The reigning and five-time world chess champion Magnus Carlsen, rocked the chess world when he accused 19-year-old American Grandmaster Hans Niemann of cheating.
In his most recent statement on Twitter, Carlsen explained why he withdrew from the Sinquefield Cup following his surprise defeat to Niemann and also his more recent, abrupt resignation after one move.
“I believe Niemann has cheated more – and more recently – than he has publicly admitted,” the Norwegian said in his statement. He was writing in reference to Niemann’s admission that he had cheated in online play in the past, once when he was 12-years-old and the second time at the age of 16. He has, though, denied cheating in over-the-board games.
Is it at all possible to cheat in an in-person game when so many people are watching? Does Carlsen have proof that Niemann used unfair means in their match at the Sinquefield Cup? What is the role of the world chess body, FIDE, in all of this?
In an attempt to understand that, Scroll.in put these questions to Indian Grandmaster RB Ramesh. The player-turned-coach has been the force behind many Grandmasters in India, most prominent among them teenage prodigy R Praggnanandhaa.
Excerpts from the conversation below:
How does someone cheat in chess?
It is widely accepted that many are indulging in online cheating, especially at the younger level, where the stakes are not high. There are many online platforms where you can play a very short time, control games, typically, the games are like three minutes each. So both white and black players get three minutes each for the whole game. We call them the Blitz Games. There are also Bullet games in which each player gets a minute. There are apps, software available which you can install in your computer and the computer will automatically make the move. You just have to press a key on your keyboard and the engine will automatically play for you on your turn as soon as the opponent makes a move,
Recently, due to the lockdown, online tournaments became more prevalent. And also there is a lot of prize money now in online events. As a result, what is happening, even some professional players, not many, some professional players are indulging in this. So this is becoming a major issue.
Now, the larger question is, if someone has been found guilty of cheating in an online event, should the punishment be restricted to online games? Should it not also reflect in the over-the-board games?
What is the issue being raised by Magnus Carlsen?
I think this is the issue Magnus is trying to raise here because by his own admission, Niemann has cheated twice at the age of 12 and 16. But there is a website chess.com in which he has been banned twice and they claimed it is not just these two instances, he has also subsequently cheated not just at the age of 16. Now he’s 19. So probably in recent times also he has been indulging in similar practices, that is the inference and this is what Magnus is trying to raise – a repeat offender, should he be allowed to compete at higher level?
Now, the other question is over the board games, is it possible to cheat, has it happened? Yes, it has happened many times in the past. You need at least one more helper to do this. You cannot do it on your own because you cannot be seen operating a mobile phone. There are cases of players who keep a mobile phone in the toilet. After every few moves they would go to the toilet and use the mobile phone. And one player has been caught recently, his name is Igors Rausis. At the age of 50-plus he suddenly started becoming a very strong player and started winning against everyone. And then they checked the toilet and he was caught.
But the problem with this type of cheating is that it is very difficult to prove unless you catch them in the act. For example, the commonly suspected method is that the players who cheat use invisible spy bluetooth earpieces that can maybe even evade metal detectors. So typically what happens is that they will have an accomplice within the bluetooth signal range, who will be in the playing venue as a spectator and from them the moves reach the ears of the player. So a player is like sitting on the board, acting like they are thinking and someone is telling him the moves. The accomplice at the venue will be connected to a third person anywhere in the world who has engine access and is watching the games live. Typically in all the major tournaments the games are shown live. So the person sitting at the remote location finds the computer move which he relays to the accomplice at the venue who then relays it to the player.
In the 2015 World Chess Olympiad, in the French team, someone was relaying the moves to the coach and the coach and the player had some arrangement. There are many chairs on which the other players are sitting and playing, right? So if the coach goes and stands behind this particular chair, it is for A. In chess, you would know we have A to H and coordinates 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. So if I go behind and stand behind this chair, it is A or if I go to stand behind the other chair, it is F... they had some such code and the coach was just moving from one chair to the other as he got the information. Even if you get that information, it is sufficient usually, like if you know something has to be done on the F file, you start thinking in that direction and a reasonably strong player can find the correct move. This doesn’t have to happen in every move. Like most of the most obvious moves the player can find, but when it is a difficult decision at that moment, if you get some help, it can be crucial as well.
That is what GM Susan Polgar meant, when she tweeted, in reply to your thread that at this level, one hint may be sufficient enough to sway the results?
Yes, the problem is there are more than a thousand analytical engines, around 800, 900 of them are pretty good. They can beat all the humans, even the world champion. The critical moment if they get the clue, that is enough. Because if the player is using external help throughout the game then there are software which can catch this. The software will say, okay, all his moves are matching with the engine. So if the percentage of moves matching with the engine is high, then the software can detect it. So what they do is, typically, first 7-8 moves they will play without help and also after arriving at a winning position once you take external help, you don’t need anymore help. So beginning and end they will play on their own and in the middle part, till they get a good advantage, they take the help of the computers. This way the percentage of moves matching the machine will be reduced and you can avoid getting caught.
Levon Aronian after his loss to Hans Niemann in 21 moves at the Julius Baer Generation Cup 2022 was quoted as saying ‘Hans played very, very strange moves at some point’. What is your view on that? Also, have you had any questions relating to Niemann’s game vs Praggnanandhaa?
I find in his two games – the one against Levon Aronian, where he played Bishop D3, followed by Bishop E2 and then short Castle, followed by G4... all these moves, he played very quickly. They did not look like human moves. I find them very strange. In the game against Praggnanandhaa, the moves G6 and H5, even though they are not very difficult, a strong player would hesitate for a few minutes before playing those moves, but he took like four seconds and eight seconds. This I felt a little odd.
Now many of the top players are finding Niemann’s version unreliable and there are many players like Fabiano Caruana, Levon Aronian, (Hikaru) Nakamura, (Ian) Nepomniachtchi... many top players have their doubts.
Now if Aronian wants to raise a complaint, how does he do it? There is no mechanism in place. If somebody goes public they will be accused of being out to destroy the reputation of a player. Now privately also one can’t give a complaint. FIDE should probably come up with a mechanism if you suspect your opponent to be cheating, you can fill up a form online and attach the game and the time, and whatever information you want to add.
And an anti-cheating commission will investigate this issue, confidentiality is maintained, but proper investigation will take place. FIDE should immediately contact the tournament organizers and then they should lay a trap. So the next day or the subsequent days, you lay a trap and catch the person in the act. Currently there is no system in place. There has to be a confidential way where people can send complaints and there should be some investigation on the complaints received and a reply given to the complainant.
What about action taken by online platforms?
A 2020 report on online cheating revealed that eight Grandmasters above 2600 rating cheated in chess.com tournaments. So it isn’t just one person doing this, there are more. Also more and more money is being invested in online tournaments.
Now if someone is caught cheating, what action will be taken against him? Currently it is the website who catches the player and is banning them from that particular website. So you can go to a different website and do the same thing and get away. So if someone is caught, maybe, FIDE should say, okay, if you are caught cheating in an online game, you’ll be banned for two years in over-the-board tournaments also. Whoever wants to play over-the-board tournaments will not dare cheat in an online event.
Is it possible for FIDE to now go back and investigate the Sinquefield Cup match between Carlsen and Niemann?
It is very tough. It was a FIDE rated tournament. The moment Magnus withdrew, FIDE should have sent someone to Sinquefield and spoken with Magnus... ‘you are the world champion, you have withdrawn and you’ve raised some concerns indirectly. What is it?’ And then he gives his version and then maybe they take a written complaint from him confidentially.
And in that case he wouldn’t have had to imply anything. He can directly tell FIDE, against this person, ‘I have this grievance, please investigate’ and FIDE investigates and gives a report which Magnus has to agree.
They should at least start a dialogue with Magnus and Niemann. Right there, the main stakeholders are responsible, the image of the game should not take a beating. They should do things within their control.
The chess fraternity is divided over the issue, there are more than a few GMs who don’t share your certitude on Magnus Carlsen’s allegations and the manner in which he has, to quote Maurice Ashley, ‘dropped bombs on the young man’s head’. There are some accusing Carlsen of ruining the 19-year-old’s career without proof.
He can’t have proof, right? Even if he can highlight from Niemann’s games specific instances where the moves are not human or where he played a very difficult move very quickly, he can raise more doubts, questions. But even with all this it is still not proof.
If I asked you 755 x 855 x 945 and you give an answer in 3 seconds, it does not prove that you cheated. But I can raise this in public and say I asked you this question and you gave this answer in three seconds, now you draw your own conclusion. Now, everyone will draw a conclusion that the other person is lying or cheating, right? But it is still not proof. This is the problem.
People are thinking he is just a kid. And because he beat him in one game Carlsen is being a sore loser and out to get his reputation and he will not get an invitation now and his whole career is gone. This is a stand some people are taking. But there are many players who have defeated Magnus Carlsen. Even Praggnanandda has defeated Magnus three times in the last six months and the fourth time they played last week in the same tournament, he came very close to winning and then Magnus defended very well and after the game was over, Magnus clapped his hands online and showed a thumbs up. He appreciates other players, he is not like, ‘this guy has defeated me so let me take it out on him’, he’s not a sore loser.
The problem is no one is investigating, this is the whole problem, this aggravates everything. Now, it is like the onus is on Magnus to come up with proof. I think it should be handled by FIDE.
This is my strong view, they should ask both parties to give all the information. They should ask Niemann how many times you have exactly cheated online and have you cheated over-the-board and he has to give a written commitment that he has not cheated over-the-board and similarly they can ask Magnus, what proof do you have, your confidentiality is maintained, you share, whatever evidence you have with us and then FIDE should form a committee.
Also currently there are no rules in place which says, okay, if X percentage of moves across X number of games matches with the engine, then this can be taken as evidence of cheating and then the player can be punished. So there is no such law in place.