The significance of the chess cheating scandal | So Good News
In the past month, 19-year-old Hans Niemann has become the most talked-about American chess player since Bobby Fischer. A few years ago, Niemann was found to have cheated in several online games by Chess.com, the world’s largest online chess site, beating world champion Magnus Carlsen in an off-board tournament in early September. Carlsen withdrew from the tournament, implicitly accusing Niemann of cheating and refusing to play him in the next event. Carlsen later spoke about Niemann’s past cheating and described Niemann’s behavior during the game as suspicious. A few leading grandmasters sided with Carlsen, many did not, and the accusations rocked the chess world, garnering major newspaper and television news coverage.
Niemann is now one of the American chess players most people have heard of outside of chess. Niemann’s achievements, however, pale in comparison to those of chess player Hikaru Nakamura, the world’s top-ranked blitz player, and Fabiano Caruana, a surefire world title contender, who won twelve world title matches before losing to Carlsen in 2018. in a tiebreaker. He is still well behind the four or five American players (including two recent immigrants) who are among the world’s elite “super grandmasters.” But at 19, he has risen rapidly in the rankings since tournament play resumed after the pandemic. The main topic of conversation in the chess world today is the question of whether Niemann is still cheating and whether Carlsen is right to try to destroy the reputation of a rising teenager without concrete evidence.
Cheating in chess has become possible as a result of the computer revolution that has taken over the game more and more. In 1997, the Deep Blue supercomputer defeated world champion Garry Kasparov in a match. It was a moment of change as worthy of legend as John Henry and the steam drill, except this time the machine won. Deep Blue weighed 3,000 pounds and its chess technique was crude, but computers and the algorithms that control them have improved dramatically since then. Now those who have a smartphone can beat Deep Blue and all chess players. The use of such programs to cheat in online chess competitions was inevitable; players are left alone in their rooms with their cars and many are tempted to “see what the engine says”. Chess.com and other sites have developed sophisticated statistical analysis programs to detect online fraud. So they caught Niemann (who confessed) and thousands of others, including some 200 title players.
Cheating is more complicated in an extreme table game. Regular tournaments require players to put away their phones, but security is imperfect: cases of players cheating or players suspecting that there is something “computerized” in their opponents’ moves are commonplace. Security is tighter at high-level professional tournaments, and no one can hide a cell phone during a bathroom break. Cheating apparently requires a collegator to indicate the best move electronically or visually; Squares can be identified by two-digit names. In a scandalous incident in 2010, the coach of the French Olympic team signaled to a player by sitting or standing on one of the other visible boards in the playing hall.
It is undeniable that Niemann online cheats. According to a 72-page report by Chess.com, he cheated more than 100 online speed chess games, including famous players who won prize money. When confronted with the evidence gathered by the site’s anti-cheat system, he admitted his actions and was banned from online play on the site. When Carlsen accused him of cheating at a table game, Niemann vehemently denied it, saying he had cheated online several times when he was 12 and 16, and had never been cheated in “real” games. Chess.com’s report contradicts Niemann’s claim that he cheated “only a few times” and cites a time when he cheated when he was 17 years old.
Elite grandmasters are divided between those who think there is something fishy about Niemann’s recent rapid rise and those who think Carlsen’s allegations are unsubstantiated. International Master and Computer Science Professor Ken Regan, one of Chess.com’s top anti-cheat experts, found nothing suspicious about Niemann’s moves in Carlsen’s game. Players understandably feel uncomfortable playing against someone with a proven track record of cheating, and while Chess.com keeps its list of caught and sanctioned players private, it’s reasonable to assume that Carlsen and others were aware of Niemann’s transgressions. If you suspect your opponent is cheating, this is a real distraction that can hinder your game.
Before the allegations came to light, Niemann had gone from a precocious and clearly gifted young international master to one of the top 40 grandmasters in the world, and his growth rate matched or exceeded that of the most famous players in history. Will Niemann continue his run of form and emerge as a legitimate world title contender in the next three to four years? Can he maintain his current ranking as an elite player? Or will he continue to play but lose his rating because he can’t cheat? Carlsen’s accusation led to strict measures at the US Championships (where Niemann is now competing and has been playing decently so far), including a 30-minute delay between when moves are made and when they are broadcast, which seemed excessive. – the board is almost impossible to cheat.
I hope that Hans’ promotion is legitimate and that he can at least maintain his new status in the outer circle of the chess super elite. To many, cheating is cheating, and someone corrupt enough to cheat in an online tournament for prize money can cheat in a table game, so there’s no reason Hans is in denial. But violations feel different. In an off-board chess tournament, you travel to a site (usually in a hotel meeting room), shake hands with your opponent, and play. In such a situation, it would be very rude for your colleague to give you a secret computer tip or somehow consult a secret phone somewhere on the site. It looks different than running the engine alone in your apartment. At least some feel that way.
Hans Niemann’s rise in the world of chess was steady. At the age of 10, he went from beginner to expert within a year, enough to label him a prodigy. In comparison, it took me ten years of continuous study and playing to go from beginner to A, the lower category expert, and I never made it to the top. At the age of 15, he reached the level of international mastery and stopped for several years. His latest promotion coincides with what he describes as a re-dedication to chess after a brief disdain for the game.
If you attend a current tournament, you will see many Tiger Moms and Helicopter Parents among the children participating. That doesn’t seem to be a factor in Niemann’s life. When he was 16, his family (who had previously moved from Holland to California) moved to Connecticut, and instead of moving in with them, Hans got an apartment in New York and received a scholarship to Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School on the Upper West Side. . (Jeffrey Toobin and John Podhoretz are among the alumni.) He supported himself by teaching chess.
If you know the world of private schools in Manhattan, you know that none of their kids live in their own apartments. It was around this time—after the pandemic broke out and Hans’s chess teaching routine was disrupted—that Chess.com uncovered the bulk of Hans’ online cheating episodes. Cheating in chess is inexcusable, I’m sure his opponents will not forgive him. But if anyone thinks that a 16-year-old boy living alone in New York during the first wave of the Covid pandemic isn’t necessarily an incorrigible cheater who turns on the engine while playing, his frustration is that he never cheated. A “real” game ring is more believable.
The scale of the controversy—the extent to which it has gripped the chess world—highlights events beyond those of Magnus Carlsen and Hans Niemann. Frankly, computers threaten the beauty of chess. At its highest level, chess walks a balance between art and science, or at least it’s used to. Playing well requires exceptional computational ability, which requires concentration and talent. I’ve heard grandmasters describe the feeling of going deep into the weeds of calculus as a kind of mystical trance. Deep into six, eight, several variations: few can do it, and only those who can experience some pure state of stretching themselves. It takes a lot of energy. In 1984, Anatoly Karpov had to stop competing in the world championship after losing 22 kilograms; Scientists estimate that a grandmaster playing chess burns about half as many calories an hour as a professional tennis player playing solo.
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Still, there remains something intangible about the best games, beyond the realm of computing. I remember watching the infamous David Bronstein-Bent Larsen game a few years ago, where Bronstein claimed to have found a move that would justify his speculative sacrifice after midnight, many hours after he resigned. Only then can he sleep. Chess magazines discussed this game for months. The fact that the games are so ambiguous has protected the realm of chess as an art: some moves, some sacrifices can simply “feel” and lead to a practical victory.
Computers eliminate some of that. Every chess position can be solved in minutes on a laptop. It changed the way the game was played: the use of computers and databases that recorded every master game changed the preparation of grandmasters at the highest level. As one writer put it, “The once poetic and philosophical game of chess has the spelling elements of bees, the battle of preparation, the number of hours spent.” At the same time, the chess world exploded in the size and scope of its human talent. A Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, set in the pre-PC era, brought millions of new players to the game. Online chess has enabled tens of millions of people around the world to learn and has greatly increased the number of master-level players.
The chess cheating scandal is on the one hand a clash between a respected and well-liked world champion and an up-and-coming young player. But this is a symptom of another problem: chess is now solved. If we can imagine how an AI program that writes prize-winning novels affects our sense of literature, we understand what the chess world is facing right now.