It is 7:00 p.m. on Monday, September 19, and while the day was marked by the funeral of one queen, Elizabeth II, another sovereign falters, the king placed on E8 on Magnus Carlsen’s virtual chessboard. The Norwegian chess grandmaster, number 1 in the world in the Elo ranking and current world champion, faces a certain Hans Niemann, a 19-year-old American, in a small online tournament that he is organizing on the Chess24 platform.
“I do not prefer to express myself, if I speak I will have problems and I do not want to have problems.”
If the cameras from all over the world are nailed to London, the media agitation is not zero around this match. It must be said that the meeting has an air of revenge. On September 5, during the 3rd day of the Sinquefield Cup 2022, in St. Louis, Missouri, the young loser of the tournament created the feat by beating the holder of the highest Elo rating in history, higher even than that of the legend Garry Kasparov.
Following this loss, Magnus Carlsen logs on to his Twitter account and posts a cryptic tweet to his 700,000 subscribers. He explains that he has given up on continuing with the tournament, without giving any particular reason, and illustrates his few words with a GIF that has long since become a meme, that of José Mourinho, the Portuguese soccer coach, responding to journalists. “I do not prefer to express myself, if I speak I will have problems and I do not want to have problems”. So instead, the oscilloscope of scandals gets carried away and, in a sport already plagued by paranoia, everyone sees in it the sign of a thinly veiled denunciation of cheating.
hans niemann stands out in this cold world of chess. He is quite unpleasant, he seems like a slightly crazy character from a novel, with arrogant eyes and shaggy hair. He never changes his jacket, doesn’t wash it, and even seems to annoy the other players in real tournaments. And then his progress has been spectacular since the Covid-19 pandemic. Faced with the drama created by Carlsen, Niemann had to justify himself during an interview, defending himself from being a cheat, arguing that he was willing to play naked if necessary, and that yes, he could have cheated at chess. com in his youth, two or three times, but he never did it in serious events or real tournaments.
Caught up in the whirlwind, Chess.com puts out a press release to explain that Hans Niemann is now banned from the platform and that she has marbles to contradict the young man’s version of his cheating frequency. And in Saint-Louis, the organization of the tournament decides to introduce a delay of 15 minutes between the real match and its broadcast online. Niemann also did not shine at the end of the tournament, chaining draws and losses when he had taken the lead after beating his new Norwegian nemesis.
The Trollesque theory of the connected sex toy
As Carlsen disappears from radar screens after his provocative tweet, the web speeds up. It is even said that Niemann could have used a connected object derived from the sex toy to transmit caresses through a vibration system. The subject obviously attracts the mainstream media, which is quick to spread the rumour. Even Elon Musk went there with the little comment of him on Twitter before finally deleting it. But there is no evidence. And the “connected butt plug” illusion comes, as it often does, from a few trolls on Reddit and elsewhere. A delusion that is not even that young since the joke would be resurrected for several years with each new suspicion of deception. Other theories: Niemann could have used a vibrating soleplate, or he could have communicated Carlsen’s game plan to him. In short, a lot of noise, but only noise.
“What made the Niemann case all the fuss was the hypothesis of an anal chipsays Kevin ‘Blitzstream’ Bordi, the discipline’s top streamer in France, who also seems to be having fun keeping the crazy rumor alive. Who is going to have the right to look for his anus before a game of chess? This is the least risky trick in the world.”. Still, the assumption, crazy as it sounds, hides the real problem with modern chess. He pursues: “Before modern technologies, we didn’t have cheat systems that would fundamentally change the outcome. But there, anyone using the technology can beat Magnus Carlsen. You don’t even need to know the rules, just be guided by a computer.”.
There are some examples of cheating that happened before the advent of technology, for example with hidden cheat sheets. But they are more like memory aids with banal descriptions of movements. In 2019, Grandmaster Igors Rausis, a 58-year-old Czech, 53rd player in the world, got his hand caught on his mobile phone during the Strasbourg Open. Investigators from the International Chess Federation (FIDE) found him strumming during a break to urinate.
Georgian grandmaster Gaioz Nigalidze was unmasked in 2015 at the Dubai Open. Rushing to the bathroom with his opponent’s every move, the man aroused suspicion and the referees found a phone hidden behind the toilet seat, equipped with headphones and connected to a program that analyzed the game in progress. Finally, Borislav Ivanov, a Bulgarian grandmaster, faced strong suspicions of cheating on several occasions, so much so that an entire room was polygraphed to find a possible accomplice, or he was asked to undress. During a tournament, an electronic item was also found in one of his shoes. And Ivanov preferred to leave the tournament rather than let the organizers in.
YouTube, and the Internet in general, is also full of examples of electronic cheating methods for chess. Here, a Raspberry Pi hidden in a shoe. There, a player shows how he was able to cheat with discreet headphones. We are also thinking of subcutaneous implants that could be almost undetectable and allow Morse code to communicate the blows to be performed. With sometimes colossal sums at stake, the investment is tempting.
“There is a bad atmosphere in the high-level scene because there is clearly not enough security in tournaments.Kevin Bordi says. We live in a world of suspicion. As soon as some make great performances, suspicions arise and then an omerta. This Niemann story is just another symptom of the problem.. According to him, the challenge is this: how, in a world where technologies are getting smaller and undetectable, ensure that no one uses them in professional chess games? A priori, the discipline lacks solutions.
Real tournament security is described as quite archaic. Most often, a simple metal detector is passed over the body. On rare occasions, such as during the world championships in Sochi, a jammer is activated in the room to prevent electronic communications. The referees can also ask to search for the protagonists, but obviously they are limited to the realm of what is visible. And unlike cycling, where suspicion triggers police investigations, no one will knock on Carlsen, Niemann or Firouzja’s door.
The flip side of chess modernization is that online tournaments are multiplying. “At Chess.com, in tournaments where there is a little money on the line, the platform asks players to install a dual camera system, a classic front camera and a rear camera that records them and their surroundings “.details the French streamer. “The referee can ask, even during the game, that the player take the camera and film the play. There is also a time lapse between the broadcast of the game and the game itself. Since they are quick games, c is enough to avoid something cheating”. Again, the system probably doesn’t cure all the ills of failure.
Magnus Carlsen, slanderer or “whistleblower”?
Precisely, the part of Monday, September 19 is played online, cameras on. But the curious and the streamers did not vibrate for long in this new Niemann-Carlsen duel. The American, playing White, begins the game by moving his first pawn to D4. The Norwegian responds with his pilot in F6. And as Niemann prepares to continue his opening by throwing a new pawn on C4, the unthinkable happens. Magnus Carlsen has just left the game, not expressing any particular facial emotion. A few seconds later, his camera goes offline. Niemann looks at his, hardly seems surprised and switches off in turn.
The day after this second episode, neither Niemann nor Carlsen communicated. And beyond the laughs, it now remains to be seen if FIDE will investigate Niemann and launch an ethics commission on Carlsen for his attitude that risks damaging the image of the discipline.
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