Not since Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit enthralled 62 million viewers has chess captured mainstream attention to such an extent.
Last month the Norwegian grandmaster Magnus Carlsen, world No 1 and already the “rock star” of chess – see GQ profiles and multimillion‑pound apparel collaborations – accused the American Hans Niemann of cheating after the 19-year-old ended Carlsen’s over-the-board 53-match winning sequence.
Niemann accepts his victory was unexpected; especially because Carlsen was playing with the white pieces but maintains he prepared for an opening move and “by some ridiculous miracle” Carlsen played it. Carlsen was not buying it and – for the first time ever – resigned from the tournament. In a delicious twist, the two were fated to meet again two weeks later, this time over the internet. After playing a single move Carlsen again dramatically resigned in protest.
Other prominent figures in the chess world have weighed in (as well as Elon Musk, but when does he not?). Niemann admitted he had cheated twice before, years ago, but put it down to youthful indiscretion. He has even declared he is willing to play naked to prove his present innocence; which might not be enough considering some detractors have suggested he used vibrating anal beads to receive signals.
Then last week Chess.com produced a 72-page bombshell report suggesting Niemann has cheated more than 100 times. As the drama rolls on, let us take a look at some of the best cheating scandals in sport.
St Louis Marathon, 1904 Olympics
Genuinely difficult to know where to start here. Though the cheat in question was the American Fred Lorz, who rather brilliantly had the chutzpah to travel 11 miles of the race in a car, there was a lot going on in general. Lorz, who only ever trained at night because of his job as a bricklayer, had already posed triumphantly with president Roosevelt’s daughter and was just about to accept his gold medal when he was exposed by a spectator and roundly booed. Lorz’s excuse was that it was just a practical joke and he was always going to come clean.
In his place another American, Thomas Hicks, who finished the race car-free but with the aid of brandy, egg whites and strychnine – and lost a total of eight pounds en route – was declared the winner. Other competitors included: Cuban Felix Carbajal, who was wearing a beret and long trousers cut off at the knee and at one point stopped for a nap; a South African athlete, Len Tau, who was chased off the course by wild dogs; and a Californian called William Garcia who began haemorrhaging and almost bled to death. It rather puts Paula Radcliffe going to the loo on the side of the road in perspective.
The hand of God, World Cup 1986
One of the most famous – and consequential – incidents of rule-breaking in sporting history. Argentina won a 1986 World Cup quarter-final 2-1 against England, with Argentina’s first goal scored by Diego Maradona in a fashion better suited to volleyball. (In mitigation, Maradona’s second goal was one of the greatest ever.)
The illegal goal’s nickname came from Maradona’s assertion that the goal was scored “a little with the head of Maradona, and a little with the hand of God”. He later told filmmaker Asif Kapadia the goal was revenge for Britain’s invasion of the Falklands. So I am choosing to blame Margaret Thatcher.
A more recent egregious example of handling was the otherwise likeable Thierry Henry using his left hand (twice) to send France to the World Cup in extra time of the qualifying playoff against Republic of Ireland. Henry admitted as much afterwards. Other blatant offenders include Luis Suárez (naturally) and Lionel Messi.
Literally moving the goalposts
This is precisely what the Danish goalkeeper Kim Christensen did when playing for Gothenburg in Sweden’s top tier. The keeper was caught on camera lifting a post and moving it a few centimetres. When the referee noticed, he trotted over and returned the post to its natural position. It is unclear what Christensen thought shifting the post would achieve given that the goal would … be the same size. Unless the posts were extremely malleable. But he did keep a clean sheet.
Apparently it was not Christensen’s first infraction, as helater told a newspaper: “I got the tip from a goalkeeping friend a few years ago and since then I have done it from time to time.”
Chicago White Sox, 1919 World Series
If you ever wondered where the phrase “say it ain’t so, Joe” originated, it was a line from a Chicago Daily News journalist about the baseball superstar “Shoeless” Joe Jackson after allegations that his team, Chicago White Sox, had fixed the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. Unfortunately, it was so. (The line has since been apocryphally attributed to a young fan.)
Despite the fact eight players on the team were acquitted by jury in a 1921 public trial, and crime boss and gambler Arnold Rothstein – suspected of offering bribes after he made a significant profit on the team’s loss – was never indicted, the Commissioner of Baseball (an actual official title) was unconvinced, and permanently banned the players involved. This dark episode has since become known as the Black Sox scandal.
The players maintained their innocence, including Jackson. Despite the fact he had signed a confession, which mysteriously went missing from the courthouse before the trial.
Spain’s ID basketball team, 2000 Paralympics
During the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney eight teams of athletes with intellectual impairment or learning difficulties competed in the basketball event, adapted for competitors. The Spanish team won the gold medal easily. There was just one problem: 10 of the 12 competitors did not have disabilities. When the team were running away with their first match, their coach instructedtold them to play less well. And when suspicions arose by people who recognised them, players were instructed to wear dark glasses and fake beards on their return to Madrid airport to lessen attention.
Team member and undercover journalist Carlos Ribagorda then blew the whistle on the ruse and returned his medal. The Spanish boss ultimately responsible for the machination was convicted of fraud. But the consequences were long lasting. Thanks to the scandal, events for those with intellectual impairments were discontinued by the International Paralympics Committee, and only re-established in 2012.
Russian javelin team, 1980 Olympics
One of my favourites, for its sheer absurdity, and a scandal I like to call Gategate. In the 1980 javelin final at the Moscow Games there were multiple suspicions that Soviet officials were favouring their own athletes. The best accusation was that officials were opening the stadium gates whenever Soviet competitors were throwing. I am not sure what benefit this would provide in an outdoor stadium but it’s all the better a tale for that. The incident riled the Finnish in particular – the country is greatly into its javelin. Soviet athletes were mocked for years later with chants of: “Open the gates!”
Lance Armstrong’s career
Perhaps the most famous of all cheats, Lance Armstrong was the darling of world sports – handsome with a pop star girlfriend, celebrity friends and a philanthropist who had raised thousands of pounds for cancer charities after he himself was diagnosed. Then it all came crashing down, like two riders whose handlebars had clashed in the peloton.
Armstrong had been the subject of doping rumours for many years but it was in 2012 when he was finally charged. He was stripped of all honours, including his seven Tour de France titles and Olympic medal. People abandoned their yellow Livestrong wristbands to the back of drawers. After a partial confession in an interview with Oprah he did not exactly endear himself by later stating he would do it again if he had his time over, and also for facilitating the doping of – and pressurising of – others. Armstrong’s fall from grace has inspired numerous documentaries.
Rivaldo’s corner antics, World Cup 2002
It never ceases to amaze me the diving and play-acting lengths footballers will go to, despite being watched by literally tens of thousands of in-person spectators, and often millions more on television. It’s like stripping naked, walking down a busy high street, and hoping nobody notices. And yet, when Turkey were playing Brazil in World Cup 2002, and Rivaldo was hit with a ball on the thigh and fell down dramatically clutching his face, he somehow – unfathomably – did get away with it. This is all the more remarkable given the assistant referee was literally right there. Hakan Unsal, the player who had kicked the ball towards Rivaldo, was red-carded. Brazil went on to win the match – and the tournament.
Perhaps the greatest dive, however, was the then Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal’s sarcastic simulation of an Alexis Sánchez tumble in a game against Arsenal. Beautiful scenes.
Tonya Harding and the kneecapping
Let’s end with a – quite literally given it has been made into a Hollywood film – blockbuster incident of cheating. In 1994, one day before the US Figure Skating Championship was due to begin, Tonya Harding’s rival Nancy Kerrigan was attacked with a metal bar in a corridor. The culprit was Shane Stant, who had been paid to break Kerrigan’s right leg (he didn’t, but still injured her enough that she could not compete, which was the aim). Harding won the competition.
Stant, who confessed to the FBI, had been hired by Harding’s ex-husband and bodyguard. The extent of Harding’s involvement is much debated to this day. Harding confessed that she found out about the plot in its aftermath, did not report it and pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. She avoided prison but incurred a large fine and carried out community service. It was the end of her career. She briefly turned to boxing, but trouble continued to follow her.
In recent times, public opinion has softened towards Harding, who grew up in poverty and worked hard to achieve success in a privileged and affluent sport. There has also been much more acknowledgement of the abuse and duress she had suffered in her life. For her part, Kerrigan, magnanimously, has forgiven Harding. In 2017, the film I, Tonya won a slew of awards, with Margot Robbie playing the lead.