The 31-year-old Norwegian chess Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen performed as close as you can to the digital equivalent of a table flip Monday, closing his stream and walking away from his 19-year-old U.S. opponent Hans Niemann on his second move of their first actual match.
It’s just the latest rogue move in a long series of scandals that have rocked the chess world. While there’s been accusations of cheating through devices as outlandish as anal beads, the rise of young chess players like Niemann likely has more connection to the rapidly expanding capacity of artificial intelligence, and the ways players are learning the game just to keep up with the AI joneses.
The match was a preliminary dust up during the early parts of the Julius Baer Generation Cup taking place virtually through Microsoft Teams and played on the virtual chess platform Chess24. The stream hosts seemed just as surprised, with announcer Peter Leko exclaiming as soon as Carlsen left, “what, that’s it?” After fellow announcer Tania Sachdev explained that the grandmaster had “got up and left—switched off his camera,” Leko said he was “speechless.”
Chess grandmasters have been known to be eccentric (just go back to the days of Bobby Fischer when he faced Russian rival Boris Spassky in a back closet because the cameras reportedly made him too anxious) but leaving after only the second move seems to take the cake for modern chess drama.
We reached out to Carlsen through his father and manager Henrik Carlsen, but they did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
It set off a firestorm on social media, but it follows a drawn-out and increasingly insane cheating scandal still boiling in the worldwide chess scene.
Carlsen had previously withdrawn from the tourney in anticipation of facing fellow master Niemann, later tweeting out a short video meme of soccer manager Jose Mourinho saying “if I speak, I am in big trouble,” hinting at impropriety going on behind the rising stars of the chess world. There was additional back and forth from chess analysts like Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura who suggested that Niemann had some outside help.
How would Niemann get that information to him? Well, that’s when the good ol’ internet conspiracy machine hit its stride. According to Slate, chess enthusiasts and laypeople alike spread the rumor that Niemann could have been using vibrating anal beads to have moves fed to him through… I guess morse code? The joke was spread by the likes of Elon Musk, the world’s richest man who’s always ready to butt in when there’s butt-related humor to be had (it helps distract him from the impending disaster that is his legal battle over his Twitter buyout).
Well, there have been vibration-centered cheating methods discussed previously, including engineers who used a Raspberry Pi Zero to create a vibration device in his shoes that can connect to digital chess engines, used to help any novice player cheat. It probably does take less time to comprehend vibrational language than it does to become a chess grandmaster.
Of course, Niemann has denied it all, telling reporters “You want me to play in a closed box with zero electronic transmissions, I don’t care. I’m here to win.” Niemann had previously admitted to cheating when he was younger using help from Chess AI, but says he has done nothing of the sort since then.
In a stream later the same day hosted on Chess24’s Twitch channel, University of Buffalo professor and chess researcher Kenneth Regan said there’s no actual evidence of cheating from Niemann, even though he’s performed over average, at least not based on his analytic models.
The Atlantic released its own report on Saturday that seems to offer a much more likely answer to the questions boiling over for chess players everywhere. Simply put, it’s the capability of AI chess programs that have simply surpassed human ingenuity on the classic checkerboard. Far beyond the Deep Blue tower computer that managed to beat champion Garry Kasparov, the latest and greatest AI chess systems can supposedly beat the best human player in the vast majority of games played.
What’s happening is more players, especially younger folks getting into the game, are more apt to memorize opening moves and figure out optimizations by watching AI. All the other aspects of human-on-human play, whether its mind games or making a suboptimal long term goal, are all still present and expected in chess.
The University of Buffalo’s Regan, who’s written books about chess and AI, effectively said as much during his interview.
“I have other measurements that suggest the quality [of young, modern chess players] has become a little higher,” Regan said. “There has not been rating inflation or deflation, but with computerized opening prep, this could be the case as Lewis Carrol wrote in his book Alice in Wonderland of having to ‘run faster just to stay in the same place.’”