The chess world has been rocked by online allegations of cheating after a top chess grandmaster was toppled by a relative newcomer this week in a major high stakes tournament in St. Louis.
31-year-old Norwegian chess grandmaster Magnus Carlsen—rated the top player in the world by the International Chess Federation (FIDE)—abruptly withdrew from the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis after a third-round defeat by Hans Niemann, a young chess prodigy from the United States.
Soon after his loss, Carlsen posted a cryptic tweet featuring a speech by football manager Jose Mourinho. "I prefer not to speak,” Mourinho said in the 2020 video. “If I speak I am in big trouble…and I don't want to be in big trouble."
The defeat was an upset for the ages, given Carlsen had played 53 classical matches without a loss (though Niemann had defeated him one month earlier in a non-classical match). Niemman also had an ELO rating several hundred points lower than Carlsen and was playing black, which has a slight but statistically notable disadvantage because the white side moves first.
“It must be embarrassing for the world champion to lose to an idiot like me,” Niemann said in an interview shortly after the victory. “I feel bad for him.”
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Carlsen’s implications rocked the chess community, which quickly began speculating online that Niemann must have cheated, despite no evidence of foul play being presented from Carlsen or event organizers. On Reddit, r/chess has been a firestorm of gossip since the loss, with many observers tracking the allegations and counter allegations in minute by minute detail.
In several comments on Twitch, American chess grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura implied Nieman may have had a history of online cheating. Emil Sutovsky, Director-general of FIDE, also noted that Carlsen wasn’t the type of player to quit the tournament over petty spite:
In the wake of Carlsen’s vague allegations, event organizers say they delayed the online broadcast of the fourth round by 15 minutes, and ramped up event metal detection and RFID checks on players ahead of the next round.
The Sinquefield Cup features cash prizes as high as $350,000, and has been a major step on the World Grand Chess Tour since 2015. Carleson has won the cup twice in the last decade, and had never before withdrawn from an ongoing event.
“This is truly a humbling day for me,” Niemann said in a Tweet shortly after the win. “I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to play chess at the highest level and live out my dreams. A few years ago, my chess dreams were quickly dwindling but thankfully they rose from the dead.”
Direct accusations of cheating in the chess world are rare and often hard to prove. In real-world over the board (OTB) chess, cheating usually comes in the form of somehow obtaining outside move advice through hidden communications systems, or embedding computers in clothing or footwear that can predict game outcomes and provide move recommendations.
One recent proof of concept involved using vibration-based buttons in a player’s shoes to communicate with a Raspberry Pi Zero running the open source Stockfish chess engine hidden somewhere in the player’s clothing. In a writeup of that proof-of-concept, the device's designer wrote that "I was planning to recruit a 'plausibly-good' chess player to use the shoes to win the world championship," and that he was planning on creating an updated version of the cheating device: "This proof-of-concept only needed to fool my mates, in a pub, for the duration of 2 games. To win the world championships we're going to have to get much more serious." That post has gone viral on Hacker News, though there is no evidence that this device or any other was used by Niemman.
Cheating in online chess is significantly more common, and online events have been routinely plagued by scandal during the last few years.
For their part, event organizers wouldn’t speculate on the motivation for Carlsen’s abrupt departure, or comment on the parade of online gossip that has accompanied his exit.
“A player’s decision to withdraw from a tournament is a personal decision, and we respect Magnus’ choice, ″ Tony Rich, Executive Director of Saint Louis Chess Club, said in a statement. “We look forward to hosting Magnus at a future event in Saint Louis.”