This chess drama is the gift that keeps on giving. Maybe it’s because there’s never any drama in the chess community. How could there be in a game that’s literally rooted in skill? If you lose, odds are your opponent was just better than you. I know I thought it was impossible to cheat at over-the-board chess, yet here we are, writing about this drama once again.
To make a long story short, on Monday, the world’s best player Magnus Carlsen officially accused fellow grandmaster Hans Niemann of cheating during a match they had at the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis a few weeks ago. There had long been speculation that Carlsen believed Niemann cheated, but two days ago, Carlsen came forward with an official statement on the matter.
While several big names in the chess community came to Carlsen’s defense, claiming that Niemann was playing out of character and acting strangely after the match, there was never any hard evidence that Niemann was using a chess engine to feed him moves during his match. I’m not sure there ever will be. I doubt anyone will ever find the wire, electronic device, or anal beads that Niemann had up his sleeve (or other area) during that game against Carlsen. All anyone could really do to push forward the investigation was analyze the match. Well, someone actually took the time to do so, and suddenly, the cheating allegations against Niemann seem much more believable.
On Sunday, Yosha Iglesias, an up-and-coming chess YouTuber, posted a video using an online software called ChessBase to review Niemann’s game against Carlsen. ChessBase also helps determine the engine score for specific moves. For those who don’t know, an engine score basically determines how good a move was based on how a chess engine, which is designed to play perfectly, would’ve played. For context, most world champions play at around a 70-75 percent engine score. According to Iglesias, at the pinnacle of Carlsen’s career, Carlsen was playing at around 70 percent. During Bobby Fischer’s famous 20-game winning streak, he was playing at 72 percent.
And according to Iglesias’ research, Niemann did indeed play engine perfect in this much-talked about match with Carlsen.
It’s not super uncommon to play a single game at 100 percent, but on multiple occasions? Now, things are getting suspicious. The only time someone has consistently reached near 100 percent in recent history was Sébastien Feller, who achieved 98 percent optimal play at a tournament circa 2010. Later, the French Chess Federation determined that Feller was cheating by communicating with two other players. Basically, international master Cyril Marzolo stayed home and was being fed Feller’s moves by grandmaster Arnaud Hauchard. Marzolo would then put those moves into a chess engine, send coded messages to Hauchard letting him know what Feller’s best move would be. Then, Hauchard, who was sitting in the same hall where Feller was playing, would sit at a table in Feller’s line of sight. Based on what table Hauchard sat at, Feller would know what moves to make. It sounds complicated, and it was. The ruse wasn’t found out immediately, but eventually, chess officials caught on and banned Feller from competing for over two years.
The point of that story is to show how unlikely a string of near 100 percent games is in over-the-board chess. Niemann, however, has more than a few such games, including one against Cristhian Camilo Rios in the second round of the Sharjah Masters on September 18, 2021 where Niemann played engine perfect for 45 consecutive moves. If that’s not evidence of cheating, I don’t know what is.
Much like Feller, Niemann has vehemently denied any accusations made against him. However, as more evidence like this comes out, it becomes harder and harder to defend him. How can he explain such perfect play? Is he the greatest player of all-time? No. He’s admitted to cheating in the past, and as many other grandmasters have explained, Niemann’s demeanor after his game against Carlsen was suspiciously aloof. The ball is in Niemann’s court. While the smoking gun has yet to be found, the data against Niemann is already pretty damning. He has to make a statement explaining these insane occurrences. If not, all we can do is speculate, and the community’s speculation isn’t leaning in Niemann’s favor.