What is going on at top-level chess?
Allegations of cheating – including wild speculation involving vibrating anal beads – which have rocked chess to its core. A fortnight ago the world champion Magnus Carlsen pulled out of a tournament for the first time in his career – and then, on Monday, he stunned the sport again by resigning a game after just one move. Both times Carlsen was faced with the same opponent, the 19-year-old American Hans Niemann.
So when did the furore start?
After Carlsen pulled out of the $500,000 (£433,000) Sinquefield Cup after a shock defeat against Niemann with white pieces. The day after the loss, the world champion posted a cryptic tweet that included a video clip of José Mourinho saying: “If I speak, I am in big trouble.” There was soon frenzied speculation over Carlsen’s motives, with the American grandmaster and popular streamer Hikaru Nakamura claiming the world champion had withdrawn because he thought Niemann was “probably cheating”.
What happened next?
Organisers of the Sinquefield Cup announced additional anti‑cheating precautions, including a 15-minute delay in the broadcast of the moves and increased radio-frequency identification checks. Niemann, who had won two of his first three games at the event, proceeded to lose or draw his final six. However, no evidence of cheating was found.
What explanations have been advanced for Niemann’s victory?
One theory doing the rounds on the internet, popularised by Elon Musk, is that Niemann used vibrating anal beads to help him. Another suggestion was that the American may have somehow been leaked Carlsen’s opening preparation. Both are denied by Niemann. But others have suggested the American, who says he spends 10-12 hours a day on chess, may have simply been the better player on the day.
Er, how would these beads help a chess player win?
The Guardian spoke to two sources in the chess world, who both said that if top players knew that a move that gave them a significant advantage existed – perhaps with the use of some sort of signal – it would help them to find it more often than not.
How has Niemann responded?
After his victory against Carlsen, Niemann claimed that “by some ridiculous miracle” he had guessed what his opponent’s unusual opening would be and prepared deeply for it. “It must be embarrassing for the world champion to lose to me,” he said. “I feel bad for him.”
The next day, Niemann did admit he had cheated in the past in online events with the help of computer assistance when he was a 12- and 16-year-old – but insisted he was now “clean” and was even prepared to play naked to prove his innocence. However the website Chess.com has since said they believed Niemann had cheated online more frequently, and had shown him the evidence. Niemann has been banned from the site and Chess.com events.
How do you cheat at chess?
It is far easier to do so over the internet, where some players have been caught using computer engines to help them to find good moves. However it is tricker over the board where players are often scanned beforehand for electric devices.
That doesn’t mean it is not possible, however. Perhaps the most high-profile case involved the French players Sébastien Feller, Arnaud Hauchard and Cyril Marzolo, who were found guilty of cheating at the Chess Olympiad in 2010. The elaborate scheme involved Marzolo analysing the games of Feller on the internet, before sending suggestions to Hauchard by SMS. He then relayed them to Feller by standing behind one of the other players’ tables in a predefined coded system, where each table represented a move to play. In 2019 Feller was given a six-month suspended prison sentence for his behaviour.
More recently, the Latvian grandmaster Igors Rausis was banned for six years after being caught looking up moves on a phone he had hidden in the toilet.
At the recent Olympiad in India, some players were surprised to have their heads scanned by electro-magnetic wands. One theory doing the rounds was that organisers were looking for devices in teeth.
Why did Carlsen and Niemann play again so soon – and what happened?
Both players were invited to take part in the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour’s Julius Baer Generation Cup, and accepted. And the two players squared off again on Monday night, this time online rather than face to face. However Carlsen caused more controversy by resigning after playing just one move.
How have the other players reacted?
The response has been mixed. The top grandmaster Anish Giri said it was “pretty clear” that Carlsen did not have direct evidence that Niemann had cheated against him. However, he said: “It’s a big problem playing people who have admitted to cheating online before because you lose trust in them and that is a major, major problem.”
Meanwhile Carlsen’s Norwegian teammate Jon Ludvig Hammer condemned the decision to resign after one move. “It is completely unacceptable behaviour to lose on purpose, it is the most unsportsmanlike behaviour in the world of sports,” he said, before suggesting Carlsen could himself be sanctioned for his actions.
Where does this all leave us?
With a Mexican standoff of epic proportions. The world’s leading expert on cheating in chess, Dr Kenneth Regan, has analysed all of Niemann’s games over the past two years and his conclusion is there is no reason whatsoever to suspect him of cheating. However Carlsen, the most powerful player in chess, is clearly unconvinced.