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What the Niemann-Carlsen cheating controversy reveals about the relationship between chess and technology

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From the Cold War onwards, the world of professional chess has been replete with intrigue and political symbolism. Far from two nerds hunched over a board with 64 squares, chess in the pandemic era is played online or in person at glamorous locations, including beaches, at tournaments with substantial prize money and with champions trained by human coaches and computer programs. A few weeks ago, the chess world was taken by storm when the 19-year-old US Grandmaster Hans Moke Niemann sued his rival Magnus Carlsen for defamation asking for $100 million.

What was the alleged defamatory statement? The controversy arose when Niemann beat the five-time world chess champion Carlsen in September of this year at a major tournament in St Louis, United States. By doing so, he may be the catalyst for either the reform or ruin of professional chess. In any case, Carlsen withdrew from the tournament shortly after the loss and made a cryptic statement that seemed to allude to cheating by Niemann. Since then, Carlsen has spoken more elaborately on why he thinks Niemann cheated. He also refused to play him in subsequent tournaments. On October 7, 2022, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) broke a long story about the cheating controversy that now includes Niemann, Carlsen, and (the world’s most popular online chess site with millions of players).

Carlsen and Niemann couldn’t be more different in terms of personalities and the worlds they come from. The 31-year-old Carlsen, a Norwegian, is arguably a triumph of the Nordic school of social democracy. With a prodigious memory since he was little, he was introduced to chess at the age of five by his father and supported by a tightly-knit family. He became a Grandmaster when he was 13 years old. As a child, he was initially trained at the Norwegian College of Elite Sports by Norway’s top player, the Grandmaster Simen Agdestein, and other prominent national players. He played in the junior sections of national tournaments and developed his game.

Polite, well-mannered, widely-read and an avid skier, Carlsen reminds me of Roger Federer. He lived in his parents’ basement for many years even after he became the top-ranked player in the world. In 2013, Carlsen defeated Vishwanathan Anand to become the world chess champion. He has been the World Champion, the World Rapid Chess Champion and the World Blitz Chess Champion simultaneously twice — showing his command over all forms of the game.

Norway follows a model of social democracy that emphasizes state-funded healthcare and a strong public education system in tandem with high taxation rates. This is different from American free-market capitalism, comprising expensive private health care, elite prep schools amid poorly-funded public education, and comparatively lower rates of taxation. Both countries illustrate two starkly different versions of democracy.

The 19-year-old Niemann is more like John McEnroe — temperamental and unpredictable. Born in San Francisco, Niemann has lived by himself in a small studio apartment in New York since the age of 13. He taught chess at elite prep schools to earn a living and fund the travel necessary to play competitive chess.

Niemann traveled to tournaments by himself from his early teens. He became a Grandmaster at the relatively late age of 18 and is ranked number 42 in the world. His story is one of a scrappy and determined young man who has fought his way into the elite and rarified world of professional chess with relatively little state support.

Allegations of cheating have long dogged professional chess. reminds us of the 1978 World Chess Championships, when the Russian Anatoly Karpov was playing Viktor Korchnoi for the title. Korchnoi, who had fled the Soviet Union in 1976, accused a Karpov teammate of trying to hypnotize him, and so wore sunglasses throughout.

For those who don’t follow today’s world of professional chess closely, let me set out the lay of the land. Chess is played in person and online. If anything, the pandemic further fueled the growth of online games and competitions. The financials of chess have also changed. For instance, Carlsen has an app called Play Magnus which is valued at $83 million and is in the process of being bought by the most important playing arena in the world —

How does one cheat in chess? By using apps or software on a laptop or smartphone that analyzes the game and suggests the best possible move. Typically in in-person games, cheats have been found hiding their smartphones in the toilet. Other techniques include different colored cups being sent over by teammates and coaches — red, for instance, indicating one type of move with a piece. During the Cold War, cheating took the form of players from the same country entering into draws or wins or losses against each other to aid each other’s progress. Today’s blend of online chess and the presence of chess programs on phones and computers make for ideal conditions to cheat. The Niemann-Carlsen cheating controversy is an example of what cheating may look like in today’s chess world.

The WSJ reported that when conducted an investigation they found that Niemann had likely cheated in more than 100 online games and when confronted in 2020, he admitted to this and hence his account was banned from the site. The report of the investigation conducted by is available on the site and is a great read for the insights it provides into how to catch cheats and how the game has shape-shifted in the online era. The most important takeaway from the report: While machines are used to cheat, machines also catch cheaters.

What do investigators look for to discern patterns that suggest cheating? They may compare the moves made to engine-recommended moves. Additionally, they compare a player’s past performance and known strength profile. Alternatively, they look at behavioral factors — for instance, browser behavior.

We have come a long way from the days of kings and their advisors playing chess against each other, while the darbar looked on. For 1,500 years, since chess originated in India, the game has changed and endured. Human beings across continents have been fascinated by chess, and have embraced it for the skills it demands and the lessons it teaches that are applicable in life. Perhaps the biggest challenge to chess has come in this time of artificial intelligence, when a simple program on a smartphone can not only beat the best player in the world, but also aid in cheating to ensure that the best are beaten. In due course, perhaps only machines will have the integrity to play an honest game.

The writer is a Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of India