Drama in the chess world has made an appearance on social media feeds over the past month. It started when the lowest-ranked player in the invitation-only St. Louis Sinquefield Cup, 19-year-old grandmaster Hans Niemann, beat world champion Magnus Carlsen — the top-ranked player in the world.
The game ended Carlsen’s 53-game unbeaten run in classical chess, prompting the 31-year-old Norwegian grandmaster to quit the tournament with six rounds to go and forfeit the chance at $350,000, according to BBC.
The next round was delayed as additional security checks, particularly of Niemann, were conducted, according to Tony Rich, executive director of the Saint Louis Chess Club. The chief arbiter of the tournament later released a statement, saying “I can confirm that we currently have no indication that any player has been playing unfairly in the 2022 Sinquefield Cup.”
Carlsen’s follow-up tweet made it clear that something was going on behind the scenes that fans were not aware of. After his loss, Chess.com, one of the most important organizations in the sport, announced it was banning Neimann from its platform and events, stating “we have shared detailed evidence with him, including information that contradicts his statements regarding the amount and seriousness of his cheating on Chess.com.”
Neimann previously admitted he used computers to assist him in an online tournament when he was 12 years old, and again in online games when he was 16. “What I want people to know about this is I am deeply deeply sorry for my mistake and I know my actions have consequences and I suffered those consequences,” he said. “During that time I stepped away from a very lucrative streaming career, I stopped playing in all events, and I lost a lot of close friendships and relationships that meant a lot to me.”
“I am proud of myself that I learned from that mistake and now have given everything to chess,” he said “I have sacrificed everything for chess.”
A few weeks after the St. Louis tournament, Carlsen was pitted against Niemann in Round 2 of the Julius Baer Generation Cup. Carlsen resigned after a single move. Per Chess.com, despite the resignation, Carlsen went on to win the online tournament in “one of the most dominating performances in recent years for the world champion.”
His controversial choice drew critical comments from chess greats like Gary Kasparov, Russian chess grandmaster and former world champion, who tweeted “World chess champion Magnus Carlsen withdrew from the world’s premier tournament in St. Louis, an act with no precedent in the past 50 years, and his explanation is required.”
Carlsen did not give an explanation, however. Prominent chess influencers were quick to weigh in with commentary and opinions on the matter, despite a lack of evidence. American grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, one of the most influential voices in the chess community, was quick to spread theories that Niemann cheated, though he stopped short of making accusations himself.
Of this, Niemann said, “I am not going to let Chess.com, I am not going to let Magnus Carlsen, I am not going to let Hikaru, the three arguably biggest entities in chess, simply slander my reputation.”
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, a French grandmaster, said “this has been handled very poorly because it has become basically a witch hunt. The effect it can have on Hans is actually quite devastating.”
To make matters worse, unvalidated statistical analysis using software not designed to detect cheating made it look as though Neimann was undeniably guilty. This analysis was shared in several discussions about the scandal, securing the 19-year-old’s guilt in the minds of many in the chess community.
New audiences were flocking to watch content created by chess influencers as they tried to interpret the events of the past month. Levy Rozman summed up the difficult situation. “I am biased in all of this because I am a creator. I am a YouTuber, I am a creator. It is beneficial to me when chess drama happens. ... It’s great for me, it’s great for views.” But he also pointed out the cost of this drama, which others have not. “This hurts me on a human level.”
Carlsen finally released a statement on the incident in question. He said “I believe that Niemann has cheated more — and more recently — than he has publicly admitted,” and noted there was more he wanted to say, but claimed he needed explicit permission from Neimann to say it.
It was not the clarity the chess community was looking for, and Carlsen, in further interviews, helped resurface the fact that Neimann’s old teacher, grandmaster Maxim Dlugy, admitted to cheating, per Vice. Still, no hard evidence was discussed.
Kenneth Regan, one of the foremost experts on chess cheating, found no anomalies in Neimann’s play. Recognizing the danger of amateur sleuths, he said, “I’m generally very guarded with my data because people might cherry-pick my high outliers.”
David Smerdon, who has worked with Regan and the Chess.com cheat detection team, provided some clarity on the false statistics being widely shared. He said they involve the use of a tool called “Let’s Check” from the company ChessBase, which compares a player’s move to computer engine suggestions and calculates a correlation score.
In a podcast, Smerdon said “Nobody except for ChessBase knows how “Let’s Check” works. There’s zero information out there. If you go through the manual in Chessbase the only thing it says about ‘Let’s Check’ engine’s correlation is that you should not use it for cheating detection. That’s the only thing in there about it.”
“It makes sense to use this feature because it’s the easiest. But it is so far below the sophistication of the anti-cheating algorithms in place at the moment.”
His clarification on the “Let’s Check” tool is unlikely to undo the harm to Neimann’s reputation.
There is still no clarity on whether or not Neimann cheated, but the scandal has uncovered a problem with the chess world’s ability to identify cheating. With so many disparate, proprietary cheating identification policies and procedures, objective decisions are hard to come by. The allegations surrounding whether or not someone cheated can decide the fate of a chess champion’s career, both over the board and as a streamer.
Smerdon believes this moment is a turning point in chess’s approach to cheating. He said he hopes it will encourage individual organizations to work together to establish independent reviews based on all the advanced algorithms and their disposal, matched with human judgment and rigorous statistics.
According to Chess.com co-founder and CEO Erik Allebest, “What is coming is a full, honest, raw conversation with a complete timeline and investigation.” He said, “My sincerest hope (and expectation) is that chess will be better off for having gone through this entire saga.”