The Cheating Scandal Tearing The Chess World Apart

Eddy Zhang, Commentary Editor

White and black traded their chess pieces, one after the other, until there was little left on the board. For the whole game, people in the room watched in suspense as they witnessed the game slip away steadily from the player with the white pieces. On Twitch, various chess commentary streams saw their chatrooms go crazy as the game drew to a close. No one could believe that white was going to lose.

For those watching this chess match live in St. Louis, the dramatic theatrics did not end with the game’s finish. Magnus Carlsen, the World Chess Champion playing with the white pieces, decided to withdraw from the tournament entirely following this loss. No comment was given to the press explaining his reason for the abrupt departure. 

The Sinquefield Cup — the annual invite-only chess tournament and setting for this match — draws the best players from around the world to compete against each other, leaving Carlsen’s withdrawal all the more stunning. It is widely considered taboo in the chess community to withdraw from this level of tournament play so flippantly. This is the only time he’s ever withdrawn from a tournament, so it has provoked even more speculation among the chess community. 

Carlsen’s opponent was young American Hans Niemann who recently earned his grandmaster title in 2021. For Niemann, the significance of this game cannot be understated. Not only did the victory boost his Elo — a rating of chess skill — above 2700 for the first time ever, but it was also won against someone who is widely considered the best player the world has ever seen. 

It would be easy to suggest that Carlsen withdrew because he was flustered by his loss, but the real reason may be more ominous. Shortly after his withdrawal, Carlsen tweeted a cryptic video seeming to suggest that the circumstances of his opponent’s win were suspicious. The video was of a speech made by Portuguese soccer manager Jose Mourinho saying, “I prefer not to speak. If I speak I am in big trouble […] and I don’t want to be in big trouble.” 

Quickly, the chess community lit up in controversy. Several grandmasters and famous personalities weighed in on the matter, with some defending Niemann and others raising red flags about the victory. Prior to the game, organizers of the tournament searched Niemann and found nothing suspicious to indicate foul play. Further, no hard evidence showing foul play has been produced by any party. Supporters of Carlsen, however, have pointed to two critical elements: Niemann’s prior history of cheating online at least twice, and banning him from playing on their site and in their tournaments shortly after his victory against Carlsen. In a public statement, noted that they communicated the reasons for doing so privately with Niemann. So what’s the truth here? 

Chess is a unique sport in that it’s been theoretically solved by computer engines, which assess every possible permutation under any given set of moves; there is a perfectly “correct” way to play. However, in practice, no one can really predict what moves the engine will spit out. The somewhat philosophical way to map this out is that it should also be possible — in theory — to predict exactly how a person will play given enough information: their Elo ranking, past game openings and metapsychological insights allow us to estimate how strongly they play. Advancements in chess theory and engine-supported preparation have greatly increased predictability in classical chess competitions, too. Knowing this makes Carlsen’s stunning defeat against the lowest ranked player in the tournament all the more enthralling.

In a game with a long history of players acting dishonorably to gain an edge, instances of cheating are not unheard of. Chess hustlers in New York City often use quick sleight of hand tricks to manipulate the position of pieces on a board against inexperienced players; tournament players have conspired amongst each other to fix certain results and outcomes; and grandmasters have been caught in the past using their bathroom breaks to consult a hidden smartphone or computer prior to making moves. In the 1700s, the Mechanical Turk toured around Europe and North America as a miracle automaton that could defeat any human player. Eventually, it was revealed that there was a small, hidden compartment where a small player would squeeze in to direct the machine. 

Without concrete evidence, it is too early to brand Hans Niemann as a cheater. Maybe he just got lucky; or, perhaps he truly is a late prodigy who just happens to have a history of cheating online. For now, no one knows. All we know for sure is that the controversy will continue. Last Monday, Niemann and Carlsen faced off again digitally in the Julius Baer Generation Cup.

On move two, Carlsen moved his knight, turned his camera off and then simply resigned the game. Niemann blankly stared at the board, showing no emotion, before ultimately disconnecting too.