The setback began in early September, when Niemann defeated the rarely beaten Carlsen in a match at a prestigious tournament in St. Louis, Missouri. Carlsen left the tournament and hinted there were things he wanted to say but couldn’t. Soon after, a number of players and journalists started wondering aloud if the 19-year-old rising star might have cheated. Elon Musk tweeted about the controversy. Major newspapers covered the scandal. When Carlsen and Niemann faced off again in another tournament, the world champion made a single move and then quit.
According to Niemann’s lawsuit, the cheating accusations cost him income and opportunity. (Other defendants include Magnus Chess and Chess.com, and Chess.com executive Daniel Rensch.) Like many defamation suits, Niemann’s action also alleges antitrust violations and tortious interference with the contract, but it is difficult to win on such claims unless one is first made libelous.
And historically, lawsuits by individuals accused of cheating at games have had a mixed but mostly checkered history.
Consider one of the most famous libel cases of the 19th century, the 1891 trial of Sir William Gordon-Cumming against several people who accused him of cheating at baccarat. Defense witnesses included his old friend, the Prince of Wales, who was playing in the same game. In closing argument, Gordon-Cumming’s attorney argued not that the witnesses lied, but that they only “thought” the plaintiff had cheated – a belief in which they were mistaken. Despite what one historian called “serious irregularities in the evidence”, the jury returned a verdict for the defense.
A more relevant precedent may be a 2004 decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in a lawsuit brought by a professional bridge player who was suspended after allegations of cheating. The committee upheld the trial judge’s decision that federal courts should not question the findings of the American Contract Bridge League or the judgment of an appropriate sentence. Although the suit does not allege defamation, the plaintiff alleged what the court described as “a vast conspiracy against him among the officers” of the league. But in the absence of strong, narrowly argued evidence, courts almost never accept such claims.
And then there’s the 2010 Indiana case in which a golf teacher sued after a colleague accused him of being “a cheater” because he claimed a different classification than the one he was at. was entitled. The Professional Golf Association investigated the colleague’s allegations and agreed. When the pro later sued the person who made the original accusation, the court dismissed the defamation suit because the “statements were true”.
But notice what happened. The tribunal did not undertake its own investigation; he deferred to the PGA. Why is this important? Because the organization’s own judgment was sufficient to release the defendant from liability.
This does not mean that those who are accused of cheating at games can never win. In the 1930s, when bridge champion William S. Karn was accused of cheating, he sued for defamation. But first, he withdrew from the competition (“as any gentleman would,” the New York Times raged). In 1941, Karn won his case, but he received no compensation.
Want a more recent example? Last year, a California appeals court ruled that player Billy Mitchell’s defamation lawsuit against Twin Galaxies could go to trial. Mitchell had previously been recognized as the world record holder for the company’s popular arcade game Donkey Kong, but after questions were raised, Twin Galaxies investigated and rescinded his scores, on the grounds that they had no not won on an “original unmodified” version of the game – claiming, in effect, that Mitchell cheated. The main allegation was that Twin Galaxies acted with “actual malice” in allegedly refusing to consider evidence of the plaintiff’s innocence.
I suspect the court will also demand a colorful display of malevolence from Niemann, because, like Mitchell, he is at least what is called a “limited public figure” – that is, before the events in question, he was well known in the chess world.
And this is where the problem arises. Was Carlsen really acting – as the courts like to say – with a reckless disregard for truth or falsity? The case is in a murky middle ground. Niemann confessed to cheating in online chess when he was younger. An investigation by Chess.com concluded that he did so more frequently and more recently than he let on. (1) On the other hand, Niemann denied ever cheating on the board (as real-world games are described), and computer-aided analysis by Ken Regan, the leading cheating expert in chess, n found “no reason” to suspect him of cheating based on the Carlsen game and other recent results.
Still, that’s not the end of the matter. Cheating on the chessboard is of course much more difficult than cheating online. Still, the stain of his past conduct can be hard to avoid. As one chess blogger recently put it, “Niemann has cheated more often and more recently than he admits, and at least for now his protestations of innocence will not find many sympathetic ears. .”
Therein lies the difficulty. If, as seems likely, the court concludes that Niemann is a limited public figure, it will have to show not only that Carlsen and the other defendants said something that was not true, but that they did so maliciously. , often defined to include a reckless disregard for truth or falsity. That’s a tough demand, given Niemann’s acknowledged past conduct. “He cheated before, so he must cheat now” doesn’t have the steely inevitability of the logical syllogism, but it’s totally how people think.
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(1) Another defendant in the lawsuit is accused of leaking this report to the Wall Street Journal.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A law professor at Yale University, he is the author, most recently, of “Invisible: the story of the black lawyer who shot down America’s most powerful gangster”.
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