Niemann v Carlsen chess cheating controversy is ‘tragedy’ for both sides
Chess world is divided between those who think Carlsen was right to speak out about an existential threat – and others who believe he was reckless
The world of chess has lurched further into turmoil and rancour after an investigation found the American teenager Hans Niemann has benefited from “illegal assistance” in more than 100 online games – while four of the world’s top 100 grandmasters have also privately confessed to cheating.
The 72-page report by Chess.com is the latest twist in a saga that began more than a month ago when world champion Magnus Carlsen withdrew from the $500,000 Sinquefield Cup after losing to Niemann, before dropping coy hints that his opponent may have cheated.
Since then a cloud of suspicion has hung over the sport, along with increasingly wild theories about cheating using vibrating anal beads. The hashtag #chessdrama, which to many bemused onlookers must sound like an oxymoron, also now regularly trends on social media.
Niemann has vigorously denied cheating in over-the-board matches, including against Carlsen. However last month he admitted he had cheated twice in online events, as a 12 and 16-year-old. Yet Chess.com says it has identified 11 occasions, encompassing over 100 matches, where he has cheated.
“Notably, Ken Regan, an independent expert in the field of cheat detection in chess, has expressed his belief that Hans cheated during the 2015 and 2017 Titled Tuesdays, as well as numerous matches against other professional players in 2020,” it states in its report.
Despite highlighting “a lack of concrete statistical evidence that he cheated in his game with Magnus or in any other over-the-board games”, the investigation also questions Niemann’s rapid rise up the ranks.
“Hans became the fastest rising top player in classical, over-the-board chess in modern recorded history,” it points out, calling it “statistically extraordinary”.
However opinion in the chess world remains sharply divided between those who think Carlsen was right to speak out about an existential threat – and others who believe he was reckless to drop napalm without hard proof of wrongdoing in over the board matches.
“Anyone looking for a really clear-cut, good guy versus bad guy narrative here is going to be disappointed,” the Scottish grandmaster Jonathan Rowson told the Guardian. “The tragedy here is that both sides are right. People are right to be angry that Hans has cheated online, although I object to the notion that once a cheat, always a cheat.
“But the other big story here is that Magnus screwed up a tournament and shocked the chess world over something for which he has absolutely no evidence for: that Niemann cheated against him. The Chess.com investigation only confirms that.” Chess.com says its cheat detection software has found that “fewer than 0.14% of players cheat”. Yet they also say they have caught “hundreds of titled players” and that four top 100 grandmasters actually confessed to cheating.
However Rowson questions why Niemann appears to be singled out by the chess world. “It’s not just Hans who has cheated online, but quite a lot of strong players as well. So what you have here, potentially, is a kind of scapegoating process – where Hans takes the full heat of the entire systemic problem.”
Meanwhile the English chess grandmaster Daniel King offered a similar assessment to Rowson when asked about Carlsen’s behaviour.
“Carlsen has basically thrown Niemann under the bus and everyone else piled in,” said King. “If he did it before the Sinquefield Cup, fair enough. But to do it after a defeat makes him look like a sore loser. There was a camera trained on Niemann for the entire game. Carlsen did not play very well. And Niemann did not play perfectly.”
However Carlsen has received support from several of the world’s strongest grandmasters, including the Russian Ian Nepomniachtchi, who is cited as being a victim of Niemann in the Chess.com report. “I don’t believe in some major transformations,” Nepomniachtchi said of the American. “I don’t believe in metamorphosis.” Despite the ongoing furore surrounding Niemann, he is not suspended from playing over-the-board chess and was back in action on Wednesday in the first round of the US Chess Championship against the 15-year-old Christopher Yoo.
However shortly before Niemann played his first move the Russian grandmaster Peter Svidler questioned whether the sport was tough enough on cheats.
“I’m a bit of a hardliner on this,” he said. “I draw very little distinction between cheating live and cheating online. I think the attitude of chess players as a community towards cheating online has been very, very lax and a lot more forgiving than it should be.”