The highest levels of professional chess have been rocked by insinuations of cheating, both over the board and on line. At the center of the swirling maelstrom stands five-time reigning FIDE world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway, who has hinted in both words and actions that he may believe that fellow professional player Hans Niemann of the U.S. may have had an unfair advantage in their August match-up at the Sinquefield Cup, a prestigious over-the-board tournament held in St. Louis. Playing the black pieces, Niemann, age 19, defeated Carlsen, age 31, snapping Magnus’s 53-game unbeaten streak.
Magnus hadn’t lost a game in two years. Niemann was ranked over 200 points behind Carlsen in FIDE rankings.
Carlsen – arguably the greatest professional chess player in recorded history – played an unusual opening that game, featuring either a novel move, or a new variation intentionally, so as to catch his opponent flat-footed. Niemann, however, played the game at a level so high, (as evaluated by computer analysis of each position), as to arouse suspicions that he was somehow being transmitted a computer-generated best move in response. Niemann later called his win a “miracle,” and explained his unlooked for victory on lucky preparation; he said he’d seen that variation that very morning and made plans against it. He also may have irked Magnus – either intentionally or through social awkwardness…he is a chess player after all – by suggesting the champion must be embarrassed to lose to lesser player like him. Either way it was ungracious.
The following day Carlsen withdrew from the tournament entirely. He also posted a cryptic post on Twitter featuring a pro soccer coach responding to a journalist’s question with a perfunctory no comment and a side note that they’d get in trouble for speaking. It was an unprecedented and shocking event that stunned the entire chess world. Quibble had grown to spat, then to wrangle.
It didn’t help that Niemann followed with a sort of mea culpa, admitting to cheating on line as a young teen to gain ranking points, saying it happened only twice, (when he was 12 and 16) and never over the board. Still, shortly thereafter Chess.com banned Niemann from playing games on their site and from participating their events. The chess world began to take sides as insinuations started to swirl. First fellow chess legend Hikaru Nakamura seemingly agreed with Carlsen. Then a noted chess cheating expert, a college professor named Ken Regan came out and said his analysis indicated that Niemann’s moves in his last two years of broadcast games – as analyzed against a chess computer programmed to give the best possible move in any situation – Regan’s analysis indicated that Niemann was not cheating.
However, no less a personage than Fabiano Caruana, the man who pushed Magnus to the ultimate in their epic 2018 FIDE World Championship match, refutes that. Caruana claims that Regan got a recent high-level incident wrong, but does not expound. A second analysis by French Master and YouTuber Yosha-Echecs shows what she calls “incrimunating evidence. Is Fabi right? Will we ever know the truth of that event? What do we make of Yosha-Echecs’s findings analyzing Niemann’s data? (We’ll review that in our follow-up article, coming soon.) Maybe not, but then came the thunderbolt from Magnus. A slap in Niemann’s face or ten lashes in the public square? I’m afraid it’s both…
In early September during the preliminary rounds of a prestigious on-line tournament held just three weeks after Carlsen’s loss to Niemann, Carlsen faced Niemann again, this time on-line via videoconference in the prestigious Julius Baer Generation Cup. Here is the video of the live broadcast of what was supposed to be the rematch. Pay special attention to two of the wildest double-takes you’ve ever seen…”AND WHAAAAAAAAAAAAT???!!! It’d be funny, if it weren’t shaking championship chess to its foundations.
The twin shouts of bewilderment by the otherwise poised and professional analysts were echoed all across the Internet, and as always bad news and rumors spread like wildfire. You could see the agony, indeed the horror, on Tania Sachdev’s face as she realizes the impact of what happened. Magnus made a single move as black and then resigned. Still, she handled it like a consummate pro.
“Magnus Carlsen just resigned. Got up, and left. Switched off his camera, and that’s all we know right now,” she relayed calmly, but with a hint of the poignancy we all felt at that moment. And of course, equally professional and perfunctory, Peter Leko followed up with the perfect, laconic observation:
“Wow. Speechless, yeah?”
Veteran champion-turned-broadcaster David Howell of ChessBase was likewise shocked noting, “What do we say now? This is a bigger statement than the tweet I think,” and he’s right.
ChessBase’s Kara Snare interviewed Carlsen once the tournament preliminaries were over, and Carlsen continued to obliquely addressed the issue, stating that people should draw their own conclusions and some of them have. He followed that with more sarcastic shade on Niemann, and then, to the shock of all expanded the allegations to insinuate another player Max Dlugy was also a cheater and that Niemann had metaphorically taken him as a “mentor.” Like Niemann, Dlugy was banned from Chess.com and his results from two tournaments in 2017 and 2020 respectively were scrubbed. Right or wrong about cheating, Magnus had taken aÂ mis-step by escalating and expanding the drama, (and a page from Tiger Woods’s playbook from back in Woods’s winning days, when he let fellow-golfers twist in the wind for days before accepting their apology for what ever slight it was, real or imagined).
That being said, Snare was the consummate professional, realizing the massive import of the moment and asked all the right questions. Certainly no plant and not in the tank for anyone’s agenda, Snare persisted politely, clearly, and with laser focus. Magnus, equally polite and savvy, calmly declined to answer, neither dodging nor deflecting. He was his as even-tempered and pleasant with Kaja as though they had just met out at the cafe getting coffee, not discussing Chess Armageddon. It was two consummate professionals, each putting on a master class in journalism on the one hand and not giving anything away on the other. This excellent video by one chess master breaks down everything like a fraction.
Former World Champion Victor Korchnoi torched Carlsen immedaitely, effectively saying show us your proof Niemann cheated or retract and apologize. FIDE followed almost immediately with a firm, poignant statement:
First of all, we strongly believe that the World Champion has a moral responsibility attached to his status, since he is viewed as a global ambassador of the game. His actions impact the reputation of his colleagues, sportive results, and eventually can be damaging to our game. We strongly believe that there were better ways to handle this situation. At the same time, we share his deep concerns about the damage that cheating brings to chess. FIDE has led the fight against cheating for many years, and we reiterate our zero-tolerance policy toward cheating in any form. Whether it is online or “over the board”, cheating remains cheating. We are strongly committed to this fight, and we have invested in forming a group of specialists to devise sophisticated preventive measures that already apply at top FIDE events. As we have already done before, FIDE calls for reinforcing the cooperation between major online platforms, private events and top players â€“ most of whom have already expressed their will to join efforts with FIDE. FIDE is prepared to task its Fair Play commission with a thorough investigation of the incident, when the adequate initial proof is provided, and all parties involved disclose the information at their disposal.
Magnus put these monumental distractions aside and won the tournament, defeating Arjun Erigaisi on Sunday. Carlsen promised to speak more fully once the tournament was over and did, but still the situation needs clarity. Carlsen alleges that Niemann lied about his cheating, saying in a statement released on Twitter that he feels Hans cheated more and more recently than he admits. He ends cryptically with a note that he needs Hans’s “permission” to speak more freely, which strikes me as odd. Why would he needs Hans’s “permission?” Perhaps lawyers are involved? Might a deal be in place. Damning mathematical evidence is appearing in the form of computer analysis of Niemann’s games showing him picking the best move (as determined by chess supercomputers)at a rate of 100% at a rate so astronomical as to be a statistical outlier.
Numbers don’t lie, and they’re rarely wrong. Stay tuned for more as we analyze fellow GM Hikaru Nakamura’s breakdown of recent computer analysis soon.