A Chess Ethics Controversy!

And it’s a chess ethics controversy that I don’t understand, despite a relatively secure knowledge of chess. Here’s what happened:

World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen quit the annual, invite-only Sinquefield Cup chess tournament in St. Louis, Missouri, United States, a stop on the Grand Chess Tour, mid-match. His unprecedented exit sparked speculation that he was engaged in a silent protest after losing to Hans Niemann, regarded as an inferior player. Niemann was accused of cheating earlier in his career.

Opined WorldChess.com,  “Carlsen likely walked out because he felt that the organizers could not ensure fair play procedures.” This was the consensus of many chess fans and commentators as well. Chess Grand Master Hikaru Nakamura also theorized that Carlsen withdrew because he suspected Niemann of cheating in their game, saying: “I think that Magnus believes that Hans probably is cheating.”

Above is the position on the board when Carlson resigned in his game against Nieman; he had lost all right. (You can play through the entire game here if you’re a chess sleuth and see if you find anything suspicious. I can’t.) When he walked out of the tournament, Carlsen’s clock had been started against Grand Master Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, but Carlsen never showed up to play and was forfeited after the 10-minute limit expired.

Apparently chess players at this level never quit tournaments unless there is a health issue involved, and Carlson wasn’t sick. This is first time that Carlsen has withdrawn from a major event for any reason; the closest thing to a precedent occured in the 1967 Sousse Interzonal, when Bobby Fischer withdrew after arguing with the officials. As a chess player, you never want to inspire comparisons with the infamous chess wacko Fischer if it’s not based on your brilliant play.

The World Champion left with this mysterious tweet:

“If I speak I’m in big trouble?” What’s that supposed to mean?


1. The manner of Carlson’s exit, especially with that tweet, have thrown suspicion on Niemann, and, by extension, the tournament organizers for inviting him. Carlson has an obligation to either allege cheating or clarify his withdrawal to take Niemann out from the shadow, unless placing Neimann’s honesty in question is his objective.

2. If it is, this is an unfair way to do it.

3. The other explanation I can see is that this is a snit by a player who isn’t used to losing, speaking of Bobby Fischer, though Magnus has never shown such proclivities before.

4. Cheating at the Grand Master level in chess is not only unheard of, it’s hard to imagine. How do you cheat at chess? If a player has evidence that a player is cheating, the response is to flag it to officials. The tournament tightened up its anti-cheating protocols after Carlson walked out:

RFID means “radio-frequency identification.”

Thanks to the suggestive walk-out, Neimann is under unusual scrutiny. In an interview after the game, Niemann mentioned that he prepared for his match by studying Carlsen’s use of the Nimzo-Indian opening in a game in London in 2018. However, chess.com states pointedly, this game does not exist. (I know I always got my Nimzo-Indian games mixed-up, but that’s me.)

What’s going on here?

Your guess is as good as mine, but something’s rotten somewhere.

22 thoughts on “A Chess Ethics Controversy!

  1. “How do you cheat at chess?”

    I have to admit that I wondered the same thing. Surely, the games are monitored. Everyone has the same number and type of game pieces, the method of moving such pieces set in stone….

    Am I missing something?

  2. The only possible way to cheat in a closely monitored game would seem to be by using some type of surreptitious information feed, hence the RFID reference. Perhaps odd behavior, like posture or eye shifts consistent with appearing to “listen” before a move might raise suspicions.

  3. One method sometimes used to determine if a player cheated by somehow having access to a chess engine analysis (RFID, etc) is to have the game analyzed by a top chess engine such as Stockfish, Komodo or LC0. Grandmasters can no longer even beat the weaker chess engines and if you analyze any Grandmaster game with a chess engine you can see the inaccuracies and blunders.

    You can see an analysis here:

    You can also turn on real time analysis in the upper right of the move window. After looking at the computer analysis it looks to me like Carlsen just wasn’t prepared or playing well. But, Niemann did make the correct moves in response to Carlsens mistakes but that doesn’t mean he was cheating. I help out at TCEC (Top Chess Engine Competition) and it’s actually amazing how often Grandmasters actually find the best move. They make enough inaccuracies during a game that they cannot beat the top chess engines but they make very few inaccurate moves over all.

    It’s very rare now to see a chess match between Grandmaster and chess engine. The last one I followed was several years ago and the Grandmaster got piece odds (remove chess computer pawn or knight) and the chess engine still prevailed. Even a pawn or minor piece advantage for a Grandmaster is virtually a sure win for a Grandmaster against any other Grandmaster.

  4. Do I understand that this was an online chess match?
    What would prevent someone banging on garbage cans within earshot of Nieman?

  5. I’ll have to check on this one. Sorry, that is a poker phrase. I like many do not understand how cheating can occur. Then I don’t know a Queen’s opening gambit from a King’s pass.

  6. I hadn’t considered the use of a chess engine. My thought on this is that Carlsen suspects Niemann was receiving assistance from another Grand Master, with the goal being to make Carlsen look bad and damage his reputation against a lesser opponent. I don’t know enough about professional chess to understand how professional jealousies or antagonisms may work, but it would explain why Carlsen refused to level an accusation.

  7. The cryptic message leads me to think gambling/blackmail was involved. Speculating too much further without evidence would be pointless.

  8. I used to play a LOT of chess back in the early 1970’s, played in a lot of local and regional competitions too, that was way back in `1972-1973. A friend and I purchased the book and studied every one of the games that Fisher and Spassky played at the World Chess Championship in 1972. Fisher was a freaking genius!

    Based on the move-by-move reply of the game that I saw, there were no illegal moves made in the game.

    About the only way to “cheat” in these tournaments is to do something that doesn’t allow the clock to properly trip on your side thus not counting the correct passage of time for your moves. I’ve seen clocks not switch over properly if one player doesn’t push down the mechanical lever on their side, it was the job of both players to assure that the clock properly switched. I’m guessing they are digital clocks now so that would be a lot harder to mechanically fail but anything digital can be hacked.

  9. All opening’s have been played and memorised by GMs they can look at computers responses to openings and use this in a game. Essentially you are playing a computer not a skilled chess player

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