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Why chess fans are questioning 19-year-old Hans Niemann's win over Magnus Carlsen


Is there a cheating scandal in the big leagues of international chess? Hans Niemann, a 19-year-old player known for his livestreams on Twitch, defeated the grandmaster and current world champion, Magnus Carlsen, earlier this month. The next day, Mr. Carlsen pulled out of the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, and he tweeted a cryptic message that many interpreted as a veiled accusation of cheating. The scandal has spilled across headlines and spawned some pretty ridiculous theories as chess fans wait for the next pawn to drop in this story. Caleb Wetherell is one of those fans. He's a data scientist in Seattle and a chess hobbyist who runs the chess analysis website Pawnalyze. Mr. Wetherell, thanks so much for being with us.

CALEB WETHERELL: Hi, Scott. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Let's begin by noting the chief arbiter of that chess tournament released a statement saying that they received no indications anybody had played unfairly. Hans Niemann denies all allegations that he cheated. Bearing that in mind, as somebody who follows chess closely, how big an upset was this?

WETHERELL: It's definitely - the whole sort of chess community was in significant surprise after the result of the game, but the result didn't draw any suspicion itself. There was no suspicion, really, until the next day when Magnus sent out this tweet.

SIMON: The match took place September 4. What has happened since then?

WETHERELL: Yeah, so the day after the game happened and Magnus sent this tweet, Hikaru Nakamura - he's sort of the foremost entertainment personality in chess, I would say, and people were sort of looking to him for his interpretation of what Magnus was saying with this tweet and why he withdrew. And Hikaru shared that Hans had been banned from this site, Chess.com, for cheating and banned from playing in prize money tournaments for a period of time. He made some other comments about grandmasters in general having sort of closed-door conversations, speculating that Hans might be cheating. And then the next day, sort of the ball started to unravel, and people were speculating about what was going on, and that's where things took off.

SIMON: I'm sorry for the naivete of this inquiry, but how would someone cheat at chess?

WETHERELL: The moves are broadcast live, so in theory, somebody could be paying attention to that, watching and passing moves into the player that's in the playing hall.

SIMON: Why would getting outside advice help? I mean, presumably somebody playing Magnus Carlsen is pretty good.

WETHERELL: Yes. So there are computer engines, chess engines, that are used as analytical tools that can basically give what we think is the best answer for the position. And us humans are just trying to come up with what we think the best move is, but the computers are much, much stronger and have been for decades.

SIMON: You ran the numbers, I gather, on your website.

WETHERELL: Yeah, so I did an analysis of Hans' performance based on the system used to sort of rate and rank chess players. It's a measurement of how we can expect one player to perform against another. And, you know, a player that's 150 points rated lower than another opponent might win 5% of the time, as an example. And so Hans' rating at the beginning of 2021 was around 2,500, and now his rating is approximately 2,700 - a really significant, almost unprecedented rise for somebody in that period of time. And so basically what I showed is just that, you know, his rating was wrong before, and he's a better player than his rating would suggest, so his rating has moved up over time to follow the fact that he's been performing well. The speed that he's increased his rating is really the draw to suspicion.

SIMON: I consider myself to be an expert on chess because I saw the entire series of "The Queen's Gambit," and figuring, you know, that's probably all - you know, about as much as you can learn, right? And in the - I believe, the last scene, everybody's shocked that she wins, but she did, and her opponent shakes her hand.

WETHERELL: Yes, yeah. First of all, "Queen's Gambit" was a great show. I also enjoyed that. You know, we expect these upsets to happen. We expect the junior chess players to get better over time and eventually beat their predecessors. So it's not out of the ordinary for an upset in an individual game, especially, like this to happen. And I do believe that after this game was over, they did shake hands. It wasn't until the next day when Magnus withdrew that the whole sort of chess world blew up with this suspicion.

SIMON: Caleb Wetherell, chess fan and founder of the chess analysis website Pawnalyze, thank you so much for being with us, sir.

WETHERELL: Thank you, Scott. It was nice to chat with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.