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A mess in chess

A mess in chess

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The game’s greatest player has accused his opponent of cheating, throwing the world of chess into turmoil. What does it mean for its future?

On the 4th of September, two chess players, Magnus Carlsen and Hans Niemann, sat down to play each other in a tournament in Missouri.

It looked like it would be a walkover.

Magnus Carlsen is one of the best chess players of all time. 

He’s been the world champion since 2013, a fierce competitor who does high intensity interval training to prepare himself for long matches.

And he came into the tournament on a hot run of form. 

He was unbeaten in 53 games in classical chess, the version of the sport played with long time limits.

Hans Niemann, on the other hand, is a newbie. 

A 19-year-old late bloomer, who doesn’t have a coach and who, before his match against Carlsen, wasn’t even in the top five junior players.

But then, the unthinkable happened. Magnus Carlsen lost.

“Wow, what a result, what a result guys, truly.”

Sinquefield Cup commentary

“Hans Niemann just beat the world champ. Hans Niemann just beat Magnus Carlsen with the black pieces.”

Gotham Chess, YouTube

Magnus Carlsen quickly withdrew from the tournament altogether, cryptically tweeting a video of the football manager Jose Mourinho.

“I prefer really not to speak. If I speak I am in big trouble, in big trouble. And I don’t want to be in big trouble.”

Jose Mourinho, football manager

Hans Niemann explained away Magnus Carlsen’s anger.

“I think he’s just so demoralised, because he’s losing to such an idiot like me. You know, it’s just, it must be embarrassing for the world champion to lose to me. I feel bad for him.”

Hans Niemann

But it was easy to read between the lines of Magnus Carlsen’s tweet: he thought Hans Niemann had cheated.

***

Hans Niemann has flatly denied the accusation and said he just happened to prepare for Magnus Carlsen’s strategy.

Hans Niemann: “This opening came on the board and I looked at this today.

Alejandro Ramirez: “And you guessed this opening today?”

Hans Niemann: “I don’t guess it. By some miracle I had checked this today.”

Hans Niemann being interviewed by Alejandro Ramirez, Saint Louis Chess Club

But then another top chess player made a joke about Niemann’s methods.

The Tesla boss Elon Musk started talking about it too.

And the rest is history.

“Now fans speculate Niemann had an accomplice who was watching the game being broadcast live online and consulting an AI chess program, then ‘using wireless anal beads that vibrate to Niemann the correct moves.”

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

That’s speculation.

Hans Niemann has admitted to cheating in online games, but not in person and he’s even offered to play naked to prove his innocence.

It hasn’t calmed things down though.

In an online tournament last month, Magnus Carlsen played Hans Niemann again and resigned after one move. 

He said he didn’t want to “play against people that have cheated repeatedly in the past.”

So why does all this matter?

***

This is not the first time a chess player has been accused of cheating.

In a 1978 world title match Viktor Korchnoi, a Russian defector, said the Soviet Union was trying to hypnotise him to throw him off his game.

At the 2006 world championship, a Bulgarian player accused his opponent of using the toilet too often… prompting the latter to forfeit the game.

And in 2015, an Italian player was caught using Morse code and a camera to cheat in an amateur competition.

But Magnus Carlsen’s accusations have more serious implications than the wild theories would suggest.

***

“This is more than just a chess game. This is really about the future. And the future is how we use computers to live our lives for the betterment of mankind.”

Gary Kasparov, world chess champion

It’s 25 years since the supercomputer Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov, the legendary chess player, in what was seen as a watershed moment for the advancement of artificial intelligence.

And chess engines are now much more powerful. A computer program like Stockfish can do what no other player can: beat Magnus Carlsen nearly every time.

There’s no evidence, yet, that Hans Niemann cheated against Magnus Carlsen in his famous victory.

But artificial intelligence and the possibility that players could tap into its power, whether through smartphones, earpieces, or yes, vibrating anal beads, is breeding a new level of paranoia.

Carlsen suggests this kind of cheating is an existential threat to the sport.

But merely worrying about your rival’s methods could do damage enough.

A culture of trust is at the heart of one of the oldest games in the world.

Robots, or the fear of robots, risks sweeping all of that away.

Perhaps we’ll learn more about Hans Niemann’s chess prowess when he returns to St Louis to be tested by three grandmasters at the US Championship this week.

This episode was written by Xavier Greenwood and mixed by Imy Harper.



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