Two months after Magnus Carlsen, the reigning five-time World Chess Champion, announced that he would not defend his title next year because he prefers tournament play, he made a shocking exit from a major tournament, the Sinquefield Cup. The Norwegian grandmaster’s withdrawal came after a surprise loss to an American, Hans Niemann, earlier this month, which ended his 53-game winning streak in classical chess.
That would have caused a stir in itself, but Carlsen opened the door to feverish speculation when he tweeted about quitting and attached a video of Portuguese soccer manager José Mourinho saying, “I prefer really not to speak. If I speak I am in big trouble.”
The message was immediately interpreted as a hint that Carlsen had seen or noticed something fishy during his match with Niemann but couldn’t make a direct accusation. The internet rumor mill took it from there. Another grandmaster, Hikaru Nakamura, said on his Twitch stream that Niemann had once spent a period of six months not playing tournaments for money on Chess.com, implying that he had been temporarily banned from the platform. “Magnus believes that Hans probably is cheating,” he then speculated.
Even before Carlsen’s departure had been made official, Niemann was singled out for incredible security measures as he arrived for a match with Alireza Firouzja, who eventually won the tournament — here you can see an official asking to see inside his packet of chewing gum. The additional scanning delayed the broadcast of the match by some 15 minutes.
As some observers began collecting what they thought to be evidence of Niemann’s underhanded tactics, combing through his history, strategies and post-game analyses, others came to his defense: Anatoly Karpov, a former World Champion himself, argued that Carlsen “just played extremely badly,” while the Wall Street Journal reported that one of the top experts in cheating detection, computer science professor Kenneth Regan, had screened Niemann’s gameplay and turned up nothing suspicious. Meanwhile, Chess.com again banned him, explaining in a statement that he had the “amount and seriousness” of his previous cheating on the website. Finally, the Chief Arbiter of the Sinquefield Cup announced they had found “no indication that any player has been playing unfairly.”
Niemann, for his part, has admitted to past cheating on Chess.com but vehemently denied any wrongdoing in the Carlsen match. He also lashed out in a tweet against his detractors for failing to supply evidence in their charges:
The pressure now falls on Carlsen to either retract or clarify his insinuation, or else give another reason for leaving the tournament, an act that grandmaster and former World Champion Garry Kasparov noted has “no precedent in the past 50 years.”
Chess players can be a prickly, paranoid bunch, and social media has a way of amplifying drama within any such community — everyone rushes to pick a side and start digging up dirt on the other. But there is also a long tradition of cheating to fuel the recriminations. In the past decade, several players have been caught using their smartphones to consult chess software on bathroom breaks. Others have employed Bluetooth connections to receive moves dictated by an accomplice, including the Indian player Umakant Sharma, who was banned for 10 years after officials discovered a wireless device sewn into a cloth cap he wore during matches.
Along with advances in technology come new ideas for how to gain an edge on the board. This summer, U.K. programmer James Stanley unveiled “Sockfish,” an amusing system he’d engineered for cheating with his feet: a special shoe insert allowed him to tap out his opponent’s moves, which were sent to a small Raspberry Pi Zero computer in his pocket. The Pi then sent back an optimal move to his shoe in a series of vibrations.
In the case of Niemann and Carlsen, there’s no limit to what mechanisms fans have proposed as possibilities. On the clip of Niemann’s gum being searched, a YouTube commenter wondered if the player could have hidden a “spy earpiece in the gum pack and then deftly placed it in his ear at some point after the scan.” Others floated the notions of a “tooth antenna implant” that “resonates bone” and an “AI driven device implanted” in the ear.
“Squat & cough would have revealed all,” wrote yet another commenter, alluding to what is now the most outrageous (and popular) theory amid this drama: that both Carlsen and Niemann have been using vibrating anal beads to cheat. In a thrilling piece of fanfiction, redditor u/XiTro imagined that Niemann had stolen this sophisticated butt toy design from Carlsen and attempted to deploy it against him in the match. When Carlsen recognized what was happening, he more or less had to throw in the towel so that he wouldn’t be caught with a signal-emitting device up his ass. Or so this version of the story goes.
Bravo, Sherlock. Though I must take one small issue: pleasure. Are you telling me these guys can have their prostates buzzed for hours and not show any sign of sexual bliss? Surely we’d see a twitching of eyebrows or hear a soft moan now and then.
As of this writing, Niemann has yet to reply to a request for comment on the feasibility of the anal beads concept, or any other high-tech apparatus for cheating. The memes continue to abound, however, with one user of the subreddit r/AnarchyChess editing a NSFW security X-ray image that purports to show a sex toy in Niemann’s body.
Maybe the way to put this whole matter to rest is to require players enter the tournament space with anal beads firmly in place, but remotely controlled by impartial judges — that way they can’t stash anything else up there. Whenever officials think the match is getting a bit stale, they’ll give both competitors a little tingle. Prevent cheating and draw a horny new audience to the sport? That’s checkmate.