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The future of online chess - giving control back to organisers.


We are nearly a year in to chess being exclusively online. In fact, the last physical congress I ran was February 23rd 2020. The last chess club I ran with no Covid restrictions was almost a year ago. So we should have learnt a lot about running chess online. I certainly have.

We have to say we are luckier than many activities, such as sports, in that not only have we been able to continue with chess, but we have actually seen an increase in participation in some areas. We have just completed the Yorkshire Junior Chess Online Grand Prix – 5 tournaments that accumulate points to an overall winner and also qualification for an elite event, to be held on March 20th, fittingly almost exactly a year after the first lockdown. Overall, 99 children took part across the 5 tournaments – which is a lot more than I though we would ever achieve. 31 children played in all five events. In normal days we usually play the physical Grand Prix across 3 or 4 events spread across Yorkshire. While this encourages children in different localities to participate only the die-hards usually come to all events as Yorkshire is a big county. What is more, participation in the Grand Prix has come from the following places outside Yorkshire: Birmingham, Redditch, Yeovil, Bristol, Exeter, Aldershot, Market Raisin, Nottingham, Oxford, Reading, Stoke, Hayle, Stockton – on-Tees, Darlington, Bushey, London and the United Arab Emirates. This is where online chess wins – no geographical limitations, no venues to pay for, no miles to clock up transporting a car full of sets, clocks and trophies, so greener too. However, I will add that posting out trophies is expensive!

However, it is not all wonderful. Beside the fact that youngsters don’t get that important interaction with each other and with adults, there is the murky world of fair play which raises its head time and time again. One thing I feel confident about is that the vast majority of children play fairly. Then again, the vast majority don’t win anything – that is always the way of tournaments – and the experience of taking part and learning from your games is important. At every competition in every field there are more who come away empty handed than win anything. But the problems lie with those competing at the top end for the prizes, and the real problems lie with the platforms themselves.

I am going to talk about Lichess now. On the one hand it is free, easy to log in, easy to set up tournaments (once you know how) and easy to get kids to link to it. The interface is clean, easy to use, and offers analysis and data. Complaining about it seems churlish. Where would we have been without it? But on the other hand it has done massive damage to reputations, confidence and completely destroyed relationships. Sounds a bit over the top? No it isn’t.

Lichess has some sort of built -in algorithm that is designed to identify people not playing fairly. No one other than the person who designed it knows how it works. Lichess has no appeals’ procedure if you are accused. You have no way to defend yourself if the algorithm says you are cheating. What happens is a message which says you have violated their terms of service. Worse – it then messages the people you have played and tells them it is refunding their rating points because you ‘lost to a cheater’. Now supposing this happens to you and you are not sure what it was you did to be accused? You might say, ‘well don’t cheat and you will be alright’. Not so. I know of a number of people who have had their account suspended for violations for which they have no knowledge. They are not people who would cheat, or indeed would even know how to cheat. Now let’s think of the impact this has on a child. Imagine a child in a school being accused out of the blue for a misdemeanour they didn’t commit. The child would get a chance to defend themselves, and parents would be informed and a conversation would take place. Let’s suppose they had done something wrong. As part of the educational process we would want, with the support of parents, to help the child understand the fault and teach them why it was wrong and that it shouldn’t be repeated. To get thrown out it would have to be extreme. And even then there is an appeals’ process.

But with Lichess there is none of this. So, for a youngster receiving this message there is nothing that can be done. There is also no way to find what the problem is and try to rectify it. It’s a life sentence!

Then there is the effect on the other players. They also feel cheated. They want the other player banned, their points returned and possible prize up- grading. Their parents may also feel the same way. But what actual evidence is there they were actually cheated and deserve to be upgraded? As an arbiter you can look at their games and do a computer analysis. But how certain can you be – beyond any doubt? I have asked a couple of players who have been banned on Lichess to go on Zoom when they play so I can see of there is anything odd going on, but more for their reassurance than mine. The damage to the integrity of the game is done anyway. If the tournament has that hanging over it, how can anyone have faith in the results? As an organiser this is presenting a whole layer of difficulty we really don’t want to be dealing with.

Therefore the future of online chess does not lie with Lichess I am afraid. Yes, it’s easy to use and once it is up and running you don’t need to do much, but then again that is a problem too. The organiser has little control. You can’t change pairings, or abort and repair, or choose your bye, or repair a late player – all the things you can do normally do. Also, you can’t choose your tie break – or if you do, try explaining to a player why they didn’t win a tournament when Lichess says they did! Very few people understand the Lichess tie break, and those of us who do can’t understand why they use it!

Other platforms provide few good solutions to these problems either. Chess.com is not particularly user friendly from an organiser’s points of view.

Fortunately, these problems have been recognised and we now have the Tornelo platform, which enables organisers to have full control of their tournaments. It also provides a logical fair play check, which can only ever be seen by the organiser who decides what to do with it. So, no algorithm shouting out to all the players that kingkiller283 cheated. Oh, and Tornelo uses actual names, so you know who you are playing – as you would in any real tournament. No one enters their local congress calling themselves knightslayer463! On Tornelo if you have a problem you can call the arbiter and pause your clocks and ask a question. You can even have Zoom running alongside to give instructions each round and make announcements as you would at a real event. Also, a real clincher for me, the players can’t chat rubbish throughout. What happens in a real tournament? – yes children are not allowed to speak to each other while playing! If they want to chat about the game after there are plenty of ways to do that.

So, users need to get used to going back to the organiser having control, making decisions and deciding what is fair. This will be a huge step in the right direction. Of course, we want to get back to physical tournaments, but online is here to stay for a while yet. Time for online to evolve – if Lichess haven’t recognised this, others have.

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