Explained | Carlsen vs. Niemann: The ‘cheating’ controversy rocking the Chess world

Shocking the chess world on September 19, the world’s top-ranked player Magnus Carlsen resigned from a game against 19-year-old Grandmaster Hans Niemann in the Julius Baer Generation Cup, after just one move.

Shocking the chess world on September 19, the world’s top-ranked player Magnus Carlsen resigned from a game against 19-year-old Grandmaster Hans Niemann in the Julius Baer Generation Cup, after just one move.

The story so far: Norwegian World Champion Magnus Carlsen (31) resigned from a game played online on September 19 with 49 th ranked U.S player Hans Niemann (19), after Niemann opened by moving a white pawn. Mr. Carlsen responded by moving a black pawn and then promptly resigned from the game, a part of Julius Baer Generation Cup.

This abrupt resignation by Mr. Carlsen occurred a fortnight after he lost to Mr. Niemann in the Sinquefield Cup and then pulled out of the tournament — a first in his career — triggering ‘cheating’ allegations against Mr. Niemann.

Speaking to Meltwater Champions Chess Tour on September 22, Mr. Carlsen said that he would speak about his one-move resignation against Mr. Niemann only after the Julius Baer Generation Cup. He added, “On a general basis I think cheaters in the future should not be taken lightly either online or over the board”.

After winning the event on Sunday night, Mr. Carlsen issued a statement on Monday, directly accusing Mr. Niemann of cheating during their game in the Sinquefield Cup. He further accused Mr. Niemann of cheating more times than he had publicly acknowledged. He ended his statement by refusing to play the 19-year-old U.S Grandmaster in the future, claiming, “I don’t want to play against people who have repeatedly cheated in the past, because I don’t know what they are capable of doing in the future”. Mr. Niemann is yet to respond to Mr. Carlsen’s statement.

What made Carlsen pull out of Sinquefield Cup?

On September 4, Mr. Niemann ended Mr. Carlsen’s 53-match undefeated streak while playing Round 3 of the Sinquefield Cup, played over the board. Mr. Niemann, who was the underdog in the tournament, managed to pull a stunning victory against Mr. Carlsen despite playing with black pieces. Moreover, the American Grandmaster also crossed 2700 points on the live rating list and took the sole lead, overshadowing much bigger upsets in the tournament.

In a post-interview match with Saint Louis Chess Club – organisers of the event — Mr. Niemann said that in his preparation for the game, he knew in advance that 13. Be6 (Bishop to 6 th row of the E column) would be the right move mid-game. This move proved to be pivotal as Mr. Carlsen countered it with Rxd8 Bxc4 (Rook captures piece in 4 th row in D column, Bishop captures piece in 4 th row in C column) – giving the black pieces an advantage. The Norwegian resigned after the 57 th move, leading to Mr. Niemann’s victory.

Niemann’s pivotal 13. Be6 move against Carlsen
| Photo Credit: Chessbase

Speaking about his victory over Mr.Carlsen, Mr. Niemann said, “I think he was just so demoralised, because he’s losing to such an idiot like me. It must be embarrassing for the World Champion to lose to me. I feel bad for him.”

After his loss, Mr. Carlsen abruptly withdrew from the tournament tweeting, “I’ve withdrawn from the tournament. I’ve always enjoyed playing in the @STLChessClub, and hope to be back in the future”. He also cryptically shared a video of Mourinho titled “If I speak, I am in big trouble”.

‘Cheating’ suspicions & backlash

The World Champion’s abrupt withdrawal immediately raised ‘cheating’ suspicions against Mr. Niemann. Expressing his doubts about Mr. Niemann’s moves, Japanese-American Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura claimed that his opening moves against Mr. Carlsen were ‘plausible’ but added that Mr. Niemann had ‘gotten lucky’ in beating Mr. Carlsen.

Refusing to directly accuse Mr. Niemann of cheating over the board, Mr. Nakamura called on Mr. Carlsen to make a statement.

“I think Magnus believes that Hans probably is cheating,” said Mr. Nakamura in his Twitch live-stream which led many on social media to directly accuse the 19-year-old of cheating during the game.

“There was a period of 6 months where Hans did not play any tournaments for money on chess.com. That’s all I’m going to say for now,” Mr. Nakamura added, further stoking rumours.

An unsubstantiated rumour spread on social media claiming that Mr. Niemann may have cheated at the Sinquefield Cup chess tournament using wireless anal beads. They alleged that these ‘beads’ vibrated to signal the correct move to make. While no proof has been offered by any of the accusers, Elon Musk endorsed the theory tweeting, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit, genius hits a target no one can see – Schopenhauer”. He joked about ‘hearing rubber gloves snap before chess match cavity searches’, leading to more social media users accusing Mr. Niemann.

Screenshot of Elon Musk’s tweet on Niemann

Screenshot of Elon Musk’s tweet on Niemann
| Photo Credit: Elon Musk Twitter

Niemann’s ‘cheating’ admission

Amid these allegations, Mr. Niemann acknowledged that he had violated online chess rules by using computer assistance during chess games in the past. In a post-game interview with Saint Louis Chess Club after Round 5 of the same tournament, Mr. Niemann narrated two incidents where he had cheated online in random unrated games (games without prize money) but insisted that he had never cheated online or over-the-board since then.

“When I was 12 years old, while I was playing Titled Tuesday, my friend came over with an iPad with an engine, sort of giving me the moves. Four years later, during my streaming career, in an unrated game…. other than that,” he said.

He added, “They were unrated games, and I’m admitting this. I have never, ever, ever, and I would never do that, cheat in a tournament with prize money. Now I made that mistake, and it’s not something I was doing consistently”. He admitted to being confronted by online chess game organisers Chess.com about the games and said that he stopped playing on Chess.com after admitting to his mistakes.

In response, Chess.com issued a statement banning Mr. Niemann from the website and its events including the Global Championship in Toronto, saying that it had shared information with him which “contradicts his statements regarding the amount and seriousness of his cheating on Chess.com’. It urged him to respond, hoping that he could get invited to play on Chess.com again in the future.

Hitting out at his ban from Chess.com, Mr. Niemann, “Chess.com has suddenly decided to hop on Magnus’ insinuations, Hikaru’s very direct accusations.”

Terming it a targeted attack, he said,”I believe this is completely unfair. This is a targeted attack.” He also questioned why Chess.com removed him right after he beat Magnus, terming the ban an attempt to slander his reputation.

Chess experts weigh in on Niemann

A fortnight later, while playing Mr. Niemann in the Julius Baer Generation Cup, an online chess tournament, Mr. Carlsen abruptly resigned from the game after merely moving one pawn.

After this move, anti-cheating chess expert Kenneth Regan analysed all of Mr. Niemann’s games for the past two years for proof of any wrongdoing. After a thorough analysis, he said in an interview with Chessbase.com that, there was no reason whatsoever to suspect him of cheating. The wide range of results in a bell curve, with some good and some bad, is actually a sign of a healthy distribution of results. Even online his play has been quite devoid of anything unusual, per Mr. Regan’s analysis.

Welsh Grandmaster Nigel Davies called for Mr. Carlsen’s suspension after his one-move resignation. He also urged Mr. Carlsen to clarify if he was accusing Mr. Niemann of cheating and provide hard evidence of it.

In an interview with Chessdom, he said, “This is not the only cheating allegations scandal in chess, rather a repeating story. Some allegations without proof were punished, like the Solozhenkin case you mention, others like Topalov’s allegations against Kramnik were not. We have precedents in both directions”.

Dutch Grandmaster Anish Giri condemned Mr. Carlsen’s resignation saying, “Clearly, it all makes sense if Hans is cheating and he doesn’t want to play him but if he isn’t then it is really very wrong”. He added that Mr. Carlsen may not have any proof against Mr.Niemann and that things needed to be resolved.

Indian Grandmaster R. Praggnanandhaa said, “I was shocked to see it, but yeah, it was his decision so… I don’t have any opinion to be honest.”

However, Armenian Grandmaster Levon Aronian sided with Mr. Carlsen saying, “I understand the frustration of Magnus. I really didn’t know much about a lot of things. I do believe Hans has not been the cleanest person when it comes to online chess. But he’s a young guy, hopefully, this will be a lesson to him not to do any bad things online”.

On Friday, Mr. Carlsen defeated Mr. Aronian in the Baer Generation Cup online rapid chess tournament, advancing to the semifinals. While many awaited a Carlsen-Niemann clash in the finals, the US Grandmaster lost to Vietnamese Grandmaster Le Quang Liem. Later on Sunday, Mr. Carlsen won both matches of the two-day final of the event against India’s Arjun Erigaisi, to clinch the Julius Baer Generation Cup – the 7th event of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour.

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