Hans Niemann Is Having Fun At The U.S. Championships Playing Some “Absolutely Psychotic Chess”
10:47 AM EDT on October 19, 2022
Two weeks after Magnus Carlsen and Chess.com accused him of cheating and dropped a lengthy dossier on his allegedly illicit behavior, 19-year-old American chess grandmaster Hans Niemann is busy trying to win his first U.S. Chess Championship. As chess tournaments go, this has been a pretty fun one, highlighted by Awonder Liang's classy upset of Levon Aronian and Leinier Dominguez's 10-move win that will go down as one of the quickest classical games played between grandmasters. Former World Championship challenger Fabiano Caruana is nursing a half-point lead and can only be caught by two people, though a sizable pack of contenders still has a lot of pride to play for, a pack that includes Niemann after he roared back into form following a wobbly few games.
In Round 9 of the tournament, Niemann drew defending champion Wesley So before ripping off three impressive wins in a row. He followed up the uneventful draw with So with a very skillful win with the black pieces over Elshan Moradiabadi, which prompted Niemann to announce that he was "brewing up a comeback" after deciding "I’m going to lose or I’m going to win, there’s no in-between." In an interview Monday after that Round 10 win, Niemann said a bunch of stuff that I personally would not say if I was at the center of a huge cheating scandal, namely, that he didn't do a ton of prep work for the opening he decided to play.
"To be honest, I did not check a single variation of the King’s Indian," Niemann said. "But I had already decided that I was going to, you know, freestyle a bit. I felt I needed to go back to my roots of playing just absolutely psychotic chess. Because I don’t know what’s gotten into me, you know, playing the Berlin and trying to make draws." OK man!
The next day, Niemann delivered on his promise to go nuts and try stuff when he won again, this time catching Aleksandr Lenderman in an endgame trap. Niemann is at least nominally aware that he is the main character in the biggest chess story in decades, as he also said after his win against Lenderman, "I think it's always good when someone as arrogant as me is humbled." He can no longer win the championship, and he acknowledged this reality in an interview after Round 11, declaring his performance "just terrible, just ridiculous!" Still, that hasn't stopped him from continuing his rampage.
On Tuesday, he ended Sam Sevian's title challenge by winning with the black pieces. Niemann forced Sevian into several uncomfortable positions, from which Sevian made a series of mistakes and inaccuracies, leading to an endgame where Niemann had a slight edge on material. Niemann blundered his advantage away on the 42nd move, only for Sevian to lose his nerve six moves later and allow Niemann to promote a pawn, leading to a drawn-out, yet certain win for Niemann. The chess was good, though the best moment of the game was clearly when Sevian grabbed Niemann's king off the board (?), twisted its little head off (??), then set it back on a different square (???), all during Niemann's time. The two players exchanged confused words, and the game continued, but Niemann didn't really have a good answer for what was happening, saying in a postgame interview, "I know you guys are desperate for views but, no drama. The chess is much more interesting."
Niemann is now the only player in the tournament with four wins, which, even though he can no longer win the tournament, is quite impressive. "I needed some of my arrogance today," he said after beating Sevian. "I was a bit too humble, and it cost me. Playing chess under unique conditions, or unstable conditions is extremely difficult. But I think after I lost three games like an idiot I realized, 'Okay I'm not gonna win the tournament,' so I relaxed a bit, and I also sort of realized I really hate losing so much, it keeps me up at night. I wanted to sleep more, so I decided to start playing better chess." He expanded on what fueled him to win three games in a row, saying he "took a bit of spite and motivation" from the people who enjoy watching him lose. When asked whether his tournament was a success, he quickly said, "Nooooo," though he qualified that long no, saying, "It's a success considering the circumstances, but of course I hold myself to a higher standard and I expect more of myself in myself, and I believe this is not even close to my peak level of play."
The real takeaway here is, I suppose, that Niemann will never stop blustering around and saying outrageous things no matter who accuses him of cheating.