Best of BP: One Step Behind

    Several weeks ago, in an online tournament, Norwegian grandmaster and World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen played a single move against his opponent, 1…Nf6. Then he promptly turned off his webcam and resigned. 

    Carlsen went on to win the Julius Baer Generation Cup, despite the loss, but that move was part of a different, bigger game. His opponent was Hans Niemann, an up-and-coming 19-year-old American, who had defeated him in a stunning upset that has come under intense scrutiny from the chess world. The resignation was, in effect, a protest without a direct accusation, but the accusations surfaced quickly after: that Niemann, who had admitted to cheating on Chess.com in the past, had resorted to some… unique methods of obtaining external assistance in his match with Carlsen. The scandal has yet to die down, with accusations, and protestations, becoming more vehement.

    Chess as a sport is no stranger to both cheating and psychological warfare, and both the former—and accusations of the former—play into the latter. Contrary to public perception (and romanticism), chess has never been just about the board. Bobby Fischer, in his 1972 championship match against the placid Boris Spassky, made himself a nuisance to his opponent and the organizers, even forfeiting the second game of the match, a move that Antoly Karpov credits as a masterstroke, getting under the Russian’s skin. Even the 16th-century priest Ruy Lopez, one of the fathers of chess, once advised players to position the board so that the sun is in the other player’s eyes. Gamesmanship is as old as games.

    If a sport has been invented, someone has cheated at it. Just this past week we’ve seen cheating scandals in competitive fishing (embedding weights into caught fish) and poker. Perhaps the most troubling application of this string of scandals, as applied to baseball, is that there’s no real solution to the problem. Cheating is, and probably always will be, easier than catching cheaters. If you can’t prevent players from breaking the rules in contained rooms with negligible physical interaction, when there’s the possibility of morse code instructions transmitted through rectal vibrations, what chance does anyone have? Preventing players from loading up the ball or relaying signs, given all the extra variables, seems a degree more impossible than this already impossible task.

    ***

    Let’s assume, for the purposes of this article, given the evidence of all of history, that we will never be able to stop people from cheating. That, as Russian Grandmaster Alexander Grischuck once said on the subject of the explosion of computer-assisted cheating in online chess: “Everything rests on decency.”

    The smirking philosophical realists, always ready to show off how wise they are for expecting the worst from everything, slither out of the shadows at this point. They’ll say that if everything rests on decency, it rests on nothing. Decency only exists out of weakness; the strong take. They’ll point to the modern condition of the United States Senate, and its crumbling system of handshake deals and ancient, yellowed custom, and tell you that it’s broken because it was made that way. Baseball isn’t just the thing we watch together on the field, but the construction of that thing, and all the metagaming and gamesmanship that goes into winning baseball, is baseball. Anyone who pretends otherwise is just naive. 

    It’s not that there aren’t rules. It’s not anarchy or Calvinball or art. It’s that it falls upon the individual to enforce those rules themselves, and not pass the buck to some arbitrary sense of “justice.” This is the root of the “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying” philosophy: that the only thing worse than cheating is being the only one who isn’t. That it’s better to be a robber than to be robbed.

    It’s a quirk of our language that “sportsmanship” and “gamesmanship” sound so similar and mean such starkly different things. Both are, at their heart, a rejection of the idea of law: The former operates under the assumption that there are elements of humanity that are above the rules, while the latter considers that the rules are for anyone not cunning enough to avoid them. Sportsmanship is held as a virtue, and gamesmanship, when it receives too much attention, with approbation. And yet in the real world, and certainly at the level of professional sports, the former fades away, as if it were a set of training wheels for adult ethics. And gamesmanship, as seen through navigating tax loopholes, airline boarding, and university applications, is not only everywhere, it’s tacitly encouraged. This is why the most common defense of the Astros cheating scandal is that everyone is doing it—because everyone is, everywhere, all the time. For the realist, the rules are pointless barricades.

    If cheating is unstoppable, why make it illegal? Why test for yesterday’s steroids? Part of the reason is that it makes sense, for the sake of publicity, to make cheating hard. When an athlete gets popped for stanozolol now, the reaction isn’t anger over the state of the sport or the possibility that athletes are caught on a treadmill of increasing performance against their future replacements. The reaction is to chuckle at the athlete for being dumb. It’s not that they cheated, it’s that they cheated badly, which removes all responsibility from the authorities for the ones that get through. Like police forces photographing the muskets they seize in raids, it only matters to be seen doing something, anything. 

    But the other, bigger reason is that despite the airtight logic of the realists, most people just don’t buy it. It turns out nobody wants to live in a world where crime is inevitable and strength is the only solution. They want to live in a world where people cooperate and trust each other, despite being told constantly that it’ll never work. It’s weird, but ethics are in fact wildly popular

    It’s no coincidence that the people telling you that it’s impossible to stop crime are also the ones whose jobs are to stop the crime. When you apply realism to realists, a second truth emerges: Everyone wants power, and everyone wants to avoid accountability. This is why we see the constant erosion of all public watchdogs and oversight, and the drive for privatized, “trustless” “communities” like the ones of web3, in which there’s no fraud protection, no FDIC: just you, responsible for protecting yourself against scams. And if you believed Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa were hitting those home runs legitimately, just because MLB was promoting them breathlessly, well, that’s on you. Who’s at fault, the liar or the person who should have known better?

    ***

    This is all a bigger problem for chess than it is for baseball. After all, in the latter, no form of cheating is comprehensive: steroids, spackle, and signals enhance a player’s natural ability and give them an advantage, but they still have to execute. A player online privately accessing supercomputers to pick their moves is literally letting the game be played for them; the moves are, outside the drama, all chess is. So it’s curious, and instructive, how the chess world has typically handled cheating in the past.

    When Hans Niemann was caught cheating at Chess.com at the age of 12, and again at 16, he was eventually deplatformed from the site. So, with little (popular) fanfare, was grandmaster Tigran Petrosian. But such decisions are generally handled privately. After Carlsen took his accusations public, other players hinted at whispered past crimes, leading Chess.com to make the following statement:

    “We have shared detailed evidence with him concerning our decision, including information that contradicts his statements regarding the amount and seriousness of his cheating on Chess.com. We have invited Hans to provide an explanation and response with the hope of finding a resolution where Hans can again participate on Chess.com. We want nothing more than to see the best chess players in the world succeed in the greatest events. We will always try to protect the integrity of the game that we all love.”

    In other words, this, like most chess accusations, are judged and executed quietly. The logic is that the revelations of widespread cheating would be more damaging to the sport than they would be harmful to the player. As the game has gone online, it needs its reputation, and its faces, too much.

    Major League Baseball tried to do the same thing as they learned about the sign-stealing schemes of the Astros, Yankees, and Red Sox. It ended in disaster, with the information going public anyway and the league revealed as ineffectual and slow to react. And in the aftermath, most of the actors were slapped with minor punishments as the league sought to downplay the whole situation, protecting the Astros from public abuse in the process of protecting themselves.

    The inclination to “protect the shield,” as baseball’s clumsy cousins have made into a meme, is as natural as it is wrongheaded. Trust isn’t earned by pretending to never make mistakes, but by owning them. As a wise and anonymous person once said, “The safest burger in town is the restaurant that just had an E. Coli breakout a month ago.” Even if the watchdogs don’t do their job, a second one is a sure ticket to going out of business. 

    The realists are right about one thing: When people betray a lack of ethics, you aren’t going to reach them by appealing to their souls. Which doesn’t mean that it’s useless: You can appeal to ethics with people before they cheat, and don’t have to treat the concept as an attack on their identity. But also, it’s not the only weapon on the utility belt. There are plenty of other disincentives to cheating, the primary one being the oldest: shame.

    This is where Chess.com and MLB go wrong, because hiding and downplaying cheating is the worst thing you can possibly do if you want results. (It’s pretty clear that Bud Selig and Rob Manfred understand this; they don’t hesitate to leak information when it’s advantageous, as with the Biogenesis scandal.) The Black Sox and the Steroid Era did not kill baseball; the latter, in fact, drove a revival for the sport in the wake of the 1994-95 lockout. 

    If anything, we need to think of realism as a challenge. Yes, the bad guys often do get away with it. But instead of throwing up our hands, or worse still, joining in and getting ours, we should redouble our efforts, even if the people theoretically assigned to protect us don’t feel up to it. In terms of baseball, what we need is an advancement in shaming. The fight over accountability versus cancel culture in the social media era is a fight over clear guidelines: We need to work together to understand what penitence should really look like, what the punishment should be for a betrayal of public trust. Is it a notes app apology and an op-ed in the New York Times bemoaning one’s exile? How does one serve one’s time?

    We never really figured that out with the Astros, in no small part because we were told that it was pointless, that everyone else is doing it too. Which is strange, because realism isn’t supposed to protect the folks who are dumb enough to get caught. But the story of the Astros scandal isn’t really about the Astros, the uninteresting part of a team going too far to win games. It’s the story of MLB sweeping it under the rug, just as it did steroids in the 90s, and the ball in the 2020s. That’s what realism is really designed to protect: not those who get caught, but those who don’t feel like doing the catching. Ultimately, it’s the tanking of ethics.

    It’s not particularly satisfying to look at a game and say, “if you cheat, there’s a 10% chance we’re going to catch you, and you’ll have to pay for it.” It’s also exactly how we deal with most cheating in society, from speeding to burglary to tax evasion. When the cop writes your ticket, it doesn’t do much to say “the other cars were speeding too.” It doesn’t matter. When authority does its job, realism breaks down, because it fails to understand that doing something is better than doing nothing, and that we can, and should, expect our authorities to do something. We just have to keep the pressure on, because they’ll stop if we let them. 

    The post Best of BP: One Step Behind appeared first on Baseball Prospectus.

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