What happens when a young chess prodigy is accused of cheating after the biggest win of his career, and it turns out there was reason to suspect him? In Hans Niemann’s case, it led to lawsuits, an admission of online oopsies, a chess.com report alleging a hundred more instances of foul play, and the continued presence of a toxic cloud lingering over his head wherever he goes.
Now comes an interview with Piers Morgan, an odd attempt at image rehabilitation which turned out to be, in chess terms, a massive blunder. How could anyone expect him to come out looking good from that hot mess, shrinking under the hostile glare of the interviewer with a lawyer sitting by his side?
Let’s get something out of the way: Hans Niemann, the embattled and embittered young grandmaster, is pretty damn good at chess. Only 90 players in the world have an Elo above 2650 at the time of writing, and a fair few are from an older generation who no longer compete actively in the circuit. No allegations of over-the-board cheating have been proven, and while his credibility is clearly in question, his baseline chess abilities are far above those of anyone reading this article, even if it does turn out that he found a way to cheat offline in big competitions.
The whole saga began a year ago when Niemann was drafted as a last-minute replacement to round out the field of the Sinquefield Cup, a prestigious invitation-only event featuring the cream of the chess elite. He set off to a storming start and shocked the world by ending world number one Magnus Carlsen’s 53-game unbeaten streak, defeating him with the Black pieces. The next day, the Norwegian withdrew from the tournament, insinuating that he suspected foul play, later explaining “he believes that Niemann cheated more—and more recently—than he has publicly admitted.”
Later, a chess.com report found via statistical analysis that Hans Niemann likely cheated in over one hundred games online, including prize money events in Titled Tuesday, and also referenced private correspondences between Niemann and chess.com bigwig Danny Rensch where the young American admitted to cheating. Publicly, he only admitted to two occasions, one at the age of 12 and one at 16, maintaining that he never cheated in over-the-board events.
Chess skills are one thing—social skills and media savvy are another. Niemann sued Carlsen, Nakamura, and various entities related to chess.com, looking for $100 million in damages for defamation. Legal commentators immediately made it clear that the filing was very unlikely to succeed, and soon, it was dismissed without prejudice, though the parties’ continued silence on the details suggests that some sort of agreement was reached along the way.
Whether Niemann legitimately beat Carlsen at the Sinquefield Cup remains unclear, as you cannot prove a negative. What is clear is that he is terrible at PR. Not that you can really fault a young, abrasive man who spent most of his adolescence studying the intricacies of a challenging board game—but someone, somewhere, really should have told him that the hotseat of Piers Morgan, a man involved in multiple ethical quandaries including phone hacking allegations, racist and insensitive terms like “ching chong milk,” and calling Meghan Markle the “Pinoccho Princess,” is not the place to go to for a nuanced discussion of chess controversies.
In chess, we refer to blunders—terrible, inexplicable, game-losing moves—with a double question mark in the notation. Think “whoops, there goes my queen,” “OMG I didn’t realize that was checkmate,” “wow, I’m so stupid, I should never play chess again.” When Hans Niemann brought his lawyer along for a friendly chat with one of Britain’s hoariest and most controversial interviewers for the Sept. 26 edition of his YouTube show, Piers Morgan Uncensored, the sheer scale of his error was clear as soon as the discussion began.
“First question: Why have you got your lawyer with you?”
Piers Morgan Uncensored? More like Piers Morgan unleashed.
Now, the Briton clearly came into the interview with only a surface-level understanding of the elite chess world and immediately honed in on the whole anal beads thing, a squeaky allegation that began as a Twitch chat comment and metastasized into a question on international news broadcasts. He had little knowledge about the means with which someone could cheat at online chess, nor the implication of some of Niemann’s odder statements about the sport. However, he immediately recognized a fellow bullshit artist at work and kept going for the jugular.
“Given you have admitted to cheating, is it completely outrageous that people may have thought you continued cheating?”
Oof. As the hostile questions kept piling on and on, including an uncomfortable discussion about cavity searches, Niemann’s lawyer—a friend, per the player’s way of framing—put his hand on his knee and went on to answer a tougher question for him. Here, he gave a decent version of the story they wanted to spin: That Carlsen used his industry connections and fear of rising talent to bully him out of top-level chess events, and while he did make mistakes as a kid, he never cheated in serious games. (Calling online chess games in prized money events “meaningless” is a statement that will fly much worse in the chess world than the general public, but there is a grain of truth to the notion that the supremacy of over-the-board chess has only really been challenged in the past couple of years.)
It was the exact same angle that fell flat in federal court, and it worked no better on a controversial old man’s YouTube show.
Now, clearly, no youngster should be subjected to Piers Morgan (on either side of the television screen), and the broadcast should come with a warning label saying “may contain venom.” Yet, Niemann made it hard to sympathize with him, which is impressive considering who he’s been interviewed by.
Why was this the medium and what the hell was the message?
A chat like this is a carefully arranged affair. Both parties aim to get something out of it: The subject wants to project a specific message or viewpoint to the masses, while the interviewer wants to inject himself into the conversation and farm a lot of eyeballs. As the old saying goes: “News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising.” Soon, he or his team reposted a long excerpt of the interview to his YouTube channel with the title “Piers Morgan Tried To Frame Me…” Dude. Please.
Make no mistake: This was meant to be a carefully curated ad for HN 2.0, the atoning youngster who’s been bullied by the mean world champion and his elitist buddies, the chess prodigy with the new charitable contributions looking to rehabilitate his image. Instead, what they got was the equivalent of a hoary 1-star Yelp review written by a stocky British geezer, and some meme-worthy oddities from Niemann and his suited-up buddy. Now we’re left pondering the question: What are you supposed to do when your lawyer friend awkwardly puts his hand on your lap? A blunder, indeed.