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Cheating: What to Look For, How to Handle It

Today’s guest post is by Walter Ciechanowski (Walt C. in the comments here), author of Thrilling Tales: Dragon Island [1], d20 MasterKit: Fantasy Occupations [2] and numerous other Adamant Entertainment [3] products, as well as the long-running RPGnet [4] column Keeping Kosher [5]. In it, Walt tackles a topic that hasn’t been covered on TT before: dirty, dirty cheats. Thanks, Walt!
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One of the biggest problems any game master can face is the issue of cheating. Whether it be a player that “rolls” improbably high ability scores, routinely makes target numbers that he only has a 25% chance of hitting, or adds extra bonuses or points to her character sheet, cheating can certainly whittle away at the integrity of the gaming experience.

Cheating affects game balance in obvious and subtle ways. A character with high ability scores might encourage the GM to either increase the ability scores of the rest of the party or allow them to be slaughtered as he stats up challenges for the cheating player. Incredible luck with dice rolls encourages the GM to create more powerful foes that are immune to most attacks.

The question that I’ve struggled with is how to effectively guard against cheating without making the players feel like I don’t trust them. Most of my past attempts to address cheating are usually met with “Come on, we’re all adults. We don’t need policing” (this usually comes from the worst offenders). While I agree with that sentiment, it isn’t long before I start seeing the signs:

While none of these are huge “game-breakers” (critical hits are rarely fudged), they do detract from the game. It’s unfair that honest players are made to look incompetent (since they miss their rolls sometimes) while others massage probability.

In the past, I’ve used the following methods to reduce cheating in my campaigns:

  1. Having ability score and hit point dice rolls made in front of me (or another player).
  2. Keeping all dice rolls in the open.
  3. Using easily readable dice.
  4. Making the player announce what he needs to succeed before rolling the dice (I usually do the same).
  5. Having every roll verified by another player (usually the person sitting next to them).
  6. Collecting and keeping character sheets to scrutinize between sessions.

I’m about to start a new D&D campaign in a few weeks, and I’ve been considering how to balance cutting down on cheating with my desire not to offend everyone at the table. My current plan includes having the player announce what she needs before rolling (and keeping a sharp eye on the roll result) and making a statement that, since I use readable dice and throw them in the center of the table, I expect everyone to do the same. At this point, I’m unsure whether to directly observe ability score rolls.

What say you? How do you effectively and considerately guard against cheating?

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#1 Comment By Sarlax On May 11, 2007 @ 6:39 am

I’ve only had one player from whom I suspected cheating. I never gave any thought to booting him, as he was a good friend and actually the best role-player we had at the table. But boy did he love critical hits!

In the following session, I happened to have brought my brand new battle mat and announced that only a roll on the mat which hit no obstructions counted, as I needed to make the mat “lucky” by having everyone roll on it. With the way people sat around the table, it became impossible to conceal a roll made on the mat. The player’s unusually high rolls disappeared.

If you suspect some cheating, you should try to avoid calling out the player. You could be wrong about it, which has its own problems, but even if you’re right, you might just create some bad blood with a friend, not just between you and him, but between him and everyone else at the table. If you can’t correct the problem by eliminating the incentives to fudge, however, bring attention to it at the table in a light-hearted way, unless you know your players (including the cheater) won’t mind a serious talk about it.

I’d also not “take the player aside” for a discussion. Are you the boss who noticed an employee taking a nip of Scotch at his desk or are you friends playing a game?

I don’t think cheaters are bad people, they just want an edge when they decide to bend the numbers, but it makes it hard for others to enjoy the came. The rest of the players might notice the remarkable skewing of probabilities or even just get tired of seeing on PC in the spotlight because of his excellent success.

I mentioned incentives to cheat. One category of incentives includes the absence of supervision. If the players are spread far apart or books (or a GM’s screen …) block site of the dice, someone’s probably going to fudge. They figure no one will no about it, so why not have a little more fun?

A second incentive is the critical circumstance. If you’ve arranged things so that the adventure turns on a single die, a player might want to fudge the result.

Another incentive is perceived unfairness. If one character has ended up as more powerful than the rest, other players experience the pressure to cheat for the whole campaign. Session by session, the same thing will happen if the PCs are put up against creatures which are far too powerful or unusually lucky themselves.

You can reduce cheating by keeping things open and fair. Establish from the beginning that that rolls must be made in the open in a designated place. When important rolls need to be made, go ahead and call attention to it as a dramatic moment so everyone’s watching. Finally, keep things as fair as you can at your table; make sure PCs are balanced against one another and that sessions don’t require so much luck that they can’t be honest.

With D&D in particular, consider using the point-buy system for stats. I know rolling for stats is a fun and classic part of the game, but that’s less so for the players when one gets 18, 17, 15, 15, 14, 14 and the others get 15, 13, 12, 10, 7, 5.

#2 Comment By Walt C On May 11, 2007 @ 7:01 am

You hit on a point I forgot to mention, Sarlax!

One of my anti-cheating measures is that, when dice are involved, I stand from the chair and hover over the table (since I tend to use a screen and like to roll in the open, it’s difficult to see the dice when sitting). I have found that this presence helps cut down on cheating without calling out particular players.

#3 Comment By Mark On May 11, 2007 @ 7:20 am

I almost hate to mention this, but I must:

One incentive to cheat is when a player suspects the DM is fudging rolls for NPCs. One way to encourage fair game play is to lead by example. (i.e. Make that villain’s critical save in front of the players every once in a while.)

-sorry Martin 🙂

#4 Comment By Martin On May 11, 2007 @ 7:30 am

No apology needed, Mark. 😉 Ironically enough, Walt himself referred to fudging as a form of cheating in the comments to yesterday’s post. There’s definitely some interconnection between fudging and cheating that I don’t think has been fully explored yet.

#5 Comment By Steev On May 11, 2007 @ 7:48 am

Years ago, in my very first game, I encountered a cheater. We were all teens at the time, still in high school, and Ziggy was a great guy. But he had an incredible tendency to roll 20s. Even on d8s.

The other players complained, and I was young and vindictive. So Ziggy, playing a ranger, managed to find a cursed Deck of Many Things. This deck, unfortunately, contained only bad things. It also cursed his d20 so that it reversed the die range (1 becomes a 20, 20 becomes a 1) every time he rolled a criticial hit or fumble, and forced him to draw a card every time he rolled a critical.

By the end of the game (we had a 6-week summer program to play with), he was a gender-neutral, opposite alignment, 5th level person with no class. He never did learn to stop cheating.

Now, though, I just tend to have all rolls made in the open, and I (usually) follow suit as well. I find that cuts down on cheating–though not unintentionally loaded dice. There was a paladin who could roll 17’s like nobody’s business. Fortunately, that player switches d20’s for every character, so the 17-die is long gone.

#6 Comment By Martin On May 11, 2007 @ 8:09 am

“Hi, I’m Martin, and I cheated on a roll.”

“Hi, Martin.”

I have a confession to make: back in middle school (the early 90s), I cheated on two rolls in a solo campaign. I didn’t get caught the first time, but did get caught the second time. Here’s how it went:

Me: I cast hold person.
GM: Okay. How many rounds is he held?
Me: (Rolls d4, gets a 2) Four.
GM: That looks like a two.
Me: (Blushes bright red) Yeah, it is.
(Game continues)

I felt terrible, and I’m glad he caught me. I had never done it before those two rolls, and I’ve never cheated on a roll again (except as a GM, where we call it fudging ;)). It’s been 15-ish years, and I still feel bad about doing it.

Which is why I agree with Sarlax: Cheating isn’t something that you should threaten a friendship over. My GM in that case trusted me to stop cheating, and our friendship was never in question.

Before reading Walt’s post and thinking about this topic in relation to my own sordid past, I would have said “I just don’t play with cheaters.” I’d never considered the disconnect between friendship and cheating at the gaming table — they don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other. Thanks for making me reconsider that, Walt.

Unless the cheater in question is a problem player in other ways, too, handle this one with kid gloves. Your friend will be glad you did.

#7 Comment By Telas On May 11, 2007 @ 8:10 am

I have a player who uses really small dice, and gets some amazing rolls on it. I reshuffled the table at one point and put him next to me, and now I check his rolls.

The result? He still gets the same degree of success, and so far, they’re all legit. He’s got lucky dice, or knows something in the throwing of them… (I don’t suspect the latter; the dice are thrown well.) So here’s a vote for the “don’t accuse” faction…

A couple of other points:

In the beginning of a game, make all table rolls open and untouched until the dice are needed again. As the game progresses, this rule can be relaxed, but it sets a good expectation for the group.

Keep a copy of the players’ character sheets, and recalculate them, either with a autocalculating sheet like HeroForge (shameless plug), or by hand. I’ve found quite a few mistakes on sheets before, and most of them were against the players.

Use index cards for modifiers, and lay them out when in use, so nobody “conveniently forgets” certain things (like the 2x movement that cancels out charging in D&D). Again, this usually works in the favor of the party (how many forget the Bless or Bard Song?).

#8 Comment By Lorekeeper On May 11, 2007 @ 8:27 am

I would suggest to just ignore the issue. The GMs have to keep track of so many things during the game, that they really don’t need to spare any attention to try and catch cheaters.
If some people enjoy cheating… let them.
If it’s done sparingly it can add drama to the game at crucial moments (think of it like player roll fudging). If done all the time it just becomes stupid and the player will soon enough fill that there is no challenge left in the game.

People who want to cheat will always find a way to do it, so there is no point trying to fight it.

#9 Comment By Martin On May 11, 2007 @ 8:49 am

(Sorry for the tangent, but I couldn’t let this slide by.)

(Telas) Use index cards for modifiers, and lay them out when in use, so nobody “conveniently forgets” certain things (like the 2x movement that cancels out charging in D&D). Again, this usually works in the favor of the party (how many forget the Bless or Bard Song?).

Any interest in expanding this into a guest post, Telas? This is a brilliant use for index cards, and not just as an anti-cheating measure.

(In D&D, I never take Dodge unless I’m forced to (it’s a prereq) because I always forget to use it. I’d love to have a card out in front of me to remind me to use it.)

Hell, this could be a d20 product in its own right: make one for every status change, buff, etc. in the SRD, put that text on one side and a notation like “[Buff name] Used” on the back. The corners could be color-coded for the type of status change, so they’d be easy to sort.

You should self-publish this, or approach a publisher about it. Do it up on professional cards with rounded corners, make multiples for the really common stuff, sell it for $10-$15 and I’d buy a deck in a heartbeat. I don’t think I’d be the only one, either.

If that idea doesn’t grab you, please shoot me an email (martin (at) treasuretables (dot) org), because I’d love to explore it, either jointly or on my own with full credit to you.

#10 Comment By VV_GM On May 11, 2007 @ 8:51 am

I caught a player cheating once. We were playing the original Vampire the Masquerade and he kept rolling those D10s and as he counted up the successes he would “accidentally” flip the low number dice to higher numbers. I looked at him and he looked at me and it was just one of those moments where everybody knew he was cheating. It was a good time to take a break so we did, and when it was just him and I in the room I told him that I didn’t care. I explained that all he was doing was limiting his character so he could go ahead and do that all he wanted.

The thing is that once he and I had that understanding between us he stopped cheating. I don’t think it was for any noble reason though. I think he just felt that cheating was pointless if I as the GM didn’t feel like he was gaining anything from it. Kind of like someone who thinks he’s stealing something for the thrill of it only to find out that it is a free sample.

It was an odd sort of experience, but my only experience where I caught a player cheating on die rolls.

As for character creation, well I’ve learned the GM should review every character before play begins. 🙂

#11 Comment By drunkenewok On May 11, 2007 @ 8:53 am

I’ve had one or two players cheat over the years. In most cases it’s the usual improbably high dice rolls, but I’ve also experienced a lot of players who conveniently forget to cross off expendable resources. Four healing potions end up lasting for more than a dozen uses, damage doesn’t get recorded, spell slots don’t get crossed off, and the like. Some of this is simply lazy bookkeeping, but sometimes it stretches into intentional cheating.

As a result, I’ve implemented a few measures to reduce the incentive to cheat:

* Item cards or tokens for expendable resources – which can be traded between players and handed in when used
* A damage tracking spreadsheet/calculator – helps me keep track of damage totals which eliminates the incentive to cheat and gives me insight into when and how hard to hit to avoid an accidental character death. Automating it reduces the likelihood of errors – most of my players love it, since they don’t have to track their damage and can just play off the descriptions of each hit
* Point buy character creation – while I love the excitement of rolling up a new character and getting an awesome roll, the fact that a few lucky rolls can influence potentially years of game play and drive the competitive desire for other players to cheat isn’t worth the brief euphoria to me.

I’ll definitely agree with Sarlax – the frank discussion of cheating is a topic I’d rather avoid with my friends. It’s much easier to simply find ways to reduce the incentives or opportunities to cheat. Of course if a player vehemently rejects your efforts to curtail cheating, it’s probably a good sign that a real confrontation is necessary.

As a player, I’ll admit to fighting the temptation to cheat. In the rare cases that I succumb, I tend to apply small unspecified bonuses to my die roll, rather than misreading the die – mostly because I know that it’s statistically almost impossible to detect such a small bias. I don’t do it on the common rolls – most of the time I could care less whether I hit or miss, or if I fumble a routine skill check. The main time I do cheat is on those incredibly crucial die rolls – the last swing in a combat where success means the difference between victory and a TPK, or the one chance in a game session where my diplomatic character gets to make a diplomacy check. The idea of failing such crucial rolls can prove a compelling motivator to cheat.

To eliminate this particular variant of cheating, I like games that incorporate some sort of metagame mechanic (Action Points, Hero Points, or some other rare expendable resource) to allow a player to influence the result of a roll (s)he considers important. I’ve found that the incentive to cheat on regular rolls is dramatically reduced when the player has such options available.

I do disagree with the laissez-faire strategy Lorekeeper suggests – mostly because a cheater gains greater enjoyment of the game at the expense of the other players. Allowing rampant cheating to take place will either result in the cheater taking all the glory with the other players reduced to supporting roles, or with the other players adopting a cheating strategy to keep up. The former will result in strained relationships, while the latter will lead to a ever increasing power spiral. Neither of which, imho, are conducive to a fun game. Reducing the incentives to cheat will reduce the resulting effects of cheating proportionally.

#12 Comment By Walt C On May 11, 2007 @ 9:08 am


Funny that you mentioned this.

I was considering using index cards in my next campaign for things like flat-footed, stunned, armor class penalties, and other stuff like that.

Now I’m thinking I might laminate some so that I can have “Dodge bonus against:_________” and let the player fill in the blank during combat.


#13 Comment By Peter On May 11, 2007 @ 9:19 am

I have to agree with Telas. Most “cheating” comes from honest mistakes. and most mistakes are to the disadvantage of my players.

#14 Comment By Mike Ski On May 11, 2007 @ 10:01 am

As someone who’s died in two different campaigns on the very first session, I would hope my DMs can trust me 🙂

As for when I DM, I really don’t bother watching players’ rolls; everyone in my group has an understanding that cheating just lessens the fun for that person. They won’t even let me cheat/fudge on their behalf; two sessions ago, the first session of my campaign, I was about to hit my friend’s character into negative HP and he insisted that I not fudge the damage.

#15 Comment By Walt C On May 11, 2007 @ 10:26 am

Another funny anecdote:

I was playing in a campaign where we were facing a very powerful villain. The GM rolled to hit against a player and then gleefully announced that it was a critical hit. He had just picked up his fistfull of dice when the player sighed and made an announcement.

(The player-GM exchange follows:)

“I guess I’m dead. I only have 2 hit points left.”
“Really?” (looks shocked) I thought you had more than that!”
“Nope” (rattles off litany of hits taken so far). “That leaves 2 hit points.”
“Oh.” (rolls dice) “You take 2 points of damage.”

We had to stop the game until everyone was finished laughing at that obvious fudge.

#16 Comment By mystikphish On May 11, 2007 @ 10:46 am

I am also one of the more “Laissez-Faire” DMs, my group’s a bit older and we “game” in the “game vs. sport” mode. It’s just for fun and to get together.

That said, I have found one of my peeve’s is the “pratice rolling” cheaters, of which I have (well, had…) two!

“Practice Rollers” are those players that keep their pile of die in front of them and are continuously rolling a d20 for no reason… then when my attention is elsewhere during combat and I turn to them they just smile and point at a die that is already rolled…

I finally had to implement a “called roll” policy, i.e. you have to have my attention to roll or it doesn’t count. It’s also gotta be out on the battle mat.

Other than that I just let people basically do what they want, as long as it doesn’t detract from the other players fun.

#17 Comment By John Arcadian On May 11, 2007 @ 11:34 am

I’ve cheated in the past. Never felt great about it, even at the time. It was due to frustration from a bad GM who tried to hinder the players from anything cool they tried to do. The bad GM is no joke at all, but the cheating wasn’t justified. I got caught by another player, but he was cheating too. (truly bad GM.) We talked about it afterwards. The game dissolved not long after, but I always felt horrible about cheating.

I think most cheating is like that though. People get frustrated by something, so they “take matters into their own hands”. The best way to deal with it is to privately talk it out, and not ruin any friendship over it. Find out why, and try to fix that. Even saying, hey I trust you from now on, but make your rolls in the open so I don’t have any reason not to, hopefully won’t offend anyone.

When we play now we use dice rolls in the open for everyone. If someone has a kick ass roll, they stay hands off and say “Hey check this out, so you know I”m not joking.” It is just kind of a trust thing that we all engage in.

#18 Comment By Ravencloak On May 11, 2007 @ 2:03 pm

I love the idea of the “index cards” for condition tracking. Martin, while I agree with your suggestion to color-code the corners “for the type of status change, so they’d be easy to sort” (and I interpret this as stat-bonus vs. AC bonus vs. save bonus, so more general categories); I think it would be even more useful to emphasize the TYPE of bonus (dodge vs. luck vs. inherent, etc.). That said, I think both indicators would be extremely useful for reference and for keeping the cards organized.

While this might seem a bit cumbersome, I think this could actually be a really helpful tool to track bonus stacking. If you have a card for every “standard” bonus your character gets, you could quickly sort through to see if the new bonus type overlaps with one currently in play. So, when the wizard suggests casting Bull’s Strength on the barbarian, the barbarian’s player quickly sorts through his stack of bonus cards and discovers that his belt of giant strength already provides him with an enhancement bonus to Strength, so the spell will have no useful effect.

#19 Comment By Crazy Jerome On May 11, 2007 @ 2:06 pm

My solution is drastic, but simple and effective:

1. Monitor for honest mistakes. The monitoring is light, and it helps the players as much as it hurts. In the long run, it helps cut out mistakes, too, as people learn where the common mistakes occur.

2. If you have someone cheating, and they are over the age of 20, give them one chance to stop it. Tell them flat out that you won’t tolerate it. Next time it happens, they are gone. If they mature in a few years, they can come back. I don’t think such late maturity happens very often. A person that will flagrantly cheat a second time in your game after being called on it isn’t shamed, and is just upset at getting caught. They probably cheated in school. They’ll cheat at work. You are better off without them in the group, causing bad feelings.

#20 Comment By masterzora On May 11, 2007 @ 3:20 pm

Regarding digital dice: my group at home was too cheap to buy the polyhedrons, so we just had a bunch of laptops and random.org (and a beautiful combination of light-aired gaming and trust so nobody lied about roles). The beautiful thing about random.org over a dice-rolling program is the true-random rather than pseudorandom nature of the numbers. I am nearly certain that it wouldn’t be overly difficult to have a roller program query random.org and get the best of both rolls. Maybe if I get some spare time one of these days I can figure out if I’m right….

#21 Comment By GilaMonster On May 12, 2007 @ 1:48 am

(Telas: Use index cards for modifiers, and lay them out when in use, so nobody “conveniently forgets” certain things)

I do that with my character’s spells. I play a cleric who’s always casting buff spells and I got tired of having to announce the spells results 2 or 3 times while everyone wrote them down, then again every round.

The cards contain the spell name, the bonus amount and type and the duration.

Things run a lot smoother now that I can just announce the spell I’m casting and pass the cards around.

#22 Comment By GilaMonster On May 12, 2007 @ 1:49 am

(Martin: Hell, this could be a d20 product in its own right)

It already is. Enworld was advertising them a few months back.

#23 Comment By Martin On May 12, 2007 @ 5:35 am

(GilaMonster) It already is. Enworld was advertising them a few months back.

Really? Any idea what they’re called?

#24 Comment By GilaMonster On May 12, 2007 @ 2:33 pm

Not sure. I’ll have a look next time I visit the site.

I didn’t buy them. I’d spent a couple hours typing spells into Word about a week earlier.

#25 Comment By Abulia On May 13, 2007 @ 12:04 am

I’m having some difficulty wrapping my brain around the concept that the bulk of you are monitoring, hovering, or otherwise making sure your players don’t cheat.

This isn’t the SAT — this is a group of people coming together to play a game.

A cheater, ultimately, only cheats themselves, IMO.

I value my friendship with my other gamers too much to worry about cheating. If you rolled a 20 then that’s good enough for me. I have these people in my house, sharing my food, and playing around my children. If I trust them enough to let them into my life and socialize with them then I certainly trust them enough not to cheat at the gaming table.

Sometimes, the behavior you expect is exactly what you receive. That is to say, if you expect the worst from people they’ll probably find a way to meet your expectations. Expect more.

#26 Comment By Cineris On May 13, 2007 @ 7:13 pm

Perhaps my favorite cheating incident so far was from one of the players that drifted in and out of my group over the past year …

In this particular incident he was playing a Kobold character. His stat line was Str: 18, Dex: 22, Con: 18, Int: 17, Wis: 18, Cha: 19.

Kobolds as PCs have the following stat adjustments: -4 Strength, +2 Dexterity, -2 Constitution. Meaning that he presumably rolled a 22 on 3d6 for Str, a 20 for Dex, a 20 for Con, a 19 for Cha… Ultimately, no one in the group cared about the obviously cheating rolls, though; If you cheat and still don’t contribute meaningfully to the game, it’s the latter that is problematic.

#27 Comment By Frank Filz On May 14, 2007 @ 9:05 am


Sure, it’s “just a game.” And in that sense, cheating isn’t something to get hyper about. Any I don’t. Yet I would say that I monitor for cheating. Does that mean I’m sitting there constantly looking for cheating like some test proctor? No, it mostly means I’m aware that cheating is something that can arise in a game situation. From there, if I observe cheating, or have it noted to me by another player, I decide if the cheating is disruptive to other’s fun. If it’s not disruptive to anyone’s fun, I ignore it. If it’s mildly disruptive, and I think a gentle response will be effective, then I do so (reminding players – in general, not pointing fingers – to keep track of resources, or to be consistent in how they roll their dice and decide when a die is cocked or not).

And you know what, sometimes cheating is fun for all. When I was in high school, we often played dice bowling, where you roll the dice one at a time, and if you didn’t like the result of the first die, you rolled the second die and tried to knock the first die to a better value.

And I have had disruptive cheaters in my games. One guy in college cheated so obviously during chargen. He rolled a stat, then got me sidetracked in conversation, when the sidetrack ended, I noted that the dice had changed. And he constantly cheated in other ways. How did I respond? I simply chose not to fudge in his favor – at all (though that particular campaign was an attempt a minimal fudge). Right off the bat, he lost the opportunity to re-roll to try and get better stats (a fudge that was still totally common in that campaign). Eventually his character did something stupid, and died (despite his attempts to cheat during combat). He stalked off in a huff. Which was about what I figured would happen. It was clear from his attempts to cheat that he was not interested in the relatively hard core gaming we were doing.

No serious harm done other than a bit of wasted time.

Another time, another player noted that he thought a player was cheating, I watched and sort of agreed with him and watched the player. I also made a comment about declaring rolls and stuff. She and her SO ended up quitting soon. Again, they really weren’t interested in the same sort of gaming.


#28 Comment By Rick the Wonder Algae On May 15, 2007 @ 8:45 am

You also have to look at what your group and what they consider cheating.

In recent history I gamed with a new group and (within this group) found the following to be completely acceptable cheating:

Coming to every game (which started about once per session) with a pre-rolled character with no stats less than 16 (DnD) because you simply re-rolled your stats repeatedly until you got ones you liked.

Rolling a d20 incessantly durring play (I’m inclined to think it was a nervous habit or boredom) then shreiking when a 20 was rolled and asking excitedly “Can I keep that? PLEEEEEASE?”

Saying “Eh. I don’t like that roll.” and re-rolling.

If there was any less blatant cheating going on, I didn’t notice it, though a few of the players were genuinely bad at math and “cheated” that way, but we had to remind them “your math is wrong bozo. That totals to 27 not 23.” as much as the reverse.

Interestingly enough, in my (limited) experience, women seem to blatantly cheat FAR more than men. It seems that men react less negatively towards women cheating, so they can actually get away with it, as opposed to men who know they won’t get away with it and don’t even try.