Chess world champion Magnus Carlsen accuses young American player of cheating

It's the biggest scandal chess has seen in decades. Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion, accused American Hans Niemann of cheating in past games and lying about it. Niemann admitted to cheating when he was 12 and 16 in what he said were inconsequential games, but denies foul play when he played and beat Carlsen recently. Chess Grandmaster Maurice Ashley joined William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    One of the greatest chess champions of all time is accusing a fellow player of cheating, sending the chess world into chaos.

    William Brangham is back now to explain.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, this is the biggest scandal the game has seen in decades.

    Thirty-one-year-old Norwegian Magnus Carlsen is the current world chess champion. And, last night, he explicitly accused 19-year-old American Hans Niemann of cheating in past games and lying about it. In a recent match, Niemann beat Carlsen, and Carlsen then pulled out of the tournament, issuing some cryptic comments.

    But he was much more explicit in his statement yesterday, saying — quote — "We must do something about cheating. And for my part, going forward, I don't want to play against people that have cheated repeatedly in the past."

    He offered no further proof for his accusation. Niemann has admitted, though, to cheating when he was 12 and 16 in what he said were inconsequential games, but denies foul play when he played Carlsen or in any other major tournaments.

    So, here to unpack it all for us is grandmaster Maurice Ashley. He was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in 2016.

    Maurice Ashley, it's an honor to have you on the "NewsHour." Thank you so much for being here.

    Just to reiterate, there is no evidence that we have seen that Niemann actually cheated. But Carlsen in his statement that I read from said that, in the game where Carlsen lost to this younger player, that Niemann seemed to not be concentrating at key moments and seemed to be playing far beyond his abilities.

    I wonder what you make of this whole accusation.

  • Maurice Ashley, Chess Grandmaster:

    Well, this is an incredibly difficult situation for chess and for chess fans, like myself who have been involved in the game for decades.

    To hear this kind of allegation is truly troubling. And coming from the world chess champion, maybe the greatest player who's ever touched the chess piece, that is truly troubling, and devastating for the young man. Let's not make any bones about it.

    But what evidence does he have? He says that he can't reveal anything unless Hans gives him permission. Who's ever heard of an accuser asking for the accused to give permission for information against them? It is really a strange situation.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, Carlsen, as you say, is the highest-ranked player ever. But he's not infallible. He has lost.

    So there's either sort of two possibilities, it seems, here. Either Niemann is the greatest up-and-comer in the game, or there was some foul play going on here. Where do you come down on that?

  • Maurice Ashley:

    Well, let's be clear. Magnus says lost to players of Niemann's age, even younger than he is, in fact.

    Praggnanandhaa — Magnus has lost to bring to Praggnanandhaa from India, 16 years old. You can lose, despite being the greatest player in the game. It's possible to lose a chess in an individual game. Now, beating Magnus in a whole match, six or seven games, for example, that's a tall order, indeed.

    So, this one game, Magnus did not play very well, and admittedly made some mistakes. So it's possible that, in this individual matchup, he simply lost. But he felt, based on how Hans was acting and on some kind of data that he must have had from beforehand, that this particular game, it's one of those he says, no, he's — he doesn't think that the kid played aboveboard.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, underlying all of this is the fact that computer processing has gotten so good, that, with my little phone here, theoretically, using a good chess engine, I could beat Magnus Carlsen, if I could rely on the computer.

    Again, there's no evidence that Niemann did any of that in this match. But, given that that's a possibility, how is it that chess officials try to protect against that kind of cheating?

  • Maurice Ashley:

    Well, this is a real issue for the International Chess Federation and for national federations worldwide.

    During a chess tournament, you are not allowed to bring in that trusty cell phone. And, yes, programs now are so sophisticated that even Magnus couldn't take down your smartphone. However, they do have all these scanning devices, think TSA-like level, to check to make sure no electronic devices are being brought into the playing area, into the playing hall.

    But can you detect absolutely everything? That is the question. And even if a player does not have one of those phones, computer programs, what if they have a device hidden in their ear or somewhere on their person where somebody else on the outside, an accomplice, is watching the game live during a broadcast and is maybe sending some kind of signal?

    One buzz means a bishop. Two buzzes means a knight. Players like Hans are good enough to figure it out on their own with just that scant information by itself. So, that is the trick to try to stop something like outside interference.

  • William Brangham:

    And, again, we should say there are all sorts of wild rumors about different devices or signals that Hans might have been getting during the game, again, no evidence of that.

    Carlsen, though, in that statement said that cheating is an existential threat to the game of chess. Do you believe that that's true?

  • Maurice Ashley:

    Absolutely.

    I'm simply terrified for this game that I love so much and have been a part of for much greater than half of my life. The reality is, chess — in chess, information is everything. I mean, we study chess books. We pore over encyclopedias of chess openings and study games from the past, so that we can get key ideas, in order to defeat our opponents.

    But if you can just get information at the click of a mouse or a buzz in your ear or somewhere else on your body, then you simply upend everything that is fair in the game. And if it's widespread, which, by the way, it's not just Hans. Other players have been caught in the past. He's not the only one. He's not the first and, unfortunately, probably will not be the last.

    And this presents a real threat to the purity of our game and moving forward, particularly online chess, where it has thrived. How do you police all of this? This is a big problem for the officials concerned overseeing all this. It's not something that will go away anytime soon.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, that is Maurice Ashley, chess grandmaster.

    Thank you so much for being here.

  • Maurice Ashley:

    Thanks for having me.

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