On March 2, Levy Rozman, in a pink sweater and round glasses, was streaming his Chess.com matches to 12,000 viewers over Twitch. “All right, this looks like a cheater,” he said without pause, as he clicked on the pigeon icon of his opponent, Dewa_Kipas. Rozman, an international chess master, scrolled through the profile, disbelieving. His opponent had climbed nearly a thousand points in the span of a month, ranking 2300 to Rozman’s 2431. And his profile didn’t include the sort of title—“FIDE master,” “national master,”—that the ranking implied. In fact, Rozman would later discover, Dewa_Kipas, or “fan god,” was a bird-feed seller in Indonesia.
Chat echoed back: “LMAOOOO,” “CHEATER.” “Let’s see if we can get some content here,” said Rozman.
Rozman has been playing in chess tournaments since he was seven. In 2011, he attained National Master status, and in 2018, International Master. Now 25, he’s known not only on the chess circuit; like other top players, he has developed a large following on Twitch, on YouTube, and on Twitter. High-level chess has experienced an unprecedented online boom due to the pandemic. An average of 895 people watched chess streamers on Twitch on March 1, 2020; a year later that cumulative audience expanded to 21,491.
In this majority-digital world for the 1,500-year-old game, it’s tempting to trust that every truly high-level player would by now be a known quantity—whether through International Chess Federation ratings or social media. Nobody could just come out of nowhere and dethrone a chess king, right?
Rozman knew that if his opponent was cheating it would be a strange game; algorithms often make choices that most humans simply wouldn’t. Still, small things baffled him. At Rozman’s level, obvious moves typically play out in a couple of seconds. Dewa_Kipas regularly took between seven and 10 seconds to make any move against the chess master, even when he had just one or two options. Highlighting Dewa_Kipas’s knight on his stream, Rozman said he was worried that his opponent might move it to A5. “I would expect this, although it is a computer, so I also kind of expect some weird pawn play,” he said. The knight moved to A5.
In their attempts to climb the competitive ladder, cheaters refer to AI-powered chess engines to inform their moves. And as chess has moved more and more online, cheating allegations have skyrocketed, according to top online chess site Chess.com. Rozman has himself turned cheat-hunting into a bit. On YouTube, where his thumbnails are full of silly faces and chess boards, Rozman ran a “catching cheaters” series, which he spun into a similarly themed Discord channel. It’s an entertaining break from the big-brain chess plays and long, thinky matches—lighthearted morsels in the rapidly ballooning content economy of online chess.
Twelve-thousand viewers cheered Rozman on as he played against Dewa_Kipas. About 10 minutes in, his opponent’s rook had blocked in Rozman’s king. Black won. “REPORT HIM!” “POLICE!” yelled chat.
Rozman again perused his opponents’ stats. Dewa_Kipas’s accuracy, or similarity to how a chess engine would play, during the match was 94 percent; Rozman’s was 76. Over its last 10 games, the account’s accuracy never dipped below 80. It hit over over 99 percent in two of those. Rozman reported him that day. Hours later, Chess.com banned the account.
That night hateful messages, many written in Indonesian, began to fill Rozman’s social feeds. Threats, even. His girlfriend received the same: “hey bitch, we will kill u soon haha, from indonesia :).” Rozman was getting tagged on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, with accusations that he had leveraged his notoriety to ban a legitimate player. What sparked the onslaught, he would learn, was a post on an anime superfan’s Facebook page.