and deflating footballs to make them easier to handle.
- World Series champs the Houston Astros were found to be stealing signs and communicating them to teammates via trash can banging.
- Chess grand-master Hans Niemann has been accused of cheating in over 100 games by using computers and high tech devices to guide his moves. (Mind you this is only an allegation, not proven, but I suspect that if the technology exists, some chess masters somewhere are abusing it.)
Cheating has been around forever, but as technology improves, so do the possibilities for using it to an unfair advantage. If chess masters can talk get help from computer programs using hidden receivers, what else might be possible? Cheating on tests? Tapping in on conversations between head coaches and quarterbacks during a football game? Intercepting baseball pitch selections between pitcher and catcher? Professional poker players getting tips? Any contest of wits between one person and another has to now be in question.
When I took the CPA exam, I was put in a heavily monitored room and made to give up all of my possessions, cleaning out my pockets. Any high-stakes examination like the bar exam for lawyers, the CPA for accountants, and any number of professional proficiency exams that result in credentials being handed out need to be conducted with high integrity. Cheating in those venues contaminates entire professions. Knowing that they don't have to study to pass anymore weakens the entire foundation of education that holds up our most revered professions.
Imagine my surprise when I did an online search for cheating devices and came up with site after site that sells those very things. One of the more popular ones claimed:
"The _______ is among the best cheating techniques—if not the best. It is a device designed to cheat on tests and exams that consists of a hidden earpiece the size of a rice grain that you put into your ear. Through the earpiece you’ll be able to listen to your partner crystal clear and in a discrete manner." There are devices for sale out in the open on the internet that promise technologies hidden in eyeglasses, baseball caps, ink pens, calculators, and clothing. There are even devices that can be implanted inside the human body! These are devices that up until recently were only available to spies and secret agents, and now anybody can get one.
How do you catch these cheaters? Good luck. Lying and cheating has become more accepted today, and when that kind of trust erodes, everyone starts finding ways to rationalize it. The biggest and most persuasive rationalization may well be that if everybody else does it you almost have to just to stay competitive. In this scenario the honest are punished, even if they do sleep better at night.
One thing that I realized from my CPA exam preparations was how central the audit function was to our economy and society. Audits are one of the best ways to detect lying and cheating. A good audit involves verifying the facts as presented, going back to source documents whenever possible. Without audited financial statements, our financial system would collapse because no one could trust anyone else to do business with them. Audits are also used during elections to verify results, forcing the cheaters there to use other methods prior to the elections. Catching technology cheats will be harder, but it can be done. They need to be evaluated under heavy surveillance and/or in person to limit any help from the outside if that's what needs to be measured.
I always thought of chess as a clean game of strategy and wits, but now it is in the mud with the rest of the unreliable world. Like many baseball fans in my city, I rooted for Mark McGwire when he chased Roger Maris's home run record, only to find out later that McGwire had been using drugs to enhance his power. In what was called the Biogenesis scandal of 2013, over a dozen players were disciplined and suspended from the game. Somehow, baseball survived by cleaning itself up and Maris's record was finally broken this year by another drug-free Yankee, Aaron Judge. Is there still cheating in baseball? Probably, and hopefully fans and management will continue to be vigilant to call it out when it's detected.
In order to fight back against more and more sophisticated types of cheating, we need to follow three steps:
1- Be aware of all the technologies that are currently in use and assume that someone will try to abuse them. Set up a system of controls that minimizes these opportunities to gain the upper hand.
2- Make an example of those who are caught and publicize the consequences to discourage future attempts.
3- Cultivate a culture of trust. Most people don't like to cheat. It feels dirty. But many will if they feel like others are doing it and getting away with it. Without trust, civilization doesn't exist.
Cheating is contagious, and the danger of more powerful tech makes it more and more tempting. But integrity is also contagious, and shame and ostracism works wonders when used to punish the wrongdoers. It's up to the gatekeepers of the world to be more vigilant than ever against the Bluetooth army looking to game the system, and it's up to each and every one of us to believe in ourselves and our abilities without the help of drugs, technology, or others when they offer that tempting but unfair advantage.