White Castles and the Ivory Tower: Is Cheating at Chess Evidence of Cheating at Chess?

by Steven Gimbel and Gwydion Suilebhan

At a recent tournament sponsored by the St. Louis Chess Club, 19-year old Hans Niemann rocked the chess world by defeating grandmaster Magnus Carlson, the world’s top player. Their match was not an anticipated showdown between a senior titan and a recognized rising phenom. The upset came out of nowhere.

Throughout the chess world, whispers about Niemann’s improbable victory led to social media posts with rampant speculation about foul play until Carlson, in his own post, directly accused Niemann of cheating. In support of that claim, he advanced several pieces of evidence. First, Carlson claimed that the trajectory of Niemann’s progress as a player was “unusual.” Second, he suggested that during their match, Niemann exhibited a lack of mental focus that didn’t correspond with his surprisingly effective play.

“I had the impression,” Carlson tweeted, “that he wasn’t tense or even fully concentrating on the game in critical positions, while outplaying me as black in a way I think only a handful of players can do.”

Carlson’s third piece of purported evidence, however, has been the most rhetorically effective: Niemann’s prior history of cheating. The 19 year-old has admitted to illicit play twice earlier in his career. “I was 16 years old and living alone in New York City at the heart of the pandemic,” Niemann said in an interview with the St. Louis Chess Club, “and I was willing to do anything to grow my stream. What I want people to know about this is that I am deeply, deeply sorry for my mistake. I know my actions have consequences and I suffered those consequences.”

Niemann insists that he learned from his error and has changed.

“I was confronted. I confessed. And this is the single biggest mistake of my life. And I am completely ashamed. I am telling the world because I don’t want misrepresentations and I don’t want rumors. I have never cheated in an over-the-board game, and other than when I was 12 years old I have never cheated in a tournament with prize money.”

Carlson argues that Niemann’s history of cheating gives us reason to believe his opponent likely cheated in the big match in St. Louis. “I believe that Niemann has cheated more—and more recently—than he has publicly admitted,” Carlson wrote.

Before developing a reasonable belief about whether Niemann cheated in the match against Carlson, we have to first decide what counts as legitimate evidence for such a claim. In particular, can his earlier instances of cheating be used to give us any reason to believe that Niemann cheated in this case?

If this were a judicial matter, the prosecution wouldn’t be allowed to present evidence of Niemann’s earlier missteps to the jury. According to Rule 609 of the Federal Evidence Code, previous convictions, even for similar crimes, are not admissible in a court of law.

“Someone shouldn’t be convicted in a new case just because they were convicted previously,” Robert Iuliano, former chief academic council of Harvard University and current president of Gettysburg College, explains. “The evidence of the prior conviction could encourage the jury to look past the actual evidence in the case before them and simply draw conclusions about the defendant’s character. But it’s not the defendant’s character that’s on trial; it’s the behavior in the immediate case, and the government needs to prove that.”

The scientific basis for Rule 609 is what social psychologists call “the anchoring bias,” which describes the fact that prior information we have been given shapes how we interpret new information.

“The anchoring bias occurs when we interpret new information about our social world from the reference point of already existing information,” social psychologist Christopher Barlett of Kansas State University explains. “For example, let’s say that my son’s birthday is coming up and I want to spend $50 on a present. I shop and see a great gift for him that costs $100, and I put it back because it is too much. That $100 is now my anchor, so when I continue to shop and see another great gift idea for $75, I will buy it because it is cheaper than the $100 present. Ironically, it is still larger than the amount I previously set, but the anchor ($100) biased my judgment and predicted my ensuing behavior.”

In other words, while Niemann’s earlier instances of cheating intuitively seem to be pertinent information, they obscure our objectivity in the matter.

Philosopher David Hume argues that our minds are shaped by habit. Because we have seen the sun rise every morning of our lives, we believe that the sun will rise again tomorrow. The idea that our minds develop those habits goes all the way back to Aristotle. In Nicomachean Ethics, his classic on moral philosophy, Aristotle contends that the way we act when we are young shapes our character. We develop patterns of behavior that we continue to follow later in life without deliberating on them.

“According to Aristotle,” said Todd Furman, an ethicist at McNeese State University and author of The Ethics of Poker, “Repetitive acts of right or wrong work to form a person’s moral character for the better or worse, respectively. Once a disposition of acting rightly or wrongly has settled in, a person’s moral character is thereby established. Thereafter, altering an established moral character and its habits by force of reason is highly improbable, but possible so long as the person still recognizes true right from wrong—impossible if he doesn’t.”

Aristotelian principles suggest that when deciding whether Niemann cheated, we first need to decide if Niemann is the sort of person who is likely to cheat. To make that decision, we need insight into his moral character. Niemann’s past actions, especially those from his youth, are not only inductive evidence, like the rising of the sun on previous days, but formative experiences that would have played a role in developing his present moral character.

As Furman notes, Niemann is still capable of changing his moral character. Doing so is tricky, Aristotle contended, and requires great effort, but it’s not impossible. Niemann’s protest that he learned from his earlier episodes of cheating is a claim that even the most hard-core Aristotleans would need to take seriously. It would have to be weighed alongside other evidence.

So… is Carlson right? Did Niemann cheat? We do not know, and we hazard no guesses. Should Niemann’s confessions be admitted in our rational deliberations about the matter? Even that move seems to be in dispute.