It’s not often that the mainstream world of sports shines the spotlight on chess, but allegations of a cheating scandal centered around sex toys have captivated the attention of many.
On Sept. 19, Magnus Carlsen — world No. 1 and the World Chess Champion since 2013 — resigned unexpectedly while playing against Hans Niemann in the sixth round of the Julius Baer Generation Cup. After a week of silence, he finally explained his reason.
“I believe that Niemann has cheated more — and more recently — than he has publicly admitted,” Carlsen said in a statement on Sept. 26.
Chess.com — the largest online chess platform in the world — has been investigating Niemann, and came up with a 72-page report that claims he likely received illegal assistance in more than 100 online games. This contradicts a previous statement by Niemann that he only cheated twice before.
“We present evidence in this report that Hans likely cheated online much more than his public statements suggest,” reads a statement. “However, while Hans has had a record-setting and remarkable rise in rating and strength, in our view there is a lack of concrete statistical evidence that he cheated in his game with Magnus or in any other over-the-board (“OTB”)—i.e., in-person—games. We are presenting our findings here and will cooperate with FIDE on any further investigation.”
The website made sure to point out they have historically not been involved in OTB decisions because they do not run those types of events as they are an online platform. Chess.com did question some some of Niemann’s game at the Sinquefield Cup — the in-person tournament that started the saga between Niemann and Carlsen weeks before the Julius Baer Generation Cup.
Niemann isn’t letting the backlash slow his career, as he is competing in this week’s U.S. Chess Championships in St. Louis. The American topped 15-year-old Christopher Yoo in the first round Wednesday, and he used his post-match interview to take a shot at his critics. Niemann called the game “a message to everyone” and added he will not “back down.”
Here’s the story behind it all.
How it started
The Norwegian grandmaster Carlsen left the highly-anticipated match at the Julius Baer Generation Cup without explanation during move 2, surprising announcers Peter Leko and Tania Sachdev when he simply turned off his camera and disappeared. It was a dramatic moment, but one that was likely intended by Carlsen to get his point across regarding how he feels about the Niemann, a 19-year-old American player.
Here’s the moment he left the match:
It wasn’t until Sept. 21 when Carlsen finally said something about the situation, although it wasn’t much because he was still competing in the event. He kept his answers very general, avoiding his thoughts on the cheating speculation.
“Unfortunately, I cannot particularly speak on that. People come to their own conclusions,” he told Kaja Snare during a live interview. “I have to say I’m very impressed by Niemann’s play and I think his mentor Maxim Dlugy must be doing a great job.”
Name-dropping Dlugy was an interesting decision, as Dugly was suspended from Chess.com in 2017 and 2020 after being suspected of cheating. On Sept. 28, Vice published an article regarding emails in which Dlugy admits to cheating and explains that one of his students used a chess AI to feed him moves.
The ongoing saga began weeks before the Julius Baer Generation Cup. On Sept. 4, Niemann and Carlsen faced each other in Round 3 of the 2022 Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis. Niemann entered the tournament as the lowest-rated player in the field, but he was able to pull off an upset against Carlsen, who was on a 53-match winning streak and had the advantage of the white pieces.
“I think he was just so demoralized because he’s losing to an idiot like me. It must be embarrassing for the world champion to lose to me. I feel bad for him.” Niemann said in his post-match interview.
He said that a “ridiculous miracle” helped him with his preparation for their match and also to guess how Carlsen would start the game. It was an interesting guess because, as interviewer Alejandro Ramirez pointed out, Carlsen was doing an unusual variation of his typical game.
Niemann said that his 31-year-old opponent played a similar variation against Wesley So at the 2018 London Chess classic, although Niemann might have accidentally referred to the wrong match because neither Carlsen nor Wesley played in that tournament. He also explained that the veteran has a tendency for “these kinds of weird things” and that Carlsen has “mannerisms” that he has been able to learn because he grew up watching his games and interviews.
Carlsen’s move the following day was even more unexpected — he withdrew from the tournament for the first time in his career. He did not say much as to why except for a cryptic tweet that referenced a quote by Roma head coach Jose Mourinho.
“I prefer really not to speak. If I speak, I am in big trouble, in big trouble. And I don’t want to be in big trouble.” Mourinho says in the video linked by the grandmaster.
Emil Sutovsky, Director general of the International Chess Federation (FIDE), said on Sept. 5 that he was not going to speculate on the reason for Carlsen’s withdrawal, but emphasized that it seemed out of character.
“He must have had a compelling reason, or at least he believes he has it. Don’t call him a sore loser or disrespectful,” Sutovsky tweeted.
The cheating allegations
Grandmaster and online streamer Hikaru Nakamura theorized that the reason Carlsen withdrew was because he suspected Niemann of cheating. Nakamura even shared a clip of Canadian grandmaster Eric Hansen saying he removed Niemann from chess events he hosted due to cheating suspicions. Meanwhile, Chess.com also believed Niemann might not be an honest player and banned him from the site.
In an interview on Sept. 6, Niemann addressed the speculations and said the chess world seemed to be ganging up on him on social media.
“A lot of my heroes, who I once had respect for, who I once looked up to, a lot of my heroes have decided to hop on this bandwagon,” Niemann said. “There has been a lot of speculation and there have been a lot of things said. I’m the only one who knows the truth.”
However, Niemann admitted that he has cheated twice through his chess career, once when he was 12 years old and again at the age of 16. That second time, he explained, was because he was looking to enhance his ranking to play stronger opponents. Niemann said cheating was the biggest regret of his career but he learned from it and that he would never cheat in a tournament with prize money.
He argued that Chess.com has what he described as “the best cheat detection in the world” and that he has been open with them about his past. Niemann said it was “ridiculous” that they banned simply because Carlsen insinuated he did something wrong.
“I’m not going to let Chess.com, I’m not going to let Magnus Carlsen, I’m not going to let Hikaru Nakamura — the three arguably biggest entities in chess — simply slander my reputation,” Niemann said.
Unfortunately for Niemann, the speculation didn’t die down. Rumors of cheating continued spreading, and even Tesla CEO Elon Musk got involved when a particularly strange cheating rumor began gaining more traction online. A Reddit post suggested that Niemann could have used a sex toy to cheat. There is no concrete evidence and the claim might seem outrageous, but technically it would be possible to use vibrations to communicate.
In July, programmer James Stanley proved he could cheat by using vibrations in his shoes.
“If they want me to strip fully naked, I will do it. I don’t care because I know I am clean,” Niemann said. “You want me to play in a closed box with zero electronic transmission, I don’t care. I’m here to win and that is my goal regardless.”
On Sept. 8, Chess.com Chief Chess Officer Danny Rensch said Niemann had been banned because they found information that contradicts his statements regarding the amount and seriousness of his cheating on the website. Rensch also added that they invited Niemann to provide an explanation and response to try to find a resolution.
Two days later, the Sinquefield Cup sent an official statement saying there was no indication that any player had cheated in the tournament. However, the tournament set additional anti-cheating measures after the incident. These precautions included radio-frequency identification checks for players and a 15-minute delay in the live broadcast.
Because of all the drama an uncertainty, the Niemann vs. Carlsen rematch at the Julius Baer Generation Cup — the seventh event of the Champions Chess Tour — was highly-anticipated by those who were aware of the context. Some hoped that the match between them would bring a sense of normalcy, but the opposite happened when Carlsen resigned.
Carlsen has not made any more public comments regarding the situation. While there are people who want an explanation from him, others like Armenian grandmaster Levon Aronian understand his silence.
“I understand that Magnus doesn’t want to explain himself because it creates more drama,” Aronian said during a live interview on the broadcast. “At this moment, he is just saying, ‘I will not play against this person and that’s it.'”
FIDE gets involved
Even though neither the Julius Baer Generation Cup nor the Sinquefield Cup are FIDE events, the world’s chess governing body released an official statement on Sept. 23 regarding Carlsen’s actions.
“First of all, we strongly believe that the World Champion has a moral responsibility attached to his status, since he is viewed as a global ambassador of the game,” wrote FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich. “His actions impact the reputation of his colleagues, sportive results, and eventually can be damaging to our game. We strongly believe that there were better ways to handle this situation. At the same time, we share his deep concerns about the damage that cheating brings to chess.”
Dvorkovich said FIDE is prepared to help investigate the incident with its Fair Play commission.
Carlsen went on to win the Julius Baer Generation Cup on Sept. 25. A day after the winning the tournament, he gave a public update on his reasons for refusing to play against Niemann.
He explained that Niemann’s over the board progress was “unusual” and that he thought that the way he played in the Sinquefield Cup seemed suspicious.
“We must do something about cheating, and for my part going forward, I don’t want to play against people that have cheated repeatedly in the past, because I don’t know what they are capable of doing in the future,” Carlsen said.
“There is more that I would like to say. Unfortunately, at this time I am limited in what I can say without explicit permission from Niemann to speak openly. So far I have only been able to speak with my actions, and those actions have stated clearly that I am not willing to play chess with Niemann. I hope that the truth on this matter comes out, whatever it may be.”
Chess.com shares 72-page report
The website released their extensive report on Oct. 4, listing several games played in their platform in which Niemann “likely” cheated. Chess.com contradicted statements from Niemann’s Sept. 6 interview, and shared some communication between them and the player when he admitted to cheating in 2020. They had kept the past cheating private, but decided to go public this year to clarify the situation.
In a letter, marked as Exhibit B in the report, Rensch explained to Niemann that they had “toggling” vs “non-toggling” evidence against him, and that he performed much better while toggling to a different screen during moves. He listed five specific matches that featured “blatant cheating throughout.”
Niemann explicitly confessed to cheating in an email sent on Jul 7, 2020, as shown in Exhibit C. He said he did it thinking “everybody is doing it” and because he was “bored.”
“I want to apologise for my behavior this will never happen again! I am sorry for what I did and feel ashamed about the fact. Thanks a lot for giving me this chance and did not made this public,” Niemann wrote. “Actually I was suprised you catched me because I cheated only in 5 games in this (redacted). I cheated games (redacted). The others I didn’t thats why I think you are doing fantastic job. Once again I apologise for my behavior.”
Regarding the Sinquefield Cup, Chess.com said that there is “no direct evidence” that proves Hans cheated during the game against Carlsen, but that they believe certain aspects of the game were suspicious. Niemann’s explanation of his strategy after the game also raised some questions. The website said nothing they have done has been at Carlsen’s request, and that they are “open to continuing a dialogue with Hans to discuss his status on Chess.com.”
“Our hope is that this report will be a first step toward clearing up any confusion as to why we took certain steps in the wake of the September 4, 2022 Carlsen vs. Niemann match in St. Louis at the 2022 Sinquefield Cup,” read the report.
Niemann takes shot at critics
All eyes were on Niemann as he entered the 2022 U.S. Chess Championships in St. Louis just over a month after his dramatic match with Carlsen. Niemann — whose backside was reportedly checked via metal detector by security at the event — defeated 15-year-old Christopher Yoo in the first round, and he had plenty to say to his critics afterward. In his post-match interview, Niemann called the game “a message to everyone.”
“This entire thing started with me saying, ‘Chess speaks for itself,’ and I think this game spoke for itself and showed the chess player that I am, and also showed that I’m not going to back down and I’m going to play my best chess here regardless of the pressure I’m under,” Niemann said. “And that’s all I have to say about this game. Chess speaks for itself. That’s all I can say.”
Niemann was speaking quite literally, as he refused to answer any further questions “because it was such a beautiful game I don’t even need to describe it.”
Perhaps Niemann will speak further after his second-round match against 21-year-old Jeffery Xiong. That match is set for Thursday at the Saint Louis Chess Club.