Magnus Carlsen withdraws from the Sinquefield Cup as cheating allegations swirl around Hans Niemann

Could Niemann really have cheated against him?

Photo by Lennart Ootes via FIDE

For the first time in his career, world champion Magnus Carlsen withdrew from a chess tournament that was already underway after his shock defeat to Hans Niemann with the White pieces in round three. Though no specific allegations were made, the chess world is ablaze with discussions over whether the young American grandmaster has cheated against him in the game.

The prestigious tournament’s games were broadcast with a fifteen-minute delay in this round, and Niemann was specifically scrutinized by the arbiters before the beginning of the matches.

Elite-level players have weighed in on the matter and now both Niemann’s past online conduct and recent post-match interviews are studied under the microscope by enterprising chess detectives.

The situation is quite clear-cut: this is either the biggest scandal or the biggest witch hunt in recent chess history.

Niemann’s Nimzo shook the world

In Round three of the Sinquefield Cup, world No. 40 Hans Niemann shocked the chess world by outplaying and defeating Magnus Carlsen with the Black pieces (a feat that’s only been accomplished by 16 different players across 20 games since July 11), ending his 56-game undefeated streak.

The result was nothing short of incredible, but it was quickly overshadowed by what followed the next day.

The fourth round of the tournament and its broadcast were delayed on account of an enhanced security check. Soon, it became clear the world champion won’t be showing up for his game. Carlsen confirmed this via Twitter, using football manager José Mourinho’s infamous “if I speak, I’m in big trouble” press conference as the video snippet for the tweet.

He also changed his Instagram profile, adding “Beating someone once isn’t revenge.”

This unprecedented decision immediately shook the chess world.

Even FIDE’s Director General, Emil Sutovsky, has weighed in on Twitter, stating Magnus has never quit from a tournament before and while he wouldn’t speculate on the matter, he did refer to the tournament broadcast’s commentators as [the] musicians on the Titanic, trying to keep the show going as if nothing spectacular has happened.

He also pointed out the last time a top-level player left an over-the-board event midway through was in 2009—in an interesting echo, it was Shakhriyar Mamedyarov who did so, who would have been Magnus’s opponent today.

Since the champion’s forfeiture happened before the halfway point of the event, the results against him won’t count in the final standings. This means no matter what happened behind the scenes, Hans Niemann won’t be able to benefit from his spectacular victory at the Sinquefield Cup—and now he has a fairly harsh spotlight on him as everyone’s combing through his previous games, results, conduct, and interviews.

A scandal or a witch hunt?

Players and analysts from all around the chess world have weighed in on the matter. First and foremost, the other players at the event were asked about the Carlsen controversy.

World No. 3 and world championship challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi—who lost to Carlsen in a straightforward fashion in the opening round—called Niemann’s performance “more than impressive”.

Meanwhile, recently naturalized American Levon Aronian called his fellow players “paranoid”.

The drama continued after the games of Round four. Niemann gave strange and incoherent explanations of his thought process in the post-match interview, lacking concrete lines after sacrificing a piece and highlighting flat-out losing moves as potential continuations while calling his pieces “literally perfect” in the emerging position in his post-game analysis.

Though this can all be attributed to stress in light of this incredible emerging situation, he has played the critical 19. Qg3 after just a minute, a move his opponent flagged as “insane” and something he hasn’t even considered over the board.

Niemann’s previous results and conduct also came under scrutiny.

Hikaru Nakamura and Ian Nepomniachtchi have both referred to past instances of cheating by Niemann in online play, referring to a six-month absence of competitive online tournaments, albeit without concrete proof.

Chess statistics website Pawnalyze also dug into the matter and found Niemann’s classical rating rose by far the most since Jan. 2021 among the world’s 2500+-rated players, rising from 2484 to 2688 as of Sept. 1, outperforming his rating to a near-impossible level. (On the flip side, treating his current rating as a baseline, he’s slightly underperforming).

Image via pawnalyze.com

With a day’s retrospect, Niemann’s post-match interview regarding the Carlsen game also had its issues. The American stated he “miraculously” looked at the exact line that emerged on the board just on the morning of play.

He nevertheless spent a decent chunk of time playing out the moves, much more than someone normally would in his position when someone plays directly into his preparation at the highest levels of play (because gaining an advantage on the clock is your main benefit, even if you do want to bluff a few minutes of thinking to camouflage this fact).

Niemann also referred to Carlsen previously playing this line at the London Chess Classic in 2018 against Wesley So. Not only did So not participate in that event, a game Carlsen did play there in a similar opening featured an entirely different move order.

But, the champion did play this opening once against So, in a 2019 blitz game in India.

There’s also Niemann’s recent result to consider against elite opposition, albeit with faster time controls: at the FTX Crypto Cup, he finished dead last with zero points, including a match defeat against Carlsen.

After winning the opening game, he dropped a one-liner interview saying “the chess speaks for itself” before he proceeded to lose the next three games.

Predictably, most of the other games in Round four of the Sinquefield Cup were fairly muted affairs, with the Aronian-Dominguez and Nepomniachtchi-So games ending in quick draws. The matchup between Fabiano Caruana and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave went a long way to showcase the enduring complexity of chess, however.

Image via lichess.org

The Frenchman went into a queen endgame that was a known tablebase loss, but actually securing the win was so complicated not even the elite-level commentators aided with computer analysis could explain certain subtleties and why Caruana erred on certain moves. In the end, the American ground out the win in a 92-move affair, securing the only decisive result of the round.