Magnus puts the magnifying glass on cheating in chess

A huge controversy has erupted in the largely calm and quiet chess world over cheating and its prevalence. Just a few days ago, I wrote a blog post about how the younger generation (of teenagers, many of them Indians) were catching up with the older generation, noting wryly that by “older” generation, I meant the great masters in their twenties and thirties.

Over the past few weeks, Indian teenage GMs Dommaraju Gukesh (16), Ramesh Praggnanandhaa (17), Arjun Erigaisi (19) have produced spectacular results, beating several more established and well-known grandmasters. The golden race was dominated this week by Aravindh Chithambaram (who is 22 and older than the teenage cohort) winning the Dubai Open. A week earlier, Erigaisi had won the Abu Dhabi Open.

Well, across the globe in the United States this week, two more (non-Indian) teenage GMs joined an elite roster of eight GMs in two prestigious tournaments that are part of the Grand Tour of Chess (much like ATP in tennis). In the first event, 19-year-old Alireza Firouzja from Iran won a rapid + blitz tournament so convincingly (with four rounds to spare) that everyone shook their heads. The field included almost all of the top ten GMs except Magnus Carsen. Firouzja only lost one game out of 27. It was breathtaking.

Carlsen joined the fun for the Sinquefield Cup that followed, alongside Hans Moke Niemann, a 19-year-old from San Francisco who was beaten by Pragg (3/5-0/5) at the Crypto Cup in Miami last month, Although Niemann is ranked 49th in the world, his rise, like that of Gukesh, Erigaisi and Pragg, has been swift. He probably got a wild card entry or a special invite to compete in such a strong field, the same way Pragg got to play in Miami. Carlsen had also beaten Niemann 3-1 in Miami.

In St Louis however, Niemann convincingly beat Carlsen in the longer format of the game where the world champion is considered almost invincible. Niemann so vastly outperformed Carlsen, that too with black pieces (some analysts have said that Carlsen hasn’t lost a classic game with white pieces in four years; I’m not sure), that commentators have been amazed and tongues started to move.

A few hours later, Carlsen tweeted that he was withdrawing from the tournament without specifying a reason. His tweet read: I withdrew from the tournament. Always loved playing in the @STLChessClub and hope to be back in the future. Chess experts were shocked. It was unprecedented.

The sudden release and cryptic nature of the tweet threw the chess world into turmoil, especially after some commenters suggested Carlsen thought Niemann had cheated. Carlsen himself did not say that Niemann had cheated, but he remained silent on insinuations to that effect from other GMs, notably Hikaru Nakamura.

It is unclear how Niemann could have cheated. A video clip from the tournament showed Niemann being electronically scanned quite extensively (as they do at airport security) as he entered the tournament hall for his next match (against Firoujza; they matched bad). There have been occasional cases of GM being caught cheating during restroom breaks (one had a phone hidden in the restroom), but no one is accusing Niemann of smuggling a device.

Well, the fact is that computer programs – usually called chess engines – now play an important role in the game. With ever faster processing power, computers can calculate positions and best moves faster than the human brain, and can tap into vast databases to see which lines work best. All modern players (and commentators/analysts) use chess engines now, but you get the feeling that the younger generation (teenagers) use them even more. Much of the preparation is now spent on chess games and players study their opponents’ previous games and move extensively before a game, while researching new lines of attack and defense.

Some analysts suggest that Niemann had prepared extensively for his match against Carlsen, accurately guessing which opening lines the world champion would play and memorizing an engine’s response to a particular line – up to 20 moves. Typically in chess, the first eight to ten moves follow an established theory or line of play and the best grandmasters execute these moves. After that, towards the middle of the game, it gets complicated, with far too many variables, permutations and combinations. This is where human creativity, intuition and genius come into play.

Modern computers, however, can solve all of this in seconds, providing the best responses to every move throughout the game. So is it possible to study and memorize responses beyond, say, move 10 or 12 or 15…. ? And would that be cheating?

Yes, according to some. While it would be an incredible mnemonic feat to remember the engine’s response to the many variations Carlsen could have deployed, such “engine preparation,” they say, doesn’t test a player’s creativity and genius.

Some analysts have suggested that Niemann’s own career has been spotty when it comes to engine use. Others said it was unfair to convict the youngster without evidence of wrongdoing. Niemann himself responded to the insinuations on Tuesday, tweeting: “I’m not going to let chesscom, I’m not going to let Magnus Carlsen, I’m not going to let Hikaru Nakamura, the 3 arguably greatest entities in chess, just slander my reputation.”

The fact is, computers have made inroads into chess and they’ve steadily improved since IBM’s Deep Blue defeated world champion Garry Kasparov in New York in the late 90s, an event I I was lucky enough to be witness and covered. Today, a human chess player has no chance against the computer. Engines such as Stockfish, Rybka, Fritz and Houdini are so powerful that they can crush the strongest GMs.

So, increasingly, engines are being used as analytical tools rather than as adversaries, as happened in the 1990s when computers began to take over humans. The fact that many chess engines are now available on mobile phones and tablets makes them even more accessible. In tournaments you can often see players pull out their cell phones to check for “engine” suggestions after play (obviously not allowed during play) or on the sidelines (if they are spectating or watching two other players compete)

But here’s my question: Is it possible today’s teenage GMs have better mnemonic powers complementing the engine’s undisputed computing power? Is that what happened in the Niemann-Carlsen game, which the youngster overtook (before overtook) the world champion, who is now 31 and is considered the strongest player in the history of the Game ?

It would seem so. Some grand masters, notably Levon Aronian, spoke out in favor of Niemann. Brazilian General Manager Rafael Leitão noted: “I have carefully analyzed, with powerful engines, Niemann’s 2 wins in the tournament. I found NO indication of external help. He made mistakes in positions humans would. I am very curious about the ramifications of the insinuations launched today.

Interesting days are ahead in the world of chess beyond the board.



The opinions expressed above are those of the author.


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