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6 October 2022

Why cheating in chess does not pay

The Carlsen-Niemann saga is a reminder of what is at stake in a game that has gripped writers, scientists and conquerors.

By Daniel Johnson

Cheating is bad enough in any game, but it is anathema to chess. In so far as the game has a rationale, however recondite, it is the pursuit of truth. The grandest of grandmasters, Emanuel Lasker, put it like this: “On the chessboard, lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in the checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite.”

Hence the accusation of cheating at the highest level, emanating from the current world champion, has not merely scandalised the wider world, but called into question the raison d’être of this supremely gladiatorial battle of wits.

“I believe that cheating in chess is a big deal and an existential threat to the game,” Magnus Carlsen declared, justifying his refusal to play Hans Niemann, the young American who had sensationally defeated him at the elite Sinquefield Cup tournament on 4 September.

Carlsen, 31, who has held the world title for nine years, quit the tournament and hinted that Niemann, 19, had received computer assistance at the board. When he faced his rival again in an online tournament Carlsen resigned after just one move, implying that playing a cheat was beneath his dignity.

[See also: How The Queen’s Gambit inspired a great chess revival]

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Then, on 26 September, he issued a statement alleging that Niemann, who has admitted cheating online several years ago, “has cheated more – and more recently – than he has publicly admitted”. Even now, however, Carlsen claims that he is limited in what he can say “without Niemann’s explicit permission to speak openly”. Presumably, he fears litigation – rightly. The reputations of chess masters are fragile. So, too, are their egos.

The rarefied world of grandmaster chess is now bitterly divided. Many have taken the side of the accused. Where, they ask, is the evidence? Shouldn’t Carlsen have provided chapter and verse before trashing the career of an unknown teenager? For the former world champion Garry Kasparov, Carlsen (who had been unbeaten in 53 games) was just a bad loser. For the British grandmaster Nigel Short, “it’s death by innuendo”.

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Carlsen’s camp cites Niemann’s previous admission of cheating in online chess, albeit only twice, aged 13 and 16. Niemann is now banned from Chess.com, the world’s largest chess website. According to Carlsen: “Throughout our game at the Sinquefield Cup, I had the impression that he wasn’t tense or even concentrating on the game in critical positions, while outplaying me as black in a way I think only a handful of players can do.”

How, though, could Niemann have had computer advice sent to him during a game – given that phones and other electronic devices are banned from tournament playing areas? This is where the controversy takes a salacious turn. Flying around social media has been the claim that Niemann may have used a sex toy – vibrating anal beads that could be controlled wirelessly – to have moves transmitted while evading detection. There is no proof that he made use of such a method, but Niemann himself took it seriously enough to declare: “If they want me to strip fully naked, I will do it. I don’t care, because I know I am clean.”

The Carlsen-Niemann cheating saga will doubtless have more twists before it is resolved. Meanwhile, it is a reminder of the unique hold that chess exercises upon our cultural imagination.

The game was already several centuries old when the Vikings brought it to Britain – and bequeathed us the marvellous chessmen found on the Isle of Lewis. In his essay “The Glorious and Bloody Game”, Arthur Koestler, who considered himself a “passionate duffer” at chess, recounts a tale from St Olaf’s Saga about King Canute, who could no more command the 64 squares than he could the waves. When playing Ulf, one of his earls, Canute blundered a knight, then retracted the move and made another. In other words, the king cheated. Ulf was so angry that he overturned the board in his rage. Fearing the royal wrath, he took sanctuary in a church, only to be butchered by Canute’s henchmen.

Chess is a wargame and its aim is indeed murderous – “checkmate” is a corruption of a Persian phrase meaning “the king is dead” – but its whole purpose is to sublimate violence. Perhaps this subtext explains the number of bloodthirsty conquerors who have succumbed to the charms of chess: from Charlemagne to Tamburlaine the Great to Napoleon Bonaparte.

In our time, the uniquely exalted status of chess in the Soviet Union enabled it to become a substitute for nuclear war. For all the speculation about Vladimir Putin’s skill at chess, the truth is that he is merely a bad poker player, with tragic consequences for Ukraine and the entire world.

Chess is a test of the intellect, not merely of low cunning. No other game has had so many books devoted to it; none has inspired fiction of the quality of Stefan Zweig’s The Royal Game, Nabokov’s The Luzhin Defence or Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé. To Marcel Duchamp, chess was a higher vocation than art: on his honeymoon he paid more attention to the game than to his bride. In revenge she glued his pieces to the board; divorce ensued.

[See also: The degradation of Marilyn Monroe]

Scientists, too, from Albert Einstein to Alan Turing have paid homage to the tantalisingly elusive relationship of chess to mathematics, codes and computing. Most recently, the British artificial intelligence researcher and entrepreneur Demis Hassabis has penetrated more deeply into its mysteries than ever before. His team at DeepMind have created a chess programme, AlphaZero, that goes far beyond anything even imaginable in 1950, when Claude Shannon’s pioneering paper “Programming a Computer For Playing Chess” was published. The gap in playing strength between humans and machines is now immeasurable. Hence the stakes are high in the Carlsen-Niemann affair.

When my own love affair with chess began as a boy, among my mentors was the New Statesman’s chess correspondent, Heinrich Fraenkel. His columns, written under the pseudonym Assiac, were an eclectic mélange of anecdote and analysis by a German-Jewish émigré who, when I enthused about a performance of Brecht and Weil’s Threepenny Opera, replied: “Ja, Danny, I was at the first production in Berlin.”

In the half-century since I have been blessed to have played amateurs, from Michael Foot (at a New StatesmanTribune cricket match) to the Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, and grandmasters, from Kasparov to Jon Speelman. Nobody should be intimidated by its complexity, let alone by vanishingly rare cases of cheating. You can play chess for fun as well as for blood. The frontispiece of Assiac’s book The Pleasures of Chess has a diagram of the chessboard before a move has been made, with the caption: “The most difficult position of all.” Underneath, the author has inscribed the book to me in his spidery hand: “Not all that difficult after all.”

Daniel Johnson is the author of “White King and Red Queen: How the Cold War was Fought on the Chessboard” (Atlantic)

[See also: The cutting wit of Alan Rickman]

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This article appears in the 05 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed!