How Will Chess Address Cyberbullying?

Online bullying or “cyberbullying” has become a household term to describe a dangerous social interaction that may involve degrading insults, false characterizations, extortion, blackmailing and predatory stalking. On January 31, 2024, there was a U.S. Senate Judiciary hearing on child safety. It focused on social media platforms with the idea of passing legislation to protect children from aggressive online behavior. The idea of cyberbullying comes up whenever there is a tragic instance of a child, teen or young adult committing a self-destructive act due to shame and humiliation suffered online.

Online Bullying

Over the past two decades, the chess world has gravitated more to the online platform as it helps to cut down the distance and expense of finding a variety of competitors. However, the growth of online chess has a dark side… a very dark side. Unfortunately, there have been few serious discussions on cyberbullying in chess. Most have centered on gender, but other pernicious acts can have a damaging effect on a social game like chess.

“Social media made y’all way too comfortable with disrespecting people and not getting punched in the face for it.”

~Mike Tyson, boxing legend

The Discussion…

In a 1999 book titled, The Psychology of the Internet, Patricia Wallace wrote poignantly about the topic when this subject was in its initial stages.

For some Internet relationships, communication starts on the net and later develops in other environments. For others, the entire relationship never strays away from the net, not even with a phone call, so the online person is the whole story.

~Patricia Wallace

The fact that we never meet many of our Internet friends creates an entirely different dynamic and also allows one to be anonymous and thus more willing to speak freely. Sometimes this ability to say whatever comes to mind can have a devastating effect. We often speak out about schoolyard bullying, but not enough is said or done about cyberbullying. In fact, given that computers are an integral part of communicating, it is hard to avoid it if you’re being targeted.

Recently, there was a Senate hearing with five tech firms testifying on the subject of child safety and the firms’ efforts (or lack thereof) to guard against online bullying and predatory behavior. It has become a critical point in discussing the effect of social media on mental health. The issue has become more serious after several high-profile suicides by teens and young adults after suffering from cyberbullying. Many of us have family members and friends with children negatively impacted by such abuse. Adults are also targeted.

The Senate Judiciary hearings were very interesting, but it was clear that the politicians lacked an understanding of the technology ecosystem. Furthermore to blame tech companies because a percentage of people use their platforms for negative purposes is a bit misguided. Some believe fashion magazines shape negative perceptions of body image and standards of beauty. Of course, video games are often cited for their violence, but in a 2011 ruling, they were deemed protected by the First Amendment as are books, plays, and films.

In dealing with aggressive online behavior, firms are expected to self-regulate and hold users accountable. This hearing essentially put the industry on trial. Senator Lindsey Graham went the furthest, when he told the social media CEOs, “You have blood on your hands.” The companies represented were: Mark Zuckerberg (Meta/Facebook), Linda Yaccarino (X/Twitter), Shou Zi Chew (TikTok), Jason Citron (Discord, and Evan Spiegel (Snapchat).

Senate Hearing on Child Safety (Social Media)

During the hearing, the parents of children who had committed suicide sat in rapt attention as one Senator after another lobbed darts at the testifying tech CEOs. The Internet largely remains an unregulated highway of social traffic. Boxing legend Mike Tyson once said, “Social media made y’all way too comfortable with disrespecting people and not getting punched in the face for it.” There is quite a bit of brazen behavior in a world where many guard their identity and use fancy usernames (pseudonyms).

In the past two years, chess has seen its share of controversy with cheating accusations running wild and instances of bullying, racism, misogyny, and sexual harassment. There has been a lot of discussion on abuse suffered by women at chess tournaments, but there are similar complaints from women who play on chess servers. Many women have noted unwanted sexual advances, harassment, and demeaning comments. Some men who have used female avatars have also admitted to being harassed.

The Case of Chess

Five years ago, the CEO of Erik Allebest had to post an announcement admonishing and condemning sexist behavior by subscribers.

“Julie explains how she recently started playing chess again on (she’s played about 700 games over the years). After adding a picture of herself as her avatar in January this year, she immediately began receiving some extremely abusive chat messages from several of her opponents. Still others, while not being outright abusive, were overly flirtatious and pushy.”

~Erik Allebest
online bullying

Chess is thought of as an activity of the intelligentsia. Perhaps that was true at one time, but today that narrative may be a bit of an exaggeration. While many (perhaps most) chess players have keen minds, the chess community is comprised of people from around the world of all different personalities, socioeconomic levels, and intellectual abilities. While most of these interactions would be unlikely in real life, chess makes building such a community possible.

These interactions make up some fascinating conversations. However, sometimes these gaps in knowledge create tension and result in miscommunication. Some do not hesitate to inject their professional credentials, national affiliation, or chess Elo to make a point. Many online chess platforms have behavioral guidelines, but they are sometimes ignored. Players who commit gross violations in online etiquette may be blocked, temporarily suspended, or even banned, but can still play in OTB tournaments. Would we allow someone who is violating children online to interact with children face-to-face?

Individuals who bully online and exhibit aggressive behavior are sometimes referred to as “keyboard warriors” or “Internet tough guys.” They sit in the comfortable confines of their home, their room, or even their basement. Yet they can wreak havoc and cause tremendous psychological damage without much of a deterrence. They simply log off with a sense of glee in putting someone in their place.

Cyberbully meme

In Patricia Wallace’s book, The Psychology of the Internet, she mentions the idea of “group conformity” where people pile onto a narrative believing it to be the popular view, even if proven wrong. She cited several studies including the famous experiment where a person got on an elevator and saw several people (test subjects) facing the back of the elevator.

When the person entered, they weighed the situation. Yet while being puzzled, they eventually faced the back of the elevator without questioning why they were facing the wrong way. To further the experiment, the test subjects would turn to the left and the person would follow. It’s this type of “groupthink” that is so dangerous in social media. Some will hear a false narrative and they will repeat it without checking or asking about its legitimacy.

There are so many psychological aspects as to why people behave the way they do in Internet groups. Some of it is due to not realizing the extent of the damage caused even if there are signs that one’s contribution is hurtful. Magnus Carlsen’s cheating accusation on Hans Niemann seemed to set a dangerous precedent. Grandmasters felt comfortable bullying lower-rated players, accusing them of cheating each time they lost.

Hans Niemann… the Virtual Piñata

Those who followed the Hans Niemann controversy in 2022-2023 will never forget the firestorm. After Magnus Carlsen lost to Niemann at the 2022 Sinquefield Cup, he was so upset that he appealed to the organizers to disqualify Niemann. The reason… cheating. Carlsen offered no tangible evidence, so the organizers rejected his plea. He withdrew but then proceeded to post a tweet that included a video of Jose’ Mourinho who famously accused referees of cheating. This started speculation and conspiracy theories against the young American Grandmaster playing in his first supertournament.

Within a few days, the controversy spiraled into an examination of the Carlsen-Niemann game, Niemann’s entire life including his childhood upbringing, family finances, genealogy, chess persona, and even his cycling records. He was bullied, trolled, flamed, and every other form of online abuse. His over-the-board games were poured over and produced many “ah ha” moments invoking centipawn loss and move accuracy percentage. Most of these research efforts were debunked, but not before many had taken them as credible and repeated the dubious results elsewhere, extending their lifespan.

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?

While the point here is not to recount the entire controversy, it shows how the bullying caught momentum and then others piled onto the runaway train. Each time there was a new post or a video, it created a barrage of mean-spirited comments, and multiple threads targeting Niemann. There were even those calling for prison time for Niemann who committed his cheating offenses between the ages of 12-17. Also suggested was a lifetime ban even though Niemann had already served the punishment.

When a new “Hans story” came out, streamers got busy covering every development. It was easy to understand why chess fans could not keep the subject in proper context because the controversy was evolving at blinding speed. There were threads, sub-threads and sub-sub-threads with the total number of comments (on all platforms) probably touching into the millions.

Then there were the clickbait posts by popular streamers with claims of irrefutable truths. There were many videos put out featuring Niemann’s losses to promote the narrative that he is not as strong as his rating. Some streamers expressed glee. His wins were dismissed as possible cheating. It was a shameful display.

Hans Niemann quote

Effects of Cyberbullying

Imagine being a 19-year-old and seeing random people around the world (some are not even chess players) making the most personal attacks and cheering for your failure. This saga did not put the chess community in a good light. Many wonder how Niemann has been able to play (at all) given the immense pressure and negative media exposure. Such an instance could lead to any number of effects such as displaced anger, isolation, depression, and even worse.

Currently at 2675, Niemann has lost a total of 33 Elo points after reaching a peak of 2708 in May 2023. Before Tata Steel, Niemann had stabilized and rose to 2692. Unfortunately, he had a rather poor result at Tata losing 17 Elo points. Some are using this drop as a way of implying that he somehow got his 2700 rating suspiciously. If that were so, he would have lost more than 33 Elo at this point.

GM Hans Niemann accepts his winner's cup and prize. Organizers immediately moved to ruin his moment. Photo by
GM Hans Niemann accepts his winner’s cup and prize. Organizers immediately moved to ruin his moment.
Photo by

Others are noting his fluctuations, but ignoring the psychological pressure that is affecting his play. When Niemann plays well (as in 8/9 at Tournament of Peace in Zagreb), people immediately hint that he is somehow cheating. Ivan Cheparinov (also banned for cheating on threw suspicion in the air with yet another weaponized social media post toward Niemann. The tournament organizers also played along to tarnish his tournament win by hinting that he may have been cheating. It was low-class and these insinuations (without proof) should be severely punished.

During the controversy, some of the comments aimed at Niemann were callous, at the least, and brutish, at the worst. One American chess master from Florida, USA called Niemann “a piece of shit” which was strongly condemned. Would we want someone referring to our son/daughter in that way? Did Niemann really deserve global condemnation for cheating in online chess between ages 12 and 17? What is going through Niemann’s mind seeing all of these comments? Has he been psychologically traumatized? Interestingly, he seems undeterred and has maintained his goals.

What have we learned?

We have reached a watershed moment. Many in the general public have learned to weaponize social media. Personal conflicts are now made public and launched into social media for all to see. Some threats are made to release damaging information if one doesn’t comply. With a few keystrokes or a tweet, you can ruin lives. We have seen this in the chess community which is currently walking around with a black eye.

In a game dominated by youth, the chess community has become a den of cheaters, false accusers, sexual predators, and bullies. That is a dangerous mix. To make things worse, there are all types of double standards about how (and whether) punishments are given by chess organizations. Looking at how people and organizations have handled recent controversies, there needs to be cross-platform policies on how to deal with these issues.

The 2017 stats from the Pew Research Center give us a picture of what we are dealing with.

Pew Research Center (2017):
Pew Research Center (2022):

What are the solutions? There are suggested remedies from the Cyberbullying Research Center. Organizations such as FIDE (governing body for chess),, and the St. Louis Chess Club are charged with protecting the image of chess and its players. Community policies do exist for chess platforms such as, X, and Twitch, but the definitive word “bullying” does not appear. FIDE specifically addresses bullying in its Ethics & Disciplinary Code.

Bullying, including cyber bullying, may include without limitation unwanted, repeated and intentional, aggressive behaviour usually among peers, and can involve a real or perceived power imbalance. Bullying may also include actions such as making threats, spreading rumours or falsehoods, attacking someone physically or verbally and deliberately excluding someone;

~FIDE Ethics & Disciplinary Code (6.5a)

Ironically, FIDE allowed the Carlsen-Niemann controversy to rage and offered little intervention or guidance. It allowed one of its Grandmasters to be a target of brutal attacks for a solid year and never issued a public statement of reprimand or condemnation of bullying. We have learned that cyberbullying has become a major issue in chess and we may have created a precedent where players can bully and falsely accuse others without any consequences.

How does one deal with this psychologically? Few would tolerate online abuse resulting in someone’s depression or psychological scars, so why are we tolerating it now? Just as the U.S. Senate lambasted five tech CEOs for failing to protect adolescents and young adults, chess entities should be held accountable for not protecting chess players from abuse. How long will it be before we have our first casualty at the hands of keyboard warriors?

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