An unusual chess match was held this week in Indonesia. Streamed on Youtube, it attracted an audience of over one million concurrent viewers — becoming the most-watched chess event in online history.
The first player was International Master Irene Sukandar, a well-known Indonesian chess player and two-time Asian women’s champion. The second was Dadang Subur, an amateur player accused of cheating who wanted to prove himself. The match drew a massive crowd.
Subur had been accused of cheating by another International Master, Levy Rozman. Rozman is one of the most popular chess streamers, and he’s not one to mince his words. “All right, this looks like a cheater,” Rozman said, looking at his opponent’s chess profile showing an implausible chain of victories. Subur went by the nickname Dewa_Kipas, and Dewa_Kipas apparead to be a chess god.
He’d play dozens of games in a row without making any mistakes, playing in a style that resembles computers more than humans. It should be said: while humans dominated chess for some 1,500 years, computers have been soundly beating us for over two decades. So if one were to cheat in online chess, all you’d have to do is ask a computer what move is best. It doesn’t even have to be a highly powerful computer — anything works, really.
To Rozman, who enjoys outing cheaters on his Youtube channel, it was a no-brainer: Dewa_Kipas was a cheater. He reported the account and moved on. The account was closed down hours later, and it wasn’t a special measure. Chess.com, the platform where the incident took place, routinely bans accounts that exhibit suspicious behavior. Much like every serious chess platform, they have algorithms analyzing people’s play — and if it’s unrealistically similar to that of a computer then bam, you’re out. It’s not just amateur players that get caught, sometimes titled players are also found to have cheated.
But the Dewa_Kipas case escalated. The user’s 24-year-old son started an online protest, claiming that his father had been bullied by Rozman and his followers. It was a narrative that’s easy to sell — in many ways, streaming audiences behave like a mob, often amusing themselves or “raising the pitchforks” without much judgement. But this had little to do with the point in case.
Dewa_Kipas, his son explained, was a retired chess player. He played against computers, which is why he developed a computer-like style. He’s an honest player and not the bad guy. The impassionate plea caused an uproar. Overnight, fans from Indonesia started sending Rozman nasty messages, even threats. Over the next days, it picked up more and more steam. It became a problem so big that Rozman temporarily shut down his social media accounts.
As so many events propagated through social media, it became an ‘us versus them’ situation, with the actual debate falling somewhere into the background.
It’s privilege, many said of Rozman. He worked with chess.com multiple times, so that’s why they shut down Dewa_Kipas’ account. Nonsense — no one can play like that, he’s simply a cheater, the other side argued. The two camps found some room for peaceful reconciliation when Rozman discussed things with Dewa_Kipas’ son, but they didn’t really agree: one claimed he played chess legitimately, while other couldn’t believe it.
There was only one way to settle things: a real-life, over-the-board game. After some pressure and convincing, such a game was finally agreed on.
The match of the … century?
It’s hard to overestimate just how much attention the match received in Indonesian media. Chess normally draws small crowds, and even with the recent emergence of online streaming, chess rarely sits at the center of the sporting stage. But this time it was different.
The match was organized by Deddy Corbuzier, an Indonesian actor who runs a popular podcast with almost 14 million Youtube subscribers. The games between Dadang Subur (Dewa_Kipas) and Irene Sukandar would be played at Corbuzier’s studio. There were 1.25 million concurrent viewers at one point — ten times more than the audience that even the most popular chess events tend to draw.
It wasn’t even a contest. Sukandar demolished Subur 3-0, and it wasn’t just that — the way Subur played looked nothing like what he played online. For the expected level of performance, he had an abysmal showing, at one point even hanging one of his pieces, leaving it undefended for his opponent to capture, a classic amateur mistake.
It’s the final act in a stage that drew a lot of attention. Even with all the imaginable goodwill, the discrepancy between how Dewa_Kipas plays online and how he played over the board leaves little to be discussed. Calling a spade a spade, there’s not really anything to suggest he’s not a cheater.
Despite his performance and his confirmed cheating, he still made roughly $7,000 from the event (while Sukandar earned about $14,000, one of the few redeeming parts of this story).
The good news is chess can be popular. We’re increasingly seeing that in the online environment, and we’ve clearly seen it in this case. Chess is “booming” in Indonesia, says Sukandar, a streamer in her own right. The bad news is that normalizing cheating (and to some extent, rewarding it) is really not something you want to do.
In the chess world, seasoned players have already accustomed to the occasional cheating events pointed out by algorithms, but for millions who have a general idea of chess without following the scene, it caused an uproar. It’s natural to want to believe that a player can come out of nowhere and challenge the greats — a stroke of genius that overtakes years of work — but it doesn’t really work like that.
The thing is, chess players don’t get good by accident. Some are perhaps more talented than others. Some find it easier to progress, at least at the early stages. But everyone, every single elite chess player has put in thousands and thousands of hours to study the game and get better at it. Sure, The Queen’s Gambit showed that everyone can become a chess champion, but for all its merits, the series glossed over just how much work is involved in this.
It’s a lesson for wannabe cheaters, known comentator Lawrence Trent tweeted, but with $7,000 in the bank, maybe it’s not the lesson you’d want to send.