Last week, Magnus Carlsen, the number-one chess player in the world, accused Hans Niemann, a 19-year-old rising chess star, of cheating.
“I believe that cheating in chess is a big deal and an existential threat to the game,” wrote Carlsen in a statement posted to Twitter. “I also believe that chess organizers 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.”
My statement regarding the last few weeks. pic.twitter.com/KY34DbcjLo
— Magnus Carlsen (@MagnusCarlsen) September 26, 2022
While the tweet was Carlsen’s first explicit accusation against Niemann, the scandal has ignited a heated conversation within the professional chess community. Just yesterday, the Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Beaton and Joshua Robinson broke the news that a report from Chess.com, the largest online chess community in the world, has found evidence of Niemann cheating far more frequently than he previously admitted.
The high-profile scandal, which has been unfolding over the past month, has brought the dramas within the niche world of elite chess into mainstream headlines.
How the scandal began
On September 4, Niemann beat Carlsen in a game during St. Louis’ Sinquefield Cup. Carlsen, a 31-year-old Norwegian chess player and the reigning five-time world chess champion, saw his 53-game winning streak in classical over-the-board tournaments come to an end when he lost to Niemann, a young chess grandmaster from San Francisco.
In an incredibly uncommon move for an elite player, Carlsen withdrew from the Sinquefield Cup the next day. He announced his decision in a tweet, attaching a video clip of José Mourinho, a Portuguese soccer manager, telling a reporter, “I prefer really not to speak. If I speak, I am in big trouble. In big trouble. And I don’t want to be in big trouble.”
I’ve withdrawn from the tournament. I’ve always enjoyed playing in the @STLChessClub, and hope to be back in the future https://t.co/YFSpl8er3u
— Magnus Carlsen (@MagnusCarlsen) September 5, 2022
Carlsen’s followers immediately interpreted the out-of-context video as his way of suggesting that Niemann had been cheating. Why? Mourinho, who coached Chelsea F.C. at the time, was speaking to reporters after his team lost a tense game. His cryptic comments implied that he thought the referee was out of line, but that he would get in trouble if he said so. Carlsen, his followers gathered, similarly felt that he would get in trouble if he spoke his mind about Niemann.
Niemann’s history of cheating
A few days after Carlsen’s tweet, Niemann appeared in an interview with the Saint Louis Chess Club’s Alejandro Ramirez, in which he admitted to cheating in the past: once when he was 12, playing in an online tournament for prize money, and then again when he was 16, in “random” and “unrated” games on Chess.com in order to grow his chess streaming career. “This is the single biggest mistake of my life, and I am completely ashamed,” he said.
Chess.com dealt with Niemann’s cheating when it happened three years ago, the young chess player explained. “I know that my actions have consequences, and I suffered those consequences,” he said. “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.”
At the time, he added, he was a 16-year-old who had just become financially independent. “I don’t want to make excuses, but I was living alone in New York City, it was the peak of the pandemic and … I had rent to pay, and I was willing to do anything to grow my stream.”
Throughout the interview, Niemann maintained that has not cheated in any capacity since he was caught almost three years ago. “I decided that the only way to make up for my mistake was to prove to myself and to prove to others that I could win myself,” he said. “Now that has been my mission.”
Niemann criticized Chess.com, which he said banned him without explanation after his win over Carlsen. He also criticized Carlsen, as well as elite chess player Hikaru Nakamura, who has publicly sided with Carlsen, for trying to “ruin” his chess career.
Chess.com responded with its own statement saying it had sent “detailed evidence” to Niemann “that contradicts his statements regarding the amount and seriousness of his cheating on Chess.com.”
— Chess.com (@chesscom) September 8, 2022
A seconds-long rematch
Following Niemann’s bombshell interview, tensions were high heading into the Julius Baer Generation Cup, where Carlsen and Niemann were scheduled to rematch on September 19.
The highly anticipated game didn’t last very long, though. After Niemann made one move as white, Carlsen responded with a single move as black. Then, without a word, he turned off his camera and resigned.
Some members of the chess community demanded that Carlsen explain himself, while others called for Niemann to be investigated. Over the weekend, Carlsen was crowned champion of the tournament, which Niemann was eliminated from in the quarterfinals.
The following day, Carlsen published his statement officially accusing Niemann of cheating.
Carlsen speaks out
“I believe that Niemann has cheated more—and more recently—than he has publicly admitted,” wrote Carlsen in the statement. “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.”
“Going forward,” he added, “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 also acknowledged that his “unprecedented” actions have “frustrated many in the chess community.” He added: “I’m frustrated. I want to play chess. I want to continue to play chess at the highest level in the best events.”
Carlsen claimed that he cannot say more, though he would like to. “Unfortunately, at this time I am limited in what I can say without explicit permission from Niemann to speak openly,” he wrote. “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.”
A reckoning for elite chess
Following the game Carlsen forfeited after one move, the president of the International Chess Federation (FIDE), Arkady Dvorkovich, released a statement condemning how Carlsen, a world champion with “a moral responsibility attached to his status,” handled the situation. At the same time, he added, “we share his deep concerns about the damage that cheating brings to chess.”
The following week, FIDE announced that it would investigate Carlsen’s allegations, as well as Niemann’s statements about cheating in the past.
The scandal has shaken up the chess world, prompting criticism against both players and calls for the FIDE to monitor cheating more closely.
David Hater, an international chess arbiter, believes that FIDE is not strict enough about cheating. “The minimum standard that FIDE will accept as presumptive evidence that a person violated fair play is 99.998 percent probability that the person did in fact cheat,” Hater tells the New York Times’ Greg Keener. “In other words, 99.9 percent is not good enough.”
Many chess grandmasters have weighed in on the controversy. Andrew Tang, a 22-year-old grandmaster, lauded Carlsen on Twitter for talking about “an issue the chess community wanted to pretend doesn’t exist.” This assessment has been widely shared by many top grandmasters, though some have expressed disappointment in Carlsen’s lack of evidence. (Grandmaster Eric Hansen took a different approach, jokingly suggesting a crude conspiracy theory that spread quickly on the internet.)
‘Remarkable signals and unusual patterns’
This week, the Wall Street Journal obtained a 72-page report conducted by Chess.com, which dives into the “many remarkable signals and unusual patterns in Hans’ path as a player.” Niemann, the report concludes, has likely cheated far more frequently than he let on in his interview last month.
How does Chess.com detect cheating? Per the report, the website compares moves made by competitors to those generated by chess engines, which can outsmart even the most talented chess players: Did a player make a critical move that aligns with what a chess engine might suggest? And if the answer is yes, did the player make that move after toggling to another screen? If they did, that would suggest that they used another window on their computer to generate their next moves.
According to the report, Chess.com has found evidence that Niemann performs better when he toggles to another screen during his moves. In total, Chess.com suspects that Niemann has cheated in over 100 online games. Of those games, several of them were for prize money and 25 of them were live streamed. Those allegations directly contradict Niemann’s claims that he never cheated when money was involved or when he was live streaming.
Chess.com stopped short of asserting that Niemann has cheated in over-the-board games, which is what Carlsen has accused him of. However, the platform said that his rapid rise in the elite chess world has been “statistically extraordinary” and merits “further investigation.”
Per the Wall Street Journal, Niemann himself said last month that Chess.com has “the best cheat detection in the world.”
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