Chess explodes as world champion accuses opponent of cheating

Chess world champion Magnus Carlsen.
(Image credit: NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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The chess world has spent the month of September embroiled in what is already one of the biggest cheating scandals (opens in new tab) in the venerable game's history. The story began at the Sinquefield Cup tournament, in which the young American player Hans Niemann had a wild card entry and was drawn against world champion Magnus Carlsen in the third round. The 19 year-old Niemann, in a tremendous upset, won the match.

Shortly afterwards, Carlsen withdrew from the tournament. He posted a meme of football coach Jose Mourinho saying "I prefer really not to speak. If I speak I am in big trouble..." But the news quickly spread through rumours and proxies like American grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura: Carlsen believed Niemann had cheated. But he didn't come out and say so. The British grandmaster Nigel Short described the situation, not unfairly, as "death by innuendo" for Niemann, who nevertheless defended himself robustly.

Things ticked along before coming to a head when Carlsen was drawn against Niemann in an online tournament, and resigned after one move, leaving the game immediately afterwards. Carlsen would put the cherry on this by going on to win the tournament, but his gesture of contempt whipped the speculation about Niemann into a frenzy.

Now Carlsen has moved from innuendo to outright accusation. The Norwegian world champion has accused Niemann of frequently cheating, and says he won't play against him again.

"I know that my actions have frustrated many in the chess community. I’m frustrated. I want to play chess at the highest level in the best events," Carlsen's statement reads.

"When Niemann was invited last minute to the 2022 Sinquefield Cup, I strongly considered withdrawing prior to the event. I ultimately chose to play. I believe that Niemann has cheated more—and more recently—than he has publicly admitted."

When defending himself previously, Niemann has admitted to cheating twice: once as a 12 year-old and once when he was 16. He says he has never cheated on an over-the-board game. The accusation is that somehow Niemann took directions from a chess engine during the Sinquefield Cup match with Carlsen (with easily available chess engines now being able to outperform even the finest human players).

"His over-the-board progress has been unusual," Carlsen continues, "and throughout our game in the Sinquefield Cup I had the impression that he wasn’t tense or even fully concentrating on the game in critical positions, while outplaying me as black in a way I only think a handful of players can do. This game contributed to changing my perspective."

"We must do something about cheating, and for my part going forward I don’t want to play against people that have cheated repeatedly in the past, because I don’t know what they are capable of doing in the future.”

Carlsen describes cheating in chess as "an existential threat to the game" and calls on the game's various organisers and governing bodies to improve cheating detection in over-the-board games.

The world champion goes on to say that he won't play against Niemann again. "So far I have only been able to speak with my actions, and those actions have stated clearly that I am not willing to play chess with Niemann. I hope the truth on this matter comes out, whatever it may be."

Chess.com has also turned against Niemann, banning him from the platform and the events it organises. IM Danny Rensch said in a statement earlier in September that "We have shared detailed evidence with [Niemann] concerning our decision, including information that contradicts his statements regarding the amount and seriousness of his cheating on Chess.com."

This supposed evidence may lie behind Carlsen's rather odd ending to his accusation, which reads: "There is more that I would like to say. Unfortunately, at this time I am limited in what I can say without explicit permission from Niemann to speak openly."

I mean, he's the world champion and he's just accused a young opponent of cheating. It's hard to think of why he may be holding back solid proof, if such exists, unless he wants to give Niemann the chance to confess before being damned.

Some elements of the chess world have responded positively to Carlsen's statment, such as Indian grandmaster Surya Sekhar Ganguly.

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However there is also considerable support for Niemann, given the lack of evidence and part of Carlsen's argument being essentially that 'he played way better than I thought he could'.

Niemann has been silent since Carlsen's statement. His previous defences have been robust: "I have never ever in my life cheated in an over-the-board game. I do not want any misrepresentation. I am proud of myself that I learned from that mistake and now have given everything to chess. I have sacrificed everything for chess and I do everything I can to improve."

Niemann also claimed he'd been lucky in guessing the opening Carlsen would use in their Sinquefield Cup game, and doubtless improved the Norwegian's mood by adding: "It must be embarrassing for the world champion to lose to me. I feel bad for him."

This situation has an awful lot of smoke but, even now, there's no definitive proof of a fire—even though for many chess fans Carlsen's word will be enough. The story has acquired a tremendous amount of media traction, sadly in part thanks to absurd claims such as Niemann using anal beads to cheat (there is absolutely no proof of this), and fits into a long history of cheating scandals around the game of kings.

"So the old adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity," Nigel Short mused to the BBC. "Well, I don't subscribe to it 100%—but there is always something in that."

That old adage is certainly getting a workout. I've contacted Hans Niemann for comment and will update with any response. Deservedly or no, 'damned by innuendo' is right.

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."