When I was a kid I was a nerd.
I played chess. Pretty good (never great) chess. I studied the game. The openings. The mid and end-game strategies. Replayed great games so I might learn, I played at school. I regularly beat adults.
Then I got slender, cute, met girls and put the pieces away. Some girls liked nerds. While dating Virginia Astrid (before Joann) I taught her kid brother how to play. He commented a few times on this blog. When I saw his name, I asked in reply “Are you related to Ginny?”
“Yes, I’m her brother. You taught me how to play chess.” Ginny and I still send each other Christmas cards.
I played at the Marshall Chess Club in Manhattan, “the second oldest chess club in the United States! This is where José Raúl Capablanca gave his last exhibition, where Alexander Alekhine visited and played speed chess, and where thirteen-year-old Bobby Fischer defeated Donald Byrne in “The Game of the Century.” Whether you’re just starting out or a Grandmaster, the Marshall Chess Club is a warm place to learn more about chess. Please feel free to contact us or to drop by. We look forward to welcoming you!”
If you do not know any of the names, except perhaps for Bobby Fischer and do not know who the Marschall Club is named after. then you are not a chess nerd.
In junior high I had to do a verbal biography of someone I admired. I chose Alexander Alekhine.
All of you who watched “The Queens Gambit learned something about the rivalry and idiosyncrasies of competitive chess players. You may not know there is a great upheaval and scandal going on in the chess world.
The world champion is accusing another ranked Grand Master of cheating!
To say this story has enraptured the chess world would be an understatement. To the non-chess fans of the world, it is a profoundly nerdy fight.
Now how can one cheat at chess with the two of you sitting over the board contemplating your next move? These days, it’s all about computers. Chess engines surpassed the elite grandmasters in the 1990s (you may have heard the name Deep Blue) and now the gap is chasmic. The current world champion is a “terrifying chess god”, but the computers have ascended to a higher plane, so the basic way to cheat is to have access to a computer while playing.
If you’re only, say, playing a buddy online, it is very easy to cheat. Just plug their moves into the engine, then do what the engine does. If you’re playing in person, or over the board, it’s a little trickier, as your opponent or tournament organizers aren’t going to let you check your phone for every move. It’s not impossible though, as you could have a buddy in the crowd signaling which move to make or check your phone for answers in the bathroom. In one infamous case, a grandmaster was banished from FIDE (the world chess federation) after being photographed with his phone on the toilet.
Elite chess tournaments are hardcore about preventing all this. They check players for electronic aids and overall have very tight security. If someone is cheating at a tournament, they have certainly found a novel way to do it.
Cheating online isn’t as easy as you’d think. Chess.com and all the major sites will have anti-cheat detection. Basically, if they notice a player making the mathematically perfect move every time, they will label them as a cheater and ban them.
Now to the scandal.
Magnus Carlsen is the current reigning world champion and the most recognizable name among chess nerds. He won the World Chess Championship at 22 years old and has since defended it four times. He is also a three-time World Rapid Chess Champion and five-time World Blitz Chess Champion.
Hans Niemann is the accused cheater.
Until recently, he was a 19-year-old up-and-coming grandmaster who still had a long way to go before he was in Carlsen’s league.
Like every grandmaster these days, Niemann was a child prodigy, and eventually reached grandmaster status in Jan. 2021 at 17 years old. As of September, he is ranked No. 49 in the world. He has risen rapidly in the standings which is unusual for a player at his stage of development.
It all started in St. Louis, the chess capital of the United States.
Carlsen and Niemann played each other in the third round of the St. Louis Chess Club’s prestigious Sinquefield Cup, where Niemann shocked Carlsen by defeating him with black pieces. In most elite chess matches, black players typically see a draw as a win, because it is extremely hard to outright win a match when your opponent gets the first move.
This was actually the second time Niemann had defeated Carlsen while playing black, as he had done the same the previous month at the FTX Crypto Cup. However, it was in St. Louis the excrement hit the fan.
Carlsen used a rather unusual opening that Niemann happened to be completely prepared for. As Niemann said after the match via Chess24, he had luckily looked up how Carlsen had previously used the tactic just that morning. “I don’t know why I checked it this morning. It’s such a ridiculous miracle I don’t even know why I checked it.”
Carlsen accused Niemann of somehow cheating and withdrew from the tournament. Hikaru Nakamura, another elite grandmaster and the biggest streamer in chess, provided the match for the gasoline-soaked situation when he speculated Carlsen believed Niemann to have cheated because Niemann had been suspended for cheating in the past.
Yes, that is one of the few things in this mess that is not up for debate.
Niemann has admitted to cheating twice in online play, once at the age of 12 and again at the age of 16. Suffice to say, he no longer plays on Chess.com. Niemann called them a mistake and insisted he had stopped cheating.
Of course, there are many people of the opinion “once a cheater, always a cheater.”
Niemann has taken the Trumpian position: Deny, deny, deny. N iemann has blasted all allegations of cheating, accusing Carlsen, Nakamura and Chess.com of trying to ruin his chess career. The lack of detail in the allegations has worked in his favor, but it’s hard to win a fight when so much is going against you.
At this point, the primary evidence that Niemann is a cheater is his past instances of cheating and the fact that Carlsen, a person who knows more about chess than you or I could ever hope to know about anything, is willing to put his reputation on the line that this person has been cheating.
The world chess federation has basically said that Carlsen needs to provide evidence or shut up. Carlsen presently intends to provide evidence. To all claiming there is no evidence, there are multiple pieces at play. First off, Niemann had seemingly prepared for a very obscure line of play against Magnus that made little sense to prepare beforehand. Second, Magnus noted that Niemann was not very focused on play despite being a very intense game. Third, analysis of the games Niemann played are being said to be very high accuracy per the engines, while humans simply cannot sustain such accuracy over multiple games. These are all relevant pieces of information that would lead a reasonable person to at minimum question the integrity of the player.
Meanwhile the net trolls have speculated that Niemann was using anal beads to get the computer signal for the next move. Elon Musk picked it up and it spread to the late-night talk shows. Niemann has an offer from a cam site for $1 million to play in the nude.
“Anal beads” have become the defining headline of the story.