In a 40-second video clip put out by Saint Louis Chess Club after Round 7, Hans Niemann is seen with his hands held up. The US grandmaster is being wanded (body checking with an electronic device) by a security officer as he analyses his draw with Maxime Vachier Lagrave after their game in the Sinquefield Cup. It’s a telling visual. The 19-year-old is at the heart of the swirling drama in chess right now. Much of it has to do with some of the sport’s most powerful stakeholders implying that Niemann used unfair means to achieve his results.
It unravelled after Niemann upset Magnus Carlsen in the third round. A rare recent classical loss for the Norwegian world champion with White against a player rated below 2700. Niemann had beaten Carlsen for the second time in a month.
Soon after, Carlsen quit the tournament with a cryptic yet provocative tweet. GM Hikaru Nakamura cranked up the insinuations before his subscriber legions and chess.com removed Niemann’s account from their platform and uninvited him from their Global Chess Championship. Over the weekend, Grand Chess Tour’s chief arbiter Chris Bird put out a statement that they have “no indication that any player has been playing unfairly”. This after they had put in place additional anti-cheating measures following Round 3, including the scanning of players with RF scanners and a 15-minute delayed broadcast of games.
FIDE director general Emil Sutovsky says the world body isn’t wading into the issue just yet. “Unless he (Niemann) addresses the Ethics Commission with a formal request, we are not going to open a case. Not sure if it’s fair, but legally that’s how it is for now.”
Niemann—he confessed to cheating in online games when he was 12 and 16 years old (he was banned by Chess.com for that) but denies doing that in over-the-board games—has been caught facing a damning accusation. Where does this leave him? We don’t know yet. What we do know is that there’s no evidence in the public domain so far that implicates him for cheating in an over-the-board game. Yet, suggestions of vibrating anal beads fill his social media mentions.
To make amends for his previous dodgy behaviour, Niemann said he lived out of a suitcase in the past two years, trained 12 hours daily and played 260 games a year. He gained over 200 elo points inside two years. It is not unprecedented among teen GMs. For example, between January 2021 and September 2022, India’s Arjun Erigaisi went from elo 2559 to 2725 and D Gukesh from elo 2563 to 2726.
Niemann burst into the headlines, GIFs and quote tweets a few weeks ago for his sassy “chess speaks for itself” comeback after beating Carlsen in their first game in the FTX Crypto Cup in Miami. Carlsen though went on to win that tournament.
Niemann was handed a last-minute wildcard to his debut Super GM tournament— the Sinquefield Cup — after Richard Rapport dropped out. Following a strong start, he had a full point taken away after the World No 1’s withdrawal. His win against Carlsen that saw him cross 2700 elo on the live ratings was his last in the tournament.
As cheating speculations flared up, Niemann’s play suffered. In an impassioned interview last week, he offered to “strip naked” and “play in a closed box” if it would help prove his innocence. He nosedived in the standings to seventh in the nine-player field. “It was very difficult to play such strong opposition, under such pressure on and off the board. But considering the circumstances, the fact that I survived is a miracle,” he said.
Soon after Carlsen withdrew, chess.com, which is in the process of acquiring the Norwegian’s business enterprise, the PlayMagnus Group—published a statement saying it had shared information with Niemann that “contradicts his statements regarding the amount and seriousness of his cheating” on the playing platform.
Norwegian daily Dagbladet ran a story on Monday of Ukrainian player Andrii Punin analysing 14 tournaments Niemann played when he went from 2450 to 2550 elo while chasing his GM title. In particular the Charlotte GM Norm invitational, where according to Punin, Niemann played the best computer moves 20-30 times in a row over several games.
Carlsen hasn’t spoken about Niemann since his first mid-tournament pullout which spiralled into a hellish week for the California player. It led an upheaval that throws into question the sport’s integrity and the interest of its sponsors.
Criticising Carlsen for his silence, former world champion Garry Kasparov said the “world title has its responsibilities and a public statement is the least of them.” It is unlikely that Carlsen is in possession of legally admissible evidence against Niemann. In its absence, any formal accusation may draw lawsuits. He finds himself in a sticky scenario where saying precious little has already damaged a teenaged player’s fledgling career—should he be innocent—while being the greatest chess icon of this generation, the expectation on him to offer an explanation after casting aspersions on a fellow player cannot be wished away.
How this episode turns out for Niemann—up against “hero” Carlsen and his own contentious past—we’ll know in time. Curiously, after all the upheaval, both players are scheduled to play in Round 6 of the Julius Baer Generation Cup, part of the Carlsen-run Champions Chess Tour, on September 19.
“When I started playing chess in the Netherlands, my school teacher told me I wasn’t good enough. That certainly fuelled me,” Niemann had said earlier. “Spite fuels me. I’ve always been one to prove people wrong.”
Now more than ever, Niemann needs his chess to speak for itself.