Carlsen and Niemann
Magnus Carlsen (left) has accused Hans Niemann of cheating in over-the-board games, plunging world chess into chaos. There's no evidence yet, but Niemann's admission of cheating in online games had only fanned the flames of the row. Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal/Gulf News

Is cheating in chess possible? Yes, it happens mostly in online games, where players surreptitiously use chess engines (software) to find the best moves. Cheating in over-the-board games is difficult but not impossible.

A new cheating scandal rocked the world of chess when world champion Magnus Carlsen accused American grandmaster Hans Niemann of cheating after a stunning loss in Sinquefield Cup in St Louis, US.

Sore loser? It can’t be. Carlsen, 31, has been a world champion since 2013 and is considered the best in chess history. The shock defeat to Niemann (who played with black pieces) doesn’t diminish his stature, but it snapped a 58-game unbeaten streak.

True, Carlsen hates losing. But he hadn’t accused anyone of cheating in the past, even when he lost. Niemann, 19, added more fuel to the fire, saying he’s cheated in online games in the past when he was 12 and 16 years. But the American GM staunchly refuted Carlsen’s allegations of cheating in over-the-board games and accused the Norwegian of trying to ruin his career.

In a statement released Tuesday (September 27), Carlsen accused Niemann of cheating more than the American teenager admitted. The Norwegian called cheating an existential threat to the game.

As the row rumbles on, here’s a look at the controversy and past allegations.

What is the current cheating row in chess?

On September 4, Carlsen pulled out of a tournament (the $500,000 Sinquefield Cup) for the first time in his career after suffering a shock defeat to Niemann despite playing with white pieces — a significant advantage in chess. He didn’t give any reason for the withdrawal but tweeted a video clip of Portuguese football manager Jose Mourinho saying: “If I speak, I am in big trouble.”

As speculation swirled, American grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura claimed Carlsen withdrew because he thought Niemann was “probably cheating”.

More drama followed when Carlsen resigned after just one move in a game against Niemann during the Julius Baer Generation Cup on September 20, in an apparent protest against the American’s participation. Carlsen went on to win the tournament and said he wanted “cheating in chess to be dealt with seriously”.

What is Carlsen’s allegation?

In a statement on Twitter on Tuesday, Carlsen said: “I believe that Niemann has cheated more — and more recently — than he has publicly admitted. His over-the-board progress has been unusual, and throughout our game in the Sinquefield Cup I had the impression that he wasn’t tense or even fully concentrating on the game in critical positions while outplaying me as black in a way I think only a handful of players can do.

“This game contributed to changing my perspective,” Carlsen added, saying, “I don’t want to play against people that have cheated repeatedly in the past, because I don’t know what they are capable of doing in the future.”

Why did the world chess body reprimand Carlsen?

The International Chess Federation (FIDE) rebuked Carlsen on Friday for resigning from the match against Niemann after one move.

The chess body added that it shared the world champion’s “deep concerns about the damage that cheating brings to chess.” In the statement, FIDE said: “We strongly believe that there were better ways to handle this situation.”

What did the tournament organisers do?

The Sinquefield Cup organisers stepped up anti cheating measures, including enhanced radio-frequency identification checks and a 15-minute delay in broadcasting the moves. No evidence of cheating was found as Niemann won two and lost six games.

Six days after Carlsen’s defeat, chief arbiter Chris Bird released a statement that there was no indication of any competitor “playing unfairly.”

What was Niemann’s response?

Niemann claimed that “by some ridiculous miracle”, he had guessed Carlsen’s unusual opening and was prepared for it. Niemann admitted that he had cheated with computer assistance in online events as a 12- and 16-year-old on, the biggest online chess website, which has since banned him.

The American insisted that he was now “clean” and was even prepared to play naked to prove his innocence. “You want me to play in a closed box with zero electronic transmission? I don’t care. I’m here to win, and that is my goal regardless,” Niemann said.

“I’m saying my truth because I do not want any misrepresentation. I am proud of myself that I have learned from that mistake, and now I have given everything to chess. I have sacrificed everything for chess,” he added.

What do the experts say?

Dr Kenneth Regan, a leading expert on cheating in chess, analysed Niemann’s games from the past two years and concluded that there is no evidence to suspect him of cheating. He was summoned to check Neimann’s game against Carlsen but didn’t find any proof of cheating.

What are the conspiracy theories on Niemann’s victory?

One theory popularised by billionaire Elon Musk said Niemann used vibrating beads to help him. Another said that Carlsen’s opening moves were leaked to Niemann. Others said the American played better on the day.

Carlsen said: “I’m very impressed by Niemann’s play, and I think his mentor GM Maxim Dlugy must be doing a great job.” Dlugy was banned for cheating in 2017.

What did say?, the online chess portal, said they believed Niemann had cheated online more frequently and had shown him the evidence. Niemann has been banned from the site and events.

Is cheating at chess possible?

Yes, it’s easy to cheat at online games. Several players have been caught using chess engines (software) to analyse games and find good moves. But it’s difficult in over-the-board games since players are screened for electric devices. But there have been plenty of instances of cheating.

How can you detect the use of chess engines?

In The Art of Cheating in Chess, GM Bill Jordan says: “A high correlation between the moves of a human player and an engine could indicate cheating. To prevent a correlation from being found, the cheat may only use an engine to help in a few critical positions. Even using an engine to help in just one critical position could help a player win a game against an opponent of roughly equal strength, especially if the players are strong.”

Do computers play chess differently?

Dr Regan has the answer. “Computer programmes don’t just play better, they also play differently. So, I use data to analyse patterns. I vandalised half a million games, over 30 million, all from real competition, not simulation. This includes the entire history of top-level human chess and computer chess. These reveal a pattern not just for chess but also cheating,” he said in a Ted Talk in 2015.

What are the high-profile cheating cases?

French players Sebastien Feller, Arnaud Hauchard and Cyril Marzolo were found guilty of cheating at the 2010 Chess Olympiad. Marzolo analysed Feller's games on the internet and texted suggestions to Hauchard, who relayed them to Feller through a coded system. Feller was banned for three years but is now back on the circuit. He was also given a six-month suspended prison sentence.

Latvian GM Igors Rausis was banned for six years after being caught looking up moves on a phone hidden in a toilet. Georgian GM Gaioz Nigalidze also took frequent toilet breaks to allegedly check the phone hidden in the toilet flush. Italian Arcangelo Ricciardi hid a tiny camera in a pendant that transmitted moves and received messages in Morse code.

What about the days before computers?

Cheating allegations marred the Anatoly Karpov-Viktor Korchnoi world championship in Baguio, Philippines, in 1978. Korchnoi alleged that the orange juice and blueberry yoghurt given to Karpov during games were cues for certain moves. After accusing Karpov’s team of having a hypnotist sit in the front row of the audience, Korchnoi started wearing dark glasses for the games.

What’s the future?

Chess has come a long way since the days of Soviet Union. There have been controversies along the way. As the Carlsen-Niemann row simmers, the world chess body should take the lead in finding out the truth. The cloud of doubt and scandal will only taint the game.

Magnus Carlsen
Magnus Carlsen, considered the greatest chess player, is capable of playing almost any opening or position. Image Credit: Instagram

Who’s Magnus Carlsen?

Sven Magnus Carlsen, 31, is a Norwegian grandmaster who has been a world champion since 2013. Considered one of the chess greats, Carlsen is a universal player, capable of playing almost any opening or position. His strengths are accuracy and calculation, a sober playing style and solid opening choices, especially with the white pieces.

The reigning five-time world champion in classical chess is also a three-time world rapid chess champion and five-time world blitz chess champion — the first player to hold the three titles simultaneously. His peak Elo rating (a metric used to gauge the strength of chess players) of 2882 is the highest in history.

Carlsen has been No. 1 in world chess rankings since July 1, 2011, and trails the record for the longest unbeaten streak (58 games) at the elite level in classical chess.

Born in Tonsberg, Norway, on November 30, 1990, Carlsen started playing chess at age five under the tutelage of his father, an amateur player. A chess prodigy, he earned the grandmaster title at 13 and won the Norwegian Chess Championship two years later.

Carlsen defeated India’s Viswanathan Anand to become world champion in 2013 and defended the title against Anand the following year. He later beat back the challenges of Sergey Karjakin (2016), Fabiano Caruana (2018), and Ian Nepomniachtchi (2021).

Hans Niemann
Hans Niemann, 19, is the 6th highest-rated Junior in the world and 45th overall. He gained his grandmaster title in 2021 at 17. Image Credit: Instagram

Who’s Hans Niemann?

Hans Moke Niemann, 19, is an American chess grandmaster with an Elo rating of over 2700. Currently the 6th highest-rated Junior in the world and 45th overall, he gained his grandmaster title in 2021 at 17.

A child prodigy, he has won numerous scholastic tournaments, and his recent achievements include the 2021 World Open winner, 2021 US Junior Champion, and 2021 US Open second place.

Born in San Francisco on June 20, 2003, Niemann is of mixed Hawaiian and Danish ancestry. He moved to the Netherlands at seven and began playing chess a year later before moving back to California. He graduated from Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School, which has a strong chess culture, after moving to New York in 2019.

Statistical analysis by chess analysis blog Pawnalyze showed that Niemann had consistently outperformed his rating strength.

Irina Krush, a grandmaster, said, “I did play against Hans at the Marshall Championship at the end of 2019, where he made his second GM norm and tied for first in the tournament. So from that point on, I knew he was a very strong and up-and-coming player.”