The Guardian view on chess cheating claims: innocent until proven guilty
The world champion, Magnus Carlsen, has cast doubt on the success of a younger grandmaster, Hans Niemann. Where’s the evidence?
Sun 2 Oct 2022 13.25 EDT
Chess generally hits the headlines only for reasons external to the game itself: Bobby Fischer’s eccentricity; Viktor Korchnoi’s
allegations that the Soviet Union was using hypnotism to undermine him in his 1978 world title match with Anatoly Karpov;
the Toiletgate furore that marred the 2006 world championship.
Now, the reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen’s airing of suspicions over the play of the 19-year-old US grandmaster Hans Niemann has put chess into the spotlight again.
Carlsen has been world champion since 2013. Niemann is a tyro who has made astonishingly rapid progress recently. Carlsen has publicly questioned that trajectory, saying on Twitter last week that “his over the board progress has been unusual”. These days, most elite players become grandmasters in their early teens – Carlsen was 13. Niemann, a charismatic character who says his life has been devoted to proving critics who said he wasn’t good enough wrong, was a late-developing 17, and his rise to super-GM level has been meteoric.
The controversy erupted when Niemann beat Carlsen last month in the Sinquefield Cup. Niemann said he had somehow guessed what opening Carlsen would play. It was Carlsen’s first defeat in 53 classical (long-form) games, and he reacted by withdrawing from the tournament, making gnomic references to something being not quite right. “If I speak I am in big trouble,” he tweeted. Some of his supporters filled in the blanks, with claims that Niemann had computer help. Elon Musk
unhelpfully suggested that he was using unusual methods; Niemann countered by offering to strip naked.
Carlsen and Niemann met again last month in an online game, and the world champion sensationally resigned after making just one move. Carlsen said he was unwilling to “play against people that have cheated repeatedly in the past”, and that he believed the younger man had cheated “more than he has admitted”. Niemann has acknowledged cheating online as a teenager, but insists he has never done so in an over-the-board game and angrily denies the new claims. “Once a cheat, always a cheat,” chorus his detractors, but Niemann should surely not be condemned for youthful misdemeanours in games where little was at stake. There is no evidence that he cheated when he beat Carlsen.
The world champion is right to say that cheating poses an existential challenge to chess – there have been many examples at less exalted levels of the sport. But he is wrong to muddy the waters around Niemann without substantive evidence. Britain’s former world title contender Nigel Short says that the young American is at risk of suffering “death by innuendo”. (https://www.inkl.com/news/the-guardian-view-on-chess-cheating-claims-innocent-until-proven-guilty) Experts reckon Carlsen played unusually poorly in his defeat to Niemann. Maybe it was just a bad day at the office. Or perhaps it was the result of paranoia: once a player believes their opponent is cheating, that inevitably affects their own play. Carlsen needs to produce concrete evidence – ideally as part of the inquiry announced on Thursday by the International Chess Federation – or let Niemann get on with his career. Only by playing over a long period will the latter’s true playing strength emerge – while any repeated cheating in the rarefied conditions of elite tournaments would soon be exposed.