Chess, Honor & Politics

Terry H. Schwadron

Sept. 29, 2022

There’s a dust-up over cheating in the grandmaster chess world that should prompt some introspection about the nature of honest competition, accepting the rules of the game and ethics.

These cheating allegations are even unusual for competitive sports: Rather than deflating a ball or stealing baseball signs for advantage, these charges rely on supposed use of artificial intelligence to help decode the possible next moves by an opponent.

It’s alleged cheating in thinking rather than some physical move, but it’s being seen in the chess world as just as unethical as hitting below the belt.

But what is striking is that this unusual scandal arises in a time when we have election deniers running for offices and an army of Republican operatives working overtime towards disrupting voting and counting — all in the supposed name of election integrity. We have the former president in the center of a web of fraud and criminal election schemes, and we have a pending GOP congressional majority promise to shut down all questions about Jan. 6 attempts to overthrow the last election.

In this case, chess heavyweight Magnus Carlsen, a Norwegian champion, sent important ripples through his world by suddenly resigning after one move by Hans Niemann, a 19-year-old American, charging that he would not play with a cheater.

“Basically, what Carlsen has done to chess is the equivalent of upending the board and scattering the pieces,” explains Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist for The Washington Post. “What’s upset (Carlsen) is the possibility that Niemann . . . may have infiltrated the undefended world of table chess to beat him with a machine.”

Imagine that — protest by refusing to play. By contrast, Republicans upset over the outcome of their game, are trying to attack the machine and its people, even to the point of violence, to get a predetermined outcome.

The Gambit

The young challenger has denied that he consulted robotic analysis to help select his next moves against the champ. But he has owned up to having used computer assistance in online matches at when he was 12 and 16, for which he was banned.

As Jenkins recounts, “earlier this month, Niemann, a patently inferior player, beat Carlsen without breaking much of a sweat. Somehow, Niemann anticipated and swiftly blocked a tremendously obscure opening strategy by Carlsen. . . This provoked Carlsen to a rare histrionic: In a rematch with Niemann last week, he resigned after just one move and stalked away from the board — a gasp-inducing gesture of protest that earned a reprimand from the international chess governing body.”

There have been a flood of discussions and commentary offered since in the chess world on exactly what may have occurred, about whether electronic equipment was hidden in body cavities, about whether Niemann had indeed been as tremendously lucky to have studied up just that morning on the exact opening move that Carlsen had made.

Chess commentators have not agreed. They have tried to evaluate Niemann’s play, and argue whether his play falls within an unsuspicious range or are improbable.

All this is startling to competitive chess, “an old-world culture in which competitors have played on trust without checking what’s up each other’s shirt sleeves or pants legs,” as Jenkins explains.

Chess competition features a lot of stoic silence, while acknowledging that strategic thought does require athletic-like stamina — something researchers have sought to record through sensors and wires during tournaments that can last several hours. Online audiences play the game within the game, looking for signs of mental fatigue among the players.

The Wider Comparison

So, it seems that Carlsen is acting not only for himself but on behalf of chess traditionalists “who believe that machine intelligence is outstripping those who play purely with their heads.”

What is interesting to me here is the concern not the method of cheating, but about the act of doing anything that would sway the outcome of a human thinking match. The simple argument: If you believe in the game, you want to play it honestly.

Compare that to the decline of our elections, where our “democracy” thinking is all about winning — at any cost.

We have seen states, now enabled by courts, pursue more and more outrageous gerrymandering of districts, based on partisan concern. We have watched as political money just piles up, with literally billions of dollars now being spent on campaigns with all the weight of influence on policy votes to follow. We see the insistent assertions of election fraud based on no evidence, and the resistance of the Republicans in Congress to vote to guarantee voting rights, mail voting procedures, or even to assure that there is no ambiguity about the role of a vice president in the counting of Electoral College ballots.

We see Republicans promising to shut down inquiries into Jan. 6 scheming because of a perceived partisan need to protect Donald Trump, and the prediction of a non-stop set of attacks on Joe Biden and Democrats as payback from a Republican House majority, should the November elections reflect a new House makeup.

Beyond politics, we see a string of federal investigations of theft and misuse of billions of dollars’ worth of aid meant for covid help or funds to aid children for personal gain, we’re seeing Congressional refusal to deal with stock trades among its membership, and we hardly notice schemes in the sports world for team advantage.

How refreshing it would be to see an election “champion” refuse to play the opponent who cheats. Instead, we see the response as being to seek the countervailing money or influence. Who wins in a cheating world?




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