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The chess world isn't ready for a cheating scandal

How FIDE handles this issue will have broad implications for the future of the game, as computer assistance becomes more sophisticated and harder to detect
Last Updated : 15 September 2022, 08:28 IST

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When Hans Niemann beat Magnus Carlsen, the world chess champion, in the Sinquefield Cup on September 4, he ended Carlsen’s 53-game unbeaten streak in classical over-the-board tournaments and set into motion a debacle that has turned into one of the biggest chess scandals in years.

The next day, Carlsen withdrew from the tournament, which is an exceedingly rare move, especially among top players in elite events. He also tweeted a cryptic video of José Mourinho, the Portuguese soccer manager, saying, “I prefer really not to speak. If I speak, I am in big trouble.” In the video, Mourinho is speaking at a news conference after a game in which his team might have lost because of questionable officiating, so online observers interpreted Carlsen’s post as insinuating that Niemann cheated in some way during the game. A representative for Carlsen did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Tony Rich, the executive director of the Saint Louis Chess Club, which hosts the Sinquefield Cup, said in a statement, “A player’s decision to withdraw from a tournament is a personal decision, and we respect Magnus’ choice.” The same day, David Sedgwick, an anti-cheating arbiter, requested that the Saint Louis Chess Club add a 15-minute delay on the live broadcast.

Though many people accused Niemann of cheating, few of them offered any concrete evidence. Niemann did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Hikaru Nakamura, an American grandmaster once ranked second in the world, said on his Twitch stream: “There was a period of over six months where Hans did not play any prize-money tournaments on Chess.com. That is the one thing that I’m going to say and that is the only thing I’m going to say on this topic.”

Some observers took this to mean that Niemann had cheated on the site, and by extension had cheated in the Sinquefield Cup. In the days following the match, Chess.com said that it had “privately removed” Niemann’s account from its website.

In a phone interview, Rich said that there was no formal complaint or allegation of cheating made in writing. He also went on to say that the club places a lot of weight on the integrity of events it hosts: “We try to make sure that any fair-play mechanism that we can implement, we do. If I did find that someone had been cheating, it would certainly be a blow, and I would take it very personally.”

Among the 10 players participating in the Sinquefield Cup, Hans Niemann was the lowest rated and the least likely to upset the world champion.

And yet he did.

In fact, he was the first chess player to beat Carlsen with the black pieces in a classical over-the-board, or in-person, game in more than two years. Carlsen is a universal player, capable of playing almost any opening or position. He is well known for his accuracy and calculation, sober playing style and solid opening choices, especially with the white pieces.

There is no question that Niemann’s performance is a statistical anomaly, not just in this one particular game but also over the past year. As Niemann said in his postgame interview Tuesday, for the past two years, he went from one tournament to the next, without pause, living out of a suitcase. His Elo rating, a metric used to gauge the strength of chess players, rose above 2700 after his win over Carlsen last week, from 2484 in January 2021 — an increase so sharp many people don’t believe it is possible. Statistical analysis by Pawnalyze, a chess analysis blog, showed that Niemann had consistently outperformed his rating strength to an astonishing degree.

Those who think that Niemann may be cheating can also point to circumstantial evidence from his past. In a recent interview that took place after Nakamura’s comments, Niemann acknowledged that he had violated rules of fair play at least twice in the past by using computer assistance in online games.

There were mitigating circumstances: He was young, and a friend was running a chess engine, a piece of software that determines the best move, and calling out those moves while Niemann played in a tournament online. But such a violation of trust in a community that prizes integrity and greatly discourages cheating makes a player’s reputation difficult to repair.

In addition to these past cheating incidents, Niemann is notorious in the chess community for his abrasive personality. As an arbiter in FIDE, or Fédération Internationale des Échecs, the governing body of professional chess, I have known Niemann since he was a talented scholastic player, and have had to navigate his difficult behaviour on more than one occasion. Just a few years ago, Niemann was not yet a grandmaster and would play regularly at the Marshall Chess Club in New York City, where I work as an assistant manager.

Irina Krush, a grandmaster who has played against both Niemann and Carlsen, said, “I did play against Hans at the Marshall Championship at the end of 2019, where he made his second GM norm and tied for first in the tournament. So from that point on, I knew he was a very strong and up-and-coming player.” She added, “I think it would be good if Magnus also gave his side of things because it’s just a bad situation for the chess world to have this hanging without a resolution.”

Michael Rohde, a grandmaster, worked with Niemann as a student at Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School. “Hans was the captain of the CGPS chess team,” Rohde said. “I wouldn’t necessarily say I was his coach. He was autonomous and very hardworking.” He added, “It makes perfect sense to me that he is 2700 now.”

Regarding the most recent allegations of cheating, Rohde said, “I don’t understand exactly what the allegation is. I haven’t seen any evidence or anything specific. It’s just accusations based on his results.”

On Saturday, Sept. 10, six days after Niemann beat Carlsen, Chris Bird, the chief arbiter of the Sinquefield Cup, released a statement that there was no indication that any competitor was “playing unfairly,” including in matches that had taken place before the 15-minute broadcast delay was enacted.

How FIDE handles this issue will have broad implications for the future of the game, as computer assistance becomes more sophisticated and harder to detect. Should there be a standard of review for players who outperform their playing strength in a way that is statistically suspicious? What ethical standards should exist to punish players who make reputation-damaging claims that later prove false?

Other players in the Sinquefield Cup have come to the defense of Niemann. Levon Aronian said in a brief postgame interview, “Well, I think it quite often happens when young players play very well. There are all these accusations against them. All of my colleagues are pretty much paranoid.” He added, “I always think that young players can play very well.”

Nonetheless, Niemann’s meteoric rise raises important questions for professional chess. FIDE and the organizers of large tournaments owe the community of players and fans clear guidelines and procedures for how to handle what is likely to be an increasingly common phenomenon.

When asked if Niemann would be invited back to the Saint Louis Chess Club, Rich, its executive director, said, “Yes, Hans has already accepted an invitation to play in the fall classic, so I already have him signed up for the next tournament at the club.”

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Published 15 September 2022, 07:07 IST

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