The chess world is currently embroiled in the biggest cheating scandal it's seen in years, even though there's no hard evidence of cheating. The story focuses on a tournament called the Sinquefield Cup, part of the Grand Chess Tour of major tournaments, which the young American player Hans Niemann had a wild card entry for. Niemann is a highly rated player but far from a household name even within the chess world, and this was a chance to face off against the world's greatest players over the board.
Also at the tournament was world champion Magnus Carlsen, who in the first round dispatched one of his closest rivals, Ian Nepomniachtchi. Niemann faced Levon Aronian and secured an impressive draw against one of the chess world's brightest prospects. Niemann would go on to win his next game before, in round three, facing Carlsen.
The usually unflappable Carlsen, playing white, had a bit of a nightmare. It seemed clear fairly early on that he'd either messed up or underestimated Niemann badly. Carlsen was still in a position that should have led to a draw, and you'd expect the world champion to convert that, but instead he made a very bad move and lost. The 19 year-old Niemann had, unbelievably, beaten the best in the world.
The win raised eyebrows, but chess is after all a game where history can be made by fantastical upsets. What happened next, however, has thrown the chess world into a spasm of accusation and counter-accusation.
Carlsen withdrew from the tournament. As is his wont, he posted about it on twitter, along with a short clip of football coach Jose Mourinho, regularly used as a meme, in which the oft-petulant Portuguese coach says "I prefer really not to speak. If I speak I am in big trouble... in big trouble! And I don't want to be in big trouble."
I've withdrawn from the tournament. I've always enjoyed playing in the @STLChessClub, and hope to be back in the future https://t.co/YFSpl8er3uSeptember 5, 2022
While Carlsen didn't expand on his reasons, the tweet and particularly the Mourinho clip was taken as implying foul play, and an abundance of fuel was soon poured on the fire by streamer Hikaru Nakamura—who is a chess grandmaster and probably the most famous face in the contemporary game outside of Carlsen—and a friend of the world champion.
Nakamura did everything but accuse Niemann of cheating. In his video, which can be seen at the top of this article, Nakamura brought up Niemann having cheated in the past (which is true, and I'll come to it), Niemann's post-game analysis supposedly not reflecting the standard of his play, Niemann's unusual choice of opening line (and how quickly he played one key move in particular), Niemann being removed from an event series called Fight Chess due to suspicions of cheating and, bizarrely, the player's accent.
Attention from Nakamura begat more attention and, while the streamer was careful not to outright accuse Niemann of cheating, his stance on the matter seemed pretty clear: naturally, the internet wasn't so shy about throwing accusations around.
Niemann addressed the controversy two days later, admitting that he had twice been banned on Chess.com for cheating: once when he was 12 years old, and once when he was 16. Niemann says he remains embarrassed about these incidents but, having confessed, was determined to redeem himself with over-the-board play.
"I have never ever in my life cheated in an over-the-board game," Niemann says above. "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 goes on to say "I've lived in a suitcase for two years" and trained 12 hours a day trying to prove himself. Following the accusations, however, Niemann has been removed from Chess.com's Global Chess Championship, and his account on the world's largest chess site has been suspended.
"They have the best cheat detection in the world," says Niemann. "They know I am not a cheater. I have given everything to chess. I work so hard and I have sacrificed everything for chess. But now Chess.com has hopped on Magnus and Nakamura’s accusations."
"I believe this is completely unfair. But I am not afraid to tell the world that I cheated as a 12-year-old and in some random games as a 16-year-old, because I know who I am."
Not all of the chess world lined up to take shots at Niemann, with a notable defender being the British grandmaster Nigel Short.
M, Carlsen - W, So, Kolkata 2019. This is a g3 Nimzo, by transposition. The fact that Hans Niemann could not recall whether this game was played in London, Kolkata or Ouagadougou, is proof of absolutely nothing to my mind. Playing the World Champion is not a a geography quiz. pic.twitter.com/dsKAbMvli9September 6, 2022
Nakamura, for his part, has posted a further response, in which he goes back-and-forth on some of what Niemann said, and denies ever saying the player cheated.
There is no evidence against Niemann cheating in this match, at the time of writing. There is the historical fact of his having cheated in the past, but this has to be placed in the context of his honesty about it and willingness to confront the accusations head-on. This is someone who made bad decisions when they were a child being condemned for them as an adult.
Carlsen has arguably acted in a manner unbecoming of the chess world champion. He has made an ambiguous accusation that has resulted in enormous consequences for another player, and made no further comment. If you're going to call someone a cheat and put that taint on their reputation, in this writer's opinion, you should do so clearly and present your proof.
Finally: Carlsen played badly. This game wasn't a case of Niemann blowing the world champion away with perfect move after perfect move so much as Carlsen mucking up his opening and then making a straightforward blunder that gifted black the game. Even then, machine analysis shows that Niemann also made a few questionable moves that could have allowed Carlsen back in.
The truth may never out in this case, but the two sides are deadlocked. This game should have been the highlight of Niemann's career. Now, it risks destroying it.
"You know you spend your entire life looking up to someone and then you meet them and then you know my dream came true," says Niemann. "I lived my dream for a day beating Magnus, and then all this happened."