Over the past month, the chess world has been turned upside down and inside-out with the cheating controversy surrounding world champion Magnus Carlsen and Grandmaster Hans Niemann. The Chess Drum has closely followed the drama on all media social platforms including Reddit and Twitter, where information is able to reach a viral effect.
Looking back over the past month, there have been literally millions of comments posted on various platforms culminating with the release of chess.com’s 72-page report and a countering $100 million lawsuit filed by Hans Niemann. The story is lighting up the chess world and in the following opinion piece, we offer these thoughts.
Prior to the FTX Crypto Cup tournament, Niemann was seen on the beach playing chess with Carlsen. This was part of a publicity campaign for the event.
Niemann had finished the FTX Series losing all nine of his matches, but he did score some wins including one against Carlsen. In the post-game interview, he was asked about his impressions of the game. The phrase would become an oft-repeated meme.
Video by FTX Crypto
So in this interview where he walks away, many took this to be a bit disrespectful. It had not been a complete surprise given some of his previous interviews that had become must-viewing with references to UberEats and Netflix. Nevertheless, all seemed well days before the Sinquefield Cup and Niemann had become an Internet sensation.
After Richard Rapport was unable to keep his spot, Niemann was selected as a replacement only a week prior to the beginning of the tournament. During a C-Squared podcast, Alejandro Ramirez, a resident Grandmaster of the St. Louis Chess Club, stated he was asked to give a list of five names as possible substitutes for Rapport and Niemann was one of the names. With only days remaining for the Sinquefield, the club made the most expedient choice and selected Niemann. Ramirez reflected in the podcast that Niemann’s cheating history at chess.com (from two years back) was known.
Due to the continuing US travel restrictions related to Covid 19, Richard Rapport will not be able to play the STL Rapid & Blitz nor the Sinquefield Cup.— Grand Chess Tour (@GrandChessTour) August 24, 2022
GM Jeffery Xiong will replace him in the STL Rapid and Blitz, while GM Hans Niemann will take his place in the Sinquefield Cup pic.twitter.com/TRFk6NNLJW
The Hans’s Win, Magnus’s Tweet and the Firestorm
After both Carlsen and Niemann got off to strong starts they would play each other in the third round. There was nothing unusual about their matchup. No signs that anything was wrong, but perhaps beneath the surface thoughts were tumbling within the World Champion’s mind. No one knows. However, the game unfolded and in a tense battle Carlsen resigned! It was a stunning result and Hans reflected during a controversial interview.
Video by St. Louis Chess Club
So in this interview, a number of things came out. Hans analysis of the game included an opening that many asserted had not been played by Carlsen. However, Niemann said he saw a game against So. While the reference was wrong it was later thought to be a similar position reached by transposition. The notion that someone stole Carlsen’s prep eventually faded after many posted conspiracy theories.
Fabiano Caruana later mentioned that even if someone gets Carlsen’s computer and opens it, there is no way to know where to start. Over time, the “stolen prep” theory was officially declared debunked. Perhaps Niemann simply guessed right. However, the interview was later construed as being a bit disrespectful, The self-deprecation “losing to an idiot like me” and “feeling sorry for Magnus” may have struck a nerve with Carlsen.
There was a rumor that “something big was going to happen.” The day after Carlsen informed the organizers and arbiter that he did not intend to continue and he forfeited his game against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. Why would he do this? Social media was on fire. The following tweet gave insight into Carlsen’s thoughts, but the video reference provided emphasis that cheating was speculated.
Video by Sky Sports Retro
Most of the chess world (particularly in the U.S.) did not understand the Jose’ Mourinho reference and simply thought it meant that Carlsen did not want to speak. Hikaru Nakamura was the first to go public with his thoughts about the tweet and publicly mentioned the word “cheating.”
Video by Hikaru Nakamura (Twitch)
The reaction was swift as there were many opinions offered, but the attention swiveled from the Carlsen-Niemann game, to the narrative of Hans Niemann cheating in the past. The logic went that since Niemann has a history of cheating, then Carlsen’s suspicions must be right. In my observations of social media posts, this is the predominant view. However, it would be very presumptuous to believe Carlsen’s status as world champion should be the deciding factor. Of course, the contrasting reputations between the two players make this a tempting idea.
Hans Niemann statement (6 September 2022)
Video by CCSCSL
The Chess.com statement (8 September 2022)
The CCSCSL Statement (10 September 2022)
Interview with IM Ken Regan (Cheating Data)
Video by James Altucher
Excellent Discussion on Cheating –
UNFILTERED Meeting live now— C-Squared Podcast (@CSQpod) September 21, 2022
Interview with GM Maurice Ashley
Video by CCSCSL
Perpetual podcast (Rowson & Smerdon)
When Data Doesn’t Speak for Itself
With social media literally on fire discussing this controversy many weighed in with the analysis showing how and why Hans was guilty of cheating. Again, many used various points to add to the weight of the accusation. Some of these hypotheses were…
- Hans stole Carlsen’s leaked preparation
- Hans did not analyze games like a 2700
- Hans improved unnaturally from 2400 to 2700
- Hans played better in live games using DGT boards
- Hans had many games that were 100% in move accuracies (Yosha Iglesias… response)
- Hans had a negative correlation between CPL and rating (Rafael Vicente Leite… response)
- Hans was not “tense” at critical points of the game
- Hans did not celebrate the way other players did after beating Carlsen
- Hans interviews showed discomfort in his body language
- Hans is associated with Dlugy, who was also banned for cheating
… and there were more. All of these discussions were trying to prove one hypothesis… that Hans cheated against Magnus. Some are certainly worthy of further study. Some were debunked in short order, while others were batted around social media racking up hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of comments. The problem with these discussions is that so much information is being put out that there isn’t enough time to fully vet the content. People will read, draw their own conclusions and move on to the next discussion carrying with them ideas that may have since been refuted.
A hypothesis is
a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation.
A hypothesis that Niemann cheated in an over-the-board game is plausible, but what are we testing? A mere hypothesis needs deeper inquiry which is why appropriate data are needed for testing. However, one has to remove all biases when developing research methodologies. One of the problems is that chess players doing these experiments were operating on the hypothesis, but searching for instances that were likely to affirm the hypothesis. The word “cherry-picking” became a term to describe this practice. Thus, there was a “confirmation bias” seen in some of the experiments.
Without commenting on all of the experiments done in the past month, I can say that there were reliability problems in some of the methodologies. As an academic, I also saw flaws in how conclusions were drawn. Some were analyzed without controlling for critical variables that may offer deeper insight. Many seem to accept correlations as definitive proof when causation was more of what they were attempting to prove. There were far too many analyses that used very low-level methodology to draw conclusions.
Where can you find an instance where the entire chess world was conducting a forensic investigation of one individual, his background and all of his chess games?
There was still a cry for more certainty in the facts of the case. Many were very critical of Carlsen for not providing more clarity on his insinuations. Others were upset at chess.com for creating the environment for the character assassination of a teenager who had already confessed to cheating during two different periods. The argument went from Niemann cheating against Carlsen to his cheating history on chess.com. According to the chess.com 72-page report, Niemann accepted all of the infractions and expressed his admission in writing.
These were kept private but were slowly revealed to the public by many parties including Nakamura’s podcast which stated that Niemann was not allowed play in chessdotcom prize event for “a period of time.” He left it open to interpretation, but the implication was clear. Eventually, Hans’ cheating history was increasingly discussed and was also revealed that both Ian Nepomniachtchi and Magnus Carlsen had reservations about Niemann prior to the Sinquefield Cup. Nepomniachtchi had even requested tougher security measures.
What followed was more about Hans’ history than how it was possible for him to cheat at the Sinquefield. One theory offered became the butt of jokes (literally).
Cheating at chess using anal beads? Even if you lose, you still kind of win. pic.twitter.com/2MGFKDXhEn— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) September 19, 2022
Niemann gave a passionate reply that was well-received, but the controversy did not subside. Some took his statement to mean he only cheated twice, but it was clear from his admission that it was multiple games. He admitted to those violations for which he was charged at the time, but in his statement, he made statements that were deemed inaccurate in chessdotcom’s report.
The partially-redacted report consists of approximately 20 pages of analysis with the remaining part being appendices containing graphs, tables, exhibits, e-mail, and other illustrations. This document details the chess.com rationale for banning Hans. Nevertheless, the effect renewed the narrative that Niemann was not forthcoming in his admissions. This created more doubt about his remorseful statement.
After another week of speculation including Carlsen resigning after playing one move, the chess world waited for more information and finally got several statements in succession. By this time, Hans had not made any more public statements. Some speculate that it was advice he received from legal counsel.
Interview with Magnus Carlsen on Controversy
Statement from FIDE – 22 September 2022
Magus Carlsen’s Statement on Cheating
My statement regarding the last few weeks. pic.twitter.com/KY34DbcjLo— Magnus Carlsen (@MagnusCarlsen) September 26, 2022
FIDE Formation of “Fair Play Commission
Following the recent developments in the Carlsen-Niemann controversy, FIDE’s Fair Play Commission (FPL) has decided to act ex-officio and create an Investigatory Panel (IP).https://t.co/891rvY6mJR— International Chess Federation (@FIDE_chess) September 29, 2022
/thread [1/4] pic.twitter.com/oKf1BrLHbH
Chess.com Report (72 pages)
Thoughts on Cheating
Let’s be clear. There is no defending the cheating that a player does in chess. Using a cell phone in the bathroom, using an engine during tournament play or someone sitting next to you calling out engine moves during an online tournament are all objectionable. Grandmaster Hans Niemann admitted to cheating, both privately and publicly. Yes… Niemann made a rash of mistakes to advance his chess agenda. What I find unfortunate is that Niemann has been made the icon of decades of cheating. This is both unfair and unreasonable.
The Carlsen-Niemann affair may be the first full-blown scandal where the power of social media has been on full display. Carlsen insinuated that Niemann cheated in their over-the-board game, but the subject pivoted to Niemann’s cheating online. The entire world was examining his every move… the way he talks, the way he walks, his thought process, his background, his relationships, and all of his games. Carlsen even threw Maxim Dlugy (a Niemann associate formerly banned for cheating) into the controversy. Niemann has been the subject of podcasts, statistical analyses, and even comedy sketches. This is more publicity than Niemann could’ve ever imagined.
Apart from being labeled a “cheater,” complete strangers have called Niemann some of the foulest names and have suggested the harshest of penalties. This is a world in which it is expected that a teenager would make adolescent mistakes and learn from them. So far there has been no evidence that Niemann has cheated in an over-the-board game although some are trying to find data to fit the narrative. Where can you find an instance where the entire chess world conducted a forensic investigation of one individual, his background, and all of his chess games?
People who did not fully understand statistical analysis were suddenly deemed authorities on the topic. People who didn’t understand (or play) chess were suddenly authorities on chess behavior.
Cheating, Social Media & Science
Social media can be a dark place and is filled with dark thoughts. It all started with a simple tweet and spiraled into a maelstrom of comments. People who did not fully understand statistical analysis were suddenly deemed authorities on the topic. People who didn’t understand (or play) tournament chess were suddenly authorities on chess behavior. Others who understood chess may not have shown they were objective in understanding behavior. Behavioral theories like Niemann didn’t appear “focused” during the Carlsen game are arguably dubious assertions. In the chessdotcom report, Carlsen gave his assessment:
Several days later after returning to Norway, Magnus shared in a private conversation that his experience in playing Hans was “unlike a game he’s ever had.” He emphasized that he has competed against numerous prodigies and players who “exert” themselves and show great effort throughout a long, difficult fight like this game. He described Hans’ level of exertion as “effortless” and felt he never had a chance to get back in the game, which was extremely unusual for Magnus who is known for his resourcefulness. Hans’ lack of emotion or excitement about the result was also noted by several others.
What’s interesting is that Carlsen has also played India’s Arjun Erigaisi who shows very little emotion and has a very relaxed posture while proceeding to crush his opposition. Funnily enough, Carlsen’s “lack of focus” became a sensation as a 13-year-old playing Garry Kasparov in a rapid game. As Kasparov pondered at critical moments, the prodigy kept getting up and looking at other games, would return to the board, and immediately make a strong move. Was this a matter of lack of maturity or was it simply the fact that players have different ways of focusing over the board?
As far as Niemann’s lack of celebratory emotion after beating Carlsen, the five video links provided in the chessdotcom report were objectively inconclusive. Players have different moods and perhaps beating Carlsen is not going to bring joy in the same way to everyone. It seems that there were so many theories thrown against the wall in an attempt to prove Niemann’s behavior was suspect. Despite this, chessdotcom’s report does show neutrality in critical issues such as Niemann’s 100% games, his over-the-board integrity, and his rate of improvement (in comparison to prodigies, past and present). Some of these notions have since been refuted by professional statisticians and data scientists in the community.
As far as can be discerned, Niemann made these mistakes as early as 12 and as late as 17. What has become obvious is that this has been an emotional event starting from Carlsen’s withdrawal, to Han’s statement, to the feeding frenzy afterward. There has been some talk about the relationship between chess.com and Carlsen given the pending $82.9 million bid for PlayMagnus Group (including chess24 and Chessable). IM Danny Rensch, who is chess.com’s Chief Chess Officer, has made it known that chess.com did not share details of Niemann’s cheating activity with Carlsen.
Is there any positive coming from this? The issue of cheating has certainly gotten more discussion in the past month, but it was very unfocused and lacked any consensus on how to address the issue. The Carlsen-Niemann case has polarized the chess world and put the sport in the news cycle of major media outlets. Carlsen’s original tweet started as an appeal to highlight cheating in a personal encounter but morphed into a larger issue. Let it not go unsaid that Carlsen has also been shown on video violating “fair play” on at least two occasions (including a prize event). While they were rather isolated incidents, where do we draw the line?
The Battle Begins… $100 Million Lawsuit!
At the time of this writing, FIDE had been deliberating on the case and pledged to come up with a resolution. However, everything has been dwarfed by the recent announcement of Niemann’s $100 million lawsuit against Magnus Carlsen. This was just one day after Niemann finished the U.S. Championship with a solid +1 score reclaiming his 2700 rating. If Niemann’s career is over, then it makes sense that he at least tries to save his honor. This episode could have a tremendous impact on chess and it all started with a single tweet.
Niemann offered his own tweet in announcing the 44-page defamation lawsuit.
My lawsuit speaks for itself https://t.co/rOfUxiNYCH— Hans Niemann (@HansMokeNiemann) October 20, 2022
Interestingly enough, Carlsen, chessdotcom and Hikaru Nakamura are also named in the lawsuit as “co-conspirators.” They represent three of the world’s largest chess entities. The lawsuit is a literal chronology of the events and shows some information not before revealed. Apparently, Carlsen appealed to Mikhail Khodarkovsky to disqualify Niemann from the Grand Chess Tour, a demand that was rebuffed. Carlsen withdrew from the Sinquefield and then posted the famous tweet. A month later, we have an unprecedented lawsuit.
There is a lot to unpack in the lawsuit which was filed in Missouri, the location of the Sinquefield Cup. The chessdotcom and PlayMagnus deal is probably off the table for now and FIDE is probably scrambling to piece together the new information as part of their ongoing investigation. Unfortunately, they now look a bit flat-footed as a mediating body. Hans Niemann and his legal counsel have definitely raised the stakes. The chess world has just been turned upside-down in a month’s time and it may very well be the end of someone’s career. Whose career? That is to be determined.