The very top level of the chess world is being wracked with a possible cheating scandal this month.
On September 5, the world’s foremost player, Magnus Carlsen, dropped out of the 2022 Sinquefield Cup unexpectedly. He had just lost a match to up-and-comer Hans Niemann.
Carlsen never directly accused Niemann of cheating. However, he tweeted to announce his withdrawal and included a short video by way of hinting at his reasons.
The video, from 2014, is of José Mourinho, the former manager of the Chelsea soccer team, speaking in a post-match interview. Mourinho says:
I prefer really not to speak. If I speak, I am in big trouble. In big trouble. And I don’t want to be in big trouble.
The context is that Mourinho team had just lost to Aston Villa. A reporter asked him to comment on the controversial refereeing in the game, leading him to make that statement.
To many chess fans, the implication was clear: Carlsen was saying he’d dropped out because his opponent was getting away with something the tournament officials should have prevented.
Well-known chess streamer and grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, has been one prominent voice trying to articulate what Carlsen felt he couldn’t. In a YouTube video with fellow grandmaster Daniel Naroditsky, he lays out his thoughts on the matter.
The discussion sounds remarkably like ones that come up in poker on a regular basis. In particular, the differences between cheating in online and live play and the question of how to deal with known cheaters may sound very familiar to poker fans.
How Chess Cheating and Poker Cheating Have Converged
A few decades ago it would have been very strange to compare cheating in chess and poker. Traditional poker cheating involves things like marking cards, palming chips, or colluding with another player at the table.
Chess has no hidden information, and each match is played one-on-one. Therefore, no parallels to these “classical” forms of poker cheating are possible. To the extent that cheating happened in chess prior to the 1990s, it was mostly in the form of match-fixing.
The advent of superhuman computer players has changed both games. In the case of chess, access to computer-suggested moves at a key moment provides an advantage akin to peeking at an opponent’s cards in poker. Likewise, real-time assistance (RTA) from a computer is a growing problem in poker, though it’s only one of many ways to cheat.
One feature of this form of cheating is that in both games, it’s much easier to do online than in person. (By contrast, most traditional forms of poker cheating are only possible with physical equipment.)
However, Naroditsky points out that it’s a misconception among amateurs that such cheating is impossible over the board. It may be difficult, he says, but it’s been happening since the 1990s. Nakamura brings up the case of the French player Sébastien Feller, who was temporarily barred from competition after having been caught cheating.
How Did Sébastien Feller Cheat?
The scheme involved two other players, Cyril Marzolo and team captain Arnaud Hauchard. Marzolo, watching the games remotely, would use a computer to find the best moves and text them, using a coded system, to Hauchard. Hauchard then had a system whereby he could signal moves to Feller simply by where he stood in the room.
It’s not at all clear at this point that Niemann did cheat against Carlsen. However, it is possible to do so, especially with help from a third party.
Why Do People Think Hans Niemann Cheated?
The Niemann case has divided the chess community, with his supporters and detractors weighing in on it in equal measure. There is, of course, no smoking gun. If there were, he’d have been disqualified already.
Rather, it’s an accumulation of factors that have aroused the suspicions of those who believe him to be a cheater. Some have to do with the game in question, others with Niemann’s history.
A Little Too Prepared?
Preparation for elite chess matches is a game in and of itself. Computers can help a lot with developing openings, but there are only so many variations the human mind can hold at once. Preparation and anticipation of the opponent’s likely moves are therefore critical.
Carlsen used an unusual opening, trying to force Niemann to think on his feet. Yet those watching the game were surprised at how quickly and seemingly easily Niemann found an excellent response.
A flash of brilliance from a top-level player wouldn’t be evidence of cheating in and of itself. However, those who believe Niemann cheated point to his post-match interviews as proof. They say his commentary on the game in general – and the key opening move in particular – wasn’t up to the standards of a player his level.
Niemann has defended himself by saying he’s an intuitive player and often has trouble explaining his thought processes. However, he also claimed that he’d fortuitously happened to stumble on a game between Carlsen and Wesley So in London in 2018, in which Carlsen played the same variation.
That has only served to raise suspicions further because no such game happened. In fact, Carlsen and So didn’t even face each other at that tournament. Carlsen did play a similar move against So the following year in Kolkata. However, both Nakamura and So have said the position there was different enough that it wouldn’t have provided Niemann much insight.
From Online Cheater to Live Play Superstar
But what raises the situation from suspicious to damning, in the eyes of Niemann’s detractors, is his history. He’s been banned twice from Chess.com for cheating. Niemann has admitted to those incidents. In an interview responding to this latest scandal, he says he cheated once in a tournament as a 12-year-old child and later in random ranked games at age 16.
After that, he began to make a name for himself in live play. He’s been on a particular heater the past two years. Since the beginning of 2021, his rating has increased over 200 points, from 2484 to 2690. The win against Carlsen would have put him over 2700, something fewer than 40 other players can claim at the moment.
In an interview, Niemann said it was his online fall from grace that motivated him to prove himself in live play. For the anti-Niemann crowd, however, the speed of his ascent seems too good to be true and therefore additional circumstantial evidence to suggest wrongdoing.
What’s more, Chess.com has just banned Niemann again, seemingly because the company feels he lied about the extent of his past cheating. In an announcement on Sep 8, Chief Chess Officer Danny Rensch said:
We have reached out to Hans Niemann to explain our decision to privately remove him from Chess.com and our events. We have shared detailed evidence with him concerning our decision, including information that contradicts his statements regarding the amount and seriousness of his cheating on Chess.com.
How Should We Treat Known or Accused Cheaters?
For both chess and poker, the real question is how to reduce the number of cheating scandals that occur. In their video, Nakamura and Narodistsky discuss the possibility of Chess.com sharing information with FIDE, the world organizing body for competitive live chess.
Narodistsky feels that Chess.com should be informing FIDE of cases of cheating in tournaments when cash prizes are at stake. Even if it doesn’t lead to a live play ban, FIDE could at least require those with a history of cheating to submit to increased scrutiny.
That echoes a similar suggestion this summer from Partypoker‘s Head of Game Integrity, Juha Pasanen. He approves, in principle, of the idea of a global poker blacklist for the most serious cheating offenses. His thoughts on the topic came in the context of ongoing debates about known cheaters at this summer’s World Series of Poker.
Similar conversations come up most years, just with different players in the spotlight. In this case, it was mostly about Bryn Kenney and Ali Imsirovic, both of whom had faced accusations of wrongdoing in the months leading up to the series.
The status quo in both games is that each company or organization makes its own enforcement decisions. Someone found cheating in one event will likely find themselves excluded from others with the same organizer. However, they typically will be able to continue playing unimpeded elsewhere.
Nakamura brings up the example of Tigran Petrosian, who was disqualified from Chess.com’s PRO Chess League and banned from the site for cheating. His reappearance at live tournaments the following year caused an outcry from players, but organizers were seemingly unable to do anything about it.
The Trouble with Blacklists
The idea of inter-organizational blacklists has obvious appeal. Someone who has cheated in the past is much more likely than an average player to try it again in the future.
There are two main problems with the idea, whether we’re talking about poker or chess. Pasanen addressed both in his post, while Nakamura and Naroditsky touched on them as well.
The first is the question of what infractions rise to the level of warranting a global ban. The online chess community contains many children and most cheating doesn’t take place in tournaments with cash on the line. But even when there are prizes at stake, how large must they be for far-reaching consequences to be reasonable? In poker, players using RTA or colluding at high stakes certainly warrant blacklisting. But what about an amateur consulting push-fold charts during a $5 tournament? Or a player who played on a friend’s account once while underage?
There’s a potentially big legal issue, too. Online sites’ terms of service allow them to close anyone’s account for any reason. Their security team only needs to convince itself of the cheating in order to act. However, there are also privacy laws they have to respect. Sharing the details of their investigations or even the identities of banned players could be legally problematic.
One thing could help with both problems: a third-party entity dedicated to game integrity. However, that raises a host of logistical questions, like where the money comes from, how its staff is selected, and how to get everyone to agree to it.
It’s an unsolved problem. However, it’s worthwhile for decision-makers in chess and poker to watch what the others are doing. Any practical solution for one game would likely apply to the other as well.