Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit recently raised the profile of the 1,400-year-old game of chess, but the game didn’t really go 21st-century viral until a cheating scandal divided the chess community on Sept. 5.
The 31-year-old reigning World Chess champion Magnus Carlsen abruptly withdrew from the Sinquefield Cup chess competition in St. Louis, Missouri, after a surprising loss to 19-year-old Hans Niemann. At the time, fellow chess grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura speculated that Carlsen may have withdrawn because he suspected Niemann of engaging in suspicious behavior during their match.
“I believe Niemann has cheated more, and more recently, than he has publicly admitted,” Carlsen tweeted several weeks later. “His over the board progress has been unusual, and throughout our game in the Sinquefield Cup I had the impression that he wasn’t tense or even fully concentrating on the game… I am not willing to play chess with Niemann. I hope the truth of this matter comes out.”
Hans Niemann was found to have cheated far more times than he has previously admitted
Following Carlsen’s withdrawal, Niemann acknowledged that he had been caught cheating in online matches on Chess.com in the past when he was 12 and 16 years old, but claimed he no longer cheats. Generally, if playing online, a player could easily use one of many chess analysis engines available, which can help players analyze games in ways that may far exceed their natural skill.
The turn of events in St. Louis has gripped the global chess community, with some defending Niemann’s sudden rise. Others are wondering how he could have cheated in a live match in which players are checked with a metal detector upon entering the facility (used to prevent players from receiving remote instructions via vibrations emitted from a mobile device, for example).
Without any proof of wrongdoing, Niemann has continued to compete in chess competitions, each win seemingly bolstering his claims of innocence. However, on Oct. 4, Chess.com published a damning 72-page report focused on Niemann and his behavior on the site.
“We have found that Hans has likely cheated in more than 100 online chess games, including several prize money events,” Chess.com founder Erik Allebest and the site’s chief chess officer, Danny Rensch, stated in the report. “He was already 17 when he likely cheated in some of these matches and games. He was also streaming in 25 of these games.”
Although the report doesn’t come to any conclusion regarding the in-person chess match between Carlsen and Niemann, organizers of the site, which boasts 75 million members in 35 countries, stated, “We uninvited Hans from our upcoming major online event and revoked his access to our site.”
Since the Sept. 5 incident, in interviews and on social media, Niemann has denied any wrongdoing. However, one day after the Chess.com report was released, he avoided discussing the site’s findings during a post-match interview at the U.S. Chess Championship in St. Louis.
Even those unacquainted with the quiet world of chess are fascinated with the drama that has unfolded
The mystery surrounding Niemann’s in-person playing behavior has turned into a viral conversation on social media, moving the usually sedate and non-tech-oriented game of chess into the spotlight.
So far, no one has managed to come up with a solid theory as to how Niemann may have pulled off any less-than-fair moves during his live chess matches. But new footage from his most recent match indicates that he’s now being checked more rigorously than some other players. Most of all it has people talking about chess— even Elon Musk is jokingly speculating about how the chess player might have received assistance during his matches.
Niemann’s fate in the chess world is uncertain, but a byproduct of the controversial series of events has been a renewed interest in chess, an unchanging game that has struggled to compete with the popularity of console and mobile games.
But as the resurgence of vinyl and the Gen Z embrace of all things retro have proven, the only thing stopping chess from becoming more popular is attention. Chess now has more of that than it has had in a long time.