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During pandemic, chess detective is busier than ever

Students playing chess.

Although cheating is common in chess, it's become easier to do so since tournaments have moved online due to the pandemic. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published December 10, 2020

Ken Regan standing with chess board in his hands.
“Unfortunately, it is very easy to cheat. I’ve been overwhelmed with people reaching out to me this year. ”
Kenneth Regan, associate professor
Department of Computer Science and Engineering

The game of chess is no stranger to cheating. But since the pandemic hit and tournaments have moved online, the services of chess detectives have never been more in demand.

Kenneth Regan, associate professor of computer science and engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is one of those sleuths.

The spike in suspicious chess moves comes with the advent of technology, such as apps that can calculate moves in mere seconds. With tournaments unfolding virtually, the temptation to cheat is, apparently, difficult to resist for chess experts, novices and anyone in between.

“Unfortunately, it is very easy to cheat. I’ve been overwhelmed with people reaching out to me this year,” says Regan, who has been averaging about one phone call or email per day requesting his help.

Regan created a computer model that works by spotting players who are playing above their skill level, as well as players whose moves mirror those that specific computers would make.

“I model a natural player, someone who plays honest. It’s a predictive analytical model of the moves people make playing chess. I try to predict moves that players will make by putting accurate probabilities to that player’s skill level,” he explains.

In addition to his sleuthing, Regan participates in conferences with the game’s governing bodies to devise ways to encourage fair play and trust in competitive chess. Most recently, he appeared virtually at Chess Tech’s 2020 conference this past weekend.

“When you’re online, you’re not always seeing your opponent. This anonymity is problematic. We’re working on ways to make sure players have more direct contact with their opponent,” he says.