Malcolm Pein editorial: Rear-ended

by Malcolm Pein
9/28/2022 – When chess gets featured extensively in The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and even VICE, while Elon Musk also weighs in and when it’s the subject of sketches by Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert in the same week, you’d normally think this was good. This time round, in his editorial in the October issue of CHESS Magazine, Malcolm Pein is not totally sure.

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Of course, I am talking about the scandal surrounding the apparent implication by Magnus Carlsen that Hans Niemann, his opponent in the third round of the Sinquefield Cup at Saint Louis, had been cheating. Carlsen withdrew from the tournament after losing a somewhat unremarkable game to Niemann. This ended a 53-game unbeaten streak and it must have been particularly galling as Niemann was a wild card to the Grand Chess Tour and is just 19 years old. Carlsen issued this tweet, followed by a link to a video clip:

For American readers not familiar with football, the then manager of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, José Mourinho says in the clip: “If I speak, I am big trouble,” referring to possible criticism of the referee.

Needless to say, this tweet led to wild speculation about how Niemann could possibly have secured outside assistance and in the complete absence of any evidence, it didn’t take long before some smart arse – if you’ll forgive the expression – came up with the idea that Niemann had some sensory device up his backside.

The Internet and Twittersphere duly exploded.

Niemann was interviewed on the Sinquefield Cup broadcast after Carlsen had withdrawn and defended himself vigorously, while admitting he had cheated online as a 12-year-old and again at the start of the pandemic when 16. He received support from an unexpected source, as shown in the picture:

Soon after, Chess.com issued this statement claiming that their cheating algorithm had found more recent instances of alleged cheating by Niemann online. Of course, they will not make public their evidence. Chess.com never do.

Dear Chess Community, the last few days have been tumultuous for many in the chess community. At this time, we have reached out to Hans Niemann to explain our decision to privately remove him from Chess.com and our events. We have shared detailed evidence with him concerning our decision, including information that contradicts his statements regarding the amount and seriousness of his cheating on Chess.com. We have invited Hans to provide an explanation and response with the hope of finding a resolution where Hans can again participate on Chess.com. We want nothing more than to see the best chess players in the world succeed in the greatest events. We will always try to protect the integrity of the game that we all love.

This came just weeks after the deal that sees the possible extinguishing of the Play Magnus Group by Chess.com in an $82 million deal. While I am not remotely suggesting that Magnus requested such a statement or that there was pressure from anybody in his camp, the visuals are just awful. It looks like the chess establishment ganging up on Niemann.

There are two issues: Carlsen’s action and behaviour, and the wider implications for the game. I believe his withdrawal was unjustified, petulant at best, and a lesser player might be sanctioned for it. In the absence of any evidence that Niemann was receiving assistance, Carlsen should either provide that evidence if he holds it or explain his actions. As Garry Kasparov said, and he knows a bit about being world champion:

In the last few days, the chess world has become the center of controversy and spectacle, and for none of the right reasons. Still just a few days removed from the initial news, I will not talk about the dirty rumors, but I will say that Carlsen’s withdrawal was a blow to chess fans, his colleagues at the tournament, the organizers, and, as the rumors and negative publicity swirl in a vacuum, to the game. The world title has its responsibilities, and a public statement is the least of them here.

While the oxygen of publicity is something that can be enjoyed momentarily or in the short term, it’s the long-term impact that worries me. Having the credibility of the game dragged into the gutter and paraded for all to see is in my view potentially damaging. I hope that I’m wrong, but speaking as an organiser who’s done a lot of work with sponsors, I’m in complete agreement with Kasparov:

Creating public factions based on pure speculation is damaging to the game. Social media might enjoy the toxic environment, but sponsors and organizers hate it. These players, especially the world champion, should realize that.

My heart sank when I read – in VICE, where else? – that a porn streaming site, Stripchat, had reportedly offered Niemann $1,000,000 to broadcast himself playing chess naked. The purported objective being to help him prove he did not cheat.

This story has a long way to run I fear. It was initially encouraging to see that Niemann was allowed to play in the Julius Baer Generation Cup, which is taking place on Chess24 as I write. Indeed, Magnus was also taking part and he was playing well, leading the field after the first day.

Magnus’s sixth round game against Niemann was widely promoted on Chess24 and eagerly awaited by chess fans. Clearly, the Chess24 management were unaware of what was about to happen. We all tuned in to see Niemann play 1 d4 and after 1...Ìf6 2 c4 Magnus disconnected. If his withdrawal at Saint Louis was petulant, this was scandalous. Magnus has always suited himself, done what he likes, but this is surely too much, destroying the integrity of an event in a way that must have been premeditated.

Carlsen’s former second, Jon Ludwig Hammer, criticised him on Norwegian TV, saying he should be sanctioned: “It’s completely unacceptable behaviour to lose on purpose. It’s the most unsportsmanlike you can do in a competitive sport.”

At some point this must end: either Magnus declares what evidence he has, or he puts up. If Niemann has cheated in online competitive games at a high level and this can be proved then he must be sanctioned for it, but the principle of innocent until proven guilty must be sacrosanct or else we have madness. This cannot be good for the game; short-term notoriety will be outweighed by long-term damage, particularly to Magnus’s brand.

If Carlsen objects to playing Niemann as a matter of principle, he should express himself in a principled manner. This should still be possible without exposing himself legally, which I assume is a major consideration.

The Julius Baer Generation Cup is run by Chess24 which is part of the Play Magnus Group and prior to the event the Director of the Meltwater Tour, Arne Horvei, confirmed on the live broadcast that they had no evidence of Niemann cheating and so there had been no reason to revoke his invitation. Horvei commented: “We have been closely analysing many games in the Tour so far and there has been no indication in his games that he has been involved in any cheating”.

Niemann took part on the FTX Crypto Cup in Miami in August and after defeating Magnus in the first game of four, he created quite a stir by brusquely turning down the possibility of a post-game interview with the words: “The chess speaks for itself.” This spawned a thousand memes and I just wonder if it didn’t rile Carlsen, even though he then defeated Niemann three times in a row.

We now have the bizarre spectacle of two chess companies, reportedly about to be merged, with one banning Niemann from its tournaments, the other welcoming him.

The best spin I can put on this is that Magnus has decided there is a huge issue with cheating and with cheat detection, or with Hans Niemann in particular, and is deliberately provoking a crisis to try and change the paradigm, while trying to avoid getting himself sued.

Here is the game that apparently triggered the original furore. Much was made of the fact that Niemann said he was prepared for the variation that appeared on the board as it is a rare one, but that’s because people tend not to understand the nature of transpositions most of the time.

Consider these moves: 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 e6 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 Nf3 b6 was Le Quang Liem against Niemann from the FTX Crypto Cup just weeks before the Sinquefield Cup. Now if 5 g3 0-0 6.Bg2 d5 is a decent reply, so it’s not ridiculous for Niemann to have considered this position or 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 e6 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 g3 0-0 5 Bg2 d5 6 d4 dxc4 7 0-0, which was Carlsen-Adams, Turin Olympiad 2006, and is very similar. Indeed, Magnus could have transposed back to that game had he preferred 6 Nf3 against Niemann. There’s also the Catalan move order 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 e6 3 Nf3 d5 4 g3 Bb4+ when 5 Nc3 has been quite topical of late and now 5...0-0 6 a3 Nxc3+ 7 bxc3 dxc4 8 Bg2 has been played at GM level and leads us straight back into Carlsen-Niemann. Here my full annotations.

Note that you can click on the moves to follow the game on a pop-up chessboard. and can click on the engine button (fan) for computer assistance. Clicking on the book icon below the board will give you an alternate display that you might find more convenient.

 

The above editorial was reproduced from Chess Magazine Octobber 2022, with kind permission. 

CHESS Magazine was established in 1935 by B.H. Wood who ran it for over fifty years. It is published each month by the London Chess Centre and is edited by IM Richard Palliser and Matt Read.

The Executive Editor is Malcolm Pein, who organises the London Chess Classic. CHESS is mailed to subscribers in over 50 countries.

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Malcolm Pein is the CEO of Chess in Schools and Communities, organiser of the London Chess Classic, Managing Director of Chess and Bridge Ltd, the publisher of CHESS Magazine, and chess correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.

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