Chess: a thinking man’s (and woman’s) game of intellect, patience, and prestige; a mechanism to exercise one’s brain. Chess is global. Hundreds of millions of amateur players partake. Professionals play in sanctioned tournaments – in person and online - that pit the very best in the world against each other.
Although quite popular, Chess is a staid game. News typically stays out of the mainstream press and is relegated to chess focused newsletters and websites; matches are rarely televised. Of late, however, chess has been embroiled in a salacious cheating scandal. Before we delve into specifics, let us first explore a brief history of chess, and more.
The antecedent to modern day chess was a game called Chaturanga, that originated in India in the 7th century. It was a tactical game though the precise rules remain a mystery. However, what is widely accepted is that Chaturanga was the precursor not only to chess, but also to other popular board games like Xiangqi, Shogi, and Makruk. Chaturanga then spread to Persia. From there Persian traders introduced the game to Europe, and beyond.
Before modern-day Chess came into being around the year 1500, the Queen, originally called a “ferz,” in Farsi (Persian), was the weakest piece on the board. Bishops were also weak; both pieces were slow-moving. As a result, the games progressed at a glacial pace.
At the beginning of the 16th century, the rules changed. As many people are familiar, The ferz – now referred to as a Queen – became the game’s strongest, most versatile piece. The Bishop also became a key piece, permitted to move diagonally across the entire length of the board.
Benjamin Franklin helped popularize Chess in America. An ardent supporter of the game, In 1750 he penned an essay entitled The Morals of Chess. In it, he argued that Chess could help in many facets of one’s mental development and advocated for a strict moral code among participants.
The first U.S. Chess Championship was held in 1845 for men and 1937 for women. The National Chess Foundation, later known as the USCF was established in 1939.
American Bobby Fischer (1943-2008) is American history’s most famous chess player. He was also an unabashed racist, anti-Semite, Holocaust denier, and anti-American, who stated he was happy the attacks of 911 happened.
In September 1972, Fischer took part in a celebrated chess match against Russian Boris Spassky. The match was marketed as an intellectual cold war. Fischer won. In August of ’72, he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated (it was not the swimsuit issue). After that Fischer did not play in public for nearly two decades.
In 1992 Fischer played Spassky in a rematch. A purse of 5 million dollars was on the line; (still) the largest in chess history. The match was to be played in the former Yugoslavia. However, the United States had an embargo against Yugoslavia. Fischer was forbidden to play there, per U.S. order. Fischer physically spat on the order, played and won the match, and a warrant was subsequently issued for his arrest.
Fischer lived as a fugitive for the remainder of his life. First, he lived in Budapest, Hungary. From there he moved to the Philippines, then Japan. He was arrested in Tokyo for using an invalid U.S. passport and imprisoned. While in jail, Fischer married Miyoko Watai.
Thanks to a combination of deft political maneuvering and pockets of eccentric compassion, Fischer eventually managed to secure citizenship in Iceland. He lived for the remainder of his life. Fischer died at the age of 64 from kidney failure.
There are many rankings’ systems in chess including the Ingo System, Harkness System, and the Glicko Rating System. However, the most common ranking system is called the Elo System, invented by a man named Arpad Elo. The United States Chess Federation (USCF) adopted the Elo System in 1960. The international chess body (FIDE) followed suit in 1970.
The calculation that underpins the Elo system can be found here. In short, the higher the score, the better. Novices are ranked < 1200. Super Grandmasters are ranked > 2700. The highest rating ever achieved by a player is 2,882 by Grand Master, Magnus Carlsen (more on him below). Judit Polgár of Hungary is considered the best female player of all time. She is the only woman to have ever cracked the top 10 and to be rated > 2700. She earned a top rating of 2735 in ’05.
Man vs Machine
In 1985, chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov reinvigorated the public’s affinity for chess. At that time, computers were armed with processors that could run software capable of challenging the most competitive players in the world. However, the collective thinking in the mid 80’s was that while computers could challenge the best chess players, humans would be victorious because of their superior ability to reason and think.
Man vs machine ensued. Kasparov challenged an array of chess software programs to matches. Traditionalists were not enthralled. The public was enamored. Kasparov defeated all 32 programs.
The turning point came in 1996. By that time, computer processing power had increased exponentially. Kasparov challenged an IBM computer called “deep blue” to a 6-game tournament. Deep Blue defeated Kasparov in game one. Kasparov battled back and either won or drew the remaining games. However, Kasparov’s defeat at the hands of a machine was a defining moment in chess. It marked the first time a computer had ever defeated a grandmaster.
Today, it is widely accepted that computers (and smartphones) can always beat the best players and do so consistently. After all, processors can run millions of calculations per second, and they never get tired.
Currently players leverage technology and chess-focused software to improve their respective games. Statistical analysis is employed to increase their competitiveness. Chess apps exist that make playing, learning, and marketing easier.
In September, chess grandmaster and top-ranked player in the world, Magnus Carlsen, quit a prominent chess tournament in Saint Louis called the Sinquefield Cup. He did so after being defeated by a 19-year-old grandmaster named Hans Niemann, the lowest ranked player in the tournament. Carlsen did not make a public statement following his withdrawal; however, it was widely speculated among chess enthusiasts that Carlsen thought Niemann was cheating and quit in protest.
Said Niemann following the match, “it must be embarrassing for the world champion to lose to me…I feel bad for him.”
A few weeks later, Carlsen faced Neiman in an online tournament. Carlsen quit after making one move. This time, Carlsen did publicly accuse Nieman of cheating: “I believe that cheating in chess is a big deal and an existential threat to the game…I believe that Niemann has cheated more—and more recently— than he has publicly admitted…His over the board progress has been unusual, and throughout our game in the Sinquefield Cup I had the impression that he wasn’t tense or even fully concentrating on the game in critical positions, while outplaying me as black in a way I think only a handful of players can do.”
Niemann denied that he ever cheated in any over-the-board (in-person) game. However, he did concede that when he was younger, he cheated twice – at age 12 and 16 - while playing online.
A report commissioned by the website Chess.com buoyed Mr. Carlson’s hypothesis. While it did not explicitly conclude that Neiman cheated, it asserted that he did so, over 100 times, including in games with cash purses and those that were live-streamed. The report also pointed out that Mr. Neimann’s play improved at a rate that raised eyebrows and warranted scrutiny. “Outside his online play, Hans is the fastest rising top player in Classical [over-the-board] chess in modern history…While we don’t doubt that Hans is a talented player, we note that his results are statistically extraordinary.” Finally, the report said that Mr. Niemann privately confessed to his malfeasance.
For a time, Mr. Niemann was banned from Chess.com, including from the site’s Global Championship. In response to Neimann’s inquiry as to why, Chess.com’s platform leader Danny Rensch responded, “there always remained serious concerns about how rampant your cheating was in prize events.”
Following the report’s release, Mr. Niemann upped the ante and sued Mr. Carlsen, another chess grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, & Chess.com for $100 million. According to the WSJ, “Niemann accused the defendants of slander, libel, an unlawful boycott and tortious interference.”
In his lawsuit, Niemann accused Mr. Carlsen of colluding with Chess.com to squeeze him out because Chess.com is acquiring Mr. Carlsen’s app, Play Magnus, for $83 million. Niemann also refutes the report’s findings that he confessed to cheating other than the two times he already conceded. According to the WSJ, despite his actions at the Sinquefield Cup, Carlsen “didn’t talk with, ask for, or directly influence Chess.com’s decisions at all.”
In his public admonishment of Mr. Niemann, Magnus Carlsen called cheating an “existential threat to the game.” And in-depth report seemed to substantiate Carlsen’s suspicions of Mr. Neimann’s alleged subterfuge. However, Carlsen’s argument that cheating is an existential threat to chess does not hold up against history. In fact, for as long as Chess has existed, cheating in chess has too.
Before the advent of computers, the schemes were low-tech, but some were brilliant. After technology came of age, smartphones and bathroom breaks became the main thoroughfare to cheating. Below are some of the most notable instances of deceit. This list is far from exhaustive. Indeed, had we depicted every major instance of cheating in chess, this post would be multiple pages long.
• Mechanical Turk (1770). A chess-playing “machine” invented by Wolfgang von Kempelen. The Turk toured around the world and defeated an array of talented players. The machine was a marvel and people all over the world were fooled. The Turk was essentially a box inside a “chess machine,” upon which a diminutive expert human sat and controlled the machine’s arms.
• Ajeeb (1868). Like the Turk, the Ajeeb was a machine that seemed to be automated but was “powered” by a player, hidden inside.
• Mephisto (1876). The Mephisto was an improvement on the first two automated machines. It was not controlled by a human hidden inside. Instead, it was powered remotely, using electromechanics.
• World Open Tournament (1993). Historical because it marked one of the first times technology was used in cheating. John Neumann, an unknown player, performed extremely well throughout the event. Mr. Neumann’s performance garnered the attention of other players who thought it was odd that he wore headphones during his matches and a bulge protruding from his pants pocket. In short, John Newman did not even know how to play chess and was disqualified.
• Garry Kasparov v Judit Polgar (1994). Judit Polgar was just 17 years old when she made her debut in a top-tier tournament. She faced the number one player in the world, Gary Kasparov, in the 5th round. During the match, Kasparov moved his knight, briefly removed his hand from the piece – a clear violation of the one-touch rule – and then realizing his error, moved it back into position. Polgar confronted him and accused him of cheating, which he clearly did. Kasparov responded, “She just publicly said I was cheating…I think a girl of her age should be taught some good manners before making such statements.” Later in her career and established as one of the best chess players in her own right, Kasparov, feeling threatened, doubled down on his sexist comments by arguing that Ms. Polgar should have focused on having kids.
• Boris Ivanov (2012). Ivanov was 25 years old and new to the chess scene. He impressed by winning multiple high-stakes games. When asked about his rapid ascent, he replied, “Chess is my passion. Every day I practice for three to four hours at the board. I have no girlfriend. I play brilliantly because I have good training, that is the answer.” Ivanov also walked with an odd gait. The reason for this was that he was hiding an electronic device in his shoe.
• Bathroom Breaks (Smartphone era). Smartphones are so powerful they can beat (and assist) the best players in the world; they are also small. There have been multiple instances of players getting caught checking a cell phone while using the bathroom. Today, this method’s variations the most common form of cheating in chess. In one incident in 2013 at the Cork Congress Chess Open in Ireland, a teenage player was caught cheating, phone in hand, after his suspicious opponent followed him into the bathroom and kicked down a stall door.
The soap opera between Magnus Carlsen and Hans Niemann has yet to be resolved. More than likely, Carlsen will be proven correct that Niemann is a habitual cheater but wrong that cheating poses an existential threat to chess.