Andy Larsen: Everything you need to know about the ongoing chess scandal that’s shocked the world

Did the young American up-and-comer pull a fast one against the planet’s top player?

(Julio Cortez |AP) In 2019, a man poses for The Associated Press at an open-ended chess game he has with his roommate in his home in Plainfield, N.J.

Scandal! Drama! Intrigue!

These are all words currently being used about — checks notes — chess?

Yes, dear readers, you read that correctly. People are talking about the Game of Kings, thanks to an accusation of cheating at the game’s highest levels. It may well be the biggest scandal in chess history — and few games have a history as long as chess.

And you are fortunate to have me, an extremely average chess player but avid chess follower, to explain it all to you. When the lurid topic comes up at your next social occasion — as it undeniably will — you will be able to impress your friends with the knowledge contained in this article. You will — equally undeniably — become more respected, more loved, more admired. You will become, undeniably, cool.

Ready to begin? Let’s get started.

Who are the parties involved?

First, let me introduce you to our two main characters.

In one corner, we have Magnus Carlsen. He likely is the best player ever. He is the reigning five-time world champion. He has achieved the highest chess rating in history. He became the No. 1 player in the world in 2010 at age 19 — the youngest ever to do so.

(Photo: Business Wire) Sports company PUMA has signed a long-term agreement with Norwegian chess grandmaster Magnus Carlsen.

He has been the Norwegian Person of the Year twice. He was named one of Cosmopolitan magazine’s sexiest men of 2013. He has worked as a model. He also plays fantasy football — the sport we call soccer — where he was ranked No. 1 out of 7 million players worldwide. He is chess’s leading figure, an icon.

In the other corner, we have Hans Niemann. He’s American, born in San Francisco. As a child, he had a stint in the Netherlands for three years with his family and became a top youth cyclist. Think about how many kids ride bikes in the Netherlands.

He currently is ranked as the 45th best chess player in the world, but before our scandal begins, he accomplished a meteoric rise from an “untitled” player at age 15 to a “grandmaster” at 17. Now, he is 19 years old.

As a chess prodigy, he’s been quite the character. Once, when he lost, he told reporters that it was because he “wanted to lose as quickly as possible, so I could go back to my hotel room, turn the lights off, order some delivery, watch Netflix and numb the pain until next game. I think my Uber Eats (bill) has gone up $1,000 for this event.”

But with his youth and competitiveness have come some past cheating. In particular, Niemann acknowledges using a computer to cheat in limited online games as a younger player to work his way up in the ranks but swears he’s stopped now.

What happened?

There is not a lot of money in chess. Carlsen is actually the only player with a full-time manager. Many top players find some other chess-related way — streaming, coaching — to supplement their prize income to pay their rent.

And the supply of prize income can come from some unusual places, too. One of chess’s top tournaments is called the Sinquefield Cup, named after Missouri businessman Rex Sinquefield. He made his fortune by inventing the first passively managed index fund in the ′70s and has spent tens of millions of dollars building St. Louis into a chess center. The total prize money for all finishers in the Sinquefield Cup this year was $325,000, much of it from Sinquefield.

In an early, pool-play game in the cup competition, Carlsen, owning the white pieces, was set to go against Niemann, playing black. Carlsen was on a 53-match unbeaten streak. The tournament was played in person (over the board, or OTB, in chess parlance).

With his first-move edge, the No. 1 played an unusual opening. It was a game that had never appeared in the history of recorded chess by move nine. But Niemann was ready for the surprise, countering all of Carlsen’s moves. Despite playing as white, Carlsen pretty quickly became uncomfortable, and Niemann found multiple ideal moves throughout the match.

It was stunning. When interviewed after the match, Niemann said, “He was just so demoralized, because he was losing to such an idiot like me. It must be embarrassing for the world champion to lose to me. I feel bad for him.”

But Carlsen had another move to play: He withdrew from the Sinquefield Cup. He declined to give a public reason for the withdrawal, but the connotation was clear — that he was accusing Niemann of cheating in the match.

All of this meant that there was tremendous attention on their next meeting, this one an online contest in the Julius Baer Generation Cup. This time, Niemann was white. He played his first move; Carlsen countered as standard. Niemann played his second move. Again, stunningly, Carlsen resigned, then switched off his webcam. This time, however, Carlsen stayed in the tournament and took the title — with 19 wins, seven draws and one loss.

Carlsen remained coy about his decisions until he released a statement Monday on Twitter.

The most critical part reads: “I believe that Niemann has cheated more — and more recently — than he has publicly admitted. 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.”

So here’s the big question: Did Niemann cheat? Or is Carlsen a sore loser?

How could a player have cheated?

To answer that question, it’s worth thinking about how a player might cheat. In online chess, it’s relatively easy: Have one computer window up with your match and another window open with a chess computer that tells you what move to play. Maybe you vary it a little to try to avoid detection, but that’s the basic idea.

In over-the-board chess, it’s more difficult — but still possible. Multiple high-level players have been caught cheating by bringing cellphones to a restroom during breaks in play. In 2010, three French players were caught cheating by having a team coach sit or stand at various places in a room to signal different moves.

It’s also easy to imagine a buzzer system attached to players. This has led some chess figures to even hypothesize — and, frankly, joke about — the possibility Niemann has used remote-control vibrating “anal beads” to escape detection. As you’d expect, this possibility has made this controversy even more popular as a topic for online chatter, even if it’s just speculation. For his part, Niemann volunteered to play naked to avoid this suspicion.

Interestingly, a buzzer system wouldn’t necessarily need to tell the player which moves to play. Top players say that just an occasional sign of whether a player should attack or defend would be enough to make a player “almost invincible,” as Carlsen put it long ago.

There are, of course, other kinds of cheating. For example, one player could spy on another player’s preparation for a game, learn what was planned, and then decide how to counter it.

How do you find out if a player cheated?

Well, there are old-fashioned methods. One tournament director looked over a restroom stall divider to catch a cheat in the act — of illegally using his laptop, that is. Less salaciously, tournaments, including the Sinquefield Cup, have used metal detectors to scan players for devices. After Carlsen withdrew, Sinquefield officials also added a 15-minute delay between when the moves happened in the room and when the broadcast of the game was shown to the world, along with increasing the frequency at which they checked if there were radio frequencies being used in the room.

You can also examine the play itself. If a player is using the same moves that a computer engine would recommend over and over again, that might be a sign of cheating. If a player is taking less time in complicated positions, but still making top moves, that might also be suspicious. That’s one reason Carlsen said he was displeased about Niemann’s victory against him.

It’s possible to use an algorithm to detect this kind of cheating. Chess.com keeps a list of players who have triggered its detection methods, for example. The tally is kept curiously private, but even more curiously, Chess.com has allowed certain players to see the list if they sign a nondisclosure agreement. The contents are, according to grandmasters who have seen the list, “quite shocking.”

What is the evidence that Niemann cheated — or not?

First of all, there’s really no evidence that Niemann cheated against Carlsen in the Sinquefield Cup match. Niemann’s nonchalance, in Carlsen’s eyes, does not constitute proof. Niemann did not play perfect chess against Carlsen, making multiple mistakes when compared to computer play.

Carlsen’s unusual opening was weaker if well countered, and while Niemann had the goods, it does not necessarily mean that he cheated to get them. And, yes, Niemann came up with two or three critical moves in tough situations that were brilliant. But it’s certainly conceivable that he saw them himself or even just got lucky. No algorithm or statistical analysis that I’ve seen puts Niemann’s performance in this match alone as suspicious.

There does seem to be more compelling evidence, however, that Niemann has cheated over the board before, or in tournaments in which he expressly denied cheating.

Take the 2020 Charlotte Open, for example. Coming into the event, he knew that if he played well and defeated a majority of grandmasters, he would be named a grandmaster himself, lending extra pressure to the proceedings. Niemann responded, following it up with dominant wins throughout.

But was his play too good? In five games in particular, his moves were close to perfect, significantly higher than his previous level. The difference between Niemann’s play in the tournament and the play recommended by the best chess engines in 2020 was minimal — even better than the play at recent world championships, for example. In those five games, he averaged a sequence of 12 computer-recommended moves in a row midgame, which is hard to do without help.

Interestingly, Niemann’s play more accurately reflected 2020 chess engine recommendations than those of the better 2022-era engines.

Chess.com’s algorithms also have raised red flags. Site managers say that they have “information that contradicts (Niemann’s) statements regarding the amount and seriousness of his cheating on Chess.com.” They banned his account.

Even so, there are certainly reasons to discount the analysis if you believe Niemann. Among them: Niemann, of course, played his best chess at the tournament he was named a grandmaster — that’s a classic example of cherry-picking. He’s at an age where improvement is certainly possible. Over the course of a thousand elite players playing thousands of games, chance alone dictates there’s going to be a run that’s remarkably good. And it makes some sense that Niemann’s moves would have more closely reflected the chess engines available at the time. He would have used those to train and practice against, after all.

Oh, and Chess.com just merged with the Play Magnus Group, giving the world’s largest chess site and the game’s No. 1 champion a shared business venture.

My takeaways

Here’s my take: Given the information publicly available, no one can say with any certainty whether Niemann cheated against Carlsen.

Niemann’s history of play, however, is pretty sketchy. And whether Niemann was cheating, it’s clear that Carlsen thought he could cheat, which likely put Carlsen at a psychological disadvantage. In particular, Carlsen may have chosen his less-than-optimal opening to test Niemann. Once he responded, the world No. 1 shrunk from the moment and quit in protest thereafter.

In general, preventing cheating is something that over-the-board tournament organizers need to take more seriously — implementing broadcast delays, minimizing restroom breaks and so forth. Maybe a tournament should take Niemann up on his idea of playing naked. Given how little influence is needed to tip a match, everything possible must be done to ensure competition is on the up and up.

It’s critical to get it right. After all, chess is cool now — and, well, that’s not likely to last.

Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at alarsen@sltrib.com.

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