The Chess, and Cheating, Boom
An in-depth look at Magnus Carlsen and Hans Niemann
Often, it can seem like professional sport is endless; one of the few constants in our lives. No matter what happens, what obstacles arise, your local football team will always play a home match every fortnight. Wimbledon will commence when the sun is shining and the lawns are green. World Cups will come and go every four years, without fail.
But that facade of perpetuity was shattered by the Covid-19 pandemic. Suddenly, all those religiously upheld sporting institutions ground to an unceremonious halt. Sport was far from the only, or the most important, corner of our lives disrupted by the pandemic. Nonetheless, it added yet another conspicuous absence of normality to the pile.
Enter the Chess Boom. Chess has been around, in various cultural forms and mutations, for thousands of years — as chaturanga, shatranj, xiangqi and shoji. Unexpectedly, it took a global pandemic to reach a peak in its popularity not seen since the Cold War. Buoyed by the release of Netflix’s sensational hit The Queen’s Gambit (think Rocky with chess), chess became a seemingly overnight sensation. According to The New York Times, monthly users of popular chess website chess.com doubled, from eight million to 17 million between October 2020 to April 2022. Grandmasters like Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura, along with content creators like GothamChess, became bona-fide celebrities for a young adult, Twitch-streaming, YouTube audience. It was a new, and extremely profitable, dawn for the sport.
It was from this boom, and an exciting new online platform, that the worst cheating scandal in chess history arose. The spectacular fallout of the accusation levied by Magnus Carlsen against Hans Niemann, and the ensuing drama of words, lawsuits and conspiracy theories, has already changed the chess landscape irrevocably.
The rise of Hans Niemann, a young American grandmaster, was just as exponential and improbable as the Chess Boom. In many ways, he is indicative of this new online age of chess; a Twitch streamer, he is young, precocious, provocative and opinionated. His ELO rating, the universal signifier of a chess player’s ability, rose from 2500 to 2600 in just three months. This may not seem like a huge difference, but at grandmaster level, it is enormous.
For many of the established super GMs, the rise was too good to be true. Most notably, it was too good for Magnus Carlsen, the multi-millionaire rockstar poster boy of chess. In the third round of the Siquefield Cup tournament, Niemann defeated Carlsen with the black pieces. Afterwards, Carlsen alluded to a possible cheating accusation by posting a meme of Jose Mourinho on Twitter, saying “If I speak I am in big trouble”. He was right. Soon enough, Carlsen released an official statement accusing Niemann directly. A month later, Niemann responded with a sensational defamation lawsuit, seeking in excess of $100 million in damages from Carlsen, chess.com and Hikaru Nakamura, who discussed the scandal at length in Carlsen’s favour while live on Twitch.
The matter of whether Niemann cheated over the board is, as of yet, impossible to determine. Has he cheated online in the past? Yes. He has admitted to it. One of the targets of his lawsuit, chess.com, have asserted the number of Niemann’s online fair play violations as over 100. Is he a sensational chess player regardless? Yes, undoubtedly. Do some of his matches show an uncanny accuracy of moves, perhaps impossible without the aid of a computer? According to some, yes. But the final outcome of the scandal will, arguably, be less striking than its inevitability.
Why was it inevitable? Because cheating at chess is easy. Online, cheating is rampant and impossible to stop. This is an age of readily accessible chess super-computers, such as Stockfish and Alphazero, all of which far exceed the abilities of a human being. Anyone can check their game against one of these supercomputers and simply input its suggested moves.
The six-match sequence played between legendary chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov and Deep Blue, one of the first advanced chess computers, is widely considered to be the watershed moment in chess’ computer revolution. During one of these matches, Garry Kasparov famously accused the computer of being fed moves by a human player. Now, we see the ultimate reversal of such a notion, where chess grandmasters dust their opponent’s matches for a computer’s uncannily accurate finger-prints. The Stockfish engine is estimated to have an equivalent human ELO rating of 3700, over 1000 points higher than ex-world champion defeating Deep Blue, and 900 points higher than Magnus Carlsen. In such an environment, it is no surprise whatsoever that cheating cannot be prevented online; only punished retrospectively.
As such, over-the-board chess has become the true indicator of a chess player’s ability. It had been assumed the increased security measures meant that in in-person environments cheating at the highest level of chess was almost impossible. There is still no clarification as to how Magnus Carlsen thinks Hans Niemann has cheated over-the-board, or even if his suspicions extend so far as to presume the method. Online, such bizarre theories as the usage of ‘anal beads’ have been suggested, prompting comment from such illustrious sources as Tesla-tycoon Elon Musk. The general confusion as to the security at the Siquefield venue, which was hastily strengthened following Carlsen’s tweet, was another echo in the chamber of this controversy.
Some would argue it doesn’t matter if Niemann actually cheated or not. The mere possibility he could have done over-the-board, at such a prestigious tournament and against the best player in the world, is enough. It shows that, while chess may be booming, it is under serious threat of losing its sporting integrity. Cheating is as existential an obstacle to chess as doping is to cycling.
With every rise, there is often a fall. The sport of chess has work to do to ensure it doesn’t fulfil that gloomy prophecy.
Image: Wikimedia Commons