It is 7 pm on Monday, September 19, and while the day is marked by the funeral of a queen, Elizabeth II, another sovereign in doubt, the king is placed on E8 on Magnus Carlsen’s virtual chessboard. The Norwegian chess grandmaster, world number 1 in the Elo ranking and reigning world champion, will face a Hans Niemann, a 19-year-old American, in a small online tournament that he organized on the Chess24 platform.
“I don’t want to express myself, if I speak there will be problems and I don’t want to have problems.”
When the cameras around the world are focused on London, the media frenzy is not even for nothing in this match. It must be said that the meeting had an air of vengeance. On September 5, during the 3rd round of Cinquefield Cup 2022, in St. Louis, Missouri, the young tournament underdog achieved success by defeating the holder of the highest Elo rating in history, higher than the legend Garry Kasparov.
After this defeat, Magnus Carlsen connected to his Twitter account, and released a cryptic tweet to his 700,000 subscribers. He explained that he no longer continues the tournament, without giving any particular reason, and illustrated his few words with a GIF that has long been turned into a meme, that of José Mourinho, football coach in Portuguese, responding to reporters. “I don’t want to express myself, if I speak there are problems and I don’t want to have problems”. So on the contrary, the oscilloscope of scandals has been brought up and, in a game already plagued by paranoia, everyone sees this as a sign of a thinly veiled criticism of cheating.
Hans Niemann standing in this cold world of chess. He is not very sympathetic, looks like a slightly crazy character from a novel, with arrogant eyes and fluffy hair. He never changes his jacket, never washes it, and it seems to bother other players in real tournaments. And then, its growth has been remarkable since the Covid-19 pandemic. Faced with the drama created by Carlsen, Niemann therefore had to justify himself during an interview, defending himself from being a cheater, arguing that he was ready to play naked if necessary, and that, yes, he could that Chess was cheated. com in his youth, two or three times, but he never did it in serious events or in real tournaments.
Caught in the whirlwind, Chess.com published a press release to explain that Hans Niemann has been banned from the platform, and that he has marbles that contradict the young man’s version of his cheating frequency. And in Saint-Louis, the organization of the tournament decided to introduce a 15-minute delay between the real game and its online broadcast. Niemann also did not shine at the end of the tournament, a chain of draws and losses when he came out on top after defeating his new Norwegian enemy.
The trollesque theory of the connected sex toy
As Carlsen disappeared from radar screens after his outrageous tweet, the web raced. It was even said that Niemann could have used a connected object obtained from a sex toy to transmit blows to him through a vibration system. The topic clearly appealed to the general media, which rushed to convey the rumor. Even Elon Musk went there with his little comment on Twitter before it was deleted. But there is no proof. And the “connected anal plug” delusion comes, as always, from some trolls on Reddit and elsewhere. A delirium that is not so young since the joke will be resurrected over the years with each new suspicion of fraud. Other theories: Niemann may have used a vibrating sole, or informed him of Carlsen’s game plan. In short, a lot of noise, but only noise.
“What’s interesting about the Niemann affair is the anal chip hypothesissays Kevin ‘Blitzstream’ Bordi, the main streamer of the discipline in France, who also seems to enjoy keeping the crazy rumor alive. Who has the right to search someone’s anus before a game of chess? This is the least dangerous scam in the world”. However, the assumption, as silly as it may seem, hides the real problem of modern chess. He followed: “Before modern technologies, we didn’t have cheating systems that significantly changed the outcome. But there, anyone who used the technology could beat Magnus Carlsen. He didn’t even need to know the rules, to be guided only by a computer”.
There are some examples of cheating that happened before the advent of technology, with hidden cheat sheets, for example. But these are more like memory aids with descriptions of movements. In 2019, Grand Master Igors Rausis, a 58-year-old Czech, ranked 53rd in the world, got his hands on a mobile phone during the Strasbourg Open. International Chess Federation (FIDE) investigators found him strumming during a pee break.
Georgian grandmaster Gaioz Nigalidze was unseated in 2015 at the Dubai Open. Rushing to the bathroom with every move of his opponent, the man aroused suspicion and the referees found a phone hidden behind the bathroom chair, with headphones and connected to a program that analyzes the game which continues. Finally, Borislav Ivanov, Bulgarian grandmaster, was faced many times with a strong suspicion of fraud, so that a whole room was polygraphed to find a possible partner, or that he was asked to undress. During a tournament, an electronic item was found in one of his shoes. And Ivanov preferred to leave the tournament rather than let the organizers in.
YouTube, and the Internet in general, is also full of examples of electronic cheating methods for chess. Here, a Raspberry Pi hidden in a shoe. There, a player showed how he was able to cheat using smart earpieces. We are also thinking of subcutaneous implants that are almost imperceptible and may make it possible to communicate in Morse code the blows to be performed. With the sometimes large amount of stake, the investment is attractive.
“There is a bad atmosphere in the high-level scene because there is obviously not enough security at the tournamentsby Kevin Bordi. We live in a world of suspicion. When others make big shows, there are suspicions, and then an omerta. This Niemann story is just a symptom of the problem”. According to him, the challenge is this: how, in a world where technologies are becoming smaller and less noticeable, to ensure that no one uses them in professional chess games? A priori, the discipline lacks solutions.
Security at real tournaments is described as quite primitive. Usually, a simple metal detector is passed through the body. On rare occasions, such as during the world championships in Sochi, a jammer is activated in the hall to prevent electronic communication. The referees can also ask to find the protagonists, but obviously limited to the domain of the visible. And unlike cycling, where suspicion triggers police investigations, no one comes knocking on the door of Carlsen, Niemann or Firouzja.
Another aspect of the modernization of chess is that tournaments are increasingly online. “At Chess.com, in tournaments where there is less money at stake, the platform asks players to install a dual camera system, a classic front camera, and a camera from behind filming them and their surroundings”French streamer details. “The referee can ask, even during the game, that the player takes the camera and films the game. There is also an hour gap between the broadcast of the game and the game itself. Because these are fast games , c is sufficient to prevent some fraud”. Again, the system may not cure all the ills of the failures.
Magnus Carlsen, slanderer or “whistleblower”?
That’s right, the episode on Monday, September 19 is playing online, cameras are on. But the curious and the streamers did not take long to shake this new Niemann-Carlsen duel. The American, playing white, begins the game by moving his first pawn to D4. The Norwegian responded to his F6 rider. And as Niemann prepares to continue his opening by throwing in a new pawn on C4, the unthinkable happens. Magnus Carlsen has left the game, without expressing any particular emotion on the face. A few seconds later, his camera cut out. Niemann looked at hers, looking almost surprised, and cut the connection.
The day after this second episode, neither Niemann nor Carlsen spoke. And beyond the laugh, now it remains to be seen whether FIDE will investigate Niemann and launch an ethics commission on Carlsen for his behavior that risks damaging the image of the discipline.