Magnus Carlsen’s shock withdrawal from the $350,000 Sinquefield Cup in St Louis after losing in the third round to newcomer Hans Niemann has sparked a variety of “cheating” claims. It is potentially the most serious such case for international chess since the Toiletgate world championship match in 2005, when Veselin Topalov accused Vlad Kramnik of analyzing games in the toilet.
Carlsen’s loss to Niemann, 19, was his first for several years with White against a much inferior opponent and was the first retirement of the Norwegian’s entire career. His only explanation was a cryptic video clip of football manager José Mourinho saying “If I talk I’m in big trouble”, during a press conference about referees.
This was widely interpreted as raising suspicions of cheating. Security was beefed up, the broadcast of the foursome’s round was delayed by 15 minutes and Niemann was thoroughly frisked before the start of his match, but nothing was found.
Top chess player GM Hikaru Nakamura agreed with the revelation that, many years earlier, Niemann had been temporarily banned from Chess.com for using a computer in an online tournament. Carlsen’s opening 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 e6 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 g3, had been prepared by Niemann in detail.
The California teenager, who has no coach but has seen his rating jump 250 points in three years, had already beaten the world champion a month earlier in an online tournament in Miami when he made headlines for a one-sentence victory interview in which he said : “The chess speaks for itself,” before leaving. For a time in St. Louis, he became an outcast.
Then a reaction started. The position outside the opening was almost flat, a minimum of 0.3 plus for Black, but the world champion seemed to be trying too hard, with suboptimal choices on moves 22, 40 and 42. Niemann also made inaccuracies, so the game had no telltale signs of computer assistance.
Support for the teenager came from Jacob Aagaard, the Danish-Scottish grandmaster who was British champion in 2007 and is a popular author. Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who competes in St Louis, said: “The scandal has become a witch hunt.”
Niemann then spoke of his own defense in his fifth-round post-fight interview following his draw with Leinier Domínguez, in which his opponent let him off the hook in a down position. iIn half an hour of rapid-fire speech (a transcript of the highlights is available at chess24) he addressed the issues against him and issued a defiant message: “I’m not going to leave Chess.com, I’m not going to leave Magnus Carlsen, I’m not going to leave Hikaru Nakamura, arguably the three greatest entities in chess, just to slander my reputation because the question is – why would they remove me from Chess.com right after I beat Magnus?”
He was banned from the biggest chess site and uninvited from the Chess.com World Championship, a $1 million event with online qualifiers and an eight-player final in Toronto.
After this interview, the overwhelming amount of online commentary that was about 90% against him changed to about 60-40 in his favor. There are now growing calls for Carlsen to issue a fuller statement.
It seems that the central issue is whether Carlsen believes that the pregame analysis of his intended surprise 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 e6 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 g3 was leaked, either by a mole in his camp or a computer hack.
An alternative explanation of the “leakage” could be innocent enough. The related pawn structure, with plausible permutations in Carlsen v Niemann, had already occurred in an earlier well-known game of Carlsen against England’s Michael Adams in 2006. Niemann said he wondered what ideas Carlsen could produce to divert him from the planned Catalan of… Bb4+ and decided to check 5 Nc3, a rare transfer in Nimzo-Indian. There was also Niemann’s very recent game against Le Quang Liem in Miami where 5 g3 (instead of 5 e3 d5 as played) d5 6 a3 could easily be carried over to Carlsen v Niemann.
Carlsen had started well in St Louis, defeating his 2021 title challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi in the first round with a trademark Carlsen grind from a seemingly flat opening and taking his lead over his rival to six points from their last seven meetings.
Sunday’s third round changed everything and it’s easy to see why the world champion was so upset. Carlsen’s tournament rating will be voided, but his games will be graded and a loss to Niemann will cost him seven rating points, a major setback in his bid to get from 2865 to 2900. His dream of a record rating just became more distant.
Meanwhile, Niemann is the lone underdog, the new kid on the block challenging the big leagues. Older US chess fans who have longed since the 1970s for a second coming of Bobby Fischer will sympathize with him. Back then, the establishment was Mikhail Botvinik, Tigran Petrosian and the Soviet chess empire. Now it’s Carlsen, Nakamura and Chess.com.
Of course the comparison breaks down easily. At 19, Fischer had just won the 1962 Stockholm Interzonal and was favorite for the Candidates. Niemann at 19, despite his meteoric rise, has only just broken 2700 and is still ranked No 40 in the world. Hans has the brilliance of Fischer and the ambition to be No. 1, but his mystique is basically based on a single game against the world champion.
3832: 1 kilo 3! Bc3 2 Bg6+ Kg5 3 h4+! gxh3 ep 4 f4 mate. Other answers cost Black at least his bishop.