Covid-19 Lockdown in India - The summer of 2020: That was the time. Chess players came out of the woodwork, from all over and from nowhere. They came like a huge wave of tiny bleeps populating online playing sites in a tsunami of their own. Along with the chess players came the cheats armed with bots, engines, apps and human partners-in-crime. The online chess cheating virus ballooned parallel to the Covid-19. Like most chess players, I fell victim to both. Here are my four stages to immunity::
"Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred."
-- The Charge of the Light Brigade
BY ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON
Stage 1 - Annihilation
The first time it happened to me, the game was short. My opponent blew me off the board quickly and I went down in fifteen moves like a crushed ant. He took only 15 seconds for the entire game, while I took 20 minutes. I could sense the non-human emotion in the game. We all can. You can feel the brutal machine on the other side of the screen. My identity was wiped out by a faceless monster. My sense of self shattered. My screams choked. I fell to the floor. I lay face down with a fire burning through my body and tears like molten lava hitting the blocked volcano-mouth of my eyes. My body trembled and burned, and burned, and burned more. It was annihilation from within. I lay on the floor as the darkness chewed on me bit by bit. Somewhere, I could hear my mother calling for lunch. The voice was unreal. The pain was real.
Stage 2 - Respiration
Stage 1 lasted about a month. I would fear every game I played and every one in ten games, symptoms of Stage 1 re-occurred... If not more often. Slowly, the symptoms started to fade. But, now, I wanted to quit chess. My internal conversation ranged from quitting totally to taking to cheating myself. I started avoiding online tournaments and doing more puzzles than games. I didn't play at all for long stretches ranging from four hours to four days. The idea to quit chess was overwhelming. I directed my energies to basically breathing and somehow not quitting. I started talking myself away from the quality of the game, or the result. Just play. Just breathe. Just play. Just breathe. Don't give up.
Stage 3 - Retaliation
The anger started coming back two months later. I needed to stop damaging my devices or doing any form of self-harm. I discovered the vaccine-relief of reporting cheats. I started maintaining a file of my opponents and a complete list of players in any tournament I entered. I started tracking the games of all these players and making copious notes. I noted their handles, suspected country of origin, the pattern of online presence, type of time controls they preferred, hours they were active in, ip addresses, followers, etc. I reported to the server every time I managed to get enough data on any single player after analysis of their last ten games - sometimes twenty, sometimes hundred. I forced my friends to report suspects too. I tracked and waited for the server to ban each cheat and delightfully marked a red line through every banned player's name in my files. My desk became a research centre. Sometimes I waited for a month for someone to get banned. I stalked every single cheat diligently every day - on the hour, every hour like the BBC. On a daily basis, I spent about seventeen hours tracking online cheats, analysing their games, collecting data, submitting to servers and following my leads like a shadow around the website. I had virtually stopped playing. I became an unpaid one-man anti-cheat superhero. The self-sacrifice and self-satisfaction healed my self-worth. I got 75 cheats banned within two weeks - that was 99% of the handles I reported. My goal was to up that average. I invested in a premium spreadsheet programme to manage data. I set up multiple screens to track several cheats at the same time. I began researching all methods of cheating possible. I had no time to play. I was in the business to save the chess world. I became a full-time chess cheat cop. My emotions found a conduit.
Stage 4 - Redemption
The cheats were shameless. They returned with new accounts - at least the majority of them. I had to reopen previous closed chapters as cheating styles and ip addresses overlapped. As more and more cheats got caught, they upgraded their methods. Some cheated only in the endgame or for only a few moves. Some cheated in crucial situations in the game. Others used second, third, or fourth-best lines suggested by engines. Some used cheating bots to play full games, or, part of the games, tampered with internet lag, fixed pre-move programming, played in a group etc. In tournaments, some cheats used unfair means in only one or two rounds, not in all rounds. The cheats upped their game with every "capture".
Slowly, I started going back to playing. I would just shrug and take a break when I met a cheat. Yeah, I lost badly versus cheats, but I got on with life. It didn't hurt that much. Rather, just a twinge of pain barely noticeable. The virus of online chess cheating will never go away totally. You live with it. You find new magic in your chess life. Your tribe grows as you meet new friends who've suffered like you. You help them heal. Sometimes, you still report the cheats. Sometimes, you don't have the time to think more about reporting them. Their life is already so worm-dead. They won't ever go to an OTB. It's already a curse upon the cheats. You hold closed tournaments online within your gang. OTB returns. The virus remains. But, we have overcome.