3 thoughts on “Episode 52 – Against Cheating

  1. Reed Cole

    Hey, can you guys add direct download links. I don’t use iTunes and most podcast apps are confusing and frustrating to me.

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  2. Wandering Winder

    First off, I want to say that I don’t mean this as personal criticism of you guys as people. I like you, I like your podcast, I know that you are in general, good guys. I think that’s part of why hearing some of the things I did upset me as much as it did. The point here is trying to explain what it was I didn’t like, why, and to offer some constructive suggestions as well. Of course, you have to keep on doing what you think is best, saying what you believe, etc. Having said that, here is the following:
    I was pretty uh, dissatisfied/unhappy/tilted by this episode.
    The biggest thing is that it seemed – and I want to stress here, this is the impression I got, and I will talk about what it is that’s giving me that impression, but I fully understand that in situations like this, it isn’t always the impression that the speakers intended to give off – it seemed that your general position on the issue was “cheaters are going to cheat, they will keep cheating, because they are cheaters, and that’s in their nature, and so they’ll just keep cheating every opportunity”. This is an exaggeration, but doesn’t seem to be much of one. It starts off with this statement by Neal:
    “What often happens, is, cheaters get these suspensions, and then, their suspension ends, and they come back to Magic, and, maybe they’ve cleaned up their game, and, so s, s, like some of the cheaters will just keep on cheating…” He later says that it’s not always true that it leads to cleaning up the act.
    Shortly after, he continues that “they could still just be cheaters, and they’ve sort of chosen how they want to play the game of Magic, and it’s just not fair to everyone else that they still get to play basically.”
    Then, a lot of talk on the podcast about getting longer punishment times. Most of this is throwing around numbers like 5 years, 7 years, 10 years, and 20 years, but most of all talking about lifetime bans. The impression I get is that the general feeling from the podcast crew was that a lifetime ban would be ideal (I should note that Ben, to me, seemed to think length of ban was less important, but then Tristan seemed to think that Ben wanted harsher bans). The suggestion of lifetime bans seems very much to me to fall in line with the “cheaters gonna cheat” concept I described above.
    The thing is, I agree that some people keep cheating. That’s true. But it’s also certainly possible that they won’t cheat again. I don’t know the relative frequencies of these two things – probably more common than either is that a player simply won’t play again. I actually suspect you probably have fewer repeat cheats than the other way around, though I admittedly haven’t done research on that. But I don’t think that really important; I’m very much a believer in giving more than one chance. Forgiveness is a big, crucial thing. Tristan brings up an extremely important point, that we aren’t prohibiting them from exercising basic rights or life functions, but stopping them from playing Magic. So I can definitely get behind having bannings of some sort, but I’m not a fan of lifetime bans, and certainly not for the first offence. People screw up. People do wrong things. People do bad things. That doesn’t make them bad people. And it doesn’t mean you need to come down with the harshest possible punishment. There are a lot of reasons for this.
    For one thing, I have talked to many people who legitimately don’t understand these issues. If you go read the reddit thread about Mr. Anteri’s DQ, there are several such people there. There are plenty of people who think mana weaving is a helpful thing, even if you sufficiently shuffle afterwards. They’re wrong, of course, and that is cheating, of course, and that deserves disqualification and potentially suspension, because it is your responsibility in playing competitively to understand these things. Similar things can be said about, for example, pile “shuffling”. People legitimately don’t understand the lack in this, probably because they aren’t keeping track of the cards themselves, and find it hard to believe or understand how people are, or even if they could – it seems a monumental feat of memory to them. It’s certainly possible for people to honestly not understand that they are cheating even as they do so, and banning people for life just for that reason is pretty messed up. At the same time, some amount of banning action needs to occur there, because it really is against the rules, and there are good reasons for enforcing them.

    So let’s talk a bit about punishment. I actually don’t like the term ‘punishment’ and would far prefer to call it ‘penalty’, but I think you can fairly argue I’d be splitting some semantic hairs there. In any case, I’m fairly against extending the suspension lengths, at least for 1st-time infractions. I would definitely be in favor of stripping any pro points/benefits from anyone getting a DQ-level infraction – if you were cheating to earn them, you didn’t really earn them. But having very long penalties just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Tristan talks about his fundamental belief in needing a penalty system that makes the bad behavior you’re trying to curb be negative EV rather than positive EV; there’s been a reasonable amount of research into showing that this is actually somewhat dubious in terms of how people are actually behaving. There definitely is a deterrent effect up to a point, but you get diminishing returns fairly quickly. People don’t exactly act rationally. And for one thing, it’s pretty hard to estimate how likely you are to get caught. I find it hard to believe that there will be much difference between a 20 year ban and a lifetime ban in terms of players’ motivation to cheat. Heck, I find it hard to believe that there’s very much difference between a 5 year ban and a lifetime ban. Even if you accept the EV mindset, think about it this way: if a player is very unlikely to win anything without cheating (and especially if you look at how big GPs are now, it seems like there are a lot of players this is true for), then they aren’t actually losing much even if they’re very likely to be caught. Even if they get a lifetime ban, a lifetime of no money against a lifetime of very-likely-no-money isn’t a big cost, really. So I don’t think that upping the ban length is going to have too much dissuasive impact from that EV perspective.
    You also briefly brought up sports. I think we can do a substantial amount with this comparison. There’s a very apt comparison indeed – Performance Enhancing Drugs. In both cases, the player is doing something against the rules to give themselves an unfair competitive advantage. Let’s look at some sports’ suspension policies for violating these policies:
    NFL: 1st offense: 4 games (out of 16 game season, ~1 month); 2nd offense: 6-10 games
    MLB: For positive steroid tests (other violations receive lesser penalties): 1st offense: 80 games (out of 162 game season, ~3 months; also can’t play in playoffs that season even if suspension over); 2nd offense: 162 games (1 full season/year); 3rd offense: lifetime ban, can apply for reinstatement after 1 year, which can be granted as soon as one additional year after that)
    NBA: 1st offense: 5 game suspension (out of 82 game season, slightly less than 2 weeks); 2nd: 10 game suspension; 3rd: minimum 25 game suspension; 4th: minimum 2 year suspension
    NHL: 1st: 20 game suspension (~a month and a half, 82 game season); 2nd: 60 game suspension; 3rd: lifetime ban
    Tennis: quick search didn’t pull up a policy, but I did find a story about a player who had been banned for 4 months following a positive test, so that seems to be a normal amount of time for a first offense.

    So you can see, Magic’s current policies are WAY harsher than is commonplace in sport. So if anything, this would suggest that the length of suspension should be LESS than it is, not more. Of course, I agree that this isn’t a perfect comparison, and not the be-all and end-all. But I do think it’s a useful point of comparison, and I think it leads a lot of credence to the idea of limited “punishment-fits-the-crime” suspensions. It’s also worth noting that there are sometimes lawsuits over suspensions (usually not ones which are in the PED policies, being so sharply prescribed), and that while those lawsuits most often fail, they don’t always. I certainly imagine Wizards wants to stay very far away from any kind of lawsuit territory.

    Another thing that bothered me is that the episode seemed personally directed against Mr. Anteri. This is based on a few things. I am not including the initial discussion of him just having been suspended, and for how long, and is that enough, because obviously that is news that just happened, which would spur the conversation started, and the initial discussion there seemed a normal way to enter the topic. But later on, there were a few things which very much made it take on a personal tone. Some quotes:
    (Ben): “A good way to start would be for example to donate all of the money that Fabrizio won from GPs or that he probably cheated in!” And “In 18 months, when Fabrizio Anteri comes back, if I, if I ever play against him in a ma-, in a sanctioned match, before every game, I’m going to flip a coin, and if the coin comes up heads, I’m gonna three pile him, and if the coin comes up tails, I’ll just shuffle normally.”
    “…cheating, which is something they would do right now if they don’t have a conscience, and there are people like that, as clearly evidenced by” (lists people).
    (Tristan): “Fabrizio is somebody that we knew about for a very long time was suspected cheater, right? Like, it took a long time for this movement to happen. I think – even like four months ago there wa, there was chatter in our local group about him being one of the, one of the bad guys.”
    It very much disturbs me when people – especially people I like, people I like listening to or having discussions with, as the hosts of this podcast are – go personal like this. Judgmental condemnations don’t help anyone. It doesn’t make things better. I understand that he cheated, and that’s wrong, and you’re upset. He shouldn’t have done that, and it’s totally natural to get upset given the circumstances. But these kinds of statements don’t improve things. Doing something that you shouldn’t, that’s wrong, doesn’t make you a bad person.
    The worst part of all this, though, was the following interchange between Ben and Tristan:
    “In 18 months, when Fabrizio Anteri comes back, if I, if I ever play against him in a ma-, in a sanctioned match, before every game, I’m going to flip a coin, and if the coin comes up heads, I’m gonna three pile him, and if the coin comes up tails, I’ll just shuffle normally.”
    “Why would you have a chance of shuffling normally, ‘cause you want him to still cheat maybe?”
    “Yeah yeah.”
    … (cut for brevity – related but not 100% on the same line I’m talking about here) …
    “But you want him to cheat against you so he might get caught, right?”
    “Yeah.”
    Now, I know that you aren’t actually advocating cheating here, and I know you don’t actually mean to say that you want him to cheat. But I’m going to point out, you shouldn’t say it, it’s a wrong thing to do. And you literally did say you want him to cheat. Well, you shouldn’t. You should want him to come to an understanding that cheating is a really rotten thing to do, come to that realization, and then not cheat anymore. Saying that you want him to cheat gives the impression that you have pre-judged him as someone who can’t or won’t possibly change. If we used the same logic you’re using about Mr. Anteri, then would make you a ‘bad guy’. I’m not going to do that – I know better than to say that you are a bad guy, or don’t have a conscience, because you did or said something stupid and wrong. I assume you would say that what he did is worse, and you could probably make a reasonable argument there (though one I don’t think I would agree with, actually – no amount of winning or losing at card games, no amount of money, in my view, is as important a problem societally as how easy we all de-humanize each other). But I think such an argument, as justification, is a bit self-important, boiling at some level down to “I know what’s more important and less” and myopic. Or maybe you wouldn’t make that kind of an argument, and just say you were exaggerating while upset – I don’t know. The very point that I know you guys are thoughtful, smart, generally caring people is a big part of why I found listening to all of this so particularly upsetting.

    But let’s move on from such an unpleasant topic.
    Neal talked about not knowing whether a former cheater has reformed, and said that this is unfair to those people who haven’t cheated. He also said that he doesn’t know if, at the Pro Tour, his opponents are cheating or not. I don’t really buy this argument, mostly because you don’t know whether your opponent is cheating or not in ANY situation, whether they’ve been caught cheating before or not. While I sympathize that this can increase your tension in potentially playing against such a player in the future, that isn’t very convincing as an argument – there are many reasons players have to deal with psychological unpleasantness and discomfort, through no fault of their own. Going from one coast to the other leaves me jet lagged, tired, uncomfortable – it’s going to make me a bit grumpy and not as mentally focused as I could be. It’s unfair to me. But it’s a lousy reason to schedule all GPs near me. Now granted, this is definitely not a perfectly fair analogy, and I do think this level of unpleasantness should be counted in as a factor – really the biggest factor of why suspensions should be given at all. But permanent bans on 1st offense just seem very excessive, even when taking this into account.

    Tristan brings up the point (following upon some comments seeming in this direction from the others) that he thinks there should be a big difference between “premeditated cheating” and “cheats of opportunity”. I don’t understand this. Why? For one thing, I don’t think anyone goes into a tournament and has the conscious thought/plan in their mind “I am going to cheat”. People just don’t think of themselves as cheaters, even if they know that they are doing something which is indeed cheating. But more to the point, in either case, the players who are cheating are taking advantage of the inattentiveness of their opponents, in order to advance their own position within the game, in a way which is definitely against the rules. I don’t see how it makes a difference whether it’s deck-stacking vs purposely missing triggers. And actually, I don’t see “if my opponent misses a trigger, I’m going to not point it out” as being all that different than “I’m going to sort my deck lands and spells”.
    Going along with this, Ben and Tristan both talk about how they wish judges were better aware of ‘the cheater mindset’. There is no such thing as ‘the cheater mindset’. Cheaters are not monolithic. They don’t all share the same mindset, the same goals, the same reasons, the same motivations. I think that it’s wrong to think that they do, and even more wrong to think that you, as a non-cheater, really understand that well – let alone being able to transmit that understanding to as large and diverse a group as the judge community. So while some psychological understanding might be nice, I don’t think it’s particularly realistic.

    Tristan notes that the only people who have ever been caught have been on camera – this is wrong, and actually pretty obviously wrong, considering that Tristan himself talks about DQing some cheats at local, non-broadcast matches. Naturally I would assume you’re more likely to get caught on camera, but that kind of is what it is.

    I don’t think that how hard it is to catch someone should have a bearing on how stiff a penalty they get. If I steal your mail out of a mailbox on a street, which is very hard to catch, should I get a bigger penalty than if I break into a locked PO box? I don’t think so.

    The other big concerning thing that came out of the episode for me is a kind of witch-hunt mentality. You talk about having lists of players you discuss who you think are likely cheaters. This kind of blacklist-style movement is something which I am really against. In general, I find that these things are based on perhaps some circumstantial evidence, and the rumors that come out of this, the damages to associations and reputations, are very damaging – quite more so than the strain you accrue in playing someone who “I don’t know if they’re cheating or not”. Maybe you guys are geniuses who can tell extremely accurately when someone is cheating (though I doubt it), but I know for sure that there are a lot of people – a big majority – who aren’t. I also know that there are a lot of people who get really sure that they’ve been cheated, when in fact they haven’t. There are lots of people who understand probability very poorly, and will take some ‘evidence’ from what gets drawn as being inordinately lucky. I see people talking about the shuffler on MTGO being rigged.
    I am far more worried about a witch-hunt atmosphere arising than I am about getting cheated. Talk like the kind you had on this week’s show, of “we have this group of players we think are cheating” leads to a feeling of paranoia, which is something that is way more likely to make me not want to go to a GP than is the current state of cheating.
    If you’re telling me that the judges are so incompetent at catching cheating that your group is much better (and it’s not that the judges necessarily have a higher burden of proof), then that would be disturbing about the state of the game indeed. But in any case, I think that these kinds of discussions are a net negative – you should just always be on your guard, and when you see something report it.

    But this gets us to what I think the most important thing here is: Steps we can take to minimize cheating. Because I do agree, minimizing cheating is a laudable goal, and absolutely something we should be pursuing.

    First and foremost, shuffling. People need to shuffle their decks. They need to shuffle their decks a lot. I think it’s pretty reasonable to have some codification of how much shuffling is sufficient, but my feeling is that this amount is met very, very rarely. Which is to say, I would guess that a massive percentage of players are breaking the rules on randomization, but just that, for most, they aren’t looking at their cards, or doing anything which stacks the deck, such that the deck starts out very close to them effectively not knowing its order, and because of this, and the fact that they aren’t taking advantage, it works out to be harmless. I don’t think most people are trying to cheat – rather, I think that people underestimate how many shuffles are needed to sufficiently randomize the deck. Literature suggests this to be approximately 3/2 Log(base 2) of N, where N is the number of cards in the deck. This is for Riffle shuffles, and there is reasonable feeling that the more common Mash shuffles are slightly less effective. In any case, that would be 9 Riffles, so people should really be doing at least 9 shuffles.
    But more importantly than this, people should always be very thoroughly shuffling their opponent’s deck. This is really a very good, very clean solution to many of these problems. If I don’t know the order of your deck, then I can’t have a trick shuffle, I can’t do anything weird to stack it or gain some kind of advantage. Obviously, we’ve got problems if I’m looking, ever, at your cards, but this is already true. And it doesn’t matter how much you’ve stacked your own deck if I shuffle it enough afterwards. So we need to be getting people to do this. It needs to be a normal thing. It needs to be encouraged, possibly codified. The judges need to be reminding people of it every day of competition, possibly every round. And people should be calling judges if their opponents are not shuffling enough.
    I found Tristan’s story about his teammate playing against Anteri, thinking he was a cheater, and being titled now, to be pretty strange, because if that’s true, why didn’t he ensure sufficient shuffling and/or report to the judges (especially if he is such a cheating expert and can spot it so well)?

    Finally, on suspensions. I am not the biggest fan of Ben’s “they need to prove they’ve changed”, in part once again because it assumes that cheating is based on a character defect (particularly one that can be shown to have changed by some kind of lifestyle change – I don’t think it’s related to that at all). But the bigger part is that, I don’t think there is anything they really can do that would satisfy someone with that attitude. Once the “this person is a cheater, they’re going to cheat” gets pretty well ingrained – the ‘everyone would agree’ kind of hypotheticals weren’t even accepted as hypotheticals in podcast, and the paying-back-money was only referred to as a *start*. It’s also extremely hard to codify what counts as ‘people agree’ – you open up a huge messy can of worms of people claiming ‘I have changed, and people agree’ and other people counter-claiming against them. That’s a huge mess that no kind of governing body is going to want to deal with.
    There are bigger problems with the actual money suggestion – for one thing, players who have been more successful monetarily have more to give back; for another, it’s not always going to be clear all the situations where the cheating occurred, and I’m not sure that “always assume everything” is a great policy; but most importantly, it has way more to do with how rich the returning player is than how “reformed” or “contrite” or whatever it is you’re looking for.
    At the same time, he isn’t without a point – from the EV perspective, waiting time isn’t really dissuasive. I think there isn’t much that you can really do about that, unfortunately. But I do have some ideas. First, you definitely want the penalties to ramp up for subsequent infractions, and you want that ramp to be fairly steep. Next, when a player does come back from suspension, I think it’s completely reasonable, and likely desirable, to have these players have extra scrutiny paid to them. The other suggestion I would like to make is that you have a multi-tiered suspension. For example, you get suspended for 1 year full stop. Then you have a ‘probationary period’, where you can play, and you can compete, but you aren’t eligible to win prizes. I’m not sure whether that probationary period should be a set length of time, or number of events, or both – probably events or a combination, I think. And, I think they should STILL get extra scrutiny after that probationary period. But that kind of thing can give them some chance of showing some actual evidence “I’m not cheating anymore”, as well as incentivizing people to play who are really doing it more for enjoyment of the game than for some kind of monetary profit.

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