Why do People Cheat?

by admin on March 22, 2011

Seriously, why? It makes life so much more miserable for those of us who don’t.

If this were a baseball blog, I would be writing now about the Barry Bonds trial. But I don’t have to dive into that cesspit. The chess world now has a scandal of its own.

As reported at chessbase.com, the French Chess Federation has suspended three players — GM Sebastien Feller, GM Arnaud Hauchard, and IM Cyril Marzolo, for cheating. For full details, you can read the article at ChessBase. But basically the allegations are that during the World Chess Olympiad last year, Marzolo would send text messages from France with the computer-recommended moves. Hauchard would receive the messages and then stand in a certain place to denote the square that the computer said Feller should move to. (For instance, to signal a move to g1, he would first stand behind French player Laurent Fressinet to represent “g” and then move behind Maxime Vachier-Legrave’s opponent to signify “1”.)

One of the members of the French team testified that he had heard Hauchard talking about the cheating; in addition, the vice president of the chess federation had access to Marzolo’s phone and saw the hundreds of text messages with concealed chess moves. I think that she was very brave to come forward and turn the cheaters in, because without her, there probably wouldn’t have been a case.

In their defense, the three basically said nothing but “I didn’t do it” and “You can’t prove it” (because the phone records are inadmissible in court).

Fortunately I have never personally seen an incident of cheating at a chess tournament. But as a former teacher, I did have some contact with cheaters. Usually I would just give the student a “0” on the problems where I suspected cheating, and I never once had a student contest it. Usually they were stunned that I could tell. Which brings us to reason number one why people cheat: They don’t think they will be caught.

There was, however, one case that I’m not really at liberty to discuss in full, that bothered me much more. On one occasion I happened to be talking with a student and his father, and I was stunned when the student started joking about cheating in his chemistry labs. Of course, I taught math, not chemistry, so perhaps the student thought that I wouldn’t care. But I told him that I thought this was wrong, and looked to the father for support. But then came shock number two: His father, a well-respected physician, just laughed and said, “Oh, everybody does it!” That’s reason number two why people cheat: They think that everybody does it. Or would do it, if they had the chance.

To me, this was much worse than cheating in a chess game. Here’s a student who is planning to go to medical school, and instead of telling him how important it is for physicians to understand the basic chemistry of the human body, his father implies that it doesn’t matter, and he can go ahead and cheat. I hope that I will never be the patient of a physician with that attitude. Because there’s one entity that you can never cheat — Mother Nature.

Finally, let me tell one more cheating story. I have to tell it on myself. There was one time in my life when I deliberately, knowingly cheated. When I was applying to study in Russia in my senior year of college, several people recommended to me that I should take lessons with a particular woman, a Russian emigré who was also a tutor. She was a charming elderly woman, who gave me tea with rum and read some of the classics with me, like Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor.”

Then it came time to take a placement exam on Russian grammar. I don’t remember exactly how this happened, but she said that I should bring the exam with me and she would read me the questions aloud. So I did, and when I answered incorrectly she would say, “Oh, you don’t really mean that, do you?” until I got it right. She said she would let me make four errors, no more, no less.

Of course I felt terrible about this, but what could I do? I was in this woman’s house, drinking her tea with rum. So I went along with it. Later, when I was in Russia, I confessed to the onsite director. He said, “We know.” They had given us some pre-testing before we got to Russia, and then the Russians had given us more tests, and so it was painfully obvious when I got 80’s (or whatever) on all the grammar tests except one, on which I got a 96. Also, I strongly suspect that I was not the first person from my college to benefit from this benevolent “tutoring” and score 96 on the placement exam!

So that’s the other reason I think that cheating arises. Young people like me — and perhaps GM Sebastien Feller — get pressured by older people who should know better. Or else, like my pre-med student, they willingly follow the example of older people who should know better. Either way, the cycle perpetuates itself.

And now you know my seamy past …

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason March 22, 2011 at 7:49 pm

When I was in high school, I was the top chemistry student. One day, the teacher announced that more than 80% of the class cheated on the last exam. How did he know? The students all did really, really well but systematically missed question #7. Every single person had made the same 5+7 = 13 math mistake in the middle of their equations!

Of course, I knew that I didn’t cheat, so I must have made the math error. Then, without my knowledge, someone copied my answer and passed it around the room. And I guess didn’t double-check my work.


Rob March 24, 2011 at 6:22 am


I am just curious as to how you know the number one reason people cheat is that “they don’t think they will be caught”?

I suspect the reasons are deeper than that – which to my mind is a strong motivation to achieve something of great personal value thus suspending one’s moral code (which I believe everyone has to one degree or another) in order to
secure the object of desire. And in spite of perhaps being caught in the act.

I would be curious if you were to ask your readers how many would cheat at chess if they knew that they would not be caught? What percent would say “I would”? Ummm?



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