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Chess is 500 years old. But in the past two years, it’s become a totally different game.
Today, you don’t need to be a grandmaster to become a chess celebrity.
But with online success, comes big money.
And with money comes temptation ... such as what happened with American grandmaster Hans Niemann, who's been accused of cheating more than 100 times.
"It hasn't happened before at this scale. There've been cheating scandals, but not like this," chess grandmaster Ken Rogoff says.
Today, On Point: Computers, cheating scandals and chess.
Danny Rensch, chief chess officer of Chess.com, the world’s most popular online chess platform. Co-author of Chess.com’s 72-page report, which accused grandmaster Hans Niemann of cheating in online games. (@DanielRensch)
Levy Rozman, chess international master. Full-time commentator and content creator under the name GothamChess. (@GothamChess)
Anna Cramling, one of the most popular chess players on the streaming platform Twitch. (@AnnaCramling)
Aishwarya Kumar, features writer for ESPN.com. (@kumaraishwarya)
Tell us about Hans Niemann. Who is he?
Danny Rensch: "Hans Niemann is an American grandmaster who, like many in his generation, grew up playing chess online. And he's always been someone that people knew as a very talented up-and-coming player. And we've had him playing on Chess.com and even our scholastic side ... since he was a young kid."
How typical or atypical was his rise through the ranks?
Danny Rensch: "Our report broke down a lot of different angles to look at this. And we take our research into statistics and trying to discern patterns and potential anomalies in how people play very seriously. It's at the core of what drives our cheat detection. And so, in that report, as we said, Hans is a very strong player and always has been. So, there's no denying that. But there were definitely some moments, some particular events and some things that stood out as particularly strong.
"And on the one hand, that's just particularly strong chess. On the other hand, if it doesn't necessarily match regular patterns of growth, or things that we see in other players, you know, it can be something that turns heads. So regardless of our findings online, it definitely was something that reflected that his strength of play and his rise being as quick as it was over the last couple of years was definitely an interesting thing to note on a statistical level."
On accusations of Niemann cheating
Danny Rensch: "We don't necessarily have evidence that he did cheat. And obviously, Magnus stands by his actions. And whether people like the form of protest Magnus is making, he's obviously forcing what I do agree to be a very important conversation on the chess world for us to face technology head on. And to tackle what could be an issue with cheating. You know, obviously, there's been a lot of what would you say, a lot of interesting information on the Internet about how Hans might have been receiving moves.
"And I won't go into all of that. But what I will say is this, is that one of the things I think people outside, looking in at the chess world maybe don't appreciate at first glance, is that it's not just that 20 years ago, IBM developed a supercomputer to beat Garry Kasparov. Or really, I guess 30 years ago in the '90s.
"It's that very quickly, overnight, every chess computer that was free, available on eventually a handheld device like your phone, it was open source, and anyone could get it on a slow internet connection, was not only better than every human, but you don't even necessarily have to play the best moves of the computer to outplay the best humans anymore.
"That's how far our artificially intelligent overlords, if you will, have come. They are the dominant beast in the chess world. And so if someone is getting information, it's not like stealing signs in baseball. where all they have to do, where they get a sign, but they still have to execute on the fastball or the curveball. In chess, if you get inside information as to what the best move is from the computer, you're able to follow it blindly.
"And a grandmaster of someone at Hans Niemann's level of play or Magnus Carlsen's level of play would hardly even need any information. Even just a couple of tips per game would likely be enough to outplay a very, very strong grandmaster or even the world champion. And so, again, I don't have any evidence as to how Hans would have done it. As my report said, and you mentioned at the opening, we take note of the anomalies, and we definitely are providing research and statistical evidence that perhaps it should be looked into further.
"But we don't necessarily have evidence to say he did. But if you believe Magnus, if someone is in that camp and you understand the computers are so much better than humans, and that then all it comes down to is, I guess you would say spyware. Is there a way for someone to get information in a chess game? And that's what a lot of people are looking into. [It's] what the chess world is tackling head on right now and trying to do something about."
On the world of online chess
Danny Rensch: "Before a couple of crazy things happened in 2020, in a global pandemic, which brought a lot of people online to play games and watch content. And then a little Netflix show called The Queen's Gambit that a lot of people saw. We had about 1 million daily active users and just about 3.5 million monthly. Chess.com now has 20 million monthly active users and over 5 million daily active users. So that's 5 million unique human beings around the world logging in every day to play chess.
"And that's before we talk about those consuming chess. ... We look at more than 20 million monthly active users, more than 5 million daily active users. And we have a lot of opportunities ahead to continue to see that grow with so many people of different genres and interests getting into chess. And you see it everywhere, from NFL stars playing in events on our site, to celebrities. And it's a fun and interesting time to be in chess. And it's definitely something that we think is going to continue in the years to come."
On new and novel ways to play chess
Levy Rozman: "When we talk about new and novel ways to play, we're talking about something about the first ten or 15 moves of a game, the opening phase. And historically, the way that's worked is that you have something called theory, which is generally accepted best play in the first stage. And all the top players agree upon that theory. That began to evolve when computers came along because they would be able to suggest various methods of play nobody ever thought of before. And specifically, in the last two or three years, as you described, everything has accelerated.
"Hundreds of thousands of games have now been played online that normally wouldn't have. So, the progression of these developments in the opening phases of chess have just skyrocketed, and the availability of resources to learn all of these things through books or online courses has also skyrocketed. So that, combined with computers, makes it actually extremely challenging to save your ideas. Back in the day, you're right, there was a romanticized view.
Some of those Queen's Gambit clips were fascinating. You could play a game of chess that nobody had ever seen before, and nobody would see that certain move played on move seven for another six months or a year. Now that seventh move is played 5,000 more times over the next 30 days online. So, it has changed the game. I don't know if it's for better or worse. I don't know if we're extracting way too much information and soon, we're going to run out of resources. But it's accelerated the level and understanding of the game like we never thought was possible."
That sounds like it's a good thing, right?
Levy Rozman: "Yeah, I would think. But I will say back in the day, I could pick up a chess book that came out in April of a certain year with a certain opening idea, and I could use it successfully for the remainder of the year with like, let's say, a 75%-win rate. I can't do that anymore. So, to actually be a professional chess player nowadays, it's basically a full-time job. You cannot part time it. You can't do 10 hours. It's a 40-hour week, if not more of constant learning, constantly trying to be ahead of the curve. It's good, but it's very stressful for the people who are trying to stay at the top."
On the future of chess, online and beyond
Anna Cramling: "I think that a lot of people will keep on just playing online, but I do think that some people will want to experience over the board chess, which is a very different type of chess. And one point that I want to add is just that I think that technology has also helped a lot of people to sort of feel like they're at a level, a much higher level of chess than what they would think they are otherwise, when they're following high level games. Because they can always have the end in looking at those looking at those games. So, I think that's another really cool thing that technology has helped us do."
ESPN: "Inside the chess cheating scandal and the fight for the soul of the game" — "It's 12:56 p.m. in the chess capital of America, four minutes before the start of the U.S. Chess Championship at the Saint Louis Chess Club. In the past half hour, most of the 13 other Americans competing in the championships arrived, some with coffee in hand, others with bags of fruit, and were escorted to the tournament hall."
This program aired on October 19, 2022.