There’s something wild happening in the chess world right now, and I’m going to tell you right up front that I don’t really understand it. But I want to talk about it anyway because it speaks to something larger happening in all sports, something confusing and alluring and perilous.
First, for those of you who don’t follow chess — you know, the 99.7% of you — let me explain something that I didn’t know: There is not a player on earth and there never again will be a player on earth who can defeat the best chess engine. Some of you old enough might remember that in 1996, the chess world champion, Garry Kasparov, played an IBM supercomputer called “Deep Blue” in what was being overhyped as the “Chess Battle for Humanity.”
Kasparov did win the overall match 4-2, but he lost a couple of games, which was pretty astonishing at the time. People said that Kasparov had simply not played very well, perhaps because of nerves … but they were wrong. This was a harbinger of the future. Today, on your phone, you can have a chess engine that is like seven bajillion times better at chess than Deep Blue.
Humanity might not be vanquished. But humanity can’t beat computers at chess.
Because computers are so much better than people at chess now, there’s a big, big problem with cheating. People playing online will often use a chess engine to defeat people and build up their ratings and, I guess, feel powerful. I don’t actually get what the thrill is in cheating at chess, but it’s such an issue that Chess.com has instituted ultra-sophisticated methods of tracking down cheaters and then closing their accounts. I don’t know how many accounts Chess.com has closed … but it’s A LOT.
If you think about all of this, it’s actually quite strange. We’re talking about a sport — or game, depending on your point of view — where you or I could beat Magnus Carlsen, probably the best chess player in history, if we simply mimicked the moves of the best chess engine.
I don’t know: It’s hard to digest. Chess was once an artform, and the greatest players — people with names like Tal and Fischer and Kasparov and Polgar — could create beauty on the board. There were not exactly right and wrong moves; instead there were endless possibilities.
Now, yeah, there are right and wrong moves. The computers tell us so. Sure, the grandmasters still do create art, still bewilder and awe us mere mortals with their creativity and how many moves ahead they can see. But computers can see more moves ahead.
All of which leads to the controversy — a match in St. Louis between Magnus Carlsen and a 19-year-old phenom named Hans Niemann.
Niemann was born in San Francisco, and he left home at 16 to become a full-time chess streamer. He has sort of built a reputation as a chess outsider; a few weeks ago, he was the lowest-rated player at a tournament but on the second day he defeated Magnus Carlsen with the black pieces, a near impossibility.
“Hans,” the interviewer said as he walked out of the room, “yesterday was a terrible day for you and today you start out with a masterpiece. How would you summarize this?”
“The chess speaks for itself,” he said, and he walked off even as the interviewer tried to ask a follow-up question. (“Is this something special to do this against Magnus, Hans?” the interviewer asked Neimann’s retreating back.) The interviewer then broke out laughing.
In the staid world of chess, this was basically like lighting a row of firecrackers in the middle of the Vatican.
After that “Chess speaks for itself” comment, Niemann did not win a single point in the tournament — which made a lot of people happy. Yeah, a lot of people in the chess world don’t like Hans Niemann.
Well, on Monday, Niemann played Carlsen again in The Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis. And Niemann won again. At the time, it seemed like a shocking but explainable result; the top players seemed to think that Carlsen had played poorly by his impossibly high standards and had made a critical mistake in the endgame. The chess engines, rulers of all, confirmed that diagnosis.
But Carlsen obviously had a different view.
The next day, he withdrew from the tournament and posted this flame-throwing tweet:
That video is of Roma coach Jose Mourinho saying that he cannot speak because if he does he will get in big trouble, “and I do not want to be in trouble.”
There was only one obvious way to read this: Carlsen believed that Niemann had somehow cheated.
I’m not going to lie, I thought this was a really questionable thing for Carlsen to do. People around the chess world love Carlsen and will defend him to the end, but by doing it this way — withdrawing from the tournament and tossing out only the vaguest of accusations — he managed to attack Niemann’s character without having to stand behind his charge.
Shortly after that, the most famous American chess player — Hikaru Nakamura — came crashing in by pointing out that Niemann had cheated before (in online chess) and then he watched Niemann’s analysis of the match and laughed heartily, stating that it was not the level of analysis you would expect of a 2700-rated player who had just beaten the world champion.
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Lots of weird stuff began happening then. Before Niemann’s next match, the St. Louis Chess Club searched him extensively; more extensively than gangsters search each other in the movies. Chess.com had apparently deactivated Niemann’s account and uninvited him from a tournament. People all around the world attacked his character.
Only here’s the problem: As far as I know, there is not one shred of evidence that Niemann cheated — not only that, nobody even knows how he COULD have cheated. This was, after all, an over-the-board game, in person, he wasn’t allowed any communication devices.
I mean, you would think that Carlsen must have some pretty ironclad evidence that Niemann cheated or he wouldn’t have gone down this road. Then again, we have no idea if Carlsen has ANY evidence because he didn’t present any, and his only message on the whole thing was that cryptic Jose Mourinho video.
On Wednesday, Niemann gave a heartfelt interview — much longer than his “The Chess speaks for itself,” remark. In it, he covered a wide array of topics, but focused most of his energy on the cheating scandal; he explained that, yes, he did cheat a handful of times when we was a kid — once when he was 12, again in unrated games when he was 16 — and he considered those the worst mistakes of his life. He said he was proud that he had learned from those mistakes.
And he insisted that he has never cheated over the board, never would cheat over the board, that he would play naked if they wanted, he would play inside a box nullified all communication, he didn’t care, he’d play anywhere, anytime. He said that chess is his whole life, he has nothing else, and that what Carlsen (and Nakamura) had done to him, without even giving him a chance to respond, was utterly and limitlessly unfair.
And now … well, who knows? Carlsen is still silent. Nakamura says people are blaming him for all this mess, which he says isn’t right. Niemann is still playing in the tournament, and he’s looking for apologies and to get his reputation back. Chess streamers around the world are trying to make some sense of what has happened to the game they love.
For me, it seems a symbol of how technology is altering every sport. Maybe you heard about the truly insane false-start controversy in track and field? Devon Allen — a wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles — was disqualified from the 110-meter hurdles at the World Athletics Championships a few weeks ago for a false start.
Here’s the problem: You can’t see the false start. Nobody can see the false start. By sight, Allen most definitely does not leave before the gun.
But here’s the thing: World Athletics has determined that it is not possible for someone to push off the block within a tenth of a second of the gun without false starting. They have science that shows it is beyond human capabilities to react that fast. Of course there are those (I’m among them) who would tell you that’s nonsense, that’s pseudoscience, there’s no way that they can limit human capabilities like that. There is science that shows it is humanly impossible to hit a fastball. There was once science that showed human beings could not run a four-minute mile.
Besides, do you know what Devon Allen’s reaction time was? It was 0.99 seconds. One thousandth of a second too fast, according to World Athletics’ science. They’re THAT sure that .01 seconds — and EXACTLY .01 seconds — is the limit of human possibilities that they will disqualify an athlete who has trained his whole life for this moment because he reacted one thousandth of a second faster than they think possible?
It’s utter nonsense, one of the worst disqualifications in the history of track and field.
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But this, I believe, is what happens when in sports and games we follow technology to the very end. And yet, we can’t help ourselves. We want to use technology to make our games fairer, to advance our understanding, to give us smarter winning strategies. And technology has done all that. The trouble is, we can’t stop.
In track and field, we’ll call someone for a false start that we cannot even see. In baseball, teams will use analytics and technology to find ways to win that might be thoroughly effective but make the game much less interesting and fun to watch. In football, to bring order to a chaotic game, we’ll stop the action as many times as necessary, turn every touchdown into an appeals process, scrutinize plays to such an extreme degree that we no longer even know what it means to catch a football.
And in chess — well, chess has reached a point where even the very best players on earth are no match for computers. And where does that end? Computers will only get better. It feels like computers will probably get to a point where they simply SOLVE chess, the way we have SOLVED Tic-Tac-Toe. We’ll keep playing chess because it’s fun to play and it will always provide a glorious challenge to the human mind. But the cheating will go on. The accusations will go on. The chess, alas, will not speak for itself.
"Kasparov did win the overall match 4-2, but he lost a couple of games, which was pretty astonishing at the time."
Those 2 points for Deep Blue were for 1 win and 2 draws, so Kasparov only lost 1 game in the match.
What a weird turn this story took.