It should have been easy for Magnus Carlsen, or at least as easy as a top-level chess game can be. When the World Chess Champion sat down against 19-year-old American Hans Niemann at the Sinquefield Cup earlier this month, he had the advantage of playing with the white pieces, he was on an unbeaten run of 53 games and faced someone who played as a player. entered the tournament with the lowest rating.
Few expected a shock, but that’s exactly what happened.
Carlsen’s loss to Niemann in that game was unusual, but what followed was even more so. The next day, the world’s number one chess player withdrew from the tournament without explanation; just a short statement on Twitter and a meme.
“I withdrew from the tournament. I’ve always loved to play in the @STLChessClub, and I hope to be back in the future,” he wrote in a tweet, which was accompanied by a music video by José Mourinho, in which he said: “I’d rather not speak. When I speak, I have big problems.”
Carlsen himself didn’t say that explicitly, but his withdrawal and the cryptic video were interpreted as a veiled accusation of cheating against Neimann.
Niemann has vehemently denied the charges against him, but the world of chess — which is its own ecosystem of players and educators, YouTubers, streamers and fans — has since been consumed by the drama.
“It seems Magnus Carlsen thinks something isn’t right with Hans Niemann,” Levy Rozman, an international master and host of a popular chess-based YouTube channel, said in a video. He described it as “probably the biggest chess scandal in history.”
Chess cheating is as old as the game itself. But the rise of online play, coupled with the invention of chess engines powered by artificial intelligence that can calculate millions of possible moves in seconds, has led to an explosion of cheating in recent years. Chess.com, the most popular chess platform on the web, calls cheating “the dirty not-so-secret of chess,” one that “has plagued online chess websites.” The site says it is suspending about 500 accounts per day for cheating.
So, how could Niemann, who played Carlsen personally, have cheated? This is where things get weird. A theory from the depths of Reddit, suggesting that Neimann used vibrating anal beads to receive move commands from an outside helper, was discussed as if it were a serious shot by grandmaster Eric Hansen on a live stream. Another theory suggested that Niemann might use a “tiny laser” that “draws an ultraviolet line on the board visible only through social media. [sic] contacts.”
Niemann had his own theory, stating in his post-match interview that Carlsen was “so demoralized because he lost to an idiot like me. It must be embarrassing for the world champion to lose to me. I feel sorry for him.”
What followed was something akin to a true crime drama. Niemann’s history has been heavily scrutinized online, previous games have been examined for anomalies and patterns.
Hikaru Nakamura, a chess grandmaster, former world number two and popular chess YouTuber, replayed the game between Carlsen and Niemann to look for moves that didn’t make sense. In other words, he was looking for movements that could only be inspired by artificial intelligence. “I’m really suss actually,” he said.
Greg Keener, a FIDE arbitrator and assistant manager at The Marshall Chess Club, wrote in an analysis for the New York Timesthat Neimann’s Elo rating, which is based on a player’s playing record, has risen by more than 500 points since January 2021, describing it as “an increase so strong that many people don’t believe it’s possible. “
In other words, Niemann’s meteoric rise was an underlying reason for many people’s suspicions.
The scandal only got worse when it was revealed that in an interview he gave to explain his play against Carlsen and defend himself against the charges, Niemann admitted to cheating in online games when he was younger.
“I cheated on random games on Chess.com. I was confronted. I confessed. And this is the biggest mistake of my life. And I’m completely ashamed. I’m telling the world because I don’t want any misrepresentations and no rumours. I’ve never cheated in an over-the-board game. And except when I was 12 years old, I’ve never cheated in a prize money tournament,” he said in an interview with the St. Louis Chess Club.
“To give context, I was 16 years old living alone in New York City in the heart of the pandemic and I was willing to do anything to grow my stream,” he added. “What I want people to know about this is that I deeply, deeply regret my mistake. I know that my actions have consequences and I have experienced those consequences.”
Niemann went on to say that he would play naked to prove his innocence against the allegations that he was wearing devices on his body.
“If they want me to undress completely, I will. I do not give a hoot. Because I know I’m clean. If you want me to play in a closed box with no electronic transmission, I don’t care. I’m here to win and that’s my goal no matter what,” he said.
Neimann could not be reached for comment by TSWT.
Two days after that interview, Chess.com said in a statement that it had banned Neimann from the site, without… go into more detail.
Still, the drama continued. Neimann and Carlsen met in another game, this time online, in a tournament called the Generation Cup. After one move, Carlsen resigned and turned off his webcam.
“This is a bigger statement than the tweet, I think,” the commenter said.
The furore threatens to derail a young chess grandmaster’s career before it even really started. However, no one has yet been able to provide concrete evidence of his deception.
After days of speculation, Chris Bird, the chief referee of the Sinquefield Cup where the scandal began, said there was no evidence of cheating.
“In response to recent rumors circulating in the chess world, I can confirm that we currently have no evidence that any player played unfairly in the 2022 Sinquefield Cup,” Bird said in a statement. Reuters.
The New York Times reported that he has been invited back to the club’s next tournament.
Keener, in his analysis for the Time, also pointed out comments from Levon Aronian, an Armenian grandmaster who played in the same tournament and who defended Niemann in a post-match interview.
“Well, I think it often happens when young players play really well. There are all these accusations against them. All my colleagues are kind of paranoid,” he said in the interview.
There was an even more in-depth analysis by Professor Ken Regan, described by ChessBase as “the world’s leading expert on chess cheating,” who analyzed all of Niemann’s games from the past two years, both online and offline.
“Niemann played well. But not too well,” he said in his verdict, which concluded that he was not cheating.
That could be the end of the controversy. But Carlsen waded back into the topic in an interview this week.
“Unfortunately I can’t speak to that specifically,” Carlsen said when asked why he resigned from his last match with Neimann. “But, you know, people can draw their own conclusion and they certainly did.
He hinted that he may not remain cryptic for much longer.
“I hope to be able to say something more after the tournament,” he said.