Seeing If Cheating At Chess The Hard Way Is Even Possible

With all the salacious stories about a cheating scandal rocking the world of championship-level chess, you’d think that we’d have delved into the story at least a bit here on Hackaday, especially given the story’s technical angle. But we haven’t, and it’s not because we’re squeamish about the details of the alleged cheat; rather, it’s because it’s just too easy to pun your way through a story like this. The lowest-hanging fruit isn’t always the sweetest.

But, we’ll give it a go, and play this one completely straight as we look at an experiment to determine if it’s even possible to cheat in the specific way that has been alleged. For the uninitiated, 19-year-old grandmaster [Hans Niemann] stands accused of cheating, possible through the use of a remote-controlled sex toy secreted in his rectum. The idea would be for an accomplice to use the toy, which contains a vibrating motor that’s controlled by an app either via Bluetooth or WiFi, to send suggested moves to [Niemann] based on a chess-playing AI’s analysis of the game.

Whether [Niemann] cheated or not is not the concern here, but rather [Captain Steel]’s experiment is just a first-pass look at whether it would be possible to cheat using the proposed technology — and most importantly, not get caught. He tried to replicate the scanning regime [Niemann] is now subject to at tournaments based on the allegations to see if a stand-in for the sex toy — a haptic motor attached to an ESP32 — would be detectable through various thicknesses of flesh. Rather than showing the same dedication to craft that [Niemann] is alleged to have shown, [Captain Steel] used slices of baloney as a stand-in for human flesh. He then tried scanning for RF emissions from the device through increasing layers of luncheon meat. We won’t spoil the results, other than to say that baloney turns out to actually be good for something.

We’ve covered another less-invasive method of cheating before, which given the results above is probably more likely to be discovered.

35 thoughts on “Seeing If Cheating At Chess The Hard Way Is Even Possible

    1. They are trying to put a rook or a bishop in what again? Is there a pawnis involved? How would nobody even hear this vibrate? Do the bowels even transmit much or anything except crap? So many questions. On top of the fact that computers can beat even the best chess players now anyway.

  1. Since the RF device could be RX only (no easily detectable external transmissions if enough Mu-metal was used) and with effort could be tiny and hidden inside a tooth.

    I guess the solution would be to computed tomography scan or nuclear magnetic resonance imaging all players. Or force all players inside a (faraday) cage (In the style of “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”) for their games.

    1. There are bug sweepers that work on the principle of any diode junctions rectifying the scanner’s signal. This means that, when scanning a room or walls for bugs – electrical wires (metal) don’t show up as a false positive, but anything with any electronics in it will show up.

      Not sure how sensitive it needs to be – but if there isn’t too much attenuation – that’ll find an Rx only device.

  2. Someone thinks they heard a buzzing sound, so it’s automatically vibrating butt beads? Gimme a break.

    At that level of chess play, a cheater might think it worthwhile to pay someone to make a custom device, maybe similar to a TENS device that doesn’t make any sound and provides a mild shock.

    1. That would make a LOT more sense. You could have multiple electrodes indifferent places allowing for a more complex message. I mean, what are they alleging they did anyway, tap out messages in morse code? To be readable as a vibration it would have had to have been fairly slow morse code. So, that’s a lot of time sending “messages”. Not to be crude but how long could he last?

      1. There could be more to it- the player may use some signals such as a yawn, body position, arm or hand movement, or scratch an ear to signal that he thinks a particular move might be the way to go, and the remote accomplice could then confirm based on the AI chess player.

  3. This “Cheekmate” thing attempts to test the same…

    * Adafruit’s Cheekmate gets to the bottom (ahem) of chess cheating controversy

    * Cheekmate – a Wireless Haptic Communication System

    * Cheekmate Test (4 second video, but at least you get to see the final product, albeit not in someone’s butt).

  4. Seems all too easy nowadays to implement a near-impossible to detect cheating device. Reminds one of other tournaments, like the Tour de France, where cheating (in latter case, through drug use) has become so common that the reputation of the tournament has taken permanent damage. Not quite there yet with chess I suppose, but I do foresee a future where all those high-level competitions will be tainted by the assumption that whenever a player gets too good, they are likely cheating. With the continuing adcancement of tech and medicine, lines between “optimizing” and cheating will become more blurred in the future and perhaps, the age of those sports competitions that are all about maxing out human performance is coming to an end eventually?

    1. Interesting thoughts. But since exercise and sports are the cause of many injuries, it might be so that regulations might cripple sports before the sport itself gets to good to be true.

      However… as long as sports allow money to be made and bets to be won (or preferably lost, for those who facilitate the betting) I’m pretty sure that sports and competitions will continue to exist even though some might consider them to be unfair. The simple truth is that cheating is a fact of life which doesn’t stop at winning or losing a game/match/competition.

  5. This is measuring like the meter touching the opening at the lower end of the intestines.. In the video he figures you need over 27mm (just over 1″) to be safe.

    I don’t think that the probe (in a chess competition) is ever going to get even that close to the aforementioned body part.

    1. i wouldn’t worry about it too much. the rectum is usually pretty forgiving, especially in lieu of gigantic toys and vigorous reciprocation, neither of which you need for this application. you do need something you can wear for a long time without discomfort. a plug with a narrow neck and wide bulb is preferred. my record is 3 days.

    1. You can put the video to play in the background and listen if there’s anything that needs attention while doing something else. Eventually they will say the one sentence that reveals the conclusion or point. If not, you just continue your business.

        1. Even the best video in the world demands much more of the viewer’s attention than a decent write-up; and for some of us, it’s much less useful – it imposes a linear presentation of the information that some people (like me) simply cannot retain. Moreover, it constrains the viewer to move at the same speed as the presenter. It’s the same problem I had with lectures vs textbooks at university; in a very real sense, it’s an accessibility issue.

          Also, anything on Youtube can (and frequently does) disappear overnight, whereas there’s a good chance a write-up will be (a) around for a while, because it’s cheaper and easier to self-host; and (b) archived somewhere once it does finally evaporate.

        2. This is more an attempt at comedy video production than a remotely interesting engineering investigation.

          Adafruit’s simple attempt at least brings up interesting points (like RF attenuation in water), thus they encapsulate the device in meat.

          This guy doesn’t get into the basics of RF, metal detector principles (why is he redoing the metal test for various states of the ESP8266?), NLJDs ($10,000+, now used by the SL chess club), and potential countermeasures (RF isolator, first used by CIA 50+ years ago on the SRT-107 bug, detailed in this fascinating and rigorous Crypto Museum article [1]).

          He uses $20 bottom-of-the-barrel Amazon rebadge detectors with questionable specifications (purporting to “detect” 1 MHz through 6 GHz in a pen package), rather than a spectrum analyzer.

          It would be interesting to see someone with serious RF, embedded engineering chops write something more substantive, considering that even Faraday cages have been bypassed by researchers. Maybe I’ll e-mail the RF wonk from the Crypto Museum, figure out if the isolator tricks metal detectors or just NLJDs.


  6. The other question to ask, to judge if such cheating could have occurred, is how practical it would be to encode complex information like desired chess moves over a “line encoding” scheme which allows only for the most simple of haptic effects in a region of the body which, I assume, doesn’t have all that much granularity to its nervous sensations.

    Also, as to detecting such methods of cheating, surely just have an SDR running and looking for any unusual seeming signals. Wi-fi device would have to be TX-RX due to the way wi-fi packets work, but an “embedded” RX only RF device would still allow for the command signals, wherever they were coming from, to be detected in what would otherwise be a radio-quiet space. If such cheating is occuring then any cheat will show themselves up by a sudden drop in performence if play is moved to the inside of a faraday cage.

    1. FYI there’s a LOT of sensation in that spot. You could easily translate high/low/off to Morse code. I get your point about line encoding. How many characters do you need to read to get a single move? Chess move notation is pretty short. “Qh4e1” = “–.- …. ….- . .—-” Totally readable albeit very distraction.

  7. Um. Ok. I don’t get what they are trying to accomplish here. I mean you want to see if the alleged cheat was possible. Great! I have questions you can test!

    What’s the range of the remote and where was the helper? How would they encode the moves? And how long would it take to send a move? How long of such a message could one “experience” before physical reactions make it obvious to the watching crowd that something is up?

    Yah, I know that last one might push some boundaries for topic of conversation but come on, if you were going to get up in front of so many people and attempt this cheat that would be definitely be a big question on your mind!


    You want to answer the question, can it be felt through so much flesh? Huh?

    Isn’t being felt basically the advertised function of the device? I am at a loss here as to why someone thought that was the question which needed asking.

    1. Oh. I wish there was an edit button! The question wasn’t if he could detect it, it was if other’s could around him.

      Well, I’ve met and conversed with someone who later confessed she had one in there under her clothes the whole time. Yes, that was at a very strange place. Anyway, I was right there and wouldn’t have known except that she occasionally got giggly and had to walk away for a second.

      So sure. I’ll believe that part of the story is plausible.

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