Magnus Carlsen had never withdrawn from a tournament he entered — until now. So when he forfeited his game and the rest of the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, posting a suggestive GIF on Twitter, the world of chess collectively raised an eyebrow. But then, it got uglier.
Carlsen, who for the past decade has been unequivocally the best chess player in the world (and is often brought into discussions about the greatest player of all time) can be a polarizing figure. He hasn’t shied away from criticizing (or trolling) some of his competitors, but you can’t really challenge his work ethic. Whether he’s had a good tournament or a bad tournament, he toughs it out. He’s not one to favor quick draws (a common, but sometimes frowned upon practice in chess), and while he’s often on the winning side of tournaments, he’s had his occasional share of painful defeats and always kept on playing. So when he withdrew from the tournament after losing to 19-year-old Hans Niemann, people looked at it seriously.
The whole episode expanded further when another top player (and the biggest chess streamer), Hikaru Nakamura, also made not-so-subtle accusations against Niemann, hinting at a period when the young player would have been banned by a chess website — also with a seemingly implied connotation of cheating. Nakamura also said that he believes Carlsen thinks Niemann cheated. In fact, almost everyone in the community interpreted as a subtle (or not-so-subtle accusation), including Niemann.
Shade was also thrown by a candidate for the World Championship, Ian Nepomniachtchi, who in a post-game interview said Niemann’s game was “more than impressive.” Nepomniachtchi has also accused Niemann of cheating in the past.
Things got even weirder on the next day of the competition. Although Carlsen withdrew, Niemann and everyone else continued to play, and as is customary in many tournaments, they gave post-game interviews in which they analyzed their own games.
In these analyses, players routinely go through variations of the positions in their game. It’s a sort of “if he does this I do this, and we end up here, and that’s good or bad for me.” It’s a way for players to explain their thought process and how they were prepared for different situations. After the Carlsen game, Niemann mentioned that he “miraculously” saw an obscure opening that Carlsen played, which gave him an edge. This wasn’t the only commentary from Niemann that raised eyebrows.
Sometimes, the computer evaluation (which is much more accurate than human understanding) is left on as a sort of evaluator. This was also the case in most interviews at the Sinquefield Cup. But when Niemann was interviewed, the computer evaluation was curiously switched off, which some interpreted as a telling sign — and Niemann’s evaluation of his own game seemed to be questioned by his interviewers, as well as people like Nakamura.
Within a day or two, everyone was piling on with their opinions and ideas on the matter, turning what’s usually a pretty peaceful community into turmoil — and it’s spread outside the world of chess, even Elon Musk is tweeting about it (though you may want to think twice before checking out what “theory” Musk is thinking of).
Granted, this is all just speculation at this moment, and no actual evidence has been been presented. Other grandmasters (the highest rank you can achieve in chess) have argued that you can’t just withdraw from a tournament and not present any evidence. Cryptic tweets make it so that your point gets across while presumably not making you liable for any accusations, but you still made an accusation without presenting any evidence
“If you wish to, you can find evidence that supports the view that he was cheating,” says Daniel King, a grandmaster, popular chess commentator, and analyst, on his Youtube. “But you can also find evidence that supports a view that his play is completely clean. It’s just confirmation bias, seems to me.”
So how does one even cheat in chess?
Cheating in chess
If we tried to assess this three or four decades ago, the answer could only be found by talking to someone outside the room and getting their opinion. But even that was just another opinion from someone else, and if you’re one of the very best in the world, there are few opinions that actually matter, so few people could actually help you. Nowadays, matters are very different.
Computers have gotten so much better at chess than humans that even a smartphone can easily defeat the best players. In fact, computer analysis is often used by chess players to prepare openings because it gives information on what the best moves are and how good or bad a position is.
So if you have access to a smartphone, or just a means of communication with anyone with access to a computer, you can cheat. Players often step away from the table (games often last three or four hours or even more), and that would give someone wanting to cheat an opportunity.
It’s not the first high-profile case where accusations of cheating were thrown around. Even a World Championship match was plagued by such accusations, though in the end, no evidence was shown.
But if a top chess player were playing against a computer, they’d know. You or I might not pick it up, but to those who truly understand the game, the style and the type of moves that computers make have a distinct non-human signature. Not all of them, mind you, but in a game, you’d figure out if you were playing against a computer. So if you want to cheat, you can’t just play every move the computer suggests, you have to just consult it at key moments and make the important moves at the important times. That can be harder to pick up by the opponent: brilliant chess players play brilliant moves, so it’s not exactly surprising when they find the best move even in complex situations (though again, sometimes, these moves are distinctly non-human).
Presumably, this is what Magnus Carlsen is implying, that he doesn’t think a human would play like that — or at least, that Niemann wouldn’t play like that. We don’t know exactly what Carlsen is thinking, because he hasn’t explained.
Which brings us to a key point we haven’t discussed so far: what Niemann himself is saying.
Niemann’s rise over the past few years has been meteoric. He explained that over the past few years, he’s been “living from a briefcase”, traveling the world to play tournaments, and focusing exclusively on chess. That’s not unheard of. But what about the games from the tournament and the accusations?
In an impassioned, obviously angry interview after one of his games, he expressed his side of the story.
Niemann admitted that he cheated in the past, in “random” online games, at the start of the pandemic.
“I cheated on random games on Chess.com. I was confronted. I confessed. And this is the single biggest mistake of my life. And I am completely ashamed. I am telling the world because I don’t want misrepresentations and I don’t want rumours. I have never cheated in an over-the-board game. And other than when I was 12 years old I have never cheated in a tournament with prize money.”
He swore that he’s clean now and will do anything to prove it.
“If they want me to strip fully naked, I will do it,” said Niemann. “I don’t care. Because I know I am clean. You want me to play in a closed box with zero electronic transmission, I don’t care. I’m here to win and that is my goal regardless.”
Some saw in this confirmation of cheating — if he cheated before, that makes him more likely to cheat again. Others saw his emotion as a sign of wrongful accusation. The only thing that was clear is that Niemann strongly denied the accusations.
At the end of the day, no one produced any tangible evidence that Niemann is cheating. Even some of Carlsen’s close collaborators have spoken in Niemann’s defense, and without any evidence, circumstantial factors and accusations don’t amount to much. To the eye of some top players, there may be evidence of cheating, but to the rest of the world, there seems to be a lot of confliction opinions and it’s hard to draw conclusions.
But no matter how you look at it, this does not bode well for the world of chess.
A chess reckoning
During the pandemic, chess has had a surge in popularity. With there being few other sports people could play, chess boomed (online chess). New tournaments popped up, a new audience tuned into chess, and things seemed to be going well. But in online chess too, there were allegations of cheating — and the spectrum of cheating looming over major tournaments can only be bad news.
If a player can indeed cheat at such events, then who knows how many times this has happened in the past? But on the other hand, if some of the top players are wrong and can’t tell when someone is cheating, but throw accusations, it’s also a big stain on a chess world that would (presumably) like to remain pristine. Meanwhile, on top of this, a young player’s career could be ruined.
With the online chess boom slowing down, Magnus Carlsen announcing that he will no longer compete for the World Champion title (but will compete in other tournaments), and cheating allegations, chess seems to be in dire need of some soul searching. For a game that’s been around for centuries, it could be a turning point.