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BOARD WAR

Chess rocked by cheating claims, but it’s not as simple as black and white

Chess rocked by cheating claims, but it’s not as simple as black and white
World chess champion Magnus Carlsen (seated) has accused fellow competitor Hans Niemann of cheating. (Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images)

World chess champion Magnus Carlsen has accused fellow competitor Hans Niemann of cheating. It’s a seismic moment for the sport.

Chess has always been a proxy war on some level. The objective of the game is to capture the opponents’ king. To achieve that goal, collateral damage is part of the equation by sacrificing “lesser” pieces to force checkmate, or surrender.

For millions it’s a pastime that exercises the mind in every way. It’s part science and maths and part art. But at the highest level, where the stakes are massive, the sport has always been intensely gladiatorial despite its civilised façade.

This week, current world champion and chess’s biggest superstar, Magnus Carlsen, accused fellow competitor Hans Niemann of cheating. In chess, that is the equivalent of a 100m athlete publicly stating that a rival is a doper. It’s as big as, say, Rafa Nadal calling Carlos Alcaraz a cheat. It’s seismic.

On Monday, Carlsen, the 31-year-old Norwegian who has been world champion since 2013, issued a statement accusing Niemann of cheating. It was heavy on accusation, but light on actual proof.

It was the latest in a growing feud between the two, but also of an issue that is dividing the sport. Niemann, the 19-year-old prodigy from New York, has previously admitted to cheating as a 12- and 16-year-old, and the stigma has stuck.

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Niemann has since been banned by the world’s most popular website, Chess.com, who said they found “evidence” supporting these allegations.

“We have reached out to Niemann to explain our decision to privately remove him from Chess.com and our events,” Chess.com said earlier this month.

Magnus Carlsen’s public accusation of cheating against Hans Niemann has rocked the sport. (Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images)

“We have shared detailed evidence with him concerning our decision, including the information that contradicts his statements [about] the amount and seriousness of his cheating on Chess.com.”

Carlsen resigned at the Julius Baer Generation Cup last week after one move against Niemann, which followed the world champion’s loss to the American at the Sinquefield Cup in St Louis, Missouri, earlier this month. Carlsen subsequently withdrew from that tournament in protest over Niemann’s presence.

Watch the moment Carlsen resigned:

Niemann denied cheating in his match against Carlsen.

“So far I have only been able to speak with my actions, and those actions have stated clearly that I am not willing to play chess with Niemann,” Carlsen said on Monday.

“When Niemann was invited last minute to the 2022 Sinquefield Cup, I strongly considered withdrawing prior to the event,” Carlsen said. “I ultimately chose to play. I believe that Niemann has cheated more – and more recently – than he has publicly admitted.

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“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 only think a handful of players can do. This game contributed to changing my perspective.”

The match between the pair was played face-to-face in St Louis, but despite this, Carlsen was clearly suspicious of the level of Niemann’s play.

“We must do something about cheating, and for my part going forward, I don’t want to play against people that have cheated repeatedly in the past, because I don’t know what they are capable of doing in the future,” Carlsen said.

“There is more that I would like to say. Unfortunately, at this time I am limited in what I can say without explicit permission from Niemann to speak openly.”

Denial

The American, following Carlsen’s resignation in St Louis, gave an angry interview, saying he was willing to “strip fully naked” after some colourful accusations claimed he was receiving information through vibrating anal beads.

“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.”

Niemann admitted that as a 12-year-old, and again as a 16-year-old, he had cheated in online games.

“I cheated on random games on Chess.com. I was confronted. I confessed,” Niemann said. “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.

“To give context, I was 16 years old and living alone in New York City at the heart of the pandemic and I was willing to do anything to grow my stream,” Niemann continued.

“What I want people to know about this is that I am deeply, deeply sorry for my mistake. I know my actions have consequences and I suffered those consequences. During that time, I stepped away from a very lucrative streaming career, I stopped playing in all events and I lost a lot of close friendships and relationships.

“I decided the only way to make up for my mistake was to prove that I could win over-the-board events. That has been my mission. And that is why I have lived in a suitcase and played 260 games in one year, trained for 12 hours a day, because I have something to prove.

“I believe this is completely unfair. But I am not afraid to tell the world that I cheated as a 12-year-old and in some random games as a 16-year-old, because I know who I am.

“Everything I have done for the past few years is to make up for that mistake and I hope that my results, commitment and hard work have shown that I have learnt my lesson.”

Rise of the machines

Modern tournaments, especially for the faster forms of the sport – rapid and blitz – and not the traditional, or classic matches that take hours, are generally played online.

Opponents can be located anywhere in the world and they clash virtually. But with the rise of artificial intelligence in chess, or engines, as they are known, the tools at any level of player to analyse and study are unprecedented.

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These engines can also be used to study positions in real time and come up with solutions. Given how powerful they are, no human brain, including the best in the world, can crunch the numbers as quickly and as precisely as an engine.

“In a game of 60 moves, the accuracy that engines have is just on a level that’s completely impossible for humans to attain,” former top chess player and now researcher Matthew Sadler told The Guardian.

“Engines are just incredibly good at visualising the whole board and finding manoeuvres that, for example, use three corners of the board in order to redeploy a piece and achieve a winning angle of attack. When you see people at a weaker level doing that, well, they’ve either had a moment of inspiration or there could be something a bit funny going on.”

Carlsen’s accusation seems to be that Niemann has been too accurate in his play, although, publicly at least, no hard evidence has been presented that Niemann was cheating in their most recently completed match.

Although some are saying Carlsen’s position towards Niemann is a result of fear of the youngster, it’s unlikely. Even chess’s world governing body, Fide, has expressed concerns about Niemann.

Although Fide rebuked Carlsen for resigning his game against Niemann, they also have tasked their fair play committee to study Niemann’s game.


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“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,” Fide said in a statement.

“We strongly believe that there were better ways to handle this situation.

“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.”

Sniffer dogs

The challenge for organisations such as Fide and even sites such as Chess.com and Lichess.org, which run highly successful tournaments for all levels of players, is policing potential cheating. The array of tools is just so vast that those who want to cheat, certainly at less scrutinised levels than at the top, probably will find a way.

But for the professionals at elite level, especially when they aren’t playing over-the-board (face-to-face) there is a growing force of chess police watching and analysing. The sniffer dogs of the chess world.

Magnus Carlsen has been world champion since 2013 and is chess’s biggest star. (Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images)

Chess.com has developed a “fair-play system”. According to the website, it is “thorough, complex and rigorously verified by more than eight years of data from millions of games played by our own members online”.

“Our system gathers and reviews different types of data and other information pulled automatically (and manually) from all member games. We load these games into a tool that provides the probability that a given player is playing cleanly or with the assistance of a computer engine. Before any accounts are closed, all reports are thoroughly reviewed by a team of specialists who have reviewed and closed thousands of accounts in their roles as Chess.com statisticians.

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“The core of Chess.com’s system is a statistical model that evaluates the probability of a human player matching an engine’s top choices, and surpassing the confirmed clean play of some of the greatest chess players in history.”

Carlsen has called for even more security measures in the sport.

“Chess organisers and all those who care about the sanctity of the game we love should seriously consider increasing security measures and methods of cheat detection for over-the-board chess,” Carlsen said.

Of course, a completely clean environment for chess is the goal. But as in life and other sports, choices and consequences are seldom as simple as black or white. DM

 

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