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OPINION

The scandal rocking the chess world

In early September, American upstart Hans Niemann crushed world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway. The game itself was shocking not because Carlsen lost but because it is exceedingly rare to have the world’s top player defeated in such a smooth, one-sided fashion.

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The chess world has been rocked by a cheating accusation. The World Chess Federation, or FIDE, has started an investigation, which hopefully will lead to better rules, but is not likely to prove decisive here. I suggest a way forward.

First, the basics. In early September, 19-year-old American upstart Hans Niemann, playing the black pieces, crushed world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway. The game itself was shocking not because Carlsen lost — it happens, if only rarely — but because it is exceedingly rare to have the world’s top player defeated in such a smooth, one-sided fashion.

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It could have ended there; youth will be served. But it did not.

Carlsen proceeded to withdraw from the tournament, casting strong aspersions that Niemann had gotten help from a computer, possibly with the help of an accomplice. Since then, Carlsen has made the accusation openly in writing.

Carlsen has a long record as a consummate sportsman. His credibility is huge, and it is hard not to take him seriously. He has played tens of thousands of games against all kinds of players, and if he felt Niemann’s behavior during the game was strange — mainly that he never seemed to be concentrating or taking the game seriously — one has to respect that. Then again, “unusual” behavior is not a crime. Concrete evidence would be, for example, proof that Niemann was carrying a device that allowed him to receive signal, possibly in Morse code, from an accomplice following the game as it was broadcast and using a computer to come up with moves.

What makes the case so difficult is that it is relatively easy to check if someone has been getting help from a computer to make all the moves. All the big tournaments routinely screen the games to see if the play looks too “computer-like.” But it is much harder to detect someone who, say, randomizes, throwing in some mediocre (but not losing) moves, to throw off the scent.

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How to prevent this? Airport scanners are fine if the concern is that your chess opponent is carrying a gun, not so much if there is a tiny receiving chip planted on them somewhere. Very importantly, a strong player does not need a hint on every move to gain a big advantage — just an occasional “stay awake here” would be a staggering advantage.

There is little question that Niemann has cheated in unofficial online tournaments that do not impact world rankings, partly because cheating is far too hard to stamp out. Niemann has admitted as much; he is unfortunately not alone. What is shocking the chess world however is Carlsen’s insinuation that Niemann might have found a way to cheat in bigtime face-to-face encounters, even where he is being televised from all angles.

Amateur sleuths think they have found a number of striking examples of in-person games so blindingly brilliant, and so computer-like, that Niemann must be cheating at least occasionally. 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 is cheating.

Another very top player, Fabiano Caruana — who tied Carlsen in regulation in their 2018 world championship match but lost in a rapid playoff — is more circumspect, yet still finds some of Niemann’s move choices brilliant beyond his own human understanding. On the other side, anti-cheating experts such as computer science professor Ken Regan at the University of Buffalo say that a statistical analysis of Niemann’s games since August 2020 shows nothing glaringly suspicious. It is true that Chess.com has released evidence that Niemann has in the past cheated in unrated online tournaments; however, they acknowledge a lack of concrete evidence about “over-the-board” (in person) cheating, which is what really has the chess world in a tizzy.

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I am very uncomfortable with seeing Niemann’s budding career destroyed. What if he is the second coming of Bobby Fischer? Is he to be canceled for his genius?

But I would like Niemann to prove that he is playing chess with his integrity intact. A simple approach would be for Niemann to agree that during any major tournament, the organizers can request that he submit to a thorough interview immediately after one or two of the games to concretely discuss his thinking during it. They can pay him a large bonus, it will draw worldwide attention, and he can avoid discussion of the early moves, which are computer-aided preparation anyway.

Until now, Niemann’s sometimes superficial explanations of critical move choices have been a major source of suspicion. Normally, when one sees a truly great player show variations after a game, one sees a mélange of brilliant variations they considered. They don’t just randomly land on an amazing computer-like idea that magically works and say they just got lucky or their opponent played badly.

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As for Carlsen, instead of refusing to play Niemann, as he has now done, he should agree to an informal match where they first play 20 blitz (very fast) games, where cheating is extremely difficult. Afterward, the match would move to eight regular-time games. The arbiters can choose whatever high-tech equipment and procedures are needed to preclude cheating. If Niemann plays at a very high level — which could be measured both by how well he scores against Carlsen, as well as a computer evaluation of the quality of his play — Carlsen would then withdraw his accusation of cheating and apologize. Niemann would also be eligible to receive a large pot of money.

If Niemann fails to perform like the elite grandmaster, he is considered outed. He agrees not to sue Carlsen for defamation and to take a voluntary one-year hiatus from all chess events. There will be no end of people willing to put up big stakes to sponsor such a match. Let’s settle this on the chess board.

Kenneth Rogoff, a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is a professor of economics and public policy at Harvard University. He is a chess grandmaster. © 2022 Project Syndicate.