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The Meaning of Chess's Cheating Scandal

The scandal is a marker for a deeper issue: chess is now solvable.

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(Kerdkanno/Shutterstock)

In the past month, 19-year-old Hans Niemann has emerged as the most-talked-about American chess player since Bobby Fischer. Found several years ago to be cheating in multiple online games by Chess.com, the world’s largest online chess site, Niemann in early September beat world champion Magnus Carlsen in an over-the-board tournament game. Carlsen withdrew from the tournament, implicitly accused Niemann of cheating, and refused to play him in a subsequent event. Carlsen later spoke of Niemann’s past cheating and described Niemann’s demeanor during the game as suspicious. Several leading grandmasters took Carlsen’s side, many did not, and the accusations have rocked the chess world, leading to major newspaper and TV-news coverage. 

Niemann is now the one contemporary American chess player about whom much of the non-chess world has heard. But Niemann’s accomplishments are modest beside those of chess streamer Hikaru Nakamura, the world’s highest-ranked blitz player and a credible contender for the world championship, and Fabiano Caruana, who slogged through a dozen draws in a 2018 world-title match versus Carlsen before losing in a tiebreaker. He is still ranked well behind four or five American players (including two recent immigrants) considered among the world’s elite “super grandmasters.” But at only 19, he has risen quickly in the rankings since over-the-board tournament play restarted after the pandemic. The chess world’s main topic of conversation these days is whether Niemann is still cheating and whether Carlsen was justified in trying to destroy a rising teenage player's reputation without concrete evidence. 

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Cheating in chess is made possible by the computer revolution that has increasingly taken over the game. In 1997, the supercomputer Deep Blue beat world champion Gary Kasparov in a match. It was a transformational moment, as worthy of legend as John Henry versus the steam drill, except this time, the machine won. Deep Blue weighed 3,000 pounds, and its chess technique was crude, but computers and the algorithms governing them have since improved dramatically. Those now available on a smart phone can beat Deep Blue and any human chess player. The use of such programs to cheat in online chess competitions was inevitable; players are alone in their rooms with their machines, and many will be tempted to “see what the engine says.” Chess.com and other sites have developed complicated statistical-analysis programs to detect online cheating. That is how they caught Niemann (who confessed) and thousands of others, including some 200 titled players. 

Cheating in an over-the board game is more complicated. At regular tournaments, players are required to give up their phones, but security is imperfect: incidents of players found cheating—or players who suspect there was something “computery” about their opponents moves—are fairly commonplace. At higher-level professional over-the-board tournaments, security is more rigorous, and no one is able to sneak a look at a cell phone during a bathroom break. Cheating would seemingly require a collaborator to indicate the best move either electronically or visually; squares can be identified by two-digit names. In one notorious 2010 incident, the coach of the French Olympiad team signaled to a player by either sitting or standing at one of the other boards visible in the playing hall. 

That Niemann cheated online is uncontested. According to Chess.com’s 72-page report, he cheated in over 100 online speed-chess games, including several against famous players with prize money at stake. When confronted with the evidence compiled by the site’s anti-cheating system, he acknowledged his acts and displayed contrition, and was suspended from online play on the site. When Carlsen accused him of cheating in his over-the-board game, Niemann gave an impassioned denial saying he had only cheated online a few times, when he was 12 and when he was 16, and never in “real” games. Chess.com’s report contradicts Niemann’s claim of cheating “only a few” times, and cites some instances of cheating when he was 17.

Elite grandmasters have split between those who think there is something fishy about Niemann’s recent rapid rise, and those who think Carlsen’s allegations are at best unproven. One of Chess.com’s top anti-cheating specialists, international master and computer-science professor Ken Regan, found nothing suspicious about Niemann’s moves in the Carlsen game. It’s understandable that players would feel uneasy playing against someone with a proven track record of cheating, and though Chess.com keeps its list of players it has caught and sanctioned private, it is reasonable to assume that Carlsen and others knew of Niemann’s transgressions. If you suspect your opponent might be cheating, it is a real distraction that could certainly hinder your play.

Before the allegations surfaced, Niemann had advanced from being a precocious and clearly talented young international master to one of the top 40 grandmasters in the world, and the speed of his rise matches or exceeds that of history’s most renowned players. Is Niemann going to continue his ascent and emerge as a legitimate contender for the world title in the next three or four years? Will he maintain his present ranking as an elite player, able to beat the best upon occasion, and have an illustrious chess career? Or will he keep playing but experience a rating decline because he is no longer able to cheat? Carlsen’s accusation has already led to tighter measures at the U.S. Championship (where Niemann is now competing and thus far performing decently) including a 30-minute time delay between when moves are made and when they are broadcast, which would seem to render over-the-board cheating nearly impossible.  

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I hope that Hans’s rise is legitimate, and that he manages to at least maintain his new status in the outer circle of the chess super elite. For many, cheating is cheating, and someone sufficiently corrupt to cheat in an online tournament for prize money is just as likely to cheat in an over-the-board game, so there is no reason to credit Hans’s denials. But the transgressions feel different. In an over-the-board chess tournament, you travel to the site (typically in a hotel meeting room), shake hands with your opponent, and play. Under such circumstances, it would feel extremely dishonest to have a collaborator surreptitiously feed you computer advice or somehow consult a hidden phone somewhere on site. It seems different than turning on the engine alone in your apartment. At least some feel that way. 

Hans Niemann’s rise in the chess world has been anything but steady. As a 10-year-old, he rose from beginner to expert level in a year, enough to mark him a prodigy. For comparison, it took me a decade of intermittent study and play as a young adult to move from beginner level to class A, the category below expert, and I never got higher. He reached a plateau at international master level at age 15, stagnating for several years. His recent rise coincides with what he describes as a rededication to chess, after a period of hating the game for a while. 

If you attend a tournament nowadays, you see a lot of Tiger Moms and helicopter parents amidst the kids who participate. This does not seem to be a factor in Niemann’s life. When he was 16, his family (which had moved previously from Holland to California) moved to Connecticut, and Hans, instead of moving with them, got an apartment in New York and a scholarship to Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School on the Upper West Side. (Jeffery Toobin and John Podhoretz are among its graduates.) He supported himself by giving chess lessons. 

If you know the world of Manhattan private schools at all, you know that basically none of their kids are living in their own apartments. It was in this period—after the pandemic started and disrupted Hans’s chess teaching routine—that Chess.com discovered the vast majority of Hans's online cheating episodes. Cheating in chess can’t be excused, and I’m sure his opponents wouldn’t forgive him. But if one can entertain the idea that a 16-year-old kid living by himself in New York City during the first wave of the Covid pandemic who turned on the engine during games is not necessarily an incorrigible cheater, his protestations of never having cheated in a “real” game ring more plausible. 

The scope of the controversy—the degree to which it has taken over the chess world—underscores developments that transcend Magnus Carlsen and Hans Niemann. Put bluntly, computers threaten the beauty of chess. At its top levels, chess hovers in a balance between art and science, or at least used to. To play well requires exceptional powers of calculation, which requires a kind of concentration and talent few can summon. I’ve heard grandmasters describe the feeling of getting deep into the weeds of calculation as a sort of mystical trance. Six, eight moves deep into multiple variations: few can do it, and those who can experience a kind of pure state of stretching their limits. It takes tremendous energy. Anatoly Karpov had to stop playing the world-championship match in 1984 after losing 22 pounds; scientists estimate a grandmaster playing chess burns calories at about half the hourly rate as a professional tennis player playing singles. 

And yet still there remained something intangible, beyond the realm of calculation, about top games. I remember years ago looking at a famous David Bronstein-Bent Larsen game in which Bronstein claimed to have discovered the move that would have justified his speculative sacrifice well after midnight, many hours after his resignation. Only then he could sleep. Chess journals debated the game for months. The fact that games could be so unclear protected the scope of chess as art: certain moves, certain sacrifices just “felt” right, and might lead to practical victory. 

Computers clearly eliminate part of that. Every chess position can now be definitively solved in a matter of minutes on a laptop. That has changed the way the game is played: the use of computers and databases that record every master game have transformed grandmaster preparation at the top level. As one writer put it “Chess, once poetical and philosophical, was acquiring elements of a spelling bee, a battle of preparation, of number of hours invested.” At the same time, the chess world has exploded in size and in the scope of its human talent. The Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, set in the pre-computer era, brought millions of new players to the game. Online chess has enabled tens of millions from all over the world to learn, and vastly increased the number of master-level players. 

Chess’s cheating scandal is in part a standoff between a respected and well-liked world champion and an upstart young player. But it is also a marker for an unsettling issue: chess is now solvable. If we can conjure what an A.I. program writing prize-winning novels would do to our sense of literature, we have a sense of what the chess world is now beginning to face.  

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