The Hans Niemann Chess Cheating Controversy

Hans Niemann

Pardon me while I put up a brief write-up on this months-old news as I’ve been following it for quite a while. I don’t really have anything new to say about it, but I find it so fascinating as an on-and-off chess fan over the years. I’ve followed Magnus Carlsen since he was 16, and his 2022 has been the most seemingly eventful year in his career due to how different it has been thus far. Meanwhile, Hans Niemann is a fascinating person for both the right and wrong reasons. This situation has been going on for the past two months and has only started to cool down as it has now resulted in a $100 million lawsuit.

Professional chess players in general are interesting since they choose to play this game for a living. In some ways, it’s similar to professional wrestling since while most people get into it for the game itself, it’s the stories and personalities that provide reason for them to stick around as fans. While you can look at the matches without context for consumption or technical analysis, it’s not really the same. For example, Bobby Fischer vs. Boris Spassky was a great series, but it was the backdrop of the Cold War that brought mainstream attention to this US vs. USSR confrontation and Fischer’s psychological struggles that make that 1972 World Chess Championship truly epic.

With that said, what makes this particular situation interesting is that it started off as a young upstart’s breakthrough moment that then took a turn for the weird and ridiculous. Hans Niemann is made out to be a villain in this story, and his subsequent actions made the debate on whether he deserves it or not to be less and less relevant. There’s no denying his past conduct, having cheated on Chess.com repeatedly as a youngster. However, the question now is whether he kept on cheating as a grandmaster, which the world chess champion Magnus Carlsen has insinuated with his recent actions.

That’s where the drama really comes in. For something as sterile and clinical as chess, drama is frowned uponyet is also what brings new eyes to a game that is equally respected and neglected. Chess has never been able to be truly mainstream due to its viewing experience that’s arguably worse for casual audiences than golf and baseball, but it’s also easy to follow at one’s own pace due to the ease of replicating games on one’s own chessboard. But while its adherents continue to denounce the negative attention brought about by this controversy, at least that makes it far from boring.

You don’t need to know what a Ruy Lopez or Sicilian Defense is to follow this still-developing story. This clip from the Lex Fridman Podcast with Levy Rozman of GothamChess sums it up quite well.

Hans Nieman Upsets Magnus Carlsen, Cheating Suspected

This game is what started the whole thing. Magnus Carlsen’s 53-match win streak was broken by a 19-year-old grandmaster during the 2022 Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, Missouri. It was an incredible upset, pulled off by a young American grandmaster’s best performance thus far. He could be the next Bobby Fischer that American chess had been waiting for.

But then, a subsequent interview of the winner brought about suspicion. He stated that he studied beforehand the line that Magnus played in their match. Upon looking it up, analysts found out that Magnus had only played that line once in a fairly obscure game. The chances of that game being studied in preparation for a major tournament was seen to be slim to none.

That then had people digging into Hans Niemann’s history, and it brought up his ban from Chess.com due to his past cheating as a young man well before he hit master and grandmaster. And just like that, a 19-year-old’s breakout moment now lives forever in infamy.

The problem with cheating allegations in chess is that unless there’s strong evidence, accusing someone of cheating is akin to career suicide, especially in live over-the-board events. If you’re known as someone who accuses an opponent of cheating on a hair trigger, you’re not going to get far since few competitors and even fewer organizers will put up with you.

Other analysts and grandmasters have since analyzed the game to see if there’s any indication of Hans Niemann cheating. While the jury is still out when it comes to the cheating, there are indications of this performance being either lightning in a bottle or so out of the norm that it could be a clear indication of cheating.

Podcast Interview Turned Prophecy

Meanwhile, the world chess champion previously talked about chess cheating in a Norwegian podcast a month before the now-infamous game. If the incident had never happened, this podcast episode would’ve just been a novelty for having one of the greatest chess players in history as a guest. But because what took place had taken place, the clip aged perfectly.

Here are some notable points Magnus brought up in this interview:

1. “Had I started cheating in a clever manner, I am convinced no one would notice.” — 5:15

Basically, he said that it’s easy to catch and prove stupid cheaters, but hard to catch and prove clever cheaters. He points out that he would only need to cheat once or twice per match to be “almost invincible,” and he wouldn’t even need to be given specific moves. He would only need either a hint on which of two moves is better or indication of a winning possibility in the current position.

He then stated that you’re missing the point if you look at the whole match and check only for overall accuracy, as cheating detection algorithms currently tend to do. It’s easy to catch low-level players who cheat because they would have to cheat in every move. However, for competent players (at least 2300-2500 Elo), all they need is to play solid moves for most of the match, then have a couple of interventions that can make a huge difference in performance while also being almost impossible to detect.

2. “If you suspect your opponent could be cheating, it’s would be ‘a massive psychological disadvantage’.” — 8:55

3. “At the end of the day, the game doesn’t work if you don’t trust your opponents.” — 6:20

His immediate resignation in his online rematch against Niemann over a month after this interview can be interpreted as a declaration of mistrust against the young grandmaster. I somewhat agree with his decision as he has been put in a lose-lose situation, wherein the current world chess champion was defeated by an upstart in questionable circumstances, then had to play him again amid the controversy.

The last time I’ve seen such a petty rage quit was in StarCraft II. Garry Kasparov, Magnus’s one-time coach, found the world champion’s conduct to be unacceptable. His viewpoint is understandable as refusing to play is a detriment to chess itself as the champion is supposed to take on all comers. 

Without making definite statements on the situation, only hints through his tweets, he has made his feelings about Hans Niemann known to the rest of the world. He’ll never play him again unless it’s unequivocally proven that the American never cheated against him, which isn’t likely given his past behavior. Due to the nature of the game, he has to be able to trust his opponent enough before he would ever want to play against them.

Anal Beads Used for Cheating in Chess?

Some guy on Reddit posted a comment that was so ridiculous that it somehow got traction and even started a hypothesis that has since hijacked the conversation on the Carlsen-Niemann controversy. It shouldn’t be that big of a deal, but there are now people on this earth who really think that Hans Niemann had anal beads up his butt that vibrate to tell him in Morse code what moves are best for him.

Cheating with anal beads? Has chess cheating reached prison levels? Will chess tournaments need cavity searches now? Seriously, receiving messages in Morse code through the prostate?

What makes this silly hypothesis somehow have actual legs is that however ridiculous it is, there’s a hint of feasibility to it. Yes, someone can actually have a vibrator in their anus that can receive messages in something like Morse code, thus letting someone outside communicate with the wearer in places where smartphones and other overt communication devices would be prohibited. It’s ridiculous, but it makes sense the more you think about it.

If they’re able to come up with a code for chess notation that can be easily comprehended through anal and prostate stimulation, then that’s the ticket for this hypothesis.

Of course, this shouldn’t be what everyone considers as the main possibility in this case, but it’s the one thing that has made this chess cheating controversy go viral. I wouldn’t be surprised if the very first thing that casuals say when they hear the name Hans Niemann is, “Isn’t that the guy who cheated in chess with anal beads?”

The question then is, “Can signals be strong enough to penetrate the pelvis and gluteus maximus to reach the device inside the rectum?”

This guy (who looks like he was inspired by Michael Reeves) actually put forth a proof of concept and somehow made it work. There are problems with it, like how the texture is sure to give the player severe hemorrhoids and the vibration may make them visibly squirm enough to raise suspicion.

How is Cheating Done in Chess?

Bear with me as I try to explain this based on how I understand it. For more information, refer to this Chessbase article on the history of “cheating” in chess. The objective in chess cheating is to relay the best possible moves to the player to give them an advantage. The better the player, the less cheating is needed; the worse the player, the more cheating is needed. There are a few ways to do this, either low tech or high tech.

Before computers and chess engines, the only way to cheat is to have a superior player or a group of players coach you while you’re playing, and that’s only possible if you have either a communication device hidden somewhere in your body that the coach can reach you through in a covert manner or if the game is being played remotely.

Of course, that’s only if you can find people who are willing to help you, either with financial or social incentives. If the game is being played over the board, it has to be broadcast in real time so you can be coached in that very moment. If the game is being played remotely, it’s only worth cheating if you’re actually getting something valuable out of it, in which case it should be played over the board anyway.

When computer chess engines started to become stronger than human players, that was a sea change for chess cheating. The history of cheating involving chess engines before the era of smartphones is fairly obscure; I can’t find any prominent instance. If it ever happened, it either was so successful that no one caught on or it never happened. I’d like to find more information on this particular subject.

I do know that pretty much everyone back in Yahoo chess was cheating. Those people can’t play dumb — they were alt-tabbing between their game and a chess program. It was practically a battle of chess engines by proxy at its peak.

But it was only when mobile technology made it accessible to everyone when it really started to take off. Add the power of wireless technology, and you have the potential to hook a player up with a Bluetooth device to consistently get hints that can win matches. I remember that indian guy who always wore a cap to tournaments who would later get a 10-year ban for cheating.

Once cheating was made even easier, chess cheating accusations became more commonplace, even in the highest levels of chess. For instance, I remember the 2006 World Chess Championship match between Russian champion Vladimir Kramnik and Bulgarian challenger Vaselin Topalov, which culminated in “Toiletgate”, with the latter pointing out how the former would go to the bathroom far too often.

There was also the cheating allegation against Anna Rudolf by a Latvian grandmaster in a tournament, who accused her of receiving signals through her lip balm. It gets ridiculous to the point of practically creating new James Bond-esque technology out of magic like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Never mind the probable misogyny that inevitably came up during the controversy; we apparently had mini computers that could fit inside a tube of lip balm in 2007.

Meanwhile, we may never know how much cheating actually takes place in Chess.com and Lichess. Perhaps chess veterans may think that a casual such as myself who certainly has what Ben Finegold would call “negative talent” has no right in talking about cheating in chess, but that’s just how it goes now with the Internet being such a big part of chess these days.

Conclusion

There were a lot that happened in the meantime, but I don’t think I can keep going and make this post go past 3,000 words. I’d be quoting statements by other grandmasters and chess personalities, digging even deeper into every major cheating controversy that has been reported online, and investigating the intricacies of anal beads as a covert communication device. No, I don’t think I can keep going with that, so I’ll end it here.

As of now, both parties are expected to not say another word for a long while as the lawsuit progresses. But from the looks of things, Hans Niemann is proceeding through both this controversy and his career with a lot of audacity and moxie. He has been described by colleagues as being a bit intense, especially since he’s still a teenager who now has the eyes of the whole world on him.

Meanwhile, with the lawsuit proceeding against Play Magnus Group, Chess.com, Danny Rensch, and Hikaru Nakamura for defamation and unlawful collusion, it’s going to either elevate Hans Niemann’s stock through sheer infamy or bankrupt him through all the legal fees. I can see the defamation, albeit weak, but unlawful collusion is a longshot unless they could prove with absolute certainty that there’s indeed a conspiracy against him.

Whatever ends up happening here, the most fruitful result of this whole debacle would be an increased vigilance against all forms of chess cheating, both in online and over-the-board play, while also preventing cheating accusations against competitors who are most likely innocent.

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