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Incentives, Witch Hunts, and Chess

This is a story about Magnus and Hans. Is it a fairy tale? Sounds like the Brothers Grimm.

No, this is real life. Well, kind of. Because the story starts on a chess board—a land of kings, queens, and knights. As I tell you this story, remember this: incentives drive everything. Ask yourself tough questions about Magnus, Hans, and the other characters. What do they have to win and to lose? What are their incentives?

Magnus is the best chess player of all time. He’s 31, Norwegian, and the reigning 5-time world chess champion.

Magnus Carlsen

Hans is a 19-year-old American chess prodigy, currently ranked #45 globally. By most expert accounts, Hans’s rise to prominence has been faster than typically seen in high-level chess.

Hans Niemann

On the surface, this is a story about cheating and witch hunts.

Underneath it all, it’s a story about incentives.

Incentives are the most powerful force in the world and can get people to justify or defend almost anything.

Morgan Housel

Cheating

On September 4, 2022, Magnus and Hans played a chess match in a tournament in St. Louis. Ironically, Hans wasn’t even supposed to be there. Another player got denied entry to the U.S., so Hans was a last-minute replacement.

Now, there are some chess-specific things you need to know:

  1. Before the match, a coin flip decides who plays with the white pieces (and gets to go first) and who plays with the black pieces. The white pieces are decidedly advantageous.
  2. Chess is a game of pure skill. Players can make mistakes, but that’s a matter of bad skill—not bad luck. There is almost** zero luck involved in chess. Therefore, it’s rare for a lower-ranked player to beat a higher-ranked player.

So when the American upstart Hans beat world champion Magnus—and did so playing with the black pieces—the chess world was shocked.

They had no idea what would come next.

**On almost zero luck: players spend copious time studying before their matches. And if one player has a hunch on how their opponent will play, they’ll study specifically for that strategy. This is part of Hans’s argument—that he (luckily) studied that morning specifically for what Magnus eventually played. The correct counter-strategy was fresh in his mind.

“If I Speak I’m in Big Trouble”

The next day (we’ll call it Day 2 for the sake of our timeline), Magnus withdrew from the tournament. He had never withdrawn from a tournament before. Stranger still, he tweeted a cryptic video of soccer coach Jose Mourinho saying, “If I speak, I am in big trouble.”

The chess world was confused and shocked. But they quickly put two and two together. Chess’s global governing body (called FIDE) does not allow players to publicly comment about ongoing investigations into unfair play. The tweet must be referring to an unknown investigation occurring behind closed doors.

The insinuation was clear: Magnus Carlsen accused Hans Niemann of cheating to beat him.

Let the Witch Hunt Begin…

Before I get into further details, let me be clear: Magnus’s tournament withdrawal and tweet started a chain reaction that nobody in the world can stop. It’s been truly wild to watch unfold in real-time.

All I can think about is witch hunts, just like in Salem. Strange behavior, an accusation, exploding commentary, a trial-by-public-opinion.

We know that witches aren’t real and those punished for witchcraft were punished unfairly.

The jury remains out on Hans Niemann’s potential cheating. Who am I kidding...there is no jury.

But whether Hans is guilty or innocent, this is a witch hunt in real-time. And, by definition, a perversion of justice.

How Would Cheating Work?

After Magnus’s tweet, speculation flew (like a witch, you could say). If Hans cheated, how would it happen? Most likely, it would involve:

  • an outside partner-in-crime using a “chess engine”—a computer program to find ideal chess moves
  • a small device to transmit electromagnetic signals (e.g. a radio)
  • a “vibration” (or similar) on Hans’s person to signal moves to him

Enter Elon Musk, troll extraordinaire, who quickly poured gas on the flames by proposing that vibrating anal beads would be the most likely cheating tool.

The Drama Keeps Giving

The day after tweet (Day 3), Hans Niemann gave an impassioned interview defending himself.

In this interview, Niemann admitted to cheating when he was 12- and 16 years old in online tournaments. But he claimed that he has never cheated “over the board,” a.k.a in-person, physical games.

This is an important distinction and one that we’ll recall later. Online chess is casual, like some golf with your buddies. Cheating is certainly scummy. But it’s not fraud. Over-the-board chess is serious, like a golf tournament with money on the line. Cheating in over-the-board chess is an “existential threat.”

They’re just two separate things. Cheating online and cheating in real life is different. About 20-25% of IMs and GMs cheat online—that’s my guess. Less than 1% cheat in person.

Grandmaster Ben Finegold

Why this difference? Mainly because of the punishments—the disincentives.

Cheating online usually results in a 6-month ban and a request to not do it again. If you do cheat again, you’ll get banned from that site…and just go play at another online site. Big deal.

Cheating over-the-board results in a lifetime ban. You are no longer a professional chess player. Career over. Show me the incentives, I’ll show you the outcomes.

Hans’ past online cheating is a key part of the story. Over these recent weeks, we’ve learned that many top chess players—including Magnus—were aware that Hans had cheated online before. That’s his reputation.

Magnus’s decision to quit the St. Louis tournament was not made in a vacuum. It was not, “I’m the best, but I lost—therefore, Hans cheated.” Instead, it was, “…I lost to a known cheater—therefore, Hans cheated.”

Two days later (Day 5), the largest chess-playing website in the world privately banned Hans. The chess world’s schism grew deeper—why this ban? on what ground? simply because Magnus is a sore loser?

In their statement, Chess.com said:

We have shared detailed evidence with [Hans] concerning our decision, including information that contradicts his statements regarding the amount and seriousness of his cheating on Chess.com.

The plot thickens.

Enter Hikaru

If Magnus lit the match and Elon Musk poured the gas, then Hikaru Nakamura (and others like him) have provided a steady stream of fuel onto Hans’s pyre.

Hikaru Nakamura

Hikaru is this story’s third chess grandmaster. He’s currently ranked 6th in the world—a true “super GM”—and is a five-time U.S. chess champion. But his fame (and income) comes less from over-the-board chess mastery and more from his dominance of internet content creation.

Hikaru has 1.5 million followers on the streaming site Twitch and 1.4 million followers on his Youtube channel. He is, by far, the biggest chess streamer in the world. From Twitch alone, Nakamura reportedly earns over $300,000 per year.

In this way, Hikaru acts as a proxy—a very notable proxy—for online content creation in general. Chess creators have had an absolute field day with the Niemann/Carlsen drama.

Hikaru has released 51 videos since Day 0 (I’m writing this on Day 30). 28 of those videos are directly related to the cheating scandal. Those 28 videos have a combined 9.4 million views.

Every video, every article, every mention…it’s more fuel on the fire. Bare in mind—this isn’t Dan Rather reporting. There’s no journalistic integrity here. The game is more clicks + more views = more ads = more revenue.

In Salem, pseudo-experts lent their opinions on witchcraft. Of course, it was all bullshit.

In this chess drama, Hikaru is a true expert on chess. But, by his own admittance, he’s not an expert on statistics, data science, cheat detection, psychology, etc.

Yet, he’s fanning the flames when others bring up statistics, data science, cheat detection, psychology, etc, using the age-old excuse, “I’m not an expert here…but I’ll lend my opinions and accusations to this story anyway.

Why? Because those 9.4 million views are bringing Hikaru thousands of dollars in revenue. And, in his defense, he has an intrinsic motivation to keep cheating out of chess.

Show me the incentives, I’ll show you the outcomes.

More Quitting, More Characters

Two weeks went by with no official statement from Carlsen. Just the initial cryptic tweet.

On Day 15, Magnus and Hans were set to play again, this time in an online tournament. But after each player’s first move, Carlsen resigned and turned off his webcam, removing any doubt about Magnus’s motives: he believed Hans was a cheater and refused to play him.

On Day 16, Magnus spoke! While artfully dodging specific comments about the scandal, he did say:

I have to say I am very impressed by Niemann’s play & I think his mentor Maxim Dlugy must have been doing a great job.

Magnus Carlsen, September 21 interview

Maxim Dlugy? Who’s that? He’s an on-the-record cheater and one of Niemann’s coaches. Once again, the insinuation is clear. Dlugy is helping Hans cheat.

At this point, you might assume that the whole chess world was against Hans. But that’s not the case.

Because also on Day 16, Ken Regan spoke. Regan is an international chess master (lower than a grandmaster) and has a PhD in math from Oxford. He is considered the world’s foremost expert on chess cheating, analyzing suspicious games using various statistical analysis methods. And Regan found no evidence of Niemann’s cheating, either in St. Louis against Magnus or in the past two years.

Other “technical” analysis, however, does point to Hans cheating.

On Day 21, a French chess master published a video looking at hundreds of Hans’s previous games, comparing Hans’s moves against the top moves suggested by chess engines. This statistic is called “engine correlation.” Whereas the best players of all time (Magnus Carlsen, Bobby Fischer, Gary Kasparov) max out at ~75-80% engine correlation, Hans has games of 100% engine correlation.

This is strong evidence that Hans cheated in the past. Absolutely. It does not provide evidence that he cheated in St. Louis.

Then on Day 30, Chess.com published a 72-page report (which then got covered by many national news outlets, including this article in the Wall Street Journal). In short, they accuse Hans of:

  • Cheating 100+ times on their website since 2015.
  • Lying about how much he cheated.
  • But no definitive evidence of over-the-board, live chess cheating

By most accounts, Hans is a cheater and a liar. Not good.

But that’s all online chess. Cheating in online chess is scummy. But it’s not the same as cheating over the board.

But then Chess.com included this graphic in their report:

This graphic is only looking at over-the-board games. And it shows that Hans has had the greatest improvement in chess history between ages 11 and 19. Very suspicious.

But not proof.

Corpus Delicti

Do we know that Hans cheated in St. Louis? Absolutely not. In the traditional Western justice system, Hans is innocent. It’s corpus delicti. No body, no crime. No device, no crime.

On Day 22, Magnus released a statement officially accusing Hans of cheating. His most damning evidence?

“…throughout our game in the Sinquefield Cup I had the impression 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.”

– Magnus Carlsen

In other words, “the game felt funny.” Magnus isn’t alone in that thought. Many grandmasters—such as Eric Hansen—have criticized Hans’s post-match analysis after beating Magnus as being “incoherent.” Good chess players know what smart chess analysis sounds like. And they’re saying Hans’s analysis “felt funny.”

Magnus has a better “horse sense” for chess than anyone on Earth. When he says “it felt funny,” I believe him.

But that’s not corpus delicti!

You shouldn’t ruin someone’s life because “the game felt funny.”

Social Death

Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised if Hans cheated:

  • He’s a past cheater. He admitted it.
  • He’s most likely a liar about his cheating.
  • His coach is a cheater.
  • His coach lied about cheating.
  • Some experts believe Hans continues to cheat.
  • Other experts believe he does not.
  • Hans beat Magnus using the black pieces – an unlikely event
  • Hans had the greatest rise of any chess player in history from age 11 to 19 – an unlikely event
  • Hans has played games with 100% engine correlation – many unlikely events.

If it looks like a duck, and sounds like a duck, and flies like a duck…

Ducks AND Witches

Add all this evidence and proof together and I think the proper conclusion is:

Hans should have been banned long ago and never played the recent St. Louis tournament in the first place.

I’d buy that. He’s a cheater and a liar. Ban him. You need to do it for the integrity of the game. I bet that’s how Magnus felt.

But they did let Hans play. And he beat Magnus. And Magnus, understandably, didn’t like getting beat by a liar and a cheater.

So, without any new evidence of cheating, Magnus lit the match. He felt that justice had not been served to Hans before, so he took it into his own hands and introduced double jeopardy; a new trial.

Now, 30 days later, the court of public opinion has Hans drawn and quartered. He’s done. His chess reputation is inexorably ruined forever. Period.

Hans is 19 years old! He devoted more of his life to chess than I’ve devoted to any practice in my life. Probably yours too. And his reputation in the chess community is finished.

Social death is more frightening than physical death.

Brooke Harrington

You can’t unburn a witch.

Likability

For what it’s worth, I find Magnus Carlsen extremely likable. And I find Hans Niemann extremely dislikable.

In interviews and while streaming chess online…Magnus is pretty normal. Hans is petulant.

Justice—or at least my view of justice—is separate from how much I like people.

Incentives

When I see this story laid out before me, I see incentive madness.

Show me the incentives. I’ll show you the outcomes.

Charlie Munger

For each character—Magnus, Hans, Hikaru, Chess.com—I think about their incentives to act or not act.

Magnus wants to defend fairness in chess. Good. But Magnus got beaten by a young, brash, known-cheater. So he’s now taking the lead role in destroying Hans’ reputation. Bad.

Hans has devoted his life to chess and is incentivized to defend his reputation there. Good. But if you’ve devoted your life to one game, hit your talent’s ceiling, and have easy access to cheating, you’ve got an incentive to cheat. Bad.

Hikaru wants to defend chess and entertain his fans, but also gets paid to fan the flames. Chess.com needs to defend the integrity of its community but is also about to buy Magnus’s chess app for $83 million.

Incentives drive everything. Interpersonally, economically, financially, and yes, in chess. So here’s my advice. Apply this advice to personal finance, investing, economics, your career, whatever:

If you dig into the incentives, you’ll understand the world more.

This chess story has conflicting incentives at every turn. Once we dig into them, it’s hard to know who to believe. Nothing is black and white, just turbulent and gray. The truth, as of this writing, is like Schrodinger’s cat. Except the cat might be anal beads, and the cat’s hiding place…well…

I doubt we’ll ever get corpus delicti from St. Louis.

I’ll leave you with this:

It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.

Warren Buffett

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-Jesse

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