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Hans Moke Niemann is known to cheat at chess. Does he still do that?

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Rwould dissolve would be much easier if you could hide a rocket in your back pocket. The problem with chess is that you can. In a scandal that has gripped the chess world, the world champion, Magnus Carlsen, now refuses to play another (seemingly) top player, Hans Moke Niemann. While Mr. Carlsen won’t say so directly, perhaps for legal reasons – he speaks through hints and cryptic internet memes – it is suspected that Mr. Niemann is using hidden computers to help him win. Does he?

The ruckus started with an extraordinary game. On September 4, Mr. Carlsen and Mr. Niemann found themselves face to face in St. Louis, in the Sinquefield Cup, an annual tournament in which ten of the world’s best players compete for a prize pool of $350,000, of which $100,000 is for the winner. Mr Carlsen made his seventh appearance. By far the highest-rated player in the game, and arguably the best ever, he hadn’t lost any of his previous 53 “classic” chess games (as opposed to faster variations).

Mr Niemann, 51st in the world at the time, shouldn’t have been there at all. He was only invited at the last minute to replace Richard Rapport, a Hungarian-Romanian grandmaster (13th).

Mr Carlsen had the white pieces, and thus the first move. He hadn’t lost in over a year with this advantage in a classic format. But things quickly took a turn for the worse. Mr Niemann played well, a little too well for Mr Carlsen. He had the impression that Niemann “wasn’t tense or even fully focused on the game in critical positions, while he outplayed me as black in a way that I think only a handful of players can.” Mr. Niemann won, in part because he played much faster than Mr. Carlsen, who was not accurate enough due to his time to think.

This was surprising, but two other developments caused what, by the polite standards of chess, is considered a disintegration of the professional scene. One was the interview with Mr. Niemann after the game. Normally, at rap battle speeds, grandmasters list a series of moves and counter moves they had considered while playing, while the interviewer and audience pretend to follow. It was unusual for Mr. Niemann to say that his opponent had played badly, claiming that by a “miracle” that morning he analyzed the exact and very rare positions they had achieved in the game.

Then, in analyzing the game he had just won, he referred to a game Mr. Carlsen had played against another grandmaster several years earlier, in which a similar position had been achieved. However, the match in question never took place. Perhaps most tellingly, as it seemed to indicate that he didn’t understand his own game, he also suggested a ‘possible’ move that would have lost him the match.

The second development came the next day. Mr. Carlsen announced via Twitter that he was withdrawing from the event. His only explanation was to include an internet meme video in which a famous football manager says, “I’d rather not speak, actually. When I speak, I’m in big trouble.” That meant Mr. Carlsen thought Mr. Niemann was cheating. And when the two met in an online tournament a few weeks later, Mr. Carlsen resigned after making just one move. (He still won the tournament.)

In response, Mr Niemann, who is 19, said he cheated once in an online tournament as a 12-year-old and then in a number of “random games” when he was 16. But he denied ever cheating in tournament games or in front of an online audience. He said he had sacrificed everything for chess and that cheating in the past had been the biggest mistake of his life. Mr. Carlsen said in another statement that he believed that Mr Niemann had cheated more and more recently than he had admitted, and that he would not play him again.

Chess cheating is much easier than you might think. Computer programs, even those on a cell phone, are much better at the game than humans: think of a motorcyclist competing in a bicycle race.

At the highest level, even microscopic hints – like knowing that a bold move is possible – can provide a decisive advantage. This week allegations surfaced that Mr Niemann had received much more help than in previous matches. Chess.com, a website where most of the world’s top players (and many modest players) play, has deactivated Mr. Niemann’s account and withdrawn an invitation to an upcoming tournament. The website had insisted on evidence that she believed he had committed far more fraud than he had revealed. After researching his play both on and off the platform, it published its findings on Oct. 4 in a 72-page report.

The report said he admitted to Chess.com that he had cheated several times and in all likelihood cheated in more than 100 games, including games in tournaments, while playing in front of an online audience, and as a 17-year-old . According to the report, Mr Niemann once cheated while playing against another cheater. While humans were making the mouse movements, the game was actually between two computers, as evidenced by the superhuman play on both sides.

However, the report found no clear evidence of cheating in offline play, such as in the game against Carlsen. In offline play, however, the biggest questions were asked by how quickly Niemann has improved and how recently. As the report notes, Niemann’s rise in ratings since he was 11 years old has been lightning-fast, as has his climb since becoming an elite player (achieving a rating score, called Elo in chess, of 2500). However, that is far from conclusive evidence and Mr. Niemann continues to deny all claims of cheating in offline games.

It remains possible that clever cheaters can now do this in ways undetectable by analyzing their games played offline. In the past, players have been caught using hidden phones that were accessed during bathroom breaks, using hidden buzzers, or receiving hand signals. But nothing of the kind is tied to Mr Niemann.

The controversy has divided the chess world. Chess.com has provisionally barred Mr Niemann from participating in a $1 million tournament it hosts, and Mr Carlsen has hinted at further disclosures: “There’s more I’d like to say. Unfortunately, I am currently limited in what I can say without Niemann’s explicit permission to speak openly.” Yet Mr Niemann continues to play. He is one of 14 players in the U.S Chess Championships, which started on October 6. On the second day he was in the lead. His post-match interviews are brief, however: After beating 15-year-old Christopher Yoo in the first round, he declined to provide any analysis. ‘Chess speaks for itself’, was his message.

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