Target Number One, the Consequences of Being the Best

Ben Lauter, MJLST Staffer

The World of Chess

Since 2013, Norwegian Magnus Carlsen has been the reigning World Champion in chess. This achievement was not shocking to many; Magnus has been an elite chess prodigy and Grandmaster since the age of thirteen (nine years before his eventual champion title). Many regard Magnus as the best chess player ever, surpassing the legend of Fischer and Kasparov[1], two former great world champions. During Kasparov’s reign, he drew, or tied, Magnus in a classical game[2] of chess when Magnus was just thirteen. With this being said, it seems impossible to quantify the talent and genius that Magnus possesses and continues to refine in chess. However, that is exactly what the ELO rating system intends to do.

An ELO rating is a calculation of a chess player’s current skill level. Magnus boasts the highest classical ELO rating ever to be retained: 2882. Along the way to receiving this all-time high was a period of time spanning nearly two and a half years where Magnus did not lose a single classical game, winning 125 straight. All of this is to say, Magnus Carlsen is an unstoppable force in chess. However, on September 4th, 2022, Magnus played a game that would snap his then current 53 game winning streak. On that date he lost to a 19-year-old American at the St. Louis based Sinquefield Cup Tournament, Hans Niemann, a San Francisco born prodigy currently ranked as the 49th best player in the world with an ELO rating of 2688.

The Match

This match had anything but a quiet result, despite the silence in the interviews afterwards. All that was said from the reigning World Champion was a tweet stating that Magnus would be withdrawing from the tournament, a measure that is near unprecedented from a World Champion at such a major world tournament. With that tweet, a clip was attached of the famous soccer (football) manager, Jose Mourinho, saying “If I speak, I will be in big trouble.” The chess world speculated that this was Magnus’s informal way of accusing the teenage Hans of cheating in an “over the board” chess match. A conjecture of which the chess world has not yet made peace, with article after article, interview after interview, and Grandmaster after Grandmaster giving their two cents.

There were many aftershocks to Magnus’s tweet, but it seems that the legal ones, namely a defamation case for slander or libel, may be the worst for Magnus. For the past several weeks Hans Niemann has been put under the magnifying glass. He has faced harassment, attacks on his character, and irreparable reputational damage. Yet, Magnus has still failed to present any evidence as to why he withdrew or sent that tweet out to the world and has not yet clarified or disclaimed any of the rumors that shadow Hans.
For a while, it looked like Hans would simply have actions and innuendos as his evidence in a slander or libel case. Then, after an online chess tournament that both Magnus and Hans were participants in, Magnus put out his official position on the matter. Magnus declared that on top of cheating in his match in St. Louis, Hans was a serial chess cheater and should be punished proportionately to the crime he committed. In Magnus’s declaration, he said that he believed his accusation whole-heartedly and would never participate in an invitational event in which Hans plays again. Throughout the rest of the statement Magnus provided zero evidence of the alleged cheating and stated he could not release his evidence without the approval of the player that he accused.

Consequences

There are two massive consequences likely to result from Magnus’s statement. The first is that Han’s professional career will likely be in ruins. Invitationals are a priority for top ranked chess professionals, allowing them to play in official matches and record status for their rating in addition to receiving prize money. If an invitational is going to have to choose between a candidate for the best player of all time, Magnus, and a rising teenager, Hans, there might not be a long discussion. The second consequence is that because no evidence has been released to validate the statements that Magnus made based on his gut feeling, Hans may have a case for slander or libel.

There are four elements to prove in a slander case. The plaintiff must show that there was a false statement made purporting to be fact, a publication of that statement to a third person, fault amounting to at least negligence, and damages incurred. Two of these elements are quite clear and likely provable; there was publication of a statement and there were damages to Han’s reputation. The other two elements require further analysis. The third element related to fault asks one to look to Magnus’s state of mind when he made his statements and find evidence that he did so to tarnish Han’s name, or was at the very least negligent in making the statements, to fulfill a prima facie case for slander. This standard is notoriously hard to prove and will undoubtedly act as a roadblock to a slander case. However, it will likely be even harder for Hans to prove the first element, that the statement was false purporting to be fact. This element causes an issue because of the difficulty in proving that something that didn’t happen, didn’t happen. Specifically, Hans would have to show that he did not cheat in order to prove that Magnus’s cheating accusation was false.

Further complicating the issue is surfacing evidence from other sources making Magnus’s claim of cheating more believable. Statistical analysis of Han’s performances show that he has been playing games with computer moves 90% of the time or more, compared to the likes of Fischer, Kasparov, or Magnus who are only around 70% during their all-time peaks, and to traditional 2700 ELO rated Grandmasters who average between 50%-60%. Reports indicate that based on Han’s last 18 months of performance the chance that he played games at the rate he had without computer assistance is one in over 60,000. Without being able to prove that Magnus’s statements are at the least unlikely true, Hans will likely fail to prove slander and his career will likely be derailed after the events of September.

Notes

[1]  Kasparov is the longest reigning World Champion to date.

[2] A “Classical Game” is a time format of chess that allows for 120 minutes of play per person for the first forty moves; it allows for the deepest level of consideration on every move. As a result, classical games of chess are an incredibly accurate and sound measure of a player’s talent. They are used to determine the World Champion every two years.

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