The Daily Telegraph
‘Cheat’ talk sits uncomfortably with chess prodigy
World champion’s walkout presumed to be in protest at alleged skulduggery by 19-year-old American
IT WAS the chess equivalent of Roger Federer throwing in the towel after one serve.
Magnus Carlsen, the Norwegian world champion, played a single move in a tournament match against the colourful, wild-eyed, 19-year-old American prodigy Hans Niemann, then resigned and walked out.
Carlsen gave no explanation, but it was at once presumed that he did it in protest, following allegations that Niemann had cheated – including the bizarre theory, gleefully shared by Elon Musk, that the teenager had secreted an electronic communications device intimately on his person to use outside help.
The cheating allegations emerged two weeks ago after Niemann beat Carlsen and are now threatening to engulf the game.
The world’s top players increasingly rely on computers, referred to as chess “engines”, for analysis, preparation and training before matches.
However, the use of computers to suggest moves is banned in competition and regarded much like doping in other sports.
At tournaments, security is of paramount importance and top players are routinely frisked for hidden devices because even a basic mobile phone can be used to gain an advantage.
Niemann has strongly denied cheating – and even offered to play naked to prove his innocence. However, he was forced to admit he had cheated online when he was younger and, in chess, mud sticks.
That was when rumours began swirling about Niemann having inserted a device capable of vibrating into his body, with an ally on the outside feeding him cues from the computer.
Carlsen walked out of his muchanticipated rematch with Niemann in the $150,000 (£131,000) Julius Baer Generation Cup, part of the online Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, on Monday night.
With the chess world watching on, Carlsen played one move with black and then resigned in the rivals’ round six clash. He got up, turned off the camera and left the broadcast.
Fans, pundits and chess experts were aghast. Jovanka Houska, the nine-time British Women’s Champion, accused Carlsen of “pouring more fuel on the fire” of a controversy that has driven a wedge through the chess world.
Clearly shocked, the International Master said Carlsen “can’t just do this” and called for him to present his evidence.
“Actually, I think he needs to do more than just a statement in fact,” she said. “He can’t just say, ‘yeah, I think you cheated’ and initiate a witch-hunt. He has to say, ‘this is my proof ’.”
‘He can’t just say, “yeah, I think you cheated” and initiate a witch-hunt. He has to say, “this is my proof ”’
Grandmaster David Howell, a threetime British champion who is a friend of Carlsen and a respected commentator, said: “This is unprecedented in the history of chess, I think by any world champion, by any top player, let alone Magnus, who loves playing any game possible and has great respect for the game of chess and every tournament he plays. It’s just bizarre, bizarre times.”
The row first became apparent when Carlsen failed to turn up for a match in the Sinquefield Cup in St Louis the day after a crushing defeat to Niemann.
The 31-year-old added fuel to the fire when he posted a cryptic message on Twitter. It featured a clip of football manager José Mourinho saying: “I prefer not to speak. If I speak, I am in big trouble.”
Hikaru Nakamura, the world’s top speed chess player, piled in, claiming Carlsen withdrew because he suspected Niemann had “probably cheated” and alleged the teenager had previously used computer assistance to cheat online in casual games.
Amid all the furore, Carlsen still has not publicly accused Niemann of cheating.
Yet the World Champion’s suspicion appears to have fallen on the 19-year-old after his rapid, but inconsistent, rise up the rankings since competitions resumed after Covid.
Data analysts scouring Niemann’s games for clues that he had computer help have found no conclusive evidence that he did.
Prof Ken Regan, considered the authority on cheat detection in the chess world, told Chess24: “Niemann played well. But not too well.”
He added that his reaction to the events was, “very much regret, it’s not proper”.
Prof Regan has posited another theory to explain Niemann’s rapid rise – that at 19 Niemann is simply more able to absorb the benefits of AI learning in chess than Carlsen.
Speaking about the new generation of players who have grown up with access to computer help, he said: “I have other measurements that suggest the quality has become a little higher.
“There has not been rating inflation or deflation, but with computerised opening prep, this could be a case – as Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – of having to ‘run faster just to stay in the same place’.”