How to settle the great chess cheating scandal

October 14, 2022 09:57
Photo: Reuters

The chess world is reeling from an accusation of cheating that has generated headlines around the world, even drawing a response from Elon Musk. With the situation remaining unsettled and unresolved, the World Chess Federation (FIDE) has launched an investigation that one hopes will lead to better rules. But that is unlikely to prove decisive in the controversy at hand, so I want to suggest another way forward.

The basic facts of the case are as follows. In early September, the 19-year-old American upstart Hans Niemann, playing the black pieces, crushed world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway. The match was shocking not only because Carlsen lost (which does happen, if only rarely), but because it is exceedingly rare for the world’s top player to be defeated in such a smooth, one-sided fashion.

The story could have ended there, but Carlsen withdrew from the tournament, insinuating that Niemann had been aided by a computer, possibly with the help of an accomplice. He then leveled that accusation openly in writing. His statement, remarks by other players, and all the other details are now available everywhere. But no one, ultimately, has any definitive answers.

To be more precise, it is pretty clear that Niemann has cheated in the past in online tournaments that are not considered official games for ranking purposes. He has admitted as much. What is shocking the chess world is Carlsen’s insinuation that Niemann might be cheating in major face-to-face matches, even where he is being recorded from all angles.

Carlsen has a very long record as a consummate sportsman, having played tens of thousands of games against all kinds of players. His credibility is unquestioned, and it is hard not to take him seriously. If he felt that Niemann behaved strangely during the game (his open letter alleges that his opponent never seemed to be concentrating or taking the game seriously), one must respect that.

Then again, weird behavior is not a crime. Concrete substantiation would have to be in the form of, say, proof that Niemann was carrying a device that allowed him to receive signals – possibly in Morse code – from an accomplice following the game and using a computer to come up with moves. How might tournament organizers prevent this? Airport scanners are fine if the concern is that players are carrying guns, but they most likely would not catch a tiny receiving chip planted somewhere on a player’s body.

What makes the case so difficult is that it is relatively easy to check retroactively if someone has been relying heavily on help from a computer, which is why all the big tournaments routinely screen the games to see if the play looks too “computer-like.” But if a player throws in some random, mediocre (but not losing) moves to throw off the scent, that is much harder to detect. Moreover, a strong enough player would not need a hint on every move. Just an occasional “stay awake here” would confer a staggering advantage.

Amateur sleuths think they have found many striking examples of Niemann playing games that are so blindingly brilliant, and so computer-like, that he must be cheating at least some of the time. Hikaru Nakamura, long one of the world’s very top players, has concluded that Niemann is either the greatest talent who has ever walked the earth, or he is cheating. Another top player, Fabiano Caruana (who tied Carlsen in their 2018 world championship match but lost in a rapid playoff) is more circumspect than Nakamura, but still finds some of Niemann’s moves to be brilliant beyond his own human understanding.

That said, it is equally important to note that the respected anti-cheating expert Ken Regan, a computer scientist at the University at Buffalo, has conducted his own statistical analysis and concluded that Niemann’s gameplay shows nothing glaringly suspicious.

The situation is vexing. On one hand, I am very uncomfortable with seeing Niemann’s budding career destroyed. What if he really is the second coming of Bobby Fischer? Is he to be canceled for his genius?

On the other hand, I would like to see Niemann prove that he is for real. A simple approach would be for him to agree that during any major tournament, the organizers can ask him to give a long interview immediately after one or two of the games to discuss his thinking in concrete detail (avoiding a discussion of the early moves, which usually come from computer-aided preparation anyway). As compensation for his time, they could pay him a large bonus. And, of course, such interviews would draw worldwide attention.

So far, some of Niemann’s explanations of critical move choices have indeed been quite superficial, adding to the suspicion. Normally, a truly great player who discusses a game’s moves in its immediate aftermath offers a mélange of brilliant variations that he considered. He does not just randomly land on amazing computer-like ideas that magically work.

Moreover, instead of refusing to play Niemann, Carlsen should agree to an informal match where they first play 20 blitz games, the fast pace of which makes cheating extremely difficult, followed by eight regular games. The arbiters can use whatever high-tech equipment and procedures that they deem necessary to preclude cheating (including not livestreaming the broadcast).

If Niemann does well (winning, say, 12 blitz games and 4.5-3.5 full-length games), Carlsen would agree to apologize in writing and retract previous remarks and insinuations, and Niemann would get a very big pot of money. But if Niemann is crushed, he will be outed. He would agree not to sue Carlsen for defamation, and he would voluntarily take a one-year hiatus from chess.

Plenty of people would be willing to sponsor such a match (here’s looking at you, Elon). So let us settle it on the chess board.

Copyright: Project Syndicate
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Professor of Economics and Public Policy, Harvard University. He was formerly chief economist at the IMF.