Chess is generally considered a topic bereft of controversy, as proven by its largely innocuous history. But the sport’s innocent reputation was marred on Sept. 4 when World Champion Magnus Carlsen suffered a surprise defeat to the 19-year-old chess master Hans Niemann in the 2022 Sinquefield Cup. Niemann made headlines after defeating the world champion using black pieces, a well-documented disadvantage in the game. But his historic victory was quickly overshadowed by Carlsen’s instigating comments and actions following the win.
The story gained international attention the day after the match when Carlsen announced his withdrawal from the Sinquefield tournament via Twitter. Alongside his statement, he attached a cryptic video clip of a Jose Mourinho interview in which the soccer manager said, “If I speak I am in big trouble.” Internet users interpreted the video as an accusation of cheating, and speculation surrounding Niemann’s win took root.
The suspicion of foul play was amplified by Niemann’s interview with Alejandro Ramirez, a fellow chess grandmaster. Following his victory over Carlsen, Niemann publicly claimed by “some miracle” to have anticipated and studied the exact opening sequence the world champion used against him on the morning of the match. Carlsen, who is renowned for his innovative playstyle, had never used that exact opening, which raised more doubts about the legitimacy of Niemann’s win. The public’s suspicion became even greater with Niemann’s poor performances in the rest of the Sinquefield Cup.
The feud between Niemann and Carlsen went viral over the following days. Amid the public pressure, Niemann was asked to explain himself in a follow-up interview with Ramirez. On screen, he profusely denied the accusations leveled against him by Carlsen, but he openly admitted to cheating in non-competitive online matches in the past. Niemann claimed he cheated on the major online chess platform chess.com to boost his own ranking so that he could play against better competition. He also said that he confessed to the offenses at the time and was punished accordingly by the site. Niemann ended the interview by swearing that cheating was the worst decision of his life and that he has learned from his mistakes. The grandmaster claimed he has never cheated during an in-person tournament, directly countering the accusations made by Carlsen.
The rivalry continued in the following weeks as Carlsen and Niemann were set to face off again in the online Julius Baer tournament on Sept. 19. But when the match finally arrived, Carlsen played one move against Niemann before resigning in protest. Again, there was little communication from Carlsen or his team regarding the incident, but Carlsen went on to compete and win the rest of the tournament.
On Sept. 26, a week after the incident at the Julius Baer tournament, Carlsen released a formal Twitter statement regarding his feud with Niemann. He accused his opponent of cheating more recently and more frequently than the player had admitted in the second Ramirez interview. Carlsen also claimed Niemann’s movements and demeanor in their match at the Sinquefield Cup had been “unusual.” In closing, the world champion reaffirmed his decision to refuse to play against Niemann in the Julius Baer tournament and declared that cheating is a threat to the “sanctity of the game.”
Carlsen’s comments on cheating echo the attitudes of most chess players, but the value he and his colleagues place on the game’s virtue ultimately contributes to its decline. Chess is typically deemed a sport of strict logic, especially by its players. Proponents of the game draw a direct link between a person’s chess skill and their general intelligence; thus, the “sanctity of the game” that Carlsen mentioned is chess’s legacy as a battle of wits. But much of the passion and knowledge of chess is passed down through generations, which gives children who are raised with a love for the game an advantage over newcomers. The generational system of chess creates an unwelcoming environment for new players and fosters the intellectually elitist attitude that protects the so-called “sanctity of the game.”
To further the sport’s exclusivity, chess has been dominated by men throughout its history, especially at the professional level. According to the International Chess Federation, only 37 of the 1,722 grandmasters — the highest ranking for a chess player other than world champion — are women. The overly competitive spirit of the game makes it difficult for new players, particularly women, to enter the chess sphere and is a contributing factor to the prevalence of cheating. Newcomers to the game want to compete at the highest level to demonstrate their intellectual worth, but they lack the leg-up of a generational player. For women and new players alike, it is nearly impossible to enter the sport through legitimate means. The reputation of the chess world as a place for the intellectual elite gives players an incentive to cheat to prove they belong with the world’s brightest.
But chess is even seeing a shift away from the notion that strict intelligence determines the outcome of a match. While there has been evidence that chess skill is related to intelligence, in high-ranking matches where mistakes are rare, winning a game may simply come down to memorizing a certain sequence of moves instead of actively thinking through the game. Such reasoning explains why Niemann claimed his win over Carlsen was not the result of his intelligence or even dumb luck. Niemann’s “miracle” was that he checked the first 20 or so moves of Carlsen’s opening on the morning of the match.
The modern professional chess scene places a new emphasis on memorization. Memorizing the most opening sequences is often more beneficial than a superior logical understanding of the game, and no one can memorize opening sequences better than the computer. So, while it is still unclear if Niemann did in fact cheat to defeat Carlsen in the Sinquefield Cup, the incident demonstrates a shift in chess from a game based strictly on logic to one of memorization. With such a system that incentivizes players to cheat, there will likely be even more scandals in the chess world.