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The ‘cheating’ scandal tearing the chess community apart, explained

Magnus Carlsen accused Hans Niemann of cheating, but did not offer proof

Magnus Carlsen plays in the Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2021
| Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

On Sept. 19, reigning chess world champion Magnus Carlsen made just one move against his opponent, American grandmaster Hans Niemann, and then resigned, sending the chess world into a panic about a growing scandal with seemingly no resolution.

Carlsen essentially refusing to play against Niemann heightened speculation about Carlsen’s abrupt withdrawal from the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, after losing to Niemann in early September, and whether he thought Niemann was cheating. At the time, Carlsen did not explain his actions, either in St. Louis or the resignation that week, during which time tensions snowballed and drew divisions in the chess world. On Monday, Carlsen finally released a statement via Twitter in which he said he was disinterested in playing matches against those that have “cheated repeatedly in the past, because I don’t know what they are capable of doing in the future.”

“I believe that Niemann has cheated more — and more recently — than he has publicly admitted,” Carlsen said. He explained his reasoning, but has not offered any concrete proof. “His over the board progress has been unusual, and throughout our game in the Sinquefield Cup I had the impression that he wasn’t tense or even fully concentrating on the game in critical positions, while outplaying me as black in a way I think only a handful of players can do. This game contributed to changing my perspective.”

Carlsen is a five-time world champion and arguably the best chess player ever. The 31-year-old Norwegian has been the world-ranked number one for over a decade, and his peak Elo rating (a scale used to determine relative strength of players) of 2882 is the best in history.

Niemann is a 19-year-old American whose Elo rating has exploded from 2484 in January 2021 to 2688 at the beginning of September. His meteoric rise has surprised and impressed the chess world, and in turn added to the suspicion of foul play.

During round 6 of the Julius Baer Generation Cup, Carlsen was supposed to play Niemann in what would have been their first meeting since Niemann beat him earlier this month. But instead of playing, Carlsen moved his knight and then resigned and turned off his camera, shocking live commentators into silence and sparking a Twitter storm of opinions.

“This is unprecedented. I just I can’t believe it,” live commentator Tania Sachdev said. “Magnus just refusing to play against Hans. He will play the tournament, but he is saying, ‘I will not play the game against him.’ That’s making a very big statement.”

How did we get to this moment?

The day after Niemann beat Carlsen in the third round at the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, Carlsen withdrew from the tournament before round 4 and tweeted an infamous clip of Portuguese soccer manager José Mourinho saying, “I prefer really not to speak. If I speak, I am in big trouble.”

In the clip Mourinho intimated that a loss was the result of foul play. Many took the cryptic reference as an insinuation that Carlsen thought Niemann cheated when playing against him, though he had not yet made a statement outright. The withdrawal was Carlsen’s first from a major event and a highly unusual move from an elite player.

Other chess figures weighed in, including popular chess streamer Hikaru Nakamura, who reacted live and revealed that there was a period of over six months in which Niemann was not able to participate in any prize money tournaments on Chess.com. That fact, paired with his unusual rise over the past year and half, led Nakamura to believe that Carlsen’s actions were related to a distrust of Niemann’s competitive integrity.

“Am I suggesting that something happened? I’m saying that Magnus is suspicious,” Nakamura said.

A few days later, Niemann decided to “say his truth” and defend himself from his critics. He stated that he had indeed cheated in online matches on Chess.com at 12 and 16 years old but denied ever cheating in over-the-board tournaments. He was vociferous in his denial of any accusation of cheating during his match with Carlsen, even offering to play naked to prove that he didn’t have any device providing him with outside assistance during the match.

Chess.com, the largest online chess platform, came out with a statement two days later on Sept. 8, stating that they decided to remove Niemann from Chess.com and from competing in future events on their platform due to their belief that Niemann’s public statement misrepresented the “amount and seriousness of his cheating on Chess.com.”

In the absence of clear proof, the back and forth inspired all sorts of theories about if Niemann cheated or if Carlsen was just being paranoid after losing. Theories have also bloomed about how Niemann could have cheated. Given Niemann’s willingness to play naked, some even joked that Niemann had discovered and stolen Carlsen’s method of cheating using anal beads to receive outside communication.

What does this mean for the future of chess?

Improved chess engines, which far surpass human chess players, have made it easier to cheat at chess, and there aren’t yet clear ways to prevent or moderate such cheating.

Chess engines are AI software that analyze the board’s possibilities and relay moves that provide the best outcomes, and since 2017, they’ve become incredibly sophisticated. According to The Atlantic, chess engines became superhuman, amassing Elo ratings in the 3000s. Stockfish, a publicly available chess engine that is often used in chess commentary to analyze potential moves, has an Elo rating of over 3500.

Cheating in chess online is incredibly simple; one only has to use a chess engine to guide moves. In person, at over-the-board tournaments, however, it’s more difficult. Players have consulted smartphones in the bathroom or carried devices on their person that communicate the input of a chess engine.

To catch cheating in chess on a lower level, one only needs to find a player overperforming to a statistically impossible degree. But high-level chess players already know most optimal moves and would only need to consult a chess engine one or two times to turn a game. As a result, it’s difficult to determine if a player is cheating, bar catching the player red-handed.

In this case, Niemann was not caught cheating in an over-the-board match, and there has been no concrete proof that he cheated on Sept. 4 against Magnus Carlsen.

Even the perception that someone might be cheating changes how an opponent plays. Chess engines like Stockfish will suggest moves that seem out of the ordinary for a human player, and playing against someone that you perceive to be assisted by AI means that you question why an unforeseen or visibly bad move has been made.

The scandal also points to the difficulty of the ethics of accusation. Because Carlsen hasn’t offered detailed proof for his accusations beyond how good he thinks Niemann should or should not be; and because Niemann hasn’t been caught cheating, the chess world’s opinions on both are in limbo. Carlsen essentially refusing to play another high-level player threatens both Niemann’s career but also Carlsen’s reputation. Does Carlsen have a responsibility to prove Niemann cheated against him at the Sinquefield Cup? Should a track record of cheating preclude Niemann from opportunities to play against the world’s best?

“A man’s career, a man’s mental health is at risk. The legacy of the world chess champion and arguably the best player ever is at risk. The state of chess is at risk,” Levy “GothamChess” Rozman said.

Due to the inane nature of online discourse, many in the chess community have already taken sides, either dismissing Carlsen as a sore loser intent on ruining a young man’s career or demanding Niemann stop competing because of his history of cheating.

“The truth or the lack thereof needs to be shown,” Rozman said. “We gotta get a move on, folks; time is running out.”

Even with the statement Carlsen released on Monday, a resolution to the scandal between Niemann and Carlsen remains unclear. Will Niemann and Carlsen meet again in future tournaments or will tournament organizers only invite one or the other? And if they do meet, will Carlsen play the game or resign again? What is clear, however, is that many agree with the top chess player in the world when he says that cheating is an “existential threat” to chess and that chess’ organizational bodies have a large task ahead of them to identify and deal with cheating in the future.

Update (Sept. 27): After the publication of this article, Magnus Carlsen tweeted a statement saying he believes Niemann has cheated. We’ve edited the article to reflect this.

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