by Sarah McLaughlin ’23
Five-time chess World Champion (and widely regarded as the G.O.A.T.), Magnus Carlsen of Norway, already rocked the chess world earlier this summer when he announced that he would not be competing in the next World Championship against challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi. Now Carlsen is caught up in yet another controversy. This time, the issue revolves around cheating.
On Sept. 5, Carlsen announced on Twitter that he had withdrawn from the Sinquefield Cup, an annual, invite-only tournament hosted by the Saint Louis Chess Club. This announcement came after he was defeated by 19-year-old Hans Niemann of San Francisco in Round Three with the black pieces (seen as a more brutal defeat, as the player with the white pieces holds an inherent advantage due to playing the first move). This marked the end of a 53-unbeaten game streak for Carlsen, and many commentators suggested it was one of his worst defeats in recent history. Niemann only earned the Grandmaster title in January 2021 and is considered a rising star.
In his tweet, Carlsen simply wrote that he was withdrawing from the tournament and hoped to return in the future. He also included a video of Portuguese football manager José Mourinho saying, “If I speak, I am in big trouble,” implying he was asked not to speak about why he withdrew. This led fans and commentators to assume that Carlsen suspected Niemann of cheating.
“The chess speaks for itself,” Niemann said in his post-game interview. This line reached meme status among chess fans and a wider audience due to the controversy that ensued.
U.S. Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura spoke on his Twitch channel about the drama, and he raised concerns about Niemann cheating in online matches in the past. Nakamura faced major backlash and was even threatened with legal action for these claims. On Sept. 7, however, Niemann spoke in a post-game interview, and he admitted to cheating online.
“I was just a child,” he said. “I have never, ever in my life cheated in an over-the-board game. I am proud of myself that I learned from my mistake.”
Niemann also stated that he had been permanently banned from chess.com, the largest site for online chess. This is not surprising considering their Terms of Service explicitly bans any form of cheating.
Cheating is easy for online chess—it simply involves opening another tab and putting moves into a chess engine—but how does it occur over the board? Strict security measures at tournaments prevent players from using cell phones and other electronic devices, as well as communicating with coaches and other players.
The game was screened by one of the world’s top chess detectives, Kenneth Regan, whose findings suggested nothing suspicious occurred. Many who analyzed the game argued that Niemann played moves deemed perfect by chess engines that would have been nearly impossible to be spotted by the human eye. However, the mind of a top-level chess player is difficult for others to understand, which is why many fans trust Carlsen. As Nakamura stated in his Sept. 19 YouTube video, “[Carlsen] is the foremost authority on chess without a doubt at the moment, so nobody really knows exactly what is going on.”
However, chess fans across the Internet began to speculate on all the possible ways in which Niemann could have cheated. Some suggested he may have utilized an electronic device placed somewhere on or inside his body, relying on vibrating signals as cues for which move to play. Even Elon Musk participated in this discussion, and it caught the attention of many online celebrities. People as far removed from chess as Steven Colbert and Trevor Noah joked on TV about the insinuations. Others dismissed such theories as impossible and outlandish, and some proposed the idea that he instead was tipped off to Carlsen’s preparation and strategy before the match from a mole on Carlsen’s coaching team. However, chess YouTube star and International Master Levy Rozman (GothamChess) called this theory “absolute nonsense.”
On Sept. 19, Carlsen and Niemann were set to face off in an online tournament hosted by Chess24, which was broadcast live. Carlsen resigned after two moves and switched off his camera. Many commentators and fans view this as a statement by Carlsen that he still believes Niemann is guilty.
On Monday, Carlsen finally made a written statement: “I believe that Niemann has cheated more—and more recently—than he has publicly admitted.” He added that he “strongly considered withdrawing” before the Sinquefield Cup began due to concerns about Niemann.
The problem is that there is no way to know the truth. There is no way to confirm Niemann cheated during the Sinquefield Cup other than a verbal admission of guilt. There is also no way to prove his innocence.
“How do we detect cheating?” Rozman asked in his Sept. 19 video, “The same way as performance enhancing drugs—that’s the best analogy I can give you. If you do not see somebody inject themselves with a substance, what is the only way you can test for it? Physique, or taking blood or urine, and then comparing that medical data to a comfortable sample size. Well, in chess, we have various computer algorithms that track player performance, so you know time that they spend on a move, decision making at critical junctures, and how much it deviates from the engine’s balance…The more off the charts you are, the higher the suspicions are. So that is what cheating is in the world of chess, just in case you’re confused [about] what on earth is going on in the chess world.”