The Magnus Carlsen-Hans Niemann ‘Cheating’ Saga: How Cheating Works in Chess

The Magnus Carlsen-Hans Niemann saga highlights incidents of cheating in chess are more common than it should be.

5 min read
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Edited By :Padmashree Pande

The world of chess is known to remain unflustered amid universal chaos, with pandemonium not being a trait of the game. But over the last few weeks, the sport has caught worldwide attention for that very reason – pandemonium.

Magnus Carlsen, the undisputed poster-boy of the sport, was defeated by a teenager earlier this month, in a match that sparked a wave of tumult. It was at the Sinquefield Cup 2022, being played at the United States of America’s Saint Louis Chess Club, where the Norwegian lost against a 19-year-old American, Hans Niemann.

The world champion’s loss was his first defeat with white in about two years, bringing an end to his 53-game winning streak in classical tournaments. Niemann, on the other hand, had a meteoric rise in the ELO rankings, with one victory proving to be enough to take him from being an obscure name to the topmost echelons of chess.

While the result in itself was a major surprise, what transpired on the next day surpassed everything else, as Carlsen withdrew from the completion. The controversy caught fire once again at the recently concluded Julius Baer Generation Cup, where Carlsen forfeited his match against Niemann in only the second move.

The allegations were not explicit until Tuesday, 27 September, when in an astonishing statement, the world champion accused the American of cheating. “I believe that Niemann has cheated more, and more recently, than he has publicly admitted,” wrote Carlsen.


The Rampant Rise of Online Cheating

Incidents of cheating in chess are, quite unfortunately, more common than the enthusiasts of the game would want it to be, and the emergence of online competitions has only paved the way for its expansion into new dimensions.

There are a plethora of easily downloadable computer programmes, known as ‘chess engines,’ that can analyse all possible moves and scenarios for every given situation and select the best from the lot. The use of such chess engines is not rare in online competitions, and while scrutiny has increased, flawless detection is often not possible.


The Various Incidents of Over-the-Board Cheating

The match which started the entire controversy was not played online – it was an over-the-board game, where cheating is not as convenient and those willing to break the law will require creativity. With tens of cameras around and hundreds of measures to maintain the sanctity of the sport, it seems to be incredibly difficult to gain an advantage in an offline competition.

That being said, it is not impossible.


In the 2006 World Chess Championship, Vaselin Topalov alleged his opponent Vladimir Kramnik was visiting his bathroom frequently, hinting he had hidden a digital device aiding him to cheat. While proof of such an occurrence was not found, the organisers decided to shut all private bathrooms and asked the players to use the common bathroom instead.

In 2015, Georgian grandmaster Gaioz Nigalidze was suspended from an international competition when it was found out that he had hidden a mobile phone in the bathroom, and made frequent trips to check tactics.

Four years later, Latvian grandmaster Igors Rausis was found using a mobile concealed in the bathroom. Only a couple of years ago, a 17-year-old age-level European champion from Poland, Patrycja Waszczuk was suspended for the very same reason from the Ustron Chess Festival.

Another way of cheating over-the-board is implanting a helper on the venue. In the 39th Chess Olympiad, held in 2010, French grandmaster Sebastien Feller had his coach Arnaud Hauchard hidden behind a board, from where he would communicate moves. Hauchard himself received further assistance from another player, who was running the live game on a chess engine.

While hiding a device in the bathroom or having an aide hidden among the crowd seem to be crude tactics, there are a few sophisticated methods, requiring technological know-how, which could avoid detection.


In 2013, FIDE Master Borislav Ivanov was accused of using illegal pair of shoes, where he had hidden equipment to help him make the right moves using vibrations. As many as 40 grandmasters decided not to play against him in any competition, and the player himself refused to take off his shoes for inspection, effectively ending his career.

Two years since that incident, Italian chess player Arcangelo Ricciardi was found using a camera concealed in his pendant, which used Morse code technology to help him make the moves.

How Could Hans Niemann Have Cheated?

Until Carlsen’s accusations are proven, Niemann will remain not guilty and the entire controversy will revolve around the realm of public opinion. Yet, if we are to make purely hypothetical assumptions, there could have been multiple ways in which Niemann secured an external advantage at the Sinquefield Cup.

As observed by the experts of the game, Carlsen started the match with a rare Catalan opening, which not many would have predicted. Despite the strange move, the American was not baffled one bit and had his plans ready.

In an interview after his win, Niemann tried to debunk the theory by claiming he had the exact same opening sequence on a computer earlier that day, for reasons he could not remember. The American further said that Carlsen had played the same opening in a 2018 game, but no such evidence was found, which led to the speculation of the Norwegian being sabotaged by one of his team members, who might have revealed his tactics to Niemann.


Alternatively, Niemann could have resorted to technology. Computer programmer and chess enthusiast, James Stanley developed a pair of shoes which effectively allows a player to convey his moves to a programme via movement in the toe, and the programme then relays back suggestion on the next move via vibration motors installed in the shoe.

Though chess players are checked with metal detectors, and this video shows Niemann going through a thorough check at the Sinquefield Cup, multiple reports have claimed low efficacy of the detectors.

There have also been incidents where a player concealed a Bluetooth earpiece in either his clothing or his body, which is demonstrated in this video created for fictional representation. The chance of such an occurrence, despite being low, is not nil.


But, Did Niemann Actually Cheat?

If only we had the answer to that.

Though Niemann did admit he had previously cheated twice in online competitions, he has always maintained that he never cheated in over-the-board tournaments. What happened on 4 September at the Saint Louis Chess Club remains a mystery, at least for now, and one could only speculate.

 The public opinion is split on this matter, and adding further thrill to the saga, even the experts are not aligned in their judgement.

Professor Kenneth Regan, a renowned expert known for his prowess in detecting cheaters in chess, analyzed the matches of Niemann and came to the conclusion that there is no evidence to suggest that the youngster has been cheating.


In complete contrast to Regan’s conclusion, FIDE master Yosha Iglesias carried out her own research and found an unusual correlation between Niemann’s gameplay and that of a chess engine – in simpler terms, Niemann made the same moves as the engine would make.

Iglesias shows how, in a match against French player Matthieu Cornette, the American made 45 moves similar to the engine’s suggestion, and grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura reacted to the video, claiming that the correlation was out of the ordinary.

Until the dust settles, if it ever will, the storm prevails, and pandemonium reigns.

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Topics:  chess   Magnus Carlsen   Hans Niemann 

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