Cheating Scandal Sends the Chess World Into Chaos
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On Sept. 5, Carlsen announced on Twitter that he had withdrawn from the Sinquefield Cup, an annual, invite-only tournament hosted by the Saint Louis Chess Club.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.”
Enjoyed The Queen’s Gambit?
Meet the Real-life Female Stars of the Chess World
The Queen’s Gambit, a Netflix mini-series adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel of the same name, carried a new wave of players into chess, players who had little to no prior experience with the game or the community surrounding it. In March 2020 alone, Chess.com, the leading online chess platform, grew from 280,000 to over 1 million daily active users. Furthermore, after The Queen’s Gambit’s main character, Beth Harmon, captivated an enormous audience, real-life female chess players have experienced rapid growth on platforms like YouTube and Twitch. Here are just a few for those interested in learning more about chess and the chess community to check out:
Anna Rudolf is a Hungarian chess player and commentator who holds the International Master and Woman Grandmaster titles. On her YouTube channel, she uploads entertainment-focused chess content consisting of commentary on popular chess figures and other YouTubers, as well as commentary on her own games. She commentates live on Twitch during professional and amateur tournaments and streams on her own channel. In one of her most popular videos, she tells the story of how she was accused of cheating at a tournament because of her lip balm. Rudolf is outspoken on the topic of sexism in the chess community. She is considered by many to have a ‘wholesome’ personality, and she has coached internet celebrities such as Pokimane in chess.
19-year-old Swedish chess player Anna Cramling holds the title Woman FIDE Master and has represented her country in the Chess Olympiad. She uploads regularly to her YouTube channel, analyzing both games of her own and those of others—including those of her parents, who are both Grandmasters. Her mother, Pia Cramling, is often featured in her videos; she was one of the first women to achieve the Grandmaster title and has been the highest ranked female player in the world on multiple occasions. She also streams frequently on Twitch.
Sisters Alexandra and Andrea Botez, ages 26 and 20, have amassed over 700,000 YouTube subscribers and 1 million Twitch followers. Alexandra holds the Woman FIDE Master title, and both sisters are known for commentating on the Chess.com Twitch channel during tournaments and coaching fellow YouTubers and streamers. They are a dynamic duo who frequently interact with other popular online creators, and their most recent endeavor involved traveling the world and live streaming over-the-board (real-life) chess in a number of different countries. The Botez sisters in particular have popularized chess as not just online education, but also as online entertainment.
For those who enjoyed watching The Queen’s Gambit and are interested in learning more about chess, these content creators can provide a fun gateway into the chess community. While they are certainly engaging and interesting for experienced players, much of their content is geared toward and accessible to beginners.