An allegation of cheating in the top echelons of competitive chess has hit headlines worldwide. What lengths will people go to in order to get that winning edge?
For as long as there’s been sport, there’ve been cheaters.
But some forms of cheating are more creative than others.
On the basic, unimaginative side of the ledger, you have the dopers: the people who pump themselves full of steroids and hormones to get bigger and faster and stronger. Very unsubtle.
Then you’ve got the borderline psychopaths who hire hitmen to break their competitors’ legs; the golfers who bullishly kick their balls closer to the green; and the autocratic leaders who surround themselves with professional ice hockey players and go on to score eight goals in a game.
But never, to the knowledge of this author, have hidden sex toys allegedly formed part of an elaborate plot to distort the course of natural sporting justice.
The world of chess has been rocked by a cheating scandal, after the world number one, Norwegian player Magnus Carlsen – described by Wellington Chess Club president Bill Forster as “Federer, Djokovic and Nadal all rolled into one” – lost an over-the-board match in September to 19-year-old US upstart Hans Niemann.
Given Niemann’s rapid rise through the chess ranks and his chequered history (he’s admitted to having cheated in online matches in the past), the result raised eyebrows – particularly when Carlsen posted a cryptic message on social media in the aftermath of their match suggesting he felt something was afoot.
When the two played a follow-up match a few days later, Carlsen – in an unprecedented move – resigned after making just one move, before unleashing a broadside at Niemann, saying he felt the American had cheated more – and more recently – than he’d let on.
“His over-the-board progress has been unusual,” Carlsen wrote.
“We must do something about cheating.
“I am not willing to play chess with Niemann. I hope that the truth of this matter comes out, no matter what it may be.”
So, if Niemann did indeed cheat, how did he do it?
Forster says any cheating must have been sophisticated, and involved someone inputting the pieces’ positions on the chess board into a powerful chess engine, which would recommend moves to make.
“At elite tournaments, [cheating] is very rare or unheard of … because there are serious security measures.
“It’s not completely unprecedented.
“Ten years ago, the French Olympiad team were caught out cheating.
“What happened there is their manager [was] signalling: the players are sitting at the board, the manager comes and goes from the tournament room, he goes back to his hotel room, puts the position into a computer, he’s attuned to the situation … goes back, and touches his hair or scratches the right side of his nose – they worked out a code.
“So, if Hans was cheating over the board, he would have to be doing something weird like that, which is why I don’t actually think he was cheating, to be honest.”
While there has been some imaginative speculation that Niemann may have had moves transmitted to him through, well, a vibrating device internally hidden from view, Forster says he can refute that allegation.
“What happened was, Eric Hansen, a Canadian chess grandmaster, he’s a very playful, fun young guy. One day he was running one of his YouTube sessions, talking about the Hans, thing, and somebody in his chat … made a joke saying, ‘Maybe he has anal beads’.
“Eric being the fun young guy he [is] picked that up and ran with it – he was only ever joking.
“Elon Musk tweeted about it, the next day there were headlines in German newspapers acting like this was a real theory. It never was a real theory.”
The Detail also casts an eye over two more elaborate cheating scandals from recent years – the Australian cricket team’s ball-tampering scandal of 2018, and the Bloodgate sags of 2009 in rugby union – exploring how the athletes went about the cheating, what they hoped to gain, and how they were busted.
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