By Dylan Loeb McClain
This is an era of milk and honey for those who live, breathe and make their livelihood from chess. But, like family members fighting over a piece of bread at the dinner table, the top players cannot seem to stop getting into disputes about the integrity of the game.
The latest episode concerns Hikaru Nakamura, one of chess’s top stars, and Vladimir Kramnik, who was world champion from 2000 to 2007. Last month, in a series of blog posts on Chess.com, the world’s most popular chess site, Kramnik insinuated that Nakamura had probably cheated while playing on the site.
Nakamura did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
In one post that he subsequently deleted, Kramnik, without mentioning Nakamura by name, wrote that in one streak of 46 games, “a player” had won 45 games and drawn one. Kramnik then wrote, “I believe that everyone would find this interesting.”
After it became apparent that Kramnik was referring to Nakamura, he added in another post Nov. 21, “Having checked Hikaru’s statistics carefully, I have found NUMEROUS low probabilities performance both of him and some of his opponents.” In other words: He implied that Nakamura’s results were very suspicious.
When reached for comment Friday, Kramnik said that he never meant to say that. When a reporter pointed out to him that his words could be misunderstood, he said, “Of course it is not an accusation,” adding that people could interpret his comments however they wished.
On Sunday, Chess.com closed Kramnik’s blog and muted his account. In a statement posted to social media, Chess.com said it had met with Kramnik “numerous times” and added: “Our team carefully investigated many dozens of players about which GM Kramnik raised suspicions. In the vast majority of cases, we found his accusations baseless.”
Kramnik said in an email that he had received news of the account closure from an associate, not directly from Chess.com. He added that there was no warning and said that for the past couple months, there had not been “a single communication attempt from them.”
Nakamura is not only one of the world’s top players, but he is also one of the game’s most popular streamers, with about 2 million followers on both his Twitch and YouTube channels. He did not take Kramnik’s claim lightly.
Nakamura said that Kramnik was “cherry picking” the statistics that he was using, and he said on one of his streaming casts: “You don’t get to make false accusations when you are not an expert. You don’t get to make false accusations when you don’t have data to back yourself up.”
Given the high profiles of the two players, the controversy has swept the chess world. Mathematicians and amateur players have weighed in with their opinions and statistical analyses.
Chess.com, which has its own system for detecting cheating, posted a statement saying: “We take all cheating accusations seriously. In the case of the recent accusations against Hikaru Nakamura by Vladimir Kramnik, we have generated nearly 2,000 individual reports on Hikaru’s games in our Fair Play system and have found no incidents of cheating.”
Kramnik was incensed by the statement. In a blog post on the same day, he wrote, “Calling my recent efforts on help improving anti cheating efficiency of chess.com platform ‘accusations of Hikaru Nakamura by Vladimir Kramnik’ is a clear public disinformation which obviously can cause a huge image damages to me.” He demanded that Chess.com retract its statement, threatening to sue if it did not.
To date, Chess.com has not done that.
Before his account was muted, Kramnik told The New York Times that he was “shocked” by the reaction of Nakamura and Chess.com to what he wrote and that he had suffered damage to his reputation as well as personally to his family. He said he had received at least one death threat on Chess.com and that when he reported it to the site’s administrators, they banned the person who sent it. He said the website took no action beyond that and did not apologize to him.
“It seems to me that they are not doing what they can do to fight against cheating,” Kramnik said, “so I will continue to do it myself.” He added that he intends to file a lawsuit against Chess.com and against Nakamura; he is preparing the case now.
There is some significance in Nakamura being involved in a brouhaha in which he is accused of cheating, because the roles were reversed last year.
That case involved Magnus Carlsen, the world’s top-ranked player and the former world champion, who accused Hans Niemann, a rising American star, of cheating shortly after Carlsen lost to him in a tournament in St. Louis. Carlsen then withdrew from the tournament. Soon after, Chess.com released a report saying that Niemann had cheated in as many as 100 games while playing on its site over the years. Niemann had admitted to cheating twice on the site and years before the game against Carlsen.
A representative for Carlsen did not respond to a request for comment.
Nakamura was a vocal supporter of Carlsen during the episode, pointing to the Chess.com report as proof that Niemann could not be trusted.
In the uproar that followed, Niemann filed a lawsuit against Carlsen, Chess.com and Nakamura seeking $100 million. The International Chess Federation, also known as FIDE, the game’s governing body, opened an investigation into what happened.
The lawsuit was settled in August for undisclosed terms, and Niemann was allowed to play again on Chess.com without restrictions.
In an interview, Erik Allebest, one of Chess.com’s founders and its CEO, described the relationship now between the site and Niemann as “very professional,” though he admitted that Niemann had “ghosted” him and Danny Rensch, the site’s chief chess officer, since the reinstatement.
This month, the federation, which had delayed weighing in so as to allow the lawsuit to run its course, released its report. It was more of a whimper than a bang.
The federation concluded that Niemann had not cheated against Carlsen during their game in St. Louis. It also found that Carlsen had behaved improperly when he withdrew from the tournament.
In the background of all of this, chess tournaments have bigger prize pools and more spectators than ever before. Chess.com just wrapped up the Champions Chess Tour, a yearlong series of tournaments featuring the game’s top players, with $2 million in prizes. It was won by Carlsen. The site is also approaching 160 million members.
Allebest said that Chess.com was doing what it could to stamp out cheating and was evolving its methods to find cheaters. He admitted that some people did still get away with it, though he was certain that number was very small.
What Kramnik has done is not helpful, Allebest said. “Being suspicious is not the same thing as being certain,” he added. “It doesn’t frankly help to spread suspicion. You create hysteria by going public.”