We’re now at two weeks and counting since the world’s most famous chess player, Magnus Carlsen, accused an opponent of cheating by declining to accuse him of cheating.
After losing a match against 19-year-old American Hans Niemann – a match in which he was so heavily favoured the word “heavily” can’t begin to cover it – Carlsen quit the tournament.
By explanation, he posted a meme to social media. It shows notoriously combustible soccer manager Jose Mourinho saying, “I prefer not to speak. If I speak, I am in big trouble.”
And that’s it. No formal accusation was or has since been levelled.
But conspiring minds jumped to the most interesting explanation. That idea was amplified by another bigwig in the chess world, Hikaru Nakamura.
“I think that Magnus believes that Hans probably is cheating,” Nakamura said.
That line got a ton of media play. The next one – “Again, unproven. Who knows what the reality is?” – not so much.
How exactly does one cheat at professional chess?
At the highest levels, players are often checked for electronic devices. So it requires some creativity.
One grandmaster hid a phone in the toilet and went in there to go over strategy during bathroom breaks. A French trio was caught signalling moves to each other via a (not very) elaborate system of standing behind certain desks in a competition venue to indicate places on the board.
The hot theory in this case is, obviously, vibrating anal beads.
To that, most people will say, ‘They can do that?’ But in chess, apparently, they say, ‘Of course. Makes total sense.’
What’s the evidence? Elon Musk retweeted a stream in which someone said, “Anal beads? I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
Sounds pretty convincing to me.
What else you got?
Niemann has admitted to cheating in the past. When he was 12, and again when he was 16, in online tournaments.
Chess.com – sponsors of the initial flashpoint – issued a statement suggesting Niemann may have cheated a whole lot more than he’s admitted and banned him from the platform.
This week, Carlsen and Niemann met again in a streamed virtual match. While commentators were recapping the ongoing soap opera, Niemann made his first move. Carlsen responded. Niemann moved again.
Then, after a six-second pause that acted like a long, sideways look at the audience, Carlsen turned off his camera and retired.
Now we await further developments.
On the one hand, cheating is wrong. On the other hand, this is the greatest thing that’s happened to chess since it became a proxy for nuclear war.
You may know Carlsen. He was once on The Simpsons.
But unless you are a chess geek, you don’t know his colleagues.
No modern entertainment product presents a higher barrier to entry. None goes on so long and is so routinely turgid. None requires so much explanation so that non-experts can have some vague idea where things are headed.
Chess survives as a sports-adjacent draw because it is a byword for ‘brainy.’ In the same way no one who jogs can go 12 sentences at a dinner party without including the words ‘I was on a run when …’, no one who plays chess can shut up about it.
There are enough brands who like the implied association with intelligence to keep it afloat.
But it’s not like average sports fans are huddled around the screen on a Monday night going, ‘Which one is the queen again?’
How do you inject this difficult, niche product into mainstream conversation?
I’m amazed someone else didn’t think of it first, but there you go.
Boxing would know what to do with this opportunity.
Niemann and Carlsen would agree to play on the Caesar’s Palace casino floor. The encounter would take place in a glass cube impervious to radio signals. The usual commentators would be jettisoned in favour of Joe Rogan and Roy Jones, Jr. They don’t need to understand what’s going on. They just need to yell about it.
Forget streams. This is an HBO pay-per-view. Make it a best-of-15 cage match. The loser promises to switch to checkers.
Niemann has offered to play naked. If the rumours are true, that doesn’t solve the problem. But I like where his head’s at. That’s one way to drive social-media impressions.
In the tortured way of those enmeshed in any subculture, chess commentators are reading this wrong. For them, this represents a crisis of confidence. If this is allowed to pass, then what’s next?
(Again, no one has directly accused Niemann of cheating against Carlsen. No one has suggested that a forensic audit of Niemann’s recent matches screams – or whispers – cheating. This entire controversy is based on a fit of pique by the sport’s only name brand.)
Most chess heavy hitters would like Carlsen to come out and state his claim. Does he think Niemann cheated? How? And if he doesn’t know how, why does he think that?
“We just can’t continue like this,” U.S.-based grandmaster Maurice Ashley told NPR.
With respect, yeah, you can. All of you should want this to continue for as long as possible. When was the last time you had so many people so interested in chess?
The likeliest possibility is the least interesting – that Carlsen had a bad day. That an imperfect opponent played a perfect match against him.
Another possibility – that Carlsen doesn’t know exactly why he reacted the way he did. Now he can’t figure out a way to withdraw with his dignity intact.
We have all been this person at some point – freaking out over something that was not freakout-worthy, then feeling like a doofus afterward. Except we don’t do it on the world stage.
If all Carlsen has is a vague suspicion about Niemann, whatever explanation he comes up with is going to seem very petty. After so many glorious headlines, what a damp squib that would be.
The honourable thing is transparency. But professional sport has never figured out a way to make money off honour.
A duel to the chess death sounds the more likely way to put a period on this story.