A chess Grandmaster says the game has entered its 'steroid era,' pointing to cheating allegations coming from its most prominent player

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  • World champion Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen explicitly accused Hans Niemann of cheating in chess matches.

  • Former grandmaster and chess analyst Maurice Ashley said chess has now entered its "steroid era" with the proliferation of cheating.

  • Cheating is far easier and more prevalent in online matches, while over-the-board matches require clever planning to cheat.

Chess world champion Magnus Carlsen's shocking cheating accusations against 19-year-old Hans Niemann have opened a fissure in the game: How can anyone be sure their opponent isn't cheating?

To Maurice Ashley, chess's first Black Grandmaster and a current chess analyst, "Chess is now into the steroid era."

That is, all are left to wonder, who is playing clean and who isn't?

"This is just absolutely awful that the game has come to this point," Ashley told Insider on Monday.

The chess world has been enveloped by the scandal around the world's best chess player and an American prodigy. Niemann beat Carlsen in a stunning upset at the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, Missouri, earlier in September. Shortly after, Carlsen withdrew from the tournament, announcing it on Twitter while linking to a YouTube video of then-Chelsea FC manager Jose Mourinho saying in a press conference, "If I speak, I am in big trouble. And I don't want to be in big trouble."

Weeks later, in an online rematch at the Julius Baer Generational Cup, Carlsen suddenly quit after making just one move against Niemann. The implication was clear: He would not play Niemann.

Still, Carlsen remained silent, leaving the chess world to wonder what was going on. Many believed Carlsen was implying that Niemann had cheated.

Then on Monday, Carlsen made it explicit.

"I believe Niemann has cheated more — and more recently — than he has publicly admitted," Carlsen said.

Carlsen said Niemann, who has admitted to cheating in two online matches when he was 12 an 16, was far too aloof during their Sinquefield match.

"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 I think only a handful of players can do," Carlsen said.

A screenshot shows Hans Niemann smiling during an interview.
Hans Niemann.via Saint Louis Chess Club/YouTube

Niemann has denied ever cheating in an over-the-board game or against Carlsen.

To date, there is no proof that Niemann cheated against Carlsen. In fact, Kenneth Regan, a University of Buffalo faculty member who is an expert in chess and identifying cheaters, has said that he didn't see anything in Niemann's play at the Sinquefield Cup to suggest he cheated.

Carlsen said in his statement that he needed Niemann's "explicit permission" to say more.

Even Ashley was not sure what Carlsen was referring to, but he said the burden is on Carlsen to prove Niemann cheated.

"If you're gonna accuse somebody of cheating, it is such a devastating accusation," Ashley said. "It is a career, potentially a career-ending accusation to Hans, to a 19-year-old, that you simply have, in my opinion, the burden of responsibility to provide more proof than your feeling."

How does cheating in chess work?

Maurice Ashley holds up his hands and speaks in front of a chess board during an interview.
Maurice Ashley in 2016.Mark Lennihan/AP Images

According to Ashley, cheating in chess is about gaining information: What's the best move available? Is there an obvious move a player is missing?

Cheating online is far easier. There are computer programs now that, according to Ashley, can routinely make better moves than humans.

There are safeguards against cheating in online matches. In bigger competitions, there are cameras set up behind the players to see what's on their screen. There is also anti-cheating software that can track what's on a player's screen.

Officials can also be tipped off to possible cheating if players are making moves that routinely align with what computers suggest. Any other abnormalities — like quicker moves, for instance — can also draw attention.

There are still limits, however.

"You're in your house," Ashley said. "Like, how much can they bug your room that you're in so that no information can come in from anywhere outside?"

Ashley said officials also rely on an honor system that players won't cheat.

Still, the practice is prevalent, at least in lower levels, he said. Chess.com is said to have some of the best anti-cheating software available, yet it still deals with a great deal of cheating — the website says it closes more than 500 accounts every day for cheating and has closed nearly half-a-million accounts over its history.

Screenshot shows a commentator talking during an online chess match between Hans Niemann and Magnus Carlsen, who are shown in two smaller windows
The online chess match between Hans Niemann and Magnus Carlsen.via Julius Baer Generation Cup/Chess Videos

Cheating during over-the-board matches is much trickier and harder to prove.

There have been rumored methods — like a player receiving communication from a hidden electronic device. For instance, in 2013, Bulgarian player Borislav Ivanov was accused of having a device hidden in his shoe when he refused to take off his shoes for a search. Though a device was never found, Ivanov retired shortly thereafter.

Players are no longer allowed to have cell phones at tournaments, and some tournaments require players go through metal detectors for hidden devices.

Niemann, for instance, offered to play a match naked to prove he wasn't hiding any devices to receive communication.

At tournaments where spectators are allowed, players could also receive visual cues from "accomplices," according to Ashley. Though the grandmaster said this would be "ballsy" to do because of the number of officials present, for experienced players, a simple gesture could tip them off.

"A chess player doesn't need much. I mean, just eyes looking up at the ceiling could mean you have a really, really good move that you should look at, look for right now," Ashley said. "And many times that's all a grandmaster would need is just look for something unusual ... stop looking at normal moves and look for some kind of brilliant sacrifice, some unusual maneuver."

Ashley said there hasn't been any recent examples of cheating at the highest level of chess, where top players have "immaculate" reputations.

But, with Carlsen now accusing that of Niemann — without proof so far — it opens up other players to accusations, according to Ashley.

"Now it's just like everyone's under suspicion," Ashley said. "It could be anybody, it's starting to feel like.

"And although there are those of us who look and say, no, these guys are world-class players, they would never do such a thing, but as far as the public's concerned, why not? How do you know?"

Read the original article on Insider