On Monday, reigning world chess champion Magnus Carlsen made just one move against his opponent, American grandmaster Hans Niemann, and then resigned, sending the chess world into a panic about a growing scandal with seemingly no resolution.
Carlsen essentially refusing to play against Niemann heightens speculation about Carlsen’s abrupt withdrawal from a tournament in St. Louis after losing to Niemann in early September, and whether he thinks Niemann is cheating. Carlsen has not explained his actions, either in St. Louis or the resignation this week, and as a result, tensions have snowballed and drawn divisions in the chess world.
Carlsen is a five-time world champion and arguably the best chess player ever. The 31-year-old Norwegian has been the world-ranked number one for over a decade, and his peak Elo rating (a scale used to determine relative strength of players) of 2882 is the best in history.
Niemann is a 19-year-old American whose Elo rating has exploded since the pandemic from 2484 in January 2021 to 2688 at the beginning of September. His meteoric rise has surprised and impressed the chess world, and in turn added to the suspicion of foul play.
During round 6 of the Julius Baer Generation Cup, Carlsen was supposed to play Niemann in what would have been their first meeting since Niemann beat him earlier this month. But instead of playing, Carlsen moved his knight and then resigned and turned off his camera, shocking live commentators into silence and sparking a Twitter storm of opinions.
“This is unprecedented. I just I can’t believe it,” live commentator Tania Sachdev said. “Magnus just refusing to play against Hans. He will play the tournament, but he is saying, ‘I will not play the game against him.’ That’s making a very big statement.”
How did we get to this moment?
The day after Niemann beat Carlsen in the third round at the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, Carlsen withdrew from the tournament before round 4 and tweeted an infamous clip of Portuguese soccer manager José Mourinho saying, “I prefer really not to speak. If I speak, I am in big trouble.”
In the clip Mourinho intimates that a loss was the result of foul play. Many took the cryptic reference as an insinuation that Carlsen thinks Niemann cheated when playing against him. The withdrawal was Carlsen’s first from a major event and a highly unusual move from an elite player.
Other chess figures weighed in, including popular chess streamer Hikaru Nakamura, who reacted live and revealed that there was a period of over six months in which Niemann was not able to participate in any prize money tournaments on Chess.com. That fact, paired with his unusual rise over the past year and half, led Nakamura to believe that Carlsen’s actions were related to a distrust of Niemann’s competitive integrity.
“Am I suggesting that something happened? I’m saying that Magnus is suspicious,” Nakamura said.
A few days later, Niemann decided to “say his truth” and defend himself from his critics. He stated that he had indeed cheated in online matches on Chess.com at 12 and 16 years old but denied ever cheating in over-the-board tournaments. He was vociferous in his denial of any accusation of cheating during his match with Carlsen, even offering to play naked to prove that he didn’t have any device providing him with outside assistance during the match.
Chess.com, the largest online chess platform, came out with a statement two days later on Sept. 8, stating that they decided to remove Niemann from Chess.com and from competing in future events on their platform due to their belief that Niemann’s public statement misrepresented the “amount and seriousness of his cheating on Chess.com.”
In the absence of clear proof, the back and forth has inspired all sorts of theories about if Niemann cheated or if Carlsen is just being paranoid after losing. Theories have also bloomed about how Niemann could have cheated. Given Niemann’s willingness to play naked, some even joked that Niemann had discovered and stolen Carlsen’s method of cheating using anal beads to receive outside communication.
What does this mean for the future of chess?
Improved chess engines, which far surpass human chess players, have made it easier to cheat at chess, and there aren’t yet clear ways to prevent or moderate such cheating.
Chess engines are AI software that analyze the board’s possibilities and relay moves that provide the best outcomes, and since 2017, they’ve become incredibly sophisticated. According to The Atlantic, chess engines became superhuman, amassing Elo ratings in the 3000s. Stockfish, a publicly available chess engine that is often used in chess commentary to analyze potential moves, has an Elo rating of over 3500.
Cheating in chess online is incredibly simple; one only has to use a chess engine to guide moves. In person, at over-the-board tournaments, however, it’s more difficult. Players have consulted smartphones in the bathroom or carried devices on their person that communicate the input of a chess engine.
To catch cheating in chess on a lower level, one only needs to find a player overperforming to a statistically impossible degree. But high-level chess players already know most optimal moves and would only need to consult a chess engine one or two times to turn a game. As a result, it’s difficult to determine if a player is cheating, bar catching the player red-handed.
In this case, Niemann was not caught cheating in an over-the-board match, and there has been no concrete proof that he cheated on Sept. 4 against Magnus Carlsen. Although much has been made of Carlsen’s actions and what they mean, he has yet to explain explicitly if he thinks Hans Niemann is currently cheating and why.
Even the perception that someone might be cheating changes how an opponent plays. Chess engines like Stockfish will suggest moves that seem out of the ordinary for a human player, and playing against someone that you perceive to be assisted by AI means that you question why an unforeseen or visibly bad move has been made.
The scandal also points to the difficulty of the ethics of accusation. Because Carlsen hasn’t clarified his actions and because Niemann hasn’t been caught or proven cheating, the chess world’s opinions on both are in limbo. Carlsen essentially refusing to play another high-level player threatens both Niemann’s career but also Carlsen’s reputation as well. Does Carlsen have a responsibility to outright say that he thinks Niemann is cheating and prove it? Should a track record of cheating preclude Niemann from opportunities to play against the world’s best?
“A man’s career, a man’s mental health is at risk. The legacy of the world chess champion and arguably the best player ever is at risk. The state of chess is at risk,” Levy “GothamChess” Rozman said.
Due to the inane nature of online discourse, many in the chess community have already taken sides, either dismissing Carlsen as a sore loser intent on ruining a young man’s career or demanding Niemann stop competing because of his history of cheating.
“The truth or the lack thereof needs to be shown,” Rozman said. “We gotta get a move on, folks; time is running out.”
However, a resolution doesn’t seem on the horizon; if anything the scandal could get worse with the possibility of Niemann and Carlsen meeting again in the knockout stages of the Generation Cup or in future tournaments.