Magnus Carlsen competing at the 2021 World Chess Championship. (IMAGE: Eleri Kublashvili)

A chess scandal brings fresh attention to computers’ role in the game

When the world’s top-rated chess player, Magnus Carlsen, lost in the third round of the Sinquefield Cup earlier this month, it rocked the elite chess world.

The tournament was held in St. Louis, and Carlsen, one of the biggest names in chess since Bobby Fischer, faced 19-year-old Hans Niemann, a confident, shaggy-haired American. Over the course of 57 moves, Niemann whittled his Norwegian opponent down to just his king and a bishop, before the five-time world champion resigned the match. 

But what followed was even more shocking: Carlsen quit the whole tournament, then released a statement this week outright accusing Niemann of cheating. “I had the impression that he wasn’t tense or even fully concentrating on the game in critical positions, while outplaying me as black in a way I think only a handful of players can do,” he wrote.

Neither Carlsen nor Niemann’s critics have brought forth actual evidence of cheating, though Niemann did admit he had cheated at online chess in the past. Tongues started wagging soon after: some chess players and commentators accused Niemann of stealing Carlsen’s opening moves, of getting outside help. 

Others accused him of using a chess engine — a computer program built not just to beat humans at chess, but destroy them. 

“I wouldn’t quite say that it’s like a car driving, you know, compared to a person running, but it’s not that far off,” said former world champion Susan Polgar, about chess engines. 

The world’s most famous chess engine is called Stockfish, a free, open-source program that helps train the masses. It analyzes games, then generates the strongest possible moves. And there are dozens of different engines, with all sorts of names: Houdini, Leela Chess Zero, AlphaZero. (Carlsen even has a chess engine, called Sesse, modeled after his own game.) 

How a player could use an engine to cheat online is obvious: open the chess match on one tab while plugging your opponent’s moves into Stockfish on the side. 

But Niemann and Carlsen played in-person, sitting across from each other. Is it even possible to cheat that way? On this week’s episode of the Click Here podcast, Polgar explained that it’s not unprecedented. 

“It sadly does happen from time to time,” Polgar said. “And the most famous case was at the Chess Olympiad in 2010, when the French team colluded.”

The 2010 Chess Olympiad took place in Russia. Months after the tournament, it came out that three French teammates had devised an elaborate system to cheat at in-person chess. Polgar was there, none the wiser.

“It obviously requires multiple people,” Polgar said. 

The first teammate was remote, watching the tournament live stream and typing each of the opponents’ moves into a free, open-source chess engine called Firebird. He’d then text the second teammate, who was at the match, with the suggested moves. 

The third teammate — the actual player — watched for his teammate’s predetermined signals. They worked out a way to communicate not using obvious hand signs or facial cues, but by where in the room the second guy was standing. 

Polgar said she was “obviously shocked and disappointed” when news of the 2010 cheating broke. But this time around, the accusations against Niemann have yet to convince Polgar. She analyzed the Sinquefield Cup match, and “based on the technical moves of the game itself, I cannot say, or even suspect, cheating.” (After a TSA-style security check in the following match, tournament organizers found no evidence Niemann cheated; he would eventually finish sixth in the tournament.)

The 2010 Olympiad was a three-man operation. But this August, a month before the Sinquefield Cup, a British computer programmer laid out an elaborate scheme to cheat at in-person chess — solo.

“I definitely wouldn’t call myself a good chess player,” said James Stanley, who published the guide on his blog, Incoherency

He started by loading the chess engine Stockfish onto a tiny computer, which he could fit in his pocket. 

“Connected to the computer are some cables that run down my trouser legs,” he told The Record. “So there's a hole in the inside of my cargo pocket. The cables run through the hole, down the trouser legs, into these 3D-printed inserts that go in my shoes.”

Those inserts have buttons for his toes — buttons that allow him to tap the opponents’ chess moves, morse code-style, and send them to the computer loaded up with Stockfish in his pocket.

“Stockfish would work out what response it wants to play, and the computer would then send the vibrations to my feet down the cables,” Stanley said. 

He interprets the vibrations, plays the suggested move, “and then we just repeat every turn.”

Stanley, a former cybersecurity professional, calls his invention “Sockfish.” His friend, whom he played against in a pub, was none the wiser. 

“I told him I was planning to use the shoes to find a player who's plausibly good enough to win the world championship, have him use the shoes, win the world championship, win the money — but as a joke, obviously,” Stanley said. “So it's quite funny to me that there's now a massive controversy at the Sinquefield Cup where someone is accused of having cheated.”

That massive controversy has not died down. Carlsen and Niemann played each other again last week, albeit virtually. In the Julius Baer Generation Cup, an online tournament, Carlsen made just one move before shutting off his camera and resigning the match. He ultimately won the tournament.

"Unfortunately, at this time I am limited in what I can say without explicit permission from Niemann to speak openly," he wrote in a statement this week. "So far I have only been able to speak with my actions, and those actions have stated clearly that I am not willing to play chess with Niemann. I hope that the truth on this matter comes out, whatever it may be." 

Listen to this story — and others like it — on Click Here

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Will Jarvis

Will Jarvis

is a podcast producer for the Click Here podcast. Before joining Recorded Future News, he produced podcasts and worked on national news magazines at National Public Radio, including Weekend Edition, All Things Considered, The National Conversation and Pop Culture Happy Hour. His work has also been published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ad Age and ESPN.