The curious case of the billionaire who cheated at chess

There is nothing unusual about billionaires cheating. That self-proclaimed billionaire D.J. Trump, for example, is notorious for cheating at golf, amongst other things.

But why would India’s “youngest billionaire,” Nikhil Kamath, choose to cheat in a celebrity chess tournament featuring former world champion and Indian chess legend, Viswanathan Anand, that was designed to raise funds for Covid-19 relief?

In the tournament on June 13, Viswanathan Anand played nine simultaneous online chess games against various celebrities, film stars, sportsmen, singers and the like. Anand won eight of the matches quite easily (as expected) but was tied down by Nikhil Kamath even after he blundered a pawn on the first move.

Playing with the while pieces, Anand began with knight to f3, the Réti Opening. This is a well-known move that puts the onus on black to take the initiative, and can easily be transposed into other openings depending on black’s response. Kamath played pawn to e5, sparking incredulity in the audience because the knight can take the pawn straightaway, which is exactly what Viswanathan Anand did.

The popular YouTuber, Antonio Radić, aka Agadmator, very generously suggested at the time that Kamath might have been playing the little-known Ross Gambit. However, it is much more likely that e5 was the one move that the billionaire played by himself before resorting to computers and chess advisers for help.

Analysts pointed out that nearly all of Kamath’s subsequent moves were strikingly similar to the moves recommended by the powerful open-source chess engine, Stockfish. Clearly, something was up during the game, but Viswanathan Anand continued to play each move on its merits without questioning their authenticity.

After being a pawn down, Kamath (or rather Stockfish) gradually got back to parity and eventually manoeuvred into a winning position. When it was clear that he was going to lose, Viswanathan Anand resigned. This despite the fact that Kamath only had 13 seconds left on his clock and Anand had about ten minutes. If he had chosen to, Anand could have easily continued playing, delaying the inevitable until Kamath’s time ran out. But, being an honourable person, Viswanathan Anand accepted his defeat.

Nikhil Kamath was less honourable. He initially failed to issue a genuine apology when he was exposed as a cheat, and even suggested that Anand was in on the scam, something strongly denied by those close to the former world champion.

In a statement on Twitter, Kamath said:

“It is ridiculous that so many are thinking that I really beat Vishy sir in a chess game, that is almost like me waking up and winning a 100mt race with Usain Bolt.”

In other words, he was saying people would have to be really stupid to think he could win unassisted. This was a blatant insult to all those – including Viswanathan Anand and Agadmator – who were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt during a highly suspicious game.

In many ways, his non-apology apology was worse than the actual cheating. It was a sociopathic response, refusing to accept responsibility for wrong-doing and blaming others for making a fuss about nothing. It revealed a sense of entitlement shared by many of the rich and powerful, a feeling that the rules ordinary people abide by simply do not apply to them.

Nikhil Kamath comes from a privileged Brahmin family, and made his fortune in online stock trading. With his brother, Nithin, he co-founded Zerodha in 2010. The company grew quickly and is now one of India’s largest brokerages, if not the largest. He is clearly someone who enjoys his new-found celebrity status, and was perhaps surprised at the backlash his cheating caused. Many in the chess community were outraged, and, which organized the tournament with Viswanathan Anand, closed his account for violating its Fair Play Policy.

Eventually, Kamath did offer what appeared to be a more genuine apology, which was accepted by Anand, and his account was magically restored. That will probably be the end of the matter because Anand has stated he wants to draw a line under the scandal.

It was a magnanimous gesture by Viswanathan Anand. Unfortunately, it will probably only serve to enable Kamath even further.

Of course, it was only a chess game, and hardly important in the greater scheme of things, but the cheating scandal is indicative of a culture where the elite can seemingly get away with anything with impunity.

If Kamath is truly contrite, he would be well advised to make some tangible gesture to show that he has learnt from his mistakes. Chess streamer Levi Rozman, aka GothamChess, for example, made the reasonable suggestion that Kamath could contribute to or organize another charity chess tournament for Covid relief, much needed in India, which has been devastated by a deadly second wave of the pandemic.

In the southern city of Bengaluru, where Kamath’s company Zerodha is based, tens of thousands of poorly-paid garment workers and their families have been impoverished by the pandemic and the government’s lockdown measures to control it. Despite the second wave, many factories in the suburbs of Bengaluru have reopened, and workers, predominately women, now risk their lives in crowded workshops because they have no other source of income. Kamath has a great opportunity to help those living right on his doorstep who are in desperate need of assistance. How will he respond?

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