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What is this cheating story that is driving world number 1 Magnus Carlsen crazy?

In the popular imagination, the mysterious world of chess resembles the world of silence. However, the world of bishops and towers has been going through a moment of sound and fury for three weeks, which the latest outing from King Magnus Carlsen has further fueled. The indisputable best player on the planet, for a good decade, has published a statement on the night of Monday to Tuesday in which he accuses Hans Niemann (19) of cheating.

This document is at the center of the third episode of a saga started at the beginning of the month. First act: the Norwegian (31) withdraws from the prestigious Sinquefield Cup after surprisingly losing to the young American on September 4. Second act: a week later, Carlsen throws in the towel altogether after a single blow, during an online meeting against the same opponent. Unheard of behavior, as if Arnaud Duplantis refused to pole vault against a competitor who usually tops out at 5.70 m.

“I believe that Niemann cheated more, and even more recently, than he admitted publicly,” Carlsen said, summoned to explain his epidermal reactions by a few luminaries, including Garry Kasparov. “His head-to-head progress is unusual,” he continued, surprised at the Californian’s Olympian calm and even casualness, even in critical moments, and at his way of beating him “as the only a handful of players can do it”.

Admission of past cheating

However, Niemann, 49th in the world, is not supposed to be part of the gratin likely to overthrow the emperor of the chessboard. “He has known a rather dazzling progression for two years, observes the French Fabien Libiszewski, international grand master. He wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t a promising mega talent. There he is entering the world elite. After his defeat at the beginning of the month, Carlsen – “one of the three or five best players in history, perhaps the best” according to Libiszewski – had published a tweet coupled with a video of José Mourinho Chelsea period: ” I prefer not to speak. If I talk, I’ll be in big trouble. »

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The Norwegian ended up speaking, but without being able to provide any evidence of recent fraud. After his resounding victory on September 4, Niemann confessed to having cheated twice online when he was 12 and 16, but never face-to-face, and even said he was ready to play in Adam’s outfit to lift the odds. doubts. Because we don’t talk anymore about Daniel Auteuil-style cheat sheets for dad in The Under-Gifted.

This time, it is a question of technological doping, with possible earpieces or vibrating objects on the body. The rumor of the use of an anal plug, incidentally, did much to bring the Carlsen–Niemann feud beyond the realm of chess. “It started from a delirium on a forum, but there is absolutely nothing to support that”, sweeps Fabien Libiszewski, who collaborates with the specialized YouTube channel Blitzstream, created by Kevin Bordi and strong of 175,000 subscribers.

The grand master underlines the danger that the misuse of technology poses to his discipline.

It’s much worse than doping in sport. If I play tennis loaded like a mule, I think I don’t put a point against an ATP-rated player. Conversely, the ATP player who shows up with a computer will beat everyone at chess. It becomes unplayable, like a guy with bionic legs running the 100m in three seconds. »

In fact, the world of chess has never quite been the same since Deep Blue dominated the charismatic Garry Kasparov on May 11, 1997. For the first time, a supercomputer felled a human, the best on the planet who more is. Since then, artificial intelligence has always done better, in an increasingly reduced format. “Deep Blue was a building,” jokes Libiszewski. Today, even my smartphone plays chess better than me. »

In May 1997, Russian Garry Kasparov lost to IBM computer Deep Blue. Chess fans watched the game broadcast from New York. – Stan Honda / AFP

The case of the sulphurous Niemann, banned for several months by the reference site chess.com, is not a flash in an all blue sky. The history of the discipline is full of more or less croquignolesque muddles.

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In 2019, former French hopeful Sébastien Feller and two other players, including his coach Arnaud Hauchard, were given a six-month suspended prison sentence (before appealing) by the Thionville court (Moselle), for facts dating back to nine years earlier, during the very famous Olympiad of Khanty-Mansïïsk in Russia. Staying in France and following the games live, the third man simulated the moves to be played by computer and transmitted them to the coach who managed to communicate them to his player.

Surprised on his mobile in the toilet

Also in 2019, the Czech grandmaster Igor Rausis, with leaping results despite his 58 years, was surprised in the middle of the tournament in the toilets in Strasbourg. The 50-year-old was consulting software on his laptop, stashed away like in a bad movie.

“It’s hard to catch a cheater in the act,” observes Libiszewski. It is therefore necessary to try to take measures, even if it is not very comfortable. One could imagine random searches after the game, scanners at the entrance to competitions. There should perhaps be a delay in the retransmission of the games, a half-hour difference rather than a live broadcast, so that a person following the game cannot transmit information. Or else introduce random checks, a bit like in cycling. »

“Bad publicity for chess”

Without going so far as to speak of an Armstrong affair in the grand chessboard version, Libiszewski fears the consequences of a psychodrama which goes far beyond the simple personalities of Carlsen and Niemann. “Anyway, it’s bad publicity for chess. Either there are cheaters, and we cannot detect them. Either the world champion wrongly accuses a young player. Most likely Carlsen is right, but that remains to be proven. »

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The ball is in the court of the International Federation (Fide), very annoyed by the situation. Last Friday, she laid out a judgment-like statement from Solomon. Its president, Arkady Dvorkovich, believed “there were better ways to handle this situation” than Carlsen’s outbursts. But he assured “share the deep concern” of the Norwegian about the negative impact of cheating on discipline and announced that preventive measures were already in place in the competitions that Fide organizes. Only, in chess as everywhere else, cheaters often stay one step ahead.

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