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What could have happened?
The chess world has been in shock for weeks since last September 14, 2022, when world champion Magnus Carlsen left the Sinquefield Cup tournament without explanation. Since then, there has been much speculation that he may have been a victim of the cheating game, but to date no definitive proof has been made public.
Although it is true that in the collective conscience chess is considered a noble and honorable game, where cheating has no place, since the first successes of chess computers, back in the 90’s, and the famous DeepBlueIn the past, there have been many who have tried to impose themselves on their rivals by abusing their “help”. However, they had always been detected, or so we thought until today.
Regardless of the outcome of the investigation of the International Chess Federation (FIDE) has initiated ex officio, without entering into parallel trials that could ruin the career and life of presumed innocent, in this article I am preparing to make an analysis of how technology could be endangering the noble sport-art-science that is chess, but in turn could be its salvation.
What could have happened?
Throughout this controversy, one voice has attracted particular attention, raised by the loudspeaker of social networks, and it has been none other than that of the American tycoon Elon Musk. In the early stages, protected by the ephemeral volatility inherent in these forms of communication, he suggested the possibility that Hans Niemann was using devices housed inside him. I will not go into further details, as the very author of such conjecture has deleted any trace that might remain on his Twitter account. However, we should not let what happened go unnoticed, as a simple joke, since it could be a reasonable lead to follow.
However, the interpretation I could make of that suggestion would be in another direction. Since 2020, the American tycoon has made public his project to implant devices in the brain, which connected wirelessly could serve a wide range of applications. I am referring to Nuralink. Although the technology needed to make this project a reality in a safe and cost-effective way is far from being a reality today, no one could think of a better way to launch its prototype than using chess. As John von Neumann (the real one, not the one from World Open 93) did in his day, why couldn’t this technology be behind a hypothetical case of sports fraud? It is true that the brain implant has not yet proven to be safe for use in humans, much less has it been approved by the competent bodies.
But could we be looking at the use of implants in safer body parts, stimulating nerves with the idea of encoding an algebraic notation that would inform the best move at any given moment? for example fingers  and toes, or other extremities? Could they be implanted in order to stimulate touch in fingers and toes for the purpose of coding rows and columns? What would happen then with the identification of the part to be moved? How would it be coded? Would it perhaps be acceptable for a teacher not to have it coded? One thing is clear, the speed of execution of moves during the game suggests that the mechanism used is, at least, agile.
Implant-based focused touch stimulation
It is curious how in the following game, which pitted Hans Niemann against Milos Perunovic in February 2020, move 23. …, Dc5 is especially strange and what would be appropriate in this position, as recommended by Stockfish, is 23 …, Tc5. Could this dubious play have been the result of the limitations of a finger-implant-based play coding and communication system?
But this need not be the only possibility. Wireless hearing aid technology has improved dramatically in the last five years. Today there are micro earphones that inserted in the ear canal, could be receiving wireless signals, and thanks to the IoT (Internet Of Things) could connect with any place in the world. Nothing would prevent an outside observer from sending winning moves to a cheater.
Of course we have to face the problem constructively and always look to the future. Search for alternative solutions to adapt to the new situation generated by the exponential growth of chess engines and databases. I am convinced that there are efficient mechanisms to combat foul play.
Technology is a means, not an end in itself. It would not be logical, nor fair, to accuse it of definitively ending chess. Rather, we could try to use it to combat foul play. Prevent those artifices that, although ingenious, would be breaking forever the magic of that great battle of the intellect that is the game of 64 squares. The use of frequency jammers or even game rooms covered by metal mesh, like Faraday Cages, could be a solution to avoid unwanted wireless communications, but this would not solve the problem for online competitions, so much in vogue today after two years of pandemic.
Other solutions based on the use of algorithms and statistics that characterize human versus machine performance, thus identifying unusual progressions in players over time, could also serve to mitigate the risk of cheating in the future, not only because of their effectiveness in detecting cases but also as a deterrent.
However, chess faces many other problems. This is one more. Most grandmasters today recognize that the current level of play will lead in a few decades to a super-specialization that will lead to the absolute boredom of the king’s game. Is it worth applying palliatives then, or should we seek bolder remedies and accept the new reality?
It is worth remembering that this is not the first crisis faced in chess. Already Capablanca, in the 20’s of the last century, thought he foresaw that chess had reached its maximum development, and observing the number of draws in which he himself incurred (his style favored it) he proposed a radical evolution of the game. This included increasing the number of squares from 64 to 100, and increasing the number of pieces. Something similar to what is known as Omega Chess. Of course, then came Alekhine and we know how the story ended.
This was not the only attempt, Bobby Fischer recovered an old game modality and provided it with modern rules for tournament practice, this modality is the well-known Fischer Random Chess (FRC or Chess960). This was based on a random arrangement of the pieces at the beginning of the game, in order to prevent chess from relying so much on the theory of the openings and that the middlegame was an unexplored territory, which favored more the creativity and innate gifts of the players. This modality is still played today in online tournaments, and with more strength than ever, in fact there is even a world championship organized by FIDE, which has officially recognized it as a modality (something unprecedented to date).
However, chess engines have not lagged behind, they have codified the essential criteria for position evaluation and an enormous capacity for variant calculation. But the use of FCR makes them more human, and takes away one of their greatest assets: memory.
But not everything remains there, the essential element that connects the use of the FCR with the Niemann case is missing. How could it help us in this case? Well, it could, and very much so. There is no doubt that it would dismantle any attempt at justification based on a fortuitous, but opportune, previous study of the line or variant, or even of the opponent. It would eliminate at a stroke the preparation factor, and therefore it would be much easier to identify cheaters through the use of analysis and characterization of human moves.
It is quite possible that chess, as we know it today, is heading for a crisis of historic dimensions. It is possible that we are facing a change of era and our presumed innocent is making history without knowing it. One thing is clear, in my opinion: We must not remain anchored, but move forward and transform challenges into opportunities for improvement. All of the wealth generated so far by the enormous amount of brilliant minds that have produced this wonderful game will not be forgotten, they will be our classics of tomorrow. It will be the basis for developing a study and learning method. But we must look to the future. Maybe it will only affect professional chess or it will also extend to competitions among amateurs, who knows. Let us embrace the future, which is already present.