In chess, a long history of cheating, chicanery and Cold War shenanigans
“Ulf, you coward, are you running away?” Cnut called out, according to Snorri Sturluson, the great Icelandic poet and chronicler of the era.
“You would have taken a longer flight in the river Helga, if I did not help you when the Swedes beat you like a dog; then you did not then call me ‘Ulf the coward,’” Ulf, the husband of Cnut’s sister and an important military ally, responded.
Ulf was murdered the following day.
A millennium later, chess games are still ending abruptly and in controversy, but with less bloodshed and more gossip on Twitter and Twitch.
Last week, Norwegian world chess grandmaster Magnus Carlsen withdrew from an online tournament match after making just one move against a 19-year-old American, Hans Niemann.
The resignation came shortly after Carlsen, considered by many to be the greatest chess player of all time, unexpectedly lost to Niemann in another tournament game, ending a 53-game winning streak.
On Tuesday, Carlsen issued a statement, which included accusations that Niemann, who has acknowledged cheating in previous online games when he was younger, had “cheated more — and more recently — than he has publicly admitted.”
“I believe that cheating in chess is a big deal and an existential threat to the game,” the 31-year-old wrote.
Carlsen also said that Niemann, who has denied the allegations, received mentorship from player Maxim Dlugy, who was suspended from Chess.com in 2017 over supposed cheating.
Carlsen’s accusations shook the chess world, but they were nothing new: Chess has long been a game rife with allegations of chicanery and skullduggery. Cheating at chess is as old as the game itself. But as King Cnut demonstrated, the consequences of such accusations can be severe — with implications that can extend even to international politics.
The full origins of chess are not known for sure, but it has roots in the Gupta Empire, in what is now India, where a game called chaturanga flourished in the 6th century.
Like modern chess, it involved a black and white checkered board. It was modeled on warfare, with pieces representing infantry, as well as chariots and elephants.
The game soon spread, along trade roots and by wars of conquest. It went east, where it was adapted to the modern game of xiangqi or Chinese chess, as well as east to Persia and the Arab world.
Cnut led an Anglo-Scandinavian empire that was built on centuries of Viking trade and raids, likely bringing the game back.
But it was likely known in Europe at least a century or two before the murder of poor Ulf. Historian H.J.R. Murray suggested in his 1913 book “A History of Chess” that the game was probably introduced to Spain or Italy via Muslim traders.
Even in these early stages, the game is known to have caused conflict. Murray’s book contains multiple instances of disputes among the royals, nobles and clergy who played.
Some, like Cnut, were believed to have cheated (in the account of Cnut’s game offered by Icelandic historian and poet Sturluson, the king made a poor move and then demanded to replay it, in what would be considered cheating under modern “touch-move” rules).
Others were simply poor losers. William the Conqueror, who became the first Norman king of England in the 11th century, was said to have broken a chess board over the prince of France’s head after a loss.
The Cold War
Despite the risk of violence at the hands of a royal, chess enjoyed continued popularity among the elites of Europe. Napoleon Bonaparte was one well-known player, even in exile.
The rules were standardized over the centuries — and with that, more opportunities for cheating arose.
One of the most notorious examples of chess-based trickery was that of the “Mechanical Turk,” a late 17th-century contraption that claimed to be an automated chess player. In fact, a human player was hiding inside. Somehow, both Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin were reported to have been taken in by the ruse.
As chess tournaments proliferated, another tactic became common: collusion, whereby players would withdraw or deliberately lose to help others progress.
The issue gained attention after the creation of the International Chess Federation, known by its French acronym FIDE, and the increasingly high-stakes spectacle of the World Chess Championship, which became the site of Cold War chess battles — and accusations of cheating.
In a 1962 Sports Illustrated article, U.S. prodigy Bobby Fischer accused Soviet players of deliberately drawing their games to preserve their energy for games against him. Four decades later, the former head of the Soviet team that year admitted the allegations were true.
Fischer would go on to win the 1972 World Chess Championship, beating the Soviet player Boris Spassky.
The U.S. victory was short-lived: Fischer would refuse to defend his title in 1975 and entered a long period of decline. In 1992, he won an unofficial rematch against Spassky but ended up facing an arrest warrant for breaking U.N. sanctions on Yugoslavia, where the match was held.
The end of the Cold War might have temporarily cooled the geopolitics of chess. But changes to technology soon meant there were far more opportunities for foul play.
In the 1993 World Open in New York, an unrated player who was able to force a draw against a grandmaster was accused of using technology to cheat. The player reportedly wore headphones, had a pulsing bulge in his pocket and appeared to not fully understand the basic rules of chess.
Since then, the risk of technological cheating has affected chess at all levels. Three top French players were suspended for allegedly cheating via coded text message in 2011. Four years later, a Georgian champion was found to have an iPhone hidden in a bathroom during the 17th annual Dubai Open Chess Tournament.
In modern chess, even the best players are no match for chess programs that can run on a phone. Garry Kasparov, the legendary Russian player, was able to beat IBM’s supercomputer Deep Blue in 1996, but he became the first world champion to lose a match to a computer the following year, when Deep Blue won a rematch.
As Nigel Short, an English chess grandmaster, put it to The Washington Post in 2015: “My microwave could beat Magnus Carlsen.”
Aside from the frontier of cheating enabled by technological advances, politics has continued to contaminate chess. Critics say that FIDE is effectively controlled by Russia.
From 1995 to 2018, it was led by Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a former president of the Russian Republic of Kalmykia, whom the United States placed under sanctions in 2015 for supporting financially the Assad regime in Syria. Arkady Dvorkovich, a former Russian deputy prime minister, succeeded Ilyumzhinov.
Despite controversy over the war in Ukraine, Dvorkovich was reelected for a second term last month, beating Carlsen’s Danish coach, Peter Heine Nielsen, and Ukrainian grandmaster Andrii Baryshpolets.
With a game so suffused with distrust at a fundamental level, perhaps Carlsen can’t be blamed for being suspicious.
Niemann has offered to play the game naked to dispel his doubters. That, to be fair, is an offer with which King Cnut never had to contend.