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Chess: Niemann-Carlsen scandal prompts new security measures

Fatima Hudoon
October 25, 2022

When World Champion Magnus Carlsen accused a US player of cheating in a top-level event, the chess world was rocked by scandal. This week, organizers of the World Fischer Random are introducing new security measures.

After Magus Carlsen (left) accused Hans Niemann of cheating, chess organizers are upping security
Suspicion: After Magus Carlsen (left) accused Hans Niemann of cheating, chess organizers are upping securityImage: Saint Louis Chess Club/dpa/picture alliance

Organizers of this week's World Fischer Random Chess Championship have introduced unprecedented new security measures to prevent cheating.

Among the tighter measures at the tournament which starts on Tuesday in Reykjavik, Iceland, is the presence of a medical doctor during the five-day event who will select players and inspect their ears for any transmitters, World Fischer Random organizer Joran Aulin-Jansson told DW.

Eight top players from around the world, including the five-time World Champion Magnus Carlsen, qualified for this week's tournament, competing for a total prize money of $400,000 (€403,000).

"When Magnus withdrew from [the prestigious Sinquefield Cup in] St. Louis, that woke up the whole chess community," said Aulin-Jansson, who is also the Vice President of the International Chess Federation (FIDE). "Every organizer has been forced to start to think about what to do against cheating."

The measures come after US player Hans Niemann launched a $100-million lawsuit against Carlsen last week for "egregiously defaming him and unlawfully colluding to blacklist him from the profession."

Following a shock defeat by Niemann in St. Louis last month, the Norwegian World Chess Champion accused the 19-year old of having "cheated more — and more recently — than he has publicly admitted."

Weeks after the scandal broke, an investigation by chess.com, one of the largest online chess platforms, revealed that Niemann had 'most likely' cheated in more than 100 games on its platform. The platform has since banned his account.

So far, neither Carlsen, nor any expert, has provided evidence for Niemann allegedly cheating during face-to-face games.

But despite that, pressure has mounted on tournament organizers to take cheating offline more seriously, starting at the World Fischer Random in Iceland this week.

Chess cheating saga rolls on to US Championships

What are the new measures?

"Fischer Random" is a form of chess invented by former US World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer in which the starting positions of the key pieces are randomized, forcing players to abandon textbook openings which they may have memorized.

In addition to deploying a doctor, the new rules will also include a five-minute broadcast delay of the games to hinder any communication with outside sources. Furthermore, civilian-clothed security personnel will be present in the audience looking for non-verbal communication cues.

"If we see any strange behavior among the audience, we will start filming it," Aulin-Jannson explained. Strange behavior could be observing a correlation between a spectator scratching their ear and a move made on the board immediately afterwards, he said.

The organizers are expecting between 100 and 200 spectators each day at the Berjaya Reykjavik Natura Hotel in the Icelandic capital, who will have to deposit all electronic devices, including wristwatches, as an added precaution. Anyone leaving the building will also need to wait five minutes to receive their belongings to block any possible communication with players.

The World Fischer Random organizers only informed participants about the new anti-cheating measures just hours before matches begin on Tuesday, but the cheating scandal has also forced other major tournament organizers to step up their security.

The St. Louis Chess Club, which finished hosting the regular 2022 US Chess Championships last week, delayed live broadcast by 30 minutes and invested in security wands that can detect metal and silicon. The latter material could hide electronic transmission devices.

But the new steps being introduced at the World Fischer Random in Reykjavik represent a new level of security and are a drastic change from those in place in competitive events before the Niemann-Carlsen scandal.

"We used to check the players rather randomly ... [it was] more symbolic than anything," tournament organizer Aulin-Jannson admitted.

"We thought that cheating was something that was an online problem and not viewed as that serious [in face-to-face games], although it's morally just the same," he added.

How were previous cases handled?

Accusations and known cases of cheating in in-person games are not unprecedented in chess history and FIDE has intervened as an authority in some cases.

During the 2010 Olympiad in Russia, the French Chess Federation suspended three top players after it was discovered they had cheated using coded text messages. The players, including two grandmasters (GM), were given bans of three to five years.

In another incident at the 2015 Dubai Open, Georgian GM Gaioz Nigalidze was found using an iPod with software that helped him cheat. Nigalidze was stripped of his GM title and was handed a three-year ban.

Officials say that it is difficult to catch cheaters, especially without hard proof. At present, FIDE is carrying out its own investigation into Carlsen's claims against Niemann, but an outcome before the end of the year is unlikely due to the complexity of the case, FIDE Vice President Aulin-Jannson said.

'We can't depend on the goodwill of players'

While security measures are tightening, critics have highlighted that tournament rules have been lax for too long.

Alejandro Ramirez, who earned his GM title in 2004 and won several tournaments representing Costa Rica and the United States, recalls lenient security at top-level events just a decade ago.

"I remember playing tournaments in America, where you could actually use your headphones and plug it into your iPod and blast some music," he recalled.

Magnus Carlsen during Norway Chess 2022 held in Finansparken in Stavanger
Norwegian Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen has accused Hans Niemann of cheatingImage: Carina Johansen/NTB/IMAGO

But technology is fast-developing and organizers need to catch up as transmission devices can now be small enough to evade metal detectors, a widely used device in tournaments.

"A buzz is sometimes enough to signify something. And if you get it at the right time and you know what it means that might change the tide of a battle," said Ramirez, who is currently head coach of the University of St. Louis chess team and also regularly commentates at chess tournaments.

In a sport like chess, he added, "engines nowadays can really destroy a grandmaster … Engines are just much better than we are at the game." And without tighter regulation, "cheaters will eventually get smarter ... We can't really depend on the goodwill of players."

How effective are the measures?

FIDE Vice President Aulin-Jannson is confident the new security rules at this week's event in Iceland will "keep cheaters in line," explaining:

"If the player has any help from the outside, he will get the moves five minutes after it has happened, [so] it will be difficult for the player."

However, organizers of smaller events may not have the budget to invest in robust security procedures such as employing a medical doctor.

Chess coach Ramirez said: "The US [Chess] championship is hosted by a club that is not afraid of spending tons of money in chess. But if you're a small organizer and you're trying to organize a small event, what are the measures that can be taken? It's not so easy."

Edited by Matt Ford.