Although several controversies have rocked chess over the years, especially during the era of Bobby Fischer, Boris Spassky, and Viktor Korchnoi in the 1970s, ’80s, and even part of the ’90s, and Gary Kasparov at the start of the 21st century for his role as a political dissident in the middle of Vladimir Putin’s 22-year rule, the world of chess could be generally described as placid, even tranquil. No recurring controversies like game fixing, contract-tampering, racism, and such other disputes that rock the world’s most popular spectator sports.
However, on Monday, Sept. 29, reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway openly accused the United States’ Hans Niemann of cheating as Carlsen announced his withdrawal from the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, Missouri, after what has been termed a “surprise defeat” to 19-year-old Niemann.
The story has stunned the international chess community. The word going around is that the scandal will continue unabated and may even worsen and open innumerable cans of worms in the sport. It has, as stated in a CNN report, “engulfed the sport.”
As reported by Ben Morse of CNN, Carlsen explicitly accused fellow grandmaster and rival Niemann of cheating for the first time in a lengthy statement on Twitter.
“When Niemann was invited last minute to the 2022 Sinquefield Cup, I strongly considered withdrawing prior to the event. I ultimately chose to play,” Carlsen wrote.
“I believe that Niemann has cheated more — and more recently — than he has publicly admitted. His over the board progress has been unusual, and throughout our game in the Sinquefield Cup, 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 only a handful of players can do.
“This game contributed to changing my perspective.”
CNN says that Niemann for his part admitted to cheating at the ages of 12 and 16 and said that he had been banned from competing on Chess.com and that he had never cheated in over-the-board games.
The questions now that most people ask are, “How does one cheat in chess? What specific evidence does Carlsen have that Niemann cheated in their last match?” Of course, the admission of Niemann that he cheated in the past does not help prove his innocence even if he limits his admission to cheating in online chess and, as he insists, not in over-the-board games.
What seems to be evidence for Carlsen is the overall demeanor and behavior of Niemann in their last match: the teen did not look stressed, he did not look completely preoccupied with the match. As the Daily Tribune’s Sports editor Rey Bancod said, “It’s all based on looks and how Niemann behaved.” In short there was no hard evidence, no smoking gun.
Just like the automated election system where almost the entire electoral process is not visible to the naked eye, it would appear that technology has taken a critical role in chess as it already has in business, commerce, education, agriculture, military science, the promotion of peace and order, and almost the entire spectrum of human activity.
As stated by Morse, despite chess being an ancient sport, like athletics and swimming, chess has been dragged into the modern age in recent years. The report states that computers and the internet have made competition more accessible and connected players around the world, and artificial intelligence now gives the tools to plot out their moves before the match even begins.
We recall and affirm CNN’s point that it all really began in 1995 when world champion Kasparov faced off against an IBM super computer called Deep Blue. Kasparov won the first match but the computer prevailed in the next two in classical games played under tournament regulations.
A year later, the two faced off in a rematch with Deep Blue defeating Kasparov — in doing so becoming the first computer program to defeat a world champion in a full match. Morse adds that the results of the Kasparov-Deep Blue match cannot be overstated. It was a totemic or overpowering moment in the progress of technology’s ability to play the “perfect” chess match and signaled the rise of artificial intelligence’s (AI) effect on chess.
Viewed from one perspective, the emerging dominance of AI should benefit mankind. It could also harm society if used the wrong way, especially the poor, the disadvantaged, the marginalized, the excluded, the underdogs. It is therefore, like the internet and social media which are now being used to undermine democracy and further exploit the poor. This is indeed a double-edged sword.
It was in the context of leveling the playing field that the late Bobby Fischer fought the uphill battle of promoting “random chess.”
Chess had been well analyzed and studied by the then-USSR as a state project to attain dominance in the field as another form of political statement. Scientists and computer programmers assisted budding Soviet wood-pushers and international competitors to build a cadre and deep bench of world class chess competitors. Fischer knew that such an approach would put too much emphasis on computer programming, to the point that three or four opening moves were mastered and succeeding moves programmed by computers. Native talent and intelligence had been relegated in favor of AI.
Random chess simply calls for positioning all officials, not the pawns, in a random way. The pawns are positioned the same way as traditional chess while the officials are positioned on the board according to a procedure that varies per match or game. The result is there will be a total of 960 opening moves that will make for more creativity and more human involvement.
As a tribute to Fischer, the American turned Icelander, the World Chess Federation (commonly referred to by its French acronym FIDE) held the Fischer Random Chess world championship in 2019.
Filipino-turned-American Wesley So, now 28 years old, won the first FIDE World Fischer Random Chess tournament in 2019. Without a PR machine and social media infrastructure to back him up, So’s historic victory was hardly noticed in the Philippines. It was another familiar case of a Filipino talent being ignored in place of a well-funded PR campaign to market those who demand government resources to fund their professional career overseas.
The future of chess lies in Random Chess, which serves to neutralize the excessive impact of AI which favors rich nations. And the future of Philippine chess is with Wesley So, even if he has become an American citizen. He remains a true and authentic role model, like tennis athlete Alex Eala.
Philip Ella Juico’s areas of interest include the protection and promotion of democracy, free markets, sustainable development, social responsibility and sports as a tool for social development. He obtained his doctorate in business at De La Salle University. Dr. Juico served as secretary of Agrarian Reform during the Corazon C. Aquino administration.