The Chess Scandal Everyone Is Talking About

With the Sinquefield Cup finally over, I think now is a good time to give my thoughts on the scandal.

Strictly speaking, this doesn’t really belong in a blog that purports to talk about the Spider Solitaire, the whole Spider Solitaire and nothing but the Spider Solitaire, but I believe that Chess and Spider have (at least) one thing in common: strong players always get the raw end of the deal when it comes to cheating accusations. Besides, I have an IM title or better in both disciplines 😊

The basic problem is strong players just “know” when something is off – but good luck expressing the word “know” in language that a layman and understand and a lawyer cannot argue with. I count myself lucky I was able to actually prove that dodgy Spider Solitaire servers do exist.

Here is my opinion on the whole saga – which I have listed in dot point form. I will not attempt to justify these dot points. No doubt every man, dog and millipede on the planet has formed their own opinion on the matter. Googling various facts and coming to your own conclusions is left as the proverbial exercise for the reader.

  • Niemann is an rot13(nffubyr)
  • Niemann should never have been invited to play in the first place
  • Niemann has form when it comes to being an rot13(nffubyr) and cheating
  • Carlsen has good reason to withdraw, even without evidence of cheating. If cheating is proved then that is icing on the cake if you pardon the terrible cliché!
  • Carlsen doesn’t owe anyone an apology or explanation. If the tournament organisers wish to defend 2+2=5 (i.e. invite Niemann) that’s not Carlsen’s problem. Maybe Carlsen could have handled things better with hindsight, but his options weren’t great to begin with.

FWIW, I have a proposal for solving the cheating problem in chess, called the Useless Task Protocol. This is an attempt to give more “bargaining power” to the experts. Again, I will not attempt to justify the motivation behind this protocol and leave it as an exercise for the reader. If you can see where I am coming from, then chances are you have the right analytical mindset to excel at Spider Solitaire 😊

Useless Task protocol

I wish to propose a new rule for competitive chess:

That’s all there is to it. Just move your king towards the centre and leave your opponent with the “know-what’s-coming-but-can’t-do-much-about-it problem”. It doesn’t matter if you resign, get mated or your opponent starts playing random moves. You could have a dead drawn (or indeed a winning) position and still elect to call opponent for cheating. You can take a punt, knowing the worst that can happen is your game is counted as a loss. You could end up looking like a goose but there is no possible universe where can you get sued for defamation.

If your king can’t (legally) reach the centre, you can still call your opponent if you’re willing to risk heavy penalties for a false alarm. Conversely there is no compulsion to call opponent for cheating if your King is on e4 but you believe your opponent is legit.

I proposed this rule after the cheating scandal involving Nikhil Kamath and Vishy Anand, but nobody took it seriously. I do not claim it’s a perfect solution, but something worth mulling over. The diagram above shows a plausible position that might have arisen if the Useless Task Protocol was being used (I would recommend White should wait for Black’s next move before stopping the clock).

Steve’s Game – Summary

This was a well-played game by Steve. There were no major inaccuracies and he overcame a difficult start. He kept himself in the game and only after dealing the final 10 cards he had a good position for the first time. And he duly converted. Of course I would bet my Ph. D. thesis to a brick that Steve cherry-picked that game out of over 300+ games to demonstrate it’s possible to win even with a bad start. It is highly likely a fair percentage of Steve’s victories were walkovers after a good start.

There were a few inaccuracies like not realising he can get another in-suit build at no cost, or missing the fact some column had a 5 missing (easy to do when you have a sequence like 8-7-6-4-3-2-A). But there is no individual play that screams “ThIs GuY cAnNoT pOsSiBlY bE a GM”. If I had to give a single pointer for Steve to improve his game even further, I would choose the concept of “good and bad shape in individual columns”.

Steve has a good feel for the game. He can anticipate the Job 38:11 problem several moves in advance, and either he will find a way around the problem or at least avoid acting surprised when it does hit. He does not explicitly mention “one-hole-no-card” – but that’s merely one of many ways of explaining a concept that Steve is no doubt familiar with.

Steve was unable to get close to removing a suit before the last round – but not for lack of trying. The card gods decreed there would be no reasonable prospect of doing so before the last round – and then Steve showed his skill when it mattered most:  he found a plan that guaranteed the removal of a complete suit. It was relatively straightforward to verify removing the suit was not a trap, and victory was a mere formality.

The process of finding the correct plan at the start of round 5 is not trivial, and admittedly I glossed over that. Steve gives plenty of examples of finding a good plan in complex positions in other chapters of his book. I recommend you get the book (if you haven’t already done so) and study his thought processes for the examples given by him.

As for Steve’s book, my main criticism is that his notation for moves is very unwieldy. Yes, I get that he is trying to explain important concepts like “breaks, doors, locks, delaying, etc” but I am pretty sure there is a way to get his message across without resorting to clumsy notation. Apart from that, the entire book is an extremely useful resource for someone who is serious about improving their game.

Overall Strength

Overall, I would say Steve is GM strength, or close to it. Unfortunately it’s difficult for me to judge properly unless I had access to the moves in all of the 306 games he played.

Steve Brown’s Game: Round 5(2)

I will only give the general plans and avoid giving exact move sequences. Verifying this is all legit is left as the proverbial exercise for the reader.

As a general rule, being able to visualise long move sequences is an essential ingredient to playing well at Spider Solitaire. If you struggle with this, I recommend you play with “pseudo-undo” i.e. undo is allowed provided you don’t gain information you’re not entitled to by turning over a card or dealing from the stock (note that removing a suit does not gain information). If you pardon the terrible cliché, practice makes perfect!

Another useful tip is this sort of situation is to start with the following question: “Can I remove a suit if I were willing to trash my board in every way possible?” If the answer is yes, then a more careful analysis will often yield a way to remove a suit without trashing up the board so badly. Of course, there are cases where prematurely removing a suit does cause the loss of a winnable game – but if you’re able to find a move sequence that completes a suit, then you should be good enough to work out if removing a suit is desirable.

  • Clear columns 2, 3
  • Extract the C4:Kc
  • Expose the C0:7h
  • Clear columns 7,10
  • Order column 8
  • Tidy up
  • More tidying up

By this stage even my Ninja Monkey friend is claiming the game is won.

  • Clear the Spades

The rest of the game is just a formality so the moves are omitted. The identity of the remaining face-down cards are available in the screen-dump below:

And that brings us to the end of the game. Well played Steve!

Oops – We Digress Again

Quiet Quitting

Recently I came across the term “quiet quitting” when googling/facebooking on my mobile phone. Wikipedia defines it as doing exactly what the job requires, not more or less. It is also known as “work to rule”. QQ is related to the concept of lying flat or Tang ping, not to be confused with planking.

If you’re unfamiliar with quiet quitting, your first thought could be “rot13(jul gur shpx) is it called quiet quitting?!?!?”. That was my first thought as well. I was even on the verge of asking this question on Facebook, but my gut told me not to bother since several others must have done the same by now.

After searching various sources, I concluded quiet quitting was a term invented by some rot13(ceb-ohfvarff nffubyr) trying to push a narrative that employees are lazier and more entitled than what they really are. Although to be fair, “work to rule” does have a whiff of rot13(junggurshpxrel) as well.

Quiet Quitting and Spider Solitaire

For our purposes, the important question is “what does quiet quitting look like in Spider Solitaire?” We have already seen the results of quiet quitting when you’re proof-reading your Ph. D. prior to submission, but that was a “one-off digression within a digression” for lack of better phrase.

I would define QQ as playing on auto-pilot. This could manifest itself in various ways:

  • If you find a good move (or plan) don’t bother looking for a better one
  • Don’t bother looking for a chance to remove a complete suit.
  • Consulting a random number generator when faced with a difficult decision

A general theme is QQ tends to affect decision-making skills, rather than knowledge of the fundamentals. For instance, if you have some experience in the Royal Game you probably know that with two empty columns a run of four cards like 8-7-6-5 can be shifted onto a Nine, even if they were all different suits – and this is not something you are likely to forget, even if you were in quiet quitting mode.

I believe the average player is more likely to quiet quit if a game is going extremely well or extremely badly (since small errors are less likely to result in the loss of a game that should be won). Yes, there are other “human factors” such as tiredness, or something else bothering the player that is not Spider Solitaire related. Of course, that raises the question of why a player chose to play the game in the first place. Then again, somebody could be “born to quiet quit” and never reach their full potential despite playing for an extended period of time. I know of one such Scrabble player at work who is very low-rated despite playing the game for umpteen thousand umpteen hundred and umpty ump years. She was probably there for the “social aspect” of the game, rather than the love of  problem-solving or the thrill of finding a power-play with lousy-looking tiles.

QQ in a nutshell

In a nutshell, if I were pressed to come up with a reasonable definition of QQ in the context of SS, then QQ means playing without thinking. Regardless of your playing strength, this should imply a lesser win rate than expected. How much of a loss would be anybody’s guess, and I don’t see anyone writing their Ph. D. on this topic any time soon.

I do not see myself playing Spider Solitaire unless I put in my absolute best effort. That’s just my nature. I need a compelling reason to not go above and beyond. If I am tired or bothered by something unrelated to the Royal Game, I wouldn’t be playing in the first place.

Okay I agree that QQ is a garbage term and I only used it here in order to “score” a third digression before Steve’s game draws to a close. It really should be something as bland as “playing on autopilot” but then there would be no reason for me to blog about it in the first place 😉

What are your thoughts on quiet quitting (with or without a Spider Solitaire context)?

Steve Brown’s Game: Round 5(1)

Here is the start of round 5 after Steve deals the last ten cards from the stock.

In some sense, the last round is the “simplest” to calculate. Since the stock is empty, there are no more possible surprises associated with 10 new cards appearing simultaneously rather than sequentially. Most of the time, an empty stock implies the winning chances are either very very good or very very bad. Whereas, in previous rounds we have to make do with general considerations and “fuzzy evaluations” such as “we have good winning chances but not enough to justify sending over a Backgammon doubling cube with the ‘2’ face up”.

Of course, one can argue the last round is “hardest” to calculate since there are so many cards. To play the last round well you will need a LOT of calculation. Steve correctly points out the ability to calculate is a necessary (but not sufficient!) condition to achieving a high win rate at the Royal Game.

Another peculiarity of the last round is that most of the time at least one full suit will be visible (or it has already been moved to the foundations). For instance, every card in Hearts can be found in column 1, 5 or 8. Obviously we wanna work out if we can guarantee removing at least one suit. Most of the time, once you are able to clear any complete suit, everything else will collapse.

In the next post I will discuss how Steve proceeds from here. You may wish to analyse this game state for yourself and come to your own conclusions. If you do so then I recommend you give only a “general plan” rather than specific moves. Also, stop as soon as you turn over any face-down card. Your answer would look something like the following: (this is a template only and does not apply to the current hand).

(1) obtain two empty columns (2) Tidy up so we have a complete Heart suit missing only the King (3) Dump the K of Spades into an empty column (4) Win back another empty column (5) Complete Hearts (6) burn all empty columns to turnover a card in column 8.

Steve Brown’s Game: Round 4(3)

Continuing our game. Steve’s only possible turnover is in column 2, albeit at the cost of splitting Aces.

In some cases it may be wise to spurn a turnover “for the greater good”, but not today. There is a fair chance of two turnovers, and the alternatives ain’t so attractive anyway.

Steve is able to turn both face-down cards in Column 2. They are the Eight of Clubs and Two of Diamonds. The good news is he has recovered the empty column.

The bad news is – yes you guessed it – this brings the familiar one-hole-no-card. Steve elects to shift the C8:4s into the empty column. Not a great choice, but I’m not seeing anything significantly better. Personally I would be loath to expose another Ace. I would prefer to move “jg”, maintaining the status quo and hoping to make progress after the next round.

This situation (one-hole-no-card) does happen more than we would like to admit. Usually what happens is an empty column gives us at least many different options to choose from and each option will be worth “some fraction of a turnover”. For sake of argument, suppose that we have a free and open source Spider Solitaire engine called StockSpider, and that StockSpider evaluates every turnover is worth an equity of +1.0. Building in-suit is worth +0.2 (on average), exposing an Ace is worth -0.2, having an atomic column is worth +0.1 and so on. Given so many options, sheer numbers dictates that we should be able to get some value from our empty column despite no turnover. Maybe some minor achievements here and there will add up to +0.5 or +0.6. Basically, one-hole-no-card isn’t necessarily the end of the world as we know it.

The observant reader will have noticed Steve failed to build in-suit with ed before wasting the empty column. Presumably Steve wants to get as much junk off column 4, since that is clearly where our most likely source of turnovers is coming from. However, it was actually possible to play “e3=d1” before burning the hole (an exercise for the reader). This allows us to have our anti-smoking song and sing it too: we build in-suit without adding more junk to column 4.

The other point is that at this late stage of the game we should (ideally) be thinking about removing a complete suit rather than our next turnover. Unfortunately, we’re in a bit of a fix and I don’t see anything spectacular here. One bright spot is that with so few cards unseen, there is a decent chance of drawing the cards we need. For instance, we might draw X5X5XX53X3, where X represents any card, take our empty columns and win the game. A little bit of wishful thinking never hurt anybody!

Steve Brown’s Game: Round 4(2)

Continuing from last time, we reached a critical position and I asked the reader how best to proceed:

It turns out we can remove the diamond suit. Steve points out the following

  • Move: ca, ga, fh, fd, af, a4=f6, a9=c0, da, a2=d1, dg, df, af, ga, hf, aj, a3=c8, c2=e2, jc,
  • Move: ag, ag, ha, hg (clear diamonds)

The result is shown below (I have pretended the Diamonds were not moved to the foundations for clarity). We can then proceed with a turnover in column 1.

Bart found pretty much the same sequence (not the exact moves, but clears Diamonds and turns over column 1). I will not present Bart’s exact move sequence.

Unfortunately, Steve did not play this. He writes that “either I did not see the plan or I did not like the after-play”. It’s obviously impossible to reverse engineer his thought processes, not to mention that Steve had to record the moves for over 300 games, so it’s not really practical to record the reasoning behind every move of every game (just recording moves is already a significant effort). But judging from his actual choice, I’m guessing Steve didn’t see the plan.

Steve instead turns over column 9. This exposes three Aces and forfeits the Diamond suit. Not to mention burning both empty columns just for one turnover. The only advantage of this plan is it gets a difficult task out of the way (turning column 9) while it’s still possible. Personally, I would be extremely reluctant to expose three aces and knock back a full suit of Diamonds. I would need several good excuses to justify that, and this isn’t even close.

The exact move sequence is not important and I leave it as the proverbial exercise for the reader to verify this position is reachable from the previous game state.

At least Steve draws a good card (the Two of Spades) getting back “one hole + one turnover”. The next card in column 1 would have been much worse (to avoid spoilers, I will not reveal what that card was), and Steve’s post-mortem analysis says the “superior play” would have actually cost him the game in practice.

Steve is able to extract all face-down cards in column 9. There are (in order), 9h, 2h, 2c. The exact move sequence is trivial and not given here.

To summarise, Steve has managed to extract three face-down Twos in a single column, that was buried by random junk including three “unmatched Aces”. A lucky break if there ever was one, but I believe Steve has demonstrated enough skill (his book contains several examples, not just the profiled game) to earn some good luck!

Steve Brown’s Game: Round 4(1)

Steve mentions he now has a full set of Spades – and I won’t expect a player of his calibre to muck up a simple exercise in card counting. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to extract Spades. One reason (possibly not the only reason) is because of the duplicate Queens and Fives in the same column which I alluded to earlier.

Hearts are missing only the Nine. Clubs and Diamonds are only missing the Five. Unfortunately it’s not even possible to “almost-complete” (let alone complete) a suit. So it looks like more short-term planning for now and hope for the best. True, our chances of turning over more than two cards are not great (or four cards if we’re willing to split the Aces in column 2 – generally very desirable in Blackjack but not so much in Spider Solitaire).

The only bright spot for Steve is this game has no “antagonist” and no Backgammon doubling cube.

  • Move: cf, ch → 5d
  • Move: ea, ge, fi, gi, f1=h1, if, cg → 6d

What a difference a card makes! From experience, I find that if I “hang in tough for long enough” (this really should be the lyrics of some song but my general knowledge of pop music is atrocious), then drawing just a single “joker” (i.e. the best possible card) will provide the good guys with a real fighting chance. And Steve has done exactly that.

This is the first time Steve had two empty columns. Technically, Steve also had two empty columns at an earlier stage – if he was willing to perform some reversible moves (but he chose not to). In any case the empty columns were worth little more than “one turnover one option” where option basically means you get to answer a multiple choice question but there are no correct answers because all of them equally rot13(fhpx).

This is also the first time we can realistically think about long term planning. Unlike last time, we can extract real value from two empty columns. We get several in-suit builds for free and every chance of pulling things around after a difficult start.

How would you continue here? This is a critical point of the hand so I recommend you take your time on this one.

A closer look at individual columns

In this article I wanna take a short break from Steve’s game and take a closer look at individual columns.

I believe that many players tend to focus only on the “uppermost sequence” in every column. For instance, in a column containing three face-down cards followed by K-Q-J-5-4-7-6-5-4-3-2-A (suits irrelevant), players would tend to focus primarily on the 7-6-5-4-3-2-A. This is understandable: if we have an empty column or two chances are we can easily shift the 6-5-4-3-2-A around (but not the 7 unless we have a spare Eight or were willing to spend an empty column).

In the following example, if we only focus on the uppermost sequence of columns 1,4,6 in the following diagram we would ignore the identity of four face-up cards (5s,4d,3d,Qs) and the number of face-down cards.

As a player improves his understanding of the game, he may start wondering why a number of close games tend to fall just short of victory. Is it just rot13(onq yhpx) or is there some deeper cause?

I think a useful guideline is to check for “danger signs” in individual columns. In an earlier post I warned about the dangers of e.g. having two Queens in the same column but no Jacks – because if that column became a junk pile then there is a real risk of having a Queen shortage when Jacks suddenly appearing at the worst possible moment. Whereas if the two Queens were in different columns it is harder for the Luck Gods to conjure up a Queen shortage.

The situation I am talking about is illustrated from another screen-shot from Steve’s book (Winning Spider Solitaire Strategies), but not taken from our current game. If the K of Hearts in column 9 is never shifted, there is always the danger of having too many Jacks appear later on. Note that this problem can’t be eliminated by turning over cards or obtaining empty columns.

Going back to the first diagram, column 3 is unbalanced. There is a Q-J imbalance of 2 and also a K-Q imbalance of 2. Obviously, we expect any column to have an imbalance of at least 1 somewhere (unless it’s a complete run of Ace to King, in mixed suits), so an imbalance of 1 is nothing to really complain about. An imbalance of 2 in a few columns may indicate sub-optimal play somewhere along the line (sometimes it can’t be helped). If a single column contains an imbalance of 3 or greater than you might wanna change your goal from “winning the game” to “publishing a paper”.

In column 4 we have two Queens, but also one Jack. That means if we deal e.g. a Ten in column 4 then there is only a Q-J imbalance of 1, but the K-Q imbalance is still 2. On the other hand, both Queens are the same suit. This means if we are close to completing a suit of Spades then having both Warlpiri Women (*) in the same column can become inconvenient. Generally, we prefer to have identical cards (in both suit and rank) in different columns, if all other things are equal. In column 1 we have the same situation with the 5 of Spades.

(*) There is another less savoury name for the same card that is worth 13 penalty points in a well-known trick-taking card game.

Of course, we are a long way from completing a full suit, but at least we are able to identify the possible seeds of defeat if we do get stuck with a “12-suit” in Spades in a difficult endgame.

Earlier in Steve’s game we had an “inverted sequence” in column 10. The Ten and Nine are in reverse order from what we would normally expect. Obviously, this game state is the result of dealing a row of 10 cards. The inverted sequence is a Good Thing since whenever the Ten of Hearts is shifted, it is always possible to move the Nine of Spades and win a turnover. Of course, this is counterfeited if another Nine of any suit is moved onto the Ten of Hearts.

Needless to say, it’s even better if the 9-0 in column ten is the same suit, but we take what we can get.

Other variants on inverted sequence are possible. For instance, if we had 3-2-A-6-5-4 all the same suit then moving the 6-5-4 guarantees we are able to move the 3-2-A. If they were different suits then we might still be in luck if we had an empty column or two. We could even have 6-7-8, which is only possible after dealing from the stock at least twice.

As an extreme example, if a column contained only A-2 suited then it is never correct to change it to 2-A. If you could win with 2-A, then victory was also possible with A-2. If this doesn’t illustrate the importance of inverted sequences then nothing will.


In this post I gave a number of possible good and bad situations in individual columns. In high-level play, evaluating a position is much more than counting the number of turnovers, in-suit builds or completed suits. With experience you should be able to tell the difference between e.g. a “good 4 turnovers” and a medium or poor 4 turnovers. Similar comments apply to in-suit builds.

A good player may pay attention to the whole board when it’s time to think about removing a suit or avoiding one-hole-no-card. But a great player is thinking about the whole board before things get critical. Next time you are asked to evaluate a game state, you should be able to recognise the danger signs pertaining to the contents of individual columns.

Steve Brown’s Game: Round 3(2)

We now have two empty columns for the first time. Obviously I’m counting an empty column if it can be obtained with reversible moves only since Steve is only playing to win, regardless of the number of moves required.

Usually, two or more empty columns mean we get to tidy in-suit builds without committing ourselves to any irreversible moves. For instance, if we had two long sequences such as K-Q-J-0-9-8 and K-Q-J-0-9-8-7-6 in different columns then chances are you will be able to swap two cards of the same rank (such as both Jacks) and increase the number of in-suit builds for free. Unfortunately, we don’t get to do that here. Ergo, the advantages of two empty columns boil down to guaranteeing two turnovers (plus the knowledge these columns never contain face-down cards for the remainder of the game).

The obvious (and correct) plan is to turnover column 2. This avoids exposing a new Ace in column 3 and also allows us to shift the C1:5h if desired. Unfortunately, we don’t get any new in-suit builds since we have “duplicated” the Ks-Qd-Jd. At least our option of turning over column 3 implies we have some leeway before the dreaded “one-hole-no-card” scenario.

  • Move: gf, bg, bf → As
  • Move: af, jf, cj, ch → Js
  • Move: ce → 3h, deal

Note that Steve chose to deal immediately after turning over the Three of Hearts. Normally, we get to make some “final tidies” once there are no more turnovers available, but not today (actually, it is probably a good idea to play hf, to have the majority of the Diamond suit contained in a single column. From experience, I find this does come in useful at the long run).

We only got three turnovers from our two empty columns. Steve avoided dumping the Ace in column 2 into an empty column because there is already an Ace in column 7. This “diversification” increases our chances of recovering an empty column in the next deal. On the other hand, Steve exposes the Ace of diamonds. This is tolerable since (i) we have two exposed Threes, (ii) we desperately need turnovers in column 3 to avoid one-hole-no-card (iii) after the next deal, the Ace of Diamonds will be covered anyway.

The last point is worth remembering: whenever you expose an Ace, you are “forgiven” to some extent as soon as a new row is dealt (LINK). As a corollary, you can afford to expose more Aces if chances are you will soon be forced to deal a new row of cards.

Steve criticises his choice of moving the 2-A of diamonds to column 6 instead of column 8. Unfortunately, Steve has only recorded his moves but not the logic behind them, and it would be difficult for Steve to reverse engineer this logic (especially considering he did the same for over 300 games). Steve can only say that it is quite possible that he did not notice column 8 is missing a Five.

Finally, Steve concludes he is unhappy with his prospects. He has 18 face-down cards, but of the 149 victories (in 306 games) he had only 13 face-down cards at the end of round 3. I agree the game state is poor. If I were an Impostor, I would be salivating at the sight of a Backgammon Doubling cube – but probably in private, otherwise I would be rot13(pbzcyrgryl fperjrq) as soon as someone calls an emergency meeting.