Magnus Carlsen achieved the rank of chess grandmaster — the highest rank achievable in chess — at the age of 13 years old. The 31-year-old Norwegian mastermind is a five-time World Chess Champion and widely regarded as the best chess player in the world. He rarely loses, and that made his loss in the third round at the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis to 19-year-old Hans Niemann one of the most shocking defeats in recent memory. Carlsen losing a game isn’t enough to draw huge attention though. He’s lost on numerous occasions throughout his career. What really made this defeat noteworthy was what came after.
Carlsen promptly withdrew from the remainder of the tournament. This isn’t normal, especially for someone as heralded as Carlsen. He’d never quit a tournament before without having a damning reason for doing so.
So, what was the reason this time? Did something happen in his personal life? Was he feeling sick? Or was he just disappointed in his performance against Niemann?
The chess community needed to know what was going on. Anyone and everyone wanted to know why Carlsen acted the way he did. Eventually, the pressure to shed light on the situation got to Carlsen and he cracked. He didn’t give a direct answer, but tweeted out a video of a 2020 clip from former Tottenham Hotspur manager José Mourinho.
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The chess community was ablaze with speculation following this post. Many believe this implies that Carlsen has evidence, or at least believes, that Niemann was cheating during their match.
Other grandmasters started analyzing the match to see if there was any evidence of Niemann cheating. Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, one of the highest-rated and most well-respected American players created a 30-minute YouTube video offering his analysis of the match and his thoughts on whether or not he believed there was foul play between the two grandmasters.
Nakamura brought to light many questionable claims that Niemann made about the game after it was completed. He detailed how strange Niemann was playing and ultimately came to the conclusion that Niemann had outside help. However, the question remains. This event was streamed live for anyone to see. Nobody was whispering in Niemann’s ear during the match. Nobody was seen feeding Niemann information as the match was going on. How could he have cheated in front of so many cameras and not been caught?
Well, thanks to a proof of concept article written in July of this year, we have an answer. In the article, author James Stanley claimed that he’d figured out a way to communicate with a chess engine in real time through his socks. He called the project “Sockfish” as it was a means to communicate with the chess engine “Stockfish” through his socks. What a clever pun, very deserving of a short golf clap.
Through a series of vibrations and buttons in his shoes, Stanley was able to tell the engine what move his opponent played. The engine would then relay a series of vibrations back to Stanley to let him know what move he should play next. Stanley explained that his feet were ideal for accomplishing this cheat, because they are the only part of the body that has dexterity while still being obscured from view. We’ve seen similar cheating tactics used by poker players to get an edge. So, it only makes sense that these tactics would make their way to the chess world.
Of course, there is no direct proof that this is what Niemann was doing. Neimann does have a history of cheating in online tournaments, and has since been banned from chess.com amid the current cheating allegations he’s facing. I don’t think a website as popular as chess.com would not make such a move unless they believed the evidence against Niemann was all but conclusive. Niemann was thoroughly frisked the following day at the Sinquefield Cup.
Tournament officials found nothing. So, either Niemann was smart enough to understand the allegations against him and not bring his device to the tournament that day, or there was nothing helping him. As I said before, there is no hard evidence of cheating, but when the biggest names in chess, and the biggest online chess website, all assume there is something fishy going on, it’s hard not to believe them.