Dispatches from the present
I will confess forthright my surprise when Elon Musk suggested that nineteen-year-old American chess grandmaster Hans Moke Niemann used remote-controlled vibrating anal beads to defeat Norwegian World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen on September 4, 2022. Although exactly the kind of overwrought scheme that appeals to our public sphere’s newest tyrant, the logistical difficulties of its execution would be profound. Intervening into what has been called “the biggest chess cheating scandal ever,” Musk misses the deeper anxieties fueling the scandal: chess’s particularly fraught location between cultural notions of intelligence and cutting-edge technology.
The “Carlsen-Niemann controversy,” as Wikipedia calls it, began when Carlsen made the “unprecedented” decision after losing to Niemann to resign from the Sinquefield Cup. He tweeted a video suggesting that discussing the matter further would get him in trouble, and Niemann confessed that Chess.com, the world’s biggest online chess site, permanently banned him after he cheated at ages twelve and sixteen. Facing Niemann again two weeks later, Carlsen resigned after playing only one move and released a statement accusing the American of cheating “more—and more recently” than he had acknowledged. Chess.com, for their part, released a seventy-page report arguing that Niemann cheated in over one hundred separate games on their site, but noting that there was no proof that he’d done so “over the board.” Most recently, Niemann has filed a defamation lawsuit against Carlsen, Chess.com and prominent chess streamer Hikaru Nakamura for $100 million in damages, framing the kerfuffle as a conspiracy to solidify Chess.com’s purchase of Carlsen’s own online chess app, valued at around $80 million. This, mind you, is the short version.
The world remembers chess about every other decade, and treats it as a sign of changing times. In the 1970s, the World Championship match between American Bobby Fischer and reigning World Champion Soviet Boris Spassky channeled media attention toward “friendly” competition at the height of the Cold War. In the 1990s, while computation advanced into everyday life, Russian World Champion Garry Kasparov lost his match against IBM supercomputer Deep Blue, cuing media panics about machine replacement. Since then, chess has rather forcefully entered the computer age: the engines on your phone will reliably rout even the best human players. Kasparov vs. Deep Blue is often invoked as a turning point in human-computer relations, a clear sign that some notions of intelligence no longer held water. Calculation, though impressive, was simply best left to the machines. Younger grandmasters completely altered their playing style in response, and began to use computers in their pre-game preparation, though their in-game use remains forbidden. At best, a rather uncomfortable coexistence resulted from the transformation—without engines players can’t stay competitive, but few trust that computers won’t eventually come for their jobs.
There is a war, at least a skirmish: chess players on one side and engineers and programmers on the other. Ever since the computer’s emergence as a serious competitor in the late Nineties, when only Kasparov could access the best engines, players have wavered between love and resentment, nostalgia and envy. Maybe the Carlsen-Niemann affair is another battle between the old—31-year-old Carlsen—dying and the new—Niemann—being born. Most top players today began competing before engines decisively conquered the game in the mid-2000s. Many, including Kasparov and Nakamura, express off-color apprehension at younger generations’ preference for engine analysis as opposed to over-the-board discussion, a trend COVID likely intensified. Today’s prodigies—nineteen-year-old Alireza Firouzja, seventeen-year-old Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, sixteen-year-old Gukesh D—are fervently devoted to online chess and shorter time formats, in which instincts prevail over exacting calculation. Having come of age during chess’s computer age, they know computer-style chess more intimately and understand the logics guiding engines’ often counterintuitive play. The possibility that chess is a mathematical draw—that, should both sides play a completely perfect contest using exclusively the “best moves,” one would fail to beat the other—worries older players and spectators. Computers have, for whatever it’s worth, sparked a quantum leap in chess’s quality of play and growing online popularity.
Professional chess players perceive themselves as an endangered species, perennially at risk from an encroaching and insuperable foe, ever further away from the analog, ever more abstract. (Carlsen, for example, realized a few years ago that he didn’t have a chess board at home). Only the best twenty or thirty players in the world earn a living from playing chess, while the rest, like Niemann, have day jobs to make ends meet. Though not new to the sport, and arguably even less widespread in the age of streaming, scarcity is inescapable. Combined with chess’s abstraction from the board into the computer, from the comfortably human to the phantasmatic, this sets the stage for the Carlsen-Niemann “conspiracy.” Each side accuses the other of conspiring against them. Cheating would require the help of multiple people and a fairly sophisticated system to bypass on-site anti-cheating measures and skirt detection by the International Chess Federation’s resident mathematician, Kenneth Regan. Niemann’s suit, meanwhile, claims that Carlsen believes losing a single game to Niemann would pose a meaningful threat to his status as “King of Chess” and, thus, to his company’s purchase value. As far as anyone can tell, neither side has particularly strong evidence for their claim, and both instead rely on the emotional force of accusation over concrete evidence (as demonstrated by Elon Musk, speculator king, getting involved).
Niemann’s record of online cheating represents a generational transformation, from a reverence for “traditional” tactics to a generation so at home with the machine that their play could be indistinguishable. One question that could be brought against Carlsenite accusers is whether Niemann is not simply a more perfectly “computer-like” player, the Zoomer chess Terminator, Carlsen’s repressed back with a vengeance. Both Kasparov vs. Deep Blue and Carlsen vs. Niemann were, it’s rather clear, mostly decided by poor play by the world champions—why did they cause such a commotion? Maybe Niemann is simply the newest great, a temperamental man-child like Carlsen but with a less troubled relationship to computers, more skilled at applying their insights to his game. We’ll never know if he cheated in the Sinquefield Cup, though it seems like a stretch. More evident is chess’s return to the news, again a sign of changing times. To resolve, or at least come closer to resolving, humanity’s eternally problematic relationship to the machine, perhaps it’s time to admit: chess is no longer human. Then again, neither are we.