The first few weeks of the Hans Niemann-Magnus Carlsen imbroglio were defined by a void at the center of the scandal: If Carlsen was so convinced Niemann had been cheating, why did he take so long to simply come out and say so? Until Carlsen finally released a statement and Chess.com dropped a dossier on Niemann, the 19-year-old American grandmaster was in the uncomfortable position of essentially being accused of cheating without specific allegations to refute, though there was a logic to Carlsen’s steadfastness. Accusing someone of cheating is a big deal, and Carlsen probably wanted to avoid a lawsuit. It turns out he was right to be hesitant, as Niemann has filed a sweeping civil suit against Carlsen and several other prominent chess entities, alleging slander, libel, and tortious interference. He is seeking $100 million in damages.
Niemann has defended himself in a number of fora before, though Thursday’s civil suit features his most comprehensive version of the events of the past two months. In Niemann’s telling of the scandal, the cheating accusations against him were cooked up by Carlsen then amplified by Chess.com and their cronies because Carlsen was embarrassed at having lost to Niemann at the Sinquefield Cup, at a time when he was chasing the first-ever 2900 FIDE rating and as Chess.com was closing in on an $83 million acquisition of Carlsen’s Play Magnus organization. The confluence of the cheating accusations with that eight-figure business deal between Carlsen and Chess.com is an odd, underappreciated facet of this scandal, one that Niemann’s lawyers hammer on in the suit. They also report, for the first time in great detail, how Carlsen used his stature to get the tournament to introduce enhanced security checks and also how he tried to get Niemann tossed from the tournament.
The most intriguing aspect of the suit is the way it centers Chess.com’s business relationships, particularly with Carlsen, and its outsized importance within the chess world. For example, Niemann’s lawyers press hard on the timing of Chess.com banning his account shortly after the Carlsen accusation and the odd turn their report on Niemann’s history of online cheating takes towards speculation about possible over-the-board cheating. They make it clear that Chess.com, while important, does not host FIDE-sanctioned events and has no jurisdiction over anything that happens off of Chess.com. Yet their report is stuffed with pages and pages of data that heavily implies Niemann cheated over the board. Niemann also claims they intended to release their report on the first day of the U.S. Chess Championships to deliberately cause as much damage to him as they could.
Prominent chess streamer Hikaru Nakamura is named as a defendant as well, and Niemann (I think somewhat outrageously) claims that Nakamura colluded with Chess.com and Carlsen to amplify the accusations against him and draw the line between Carlsen’s cryptic actions at the Sinquefield Cup in a way that Carlsen could not. I think it’s a stretch to regard Nakamura’s typically bombastic streaming output on the scandal and see active collusion rather than Nakamura doing what he always does, especially since Nakamura’s most important business relationship is with Twitch, not Chess.com. Still, to hear Niemann tell it, the three most powerful forces in chess teamed up to protect Carlsen and destroy Niemann’s career in the process.
As part of his defense, Niemann’s lawyers highlight his own brash conduct in post-game interviews, claiming that Carlsen was especially incensed by losing to such a plucky underdog. Before Carlsen resigned from the tournament, the suit claims, the Norwegian player used all his leverage to try to get Niemann kicked out of the tournament. When they refused and when all anti-cheating experts defended the legitimacy of play, Carlsen timed his cryptic withdrawal to coincide with the first enhanced security scans to leave a trail of breadcrumbs that would lead people to think Niemann had cheated, breadcrumbs which Niemann says Nakamura dutifully followed for the public’s consumption. I don’t think that’s exactly a fair reading, as hundreds of other media personalities and outlets found it very easy to follow the same trail to the same conclusions. This train of logic involves a close reading of the semiotics of that Jose Mourinho GIF.
Niemann just finished playing at the U.S. Chess Championships, where he finished in a five-way tie for fifth, and he writes in the suit that it may be his “potentially final competitive tournament” because nobody will invite him to stuff. To make his claims, particularly the tortious interference claim, hold water legally, Niemann has to show that he’s been materially harmed by everyone allegedly defaming him. Carlsen refuses to play in any tournaments with him, and since Carlsen is the greatest player in the world, that naturally stifles his earning potential. Niemann revealed that Chess.com officials told him on August 31 they were “super excited to have [him] in the event, and looking forward to [him] competing.” Six days later Carlsen withdrew from the Sinquefield Cup and the invitation was rescinded. The Tata Steel Tournament is perhaps the most prominent tournament of the year, and Niemann was in talks to attend the 2023 edition until Carlsen’s accusations ended those talks. He was also going to play fellow teenage wizard Vincent Keymer in Germany, and now that game is canceled too. Niemann also writes that nobody will even hire him as a chess teacher. Intriguingly, Niemann points out that Carlsen doesn’t hew to his own supposed standard of avoiding tournaments with other confirmed cheaters.
The lawsuit is a flood of accusations, with plenty of parties taking up their share of blame. Niemann, however, sidesteps the question of his own cheating. He downplays all the damning findings from Chess.com’s report, and sticks to a characterization of his past cheating as merely using an engine to help raise his rating to get better games. He denied ever cheating on stream, cheating in prize-pool tournaments, working with Maxim Dlugy, or confessing to cheating on a phone call with Danny Rensch, Chess.com’s chief chess officer.
It is worth keeping in mind while reading the suit that Niemann has admitted to cheating in a handful of online games, which is relevant to this case even if he says he cheated only a few times as a child, and him painting himself as nothing but a purely innocent victim of Carlsen’s ire is the sort of thing you do in a lawsuit. But why file such an inflammatory suit in the first place? What does Niemann hope to gain by raising the stakes and going after every powerful entity in chess? His ask of $100 million in damages is an outrageous number probably intended to provoke a settlement or some sort of other favorable resolution. If there’s a reason he’s choosing this route, it could be he simply wants a career as a professional chess player, someone who can make a living from his craft and pursue his goal of becoming the world champion.
Niemann is only 19, and he’s only been playing the best players in the world in big-time tournaments for two years. He’s just getting started making a name for himself and if everything he’s shown is legitimate, then he’s distinguished himself as one of the best young players in the world. That’s a prestigious and perilous perch, and from everything Niemann has said publicly and in this lawsuit, he has been very consistent that he is a ruthless competitor who is driven by a singular goal. That sort of person is not going to melt away without a fight, not when so much is on the line for them and when, if you accept Niemann’s reading of the fallout of the Sinquefield Cup, the very circumstances of his breakthrough are what drew him into this firestorm in the first place. If you really think you can be the best player in the world and if all you get for smoking the current king of chess is accusations and the potential loss of your career, why wouldn’t you go as hard as possible to reclaim it?