A Slippery Cheating Accusation Has Rocked One Of The Biggest Tournaments In Chess
5:23 PM EDT on September 7, 2022
Hans Moke Niemann had everything to play for in his game against Magnus Carlsen in the third round of the 2022 Sinquefield Cup. If the 19-year-old American could find a way to win his first-ever classical game against the World Champion—with the black pieces at that—he'd take the lead at one of the biggest chess tournaments in the world and also eclipse a rating of 2700 for the first time in his career. Carlsen surprised Niemann early, but Niemann surprised him back, and what followed on and off the board spiraled out of control and metastasized into the best chess drama of the year, one featuring the threat/promise of nude chess, both confirmed and unfounded allegations of cheating, and the three biggest forces in chess pitted against a cocky young grandmaster on the rise.
A trademark of Carlsen's style is a comfort with all sorts of openings, a versatility that allows him to quickly force unorthodox positions; he invites his opponents out into deep water then drowns them with superior positional play. This was the idea behind playing the Fianchetto Variation against Niemann's Nimzo-Indian defense, deviating from the main line on the fourth move. Rather than falter, Niemann showed he was prepared enough for the twist to meaningfully challenge Carlsen and force, at absolute worst, a tricky endgame for the champion. There, Carlsen faltered, allowing Niemann to push a one- and then two-pawn advantage to a win, ending Carlsen's 53-game unbeaten streak. After the match, Niemann gave a blustery interview in which he questioned Carlsen's preparation and said, "It must be embarrassing for the World Champion to lose to me. I feel bad for him!"
More intriguingly, Niemann claimed he was ready for Carlsen's surprise opening because he'd just so happened to have watched an old Carlsen game that morning, where he played the very same line against Wesley So at the 2018 London Chess classic:
I didn’t guess it, but by some miracle I checked this today, and it’s such a ridiculous miracle that I don’t even remember why I checked it. I just remembered 12…h6 and everything after this, and I’ve no idea why I would check such a ridiculous thing, but I checked it, and I even knew that 13…Be6! is just very good. It’s so ridiculous that I checked it.Saint Louis Chess Club
Claiming to fall backward into a bit of perfect prep because of a "ridiculous miracle" is not the least suspicious thing someone could say after springing such a memorable upset, and trouble came for Niemann the next day. The start of Round 4 was delayed for 15 minutes because security personnel ramped up their efforts to ensure that nobody was smuggling in any cheating tech, efforts that included scanning Niemann for a full 90 seconds. Carlsen soon announced, with a cryptic deployment of the Jose Mourinho "If I speak, I am in big trouble" clip, that he was withdrawing from the tournament. The general director of FIDE tweeted his support of Carlsen, ominously hinting that Carlsen "must have had a compelling reason."
Here is where the third major player of this scandal enters the picture. Sad yard fight protagonist Hikaru Nakamura is the sixth-highest rated classical player in the world and the biggest chess streamer on Twitch, which means he has both the chess expertise to comment with authority and the incentive to do so with a dramatic affect. Shortly after Carlsen announced his withdrawal, Nakamura implied that it was because Niemann was cheating, noting that Niemann didn't play any prize money tournaments on Chess.com for six months. "That is the one thing that I'm going to say, and that is the only thing I'm going to say on this topic," Nakamura said, 15 minutes before contradicting himself and opining, "I think that Magnus believes that Hans is probably cheating."
Shortly after Nakamura tossed some gasoline on this fire, he supported his theory by all but saying that Niemann had been banned from Chess.com for cheating. American grandmaster Andrew Tang also made a similar accusation, while forum users dug up a year-old clip of former Carlsen World Championship opponent Ian Nepomniachtchi expressing serious skepticism that Niemann's online record was legitimate. They also discovered that Carlsen did not play Wesley So in London in 2018, and even though it did turn out that Carlsen played a slightly different version of this line against So in 2019 in Kolkata—with Carlsen playing the g3 move a few moves later than he did against Niemann—Nakamura and So himself argued that the game's different structure nullified comparisons between the two.
Nepomniachtchi is competing at Sinquefield right now—he and Niemann are scheduled to play on the final matchday—and when asked about Carlsen's abrupt departure, he smirked, "He probably had a reason." Fellow Sinquefield competitor Fabiano Caruana refused to say anything specific, though he did say, "Some people have a decent idea of what he's alluding to."
Niemann played with the white pieces the next day and drew Alireza Firouzja, a somewhat disappointing result against the teenage phenom, as he was at one point in a strong position to push for the win. Firouzja was knocked off his axis on the 18th move of the game when Niemann played the very odd move of queen g3 (again, that fateful square shows up). The clearly unprepared Firouzja weakly moved his king rather than match Niemann's initiative, though the American couldn't lathe out a win. Afterwards, Firouzja said, "Yeah queen g3 is insane. He played it also very quickly. Five minutes, he thought about it, it's insane."
At this point, the noise about Niemann reached something of a peak and many of the most respected players in the world jumped to defend him. Grandmasters Rafael Leitao and Jacob Aagaard said they thought Niemann didn't cheat against Carlsen; current Sinquefield competitor Maxime Vachier-Lagrave agreed and decried that the situation had devolved into a "witch hunt"; FIDE vice president and former World Championship challenger Nigel Short specifically defended Niemann's gaffe about remembering a So–Carlsen game that didn't happen quite as described. Several outlandish theories were offered to explain the situation, with Nakamura refuting the idea that Carlsen's prep somehow leaked and Nakamura's lawn fight opponent Eric "ChessBrah" Hansen entertaining the notion that Niemann had signals relayed to him via anal beads.
On Tuesday morning, Niemann finally addressed the situation and gave an impassioned speech in his own defense. He addressed each specific allegation. In regard to the mixup about the phantom 2018 So-Carlsen game, he pointed to the 2019 transposition. When asked about cheating on Chess.com, he admitted to cheating in a tournament when he was 12, then again when he was 16 so he could inflate his rating to play better players. He called his queen g3 move against Firouzja a "purely psychological move," noting "the main way to beat him is to attack him." He denied ever cheating over the board, lamented that some of the most famous players in the world have banded against him, and said, "I am not going to let Chess.com, I am not going to let Magnus Carlsen, I'm not going to let Hikaru Nakamura, the three arguably biggest entities in chess, simply slander my reputation." He also said he'd play naked to get people to believe he was not cheating.
The tide of opinion has started to turn, particularly against Nakamura. Despite limiting who could participate in his Twitch chat, Nakamura was hounded by people asking if he would apologize, to which he said he had nothing to apologize for. Carlsen's second Laurent Fressinet said he thought Niemann was legit and that "Naka is trying to sell some stories and saying some bullshit." Ben Finegold called on Carlsen to apologize, though we should be very clear here that Carlsen never actually accused Niemann of cheating in their game. Niemann's history of cheating in online chess as a minor seems relevant enough that raising it doesn't cross a line. However, even though Niemann did admit to cheating as a child, accusing a grandmaster of cheating over the board in a major tournament against the best player in the world is a step further, and you can't do that unless you have stronger proof than the vibes being off and the alleged cheater in question misremembering where he saw his opponent playing a specific move. Everything about Niemann's record as a pro player seems to indicate that he is in fact an incredibly gifted chess player. He might also be a petulant guy, but his talent is real.