The Guardian’s view on chess cheating: innocent until proven guilty | Editing | So Good News


CHess generally only grabs the headlines for reasons outside of the game itself: Bobby Fischer’s eccentricities; Viktor Korchnoi’s claims that the Soviet Union was using hypnosis in his 1978 world title fight with Anatoly Karpov; The Toiletgate scandal that marred the 2006 World Cup. Now, reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen has cast doubt on the game of 19-year-old American grandmaster Hans Niemann, bringing chess back into the spotlight.

Carlsen has been the world champion since 2013. Niemann is a tyro who has been incredibly successful lately. Carlsen openly questioned this trajectory, He said on Twitter last week “his progress on the board has been extraordinary.” Most elite players these days become grandmasters in their teens – Carlsen was 13. his rise to super-GM status was meteoric.

The controversy arose when Niemann defeated Carlsen in the Sinquefield Cup last month. Niemann said he was somehow predicting what kind of opening Carlsen would play. It was Carlsen’s first loss in 53 Classics (long form) games and he withdrew from the tournament with a gnomic reference to the wrong thing. “If I speak up, I’m in big trouble,” he tweeted. Some of his supporters claimed that Niemann had computer-assisted filling in the blanks. Elon Musk unhelpfully suggested that he was using unconventional methods; Niemann countered by proposing to strip naked.

Carlsen and Niemann met in online play again last month, and the world champion sensationally resigned after making a move. Carlsen said he “doesn’t want to play against people who have cheated a few times in the past” and that he believes the young man “cheated more than he admits”. Niemann admitted to cheating online as a teenager, but angrily denies the new allegations, insisting he never did so at a board game. “Once a cheater, always a cheater,” they cry, but Niemann certainly shouldn’t be judged for his youthful exploits in low-risk games. There is no evidence that Carlsen cheated when he was beaten.

The world champion is right to say that cheating creates an existential crisis for chess – there are plenty of examples at the sport’s lesser levels. But he is wrong to muddy the waters around Niemann without substantial evidence. Former British World Cup contender Nigel Short said the young American was in danger of being “bruised to death”. According to pundits, Carlsen played unusually poorly in the loss to Niemann. Maybe it was just a bad day at the office. Or perhaps it was the result of paranoia: once a player thinks his opponent is cheating, it inevitably affects his own game. Carlsen must provide concrete evidence – ideally as part of an investigation announced by the International Chess Federation on Thursday – or Nieman must be allowed to continue his career. Only with extended play will the latter’s true playing power emerge, and in the rarefied conditions of elite tournaments, any repeated cheating will soon be revealed.


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