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Sensemaker: Chess conspiracies

Sensemaker: Chess conspiracies

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Putin prepared to annex four Ukrainian regions later today as a rocket attack on Zaporizhzhia killed 23 people (more below).
  • Biden warned Hurricane Ian may have caused “substantial loss of life” in Florida.
  • A new YouGov poll gave the UK’s Labour party a 33-point lead over the Conservatives. 

Chess conspiracies

This week, for a feature on Danish radio, a journalist wore a vibrating sex toy to see if it could help him beat 18 year-old Danish grandmaster Jonas Bjerre at chess. 

Bjerre won – but the stunt wasn’t about methodology. A game usually associated with order and strategy has become embroiled in accusations of foul play and conspiracy theories:

  • The players 31 year-old Norwegian world champion Magnus Carlsen and 19 year-old New York “upstart” Hans Niemann 
  • The stage Social media, livestreams and blogs
  • What’s at stake Their future chess careers and the reputation of the game

What happened?

  • September 4: Niemann beats Carlsen in a third-round game at the Sinquefield Cup, a respected invitation-only competition in St Louis, Missouri. The defeat ends a 53-run unbeaten streak for the Norwegian.
  • September 5: Carlsen leaves the tournament in the first withdrawal of his career, posting a video of football manager Jose Mourinho saying: “If I speak, I am in big trouble”. 
  • Chess.com, one of the largest online chess platforms, reportedly sends Niemann a private letter banning him from the site. The site purchased Carlsen’s company, Play Magnus, in an $82 million deal this summer. 
  • A Reddit post starts a rumour that Niemann is cheating using artificially intelligent “anal beads”. It catches on. 
  • September 6: Niemann admits he cheated in online games on Chess.com aged 12 and 16, but denied ever cheating in over-the-board (in-person) games.  
  • September 19: Carlsen leaves an online game with Niemann after just one move, in an apparent act of protest.  
  • September 26: Carlsen posts an official statement on Twitter saying he believes Niemann has cheated “more – and more recently – than he has publicly admitted”.
  • September 29: The international chess federation, FIDE, says they will investigate both Carlsen’s claims and Niemann’s admissions of cheating. 

Why now? 

The internet The ability to play chess online has turned chess into a popular e-sport – but technology also makes it easier to cheat. Since chess legend Garry Kasparov was beaten by IBM supercomputer DeepBlue over 25 years ago, computer chess analysis has come a long way. The average smartphone now could easily beat a grandmaster, according to Jonathan Rowson, a three-time British Champion.

Carlsen In July, Carlsen announced he would not defend his world title, saying he was “not motivated to play another match”. He is regarded as one of the greatest chess players of all time and his involvement has turned the whole game on its head. 

Srinath Narayanan, a grandmaster from India, said: “We all knew cheating was a serious problem. We all knew it was rampant. We all kept quiet, not knowing exactly how to go about it. Magnus spoke about it and in a way that the world had no option but to take notice.” 

Did he cheat? There’s no evidence – yet – of cheating. Ken Regan, a chess master and computer scientist who developed the authentication tool used by Fide found “nothing” out of the ordinary. But that hasn’t stopped other grandmasters from airing suspicions. Hikaru Nakamura, a top US player and streamer, said it was “extremely clear” that “Magnus has something” on Niemann. 

Jonathan Tisdall, a Norwegian grandmaster and freelance journalist who has followed Carlsen’s career, said: “there’s no doubt in my mind, he believes he believes he’s completely correct and that he’s [Carlsen] doing this to clean the game up”. 

Niemann, currently ranked 40th in the world, hasn’t commented publicly since the St Louis match, when he tweeted: “If there was any real evidence, why not show it? Is anyone going to take accountability for the damage they’ve done?”

Niemann is due to return to St Louis next week to play the $250,000 US championship. Carlsen won’t be competing – but the pair can’t avoid meeting over the board again forever. 


Truss meets budget watchdog 
Today’s meeting in Downing Street between Liz Truss and Richard Hughes will be tense. Hughes is head of the Office for Budget Responsibility. Truss, for the next few days at least, is the UK’s prime minister. Hughes told the Treasury the OBR could provide the kind of impact forecast it’s supposed to provide to accompany big fiscal events in time for last week’s mini-budget. His offer was declined. Markets smelled a lack of transparency and looked more sceptically than they might otherwise have at the £45 billion Truss/Kwarteng unfunded tax cuts. And they reacted with more alarm than they might otherwise have to the steep rise in the cost of government borrowing that followed. That alarm sent ripples through German and US bond markets, and the FT250 took its steepest dive yesterday since the first month of the pandemic. The Treasury select committee wants to see the OBR’s assessment now. Truss wanted to delay publication but it’s now clear delay will only prolong market chaos and drive up mortgage costs. Voters are paying close attention. If YouGov’s latest poll were reflected in a general election tomorrow Labour would win a 346-seat majority. 


Iron Man IRL
Richard Browning is a British inventor getting a blast of American publicity because he can fly like Iron Man – and did so last week at a Chicago trade show. He was first seen in his Jet Suit in the UK last year, flying it up a mountain in the Lake District to show how it might be used for mountain rescues. It could also have any number of military applications. Browning sells the 1000 hp suits for $400,000 apiece and might just have an edge over his best-known competitor because they are controlled with the wearer’s arms: each hand controls two micro gas turbines (aka jet engines) which draw fuel from a 30-kilo backpack and, with a bit of muscle, can be used to steer, climb, descend and stop more or less intuitively. A rival contraption designed by France’s Franky Zapata uses essentially the same technology but imitates a different movie – the jets point down from a hoverboard inspired by Back to the Future. Zapata crossed the Channel in 2019 but spun out of control and crashed into a lake in May this year. He’s now promoting a sit-down version. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Then they came for condoms 
Staff at the University of Idaho have been told not to give out contraceptives as a form of birth control – only to prevent STD infection. They’ve also been told they could be fired if they promote, perform, provide referrals for or advise in favour of abortion. The instructions come from the university’s in-house counsel, taking an avowedly conservative approach to complying with a new state law banning abortion in almost all circumstances. The law came into force on 25 August, two months after the US Supreme Court handed responsibility for abortion laws to state legislatures by overturning Roe v Wade. A spokesperson for the university said it “obeys all laws”. Other state university systems, notably in Michigan, have promised students they’ll do all they can to preserve access to abortion.  

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Battle of the bunnies
Lindt’s gold foil-wrapped chocolate bunny sits with a small bell on a red ribbon around its neck. It’s one of the Swiss chocolate maker’s best-selling products – and one that it’s prepared to fight for in court to protect from copy bunnies (last year, a German court trademarked the shade of its gold foil). In a victory for Lindt & Spruengli this week, the German discount retailer Lidl was ordered to stop selling its gold foil-bunny version and to melt down all remaining stock. Switzerland’s highest court ruled that customers were likely to confuse the two products, despite some differences, overturning an earlier ruling in a commercial court. 


All on red
The stage was set, literally, in Red Square last night: a scaffolding platform on which Putin will today announce the annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, presumably as the 86th, 87th, 88th and 89th “subjects” of the Russian Federation. Crimea in 2014 was the 85th. The referenda conducted last weekend were of course brazen violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Neither their results (close to 100 per cent approval of the Russian takeover) nor the annexations have any standing in international law, and they will never be internationally recognised. But none of that’s the point. Putin is creating a pretext for military escalation should he decide he has no alternative, by arguing Ukraine is attacking Russian territory. And he is trying to recreate the wave of nationalist fervour brought on by his annexation of Crimea eight years ago. That was his pivot to tyranny after protests in 2012 against his resumption of the presidency. This is an all-in bet that propaganda at home and thinly-veiled nuclear terrorism abroad can deliver in Ukraine what his army has not – something to call a win and keep him in power. The whole scheme is based on a bogus reading of Russian history promoted by Aleksandr Dugin, the Rasputin of the hour, and copied out by Putin himself in a 7,000-word essay last year. It denies Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent country. Like Mein Kampf, it manages to be dull and shrill at the same time, but it should have been more widely read.

Phoebe Davis

Additional reporting by Jessica Winch and Giles Whittell.

Photographs Getty Images, Grand Chess Tour, Tom Jackson Photography/Gravity Industries

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