The Sinquefield Cup was rocked after world champion Magnus Carlsen withdrew from the tournament after losing to Hans Moke Niemann the previous round. Carlsen tweeted his decision and included a video of José Mourinho, head coach of Italian Serie A Club Roma. Mourinho has a history of accusing referees of cheating against his teams with match-fixing. While not directly saying that Niemann was cheating, it was a very serious insinuation by Carlsen.
Social media lit up with accusations against Niemann and referenced an incident with chess.com. However, most of the reasoning had nothing to do with the actual game yesterday. Many inveighed that because Niemann admitted to cheating, then he must’ve been cheating to beat Carlsen. Few offered how that would be possible. Carlsen has not made a statement to offer specifics, but such clarity is needed for such a serious insinuation. If not, the reasoning for withdrawing from one of the world’s top tournaments requires an explanation.
Tony Rich, the executive director weighed in and stated that they will allow Carlsen to make the statement.
Just over a month ago, Magnus Carlsen announced that he would not defend his world title because he had lost interest in defending it. He stated that he would still be active in tournament play and continues to perform at a high level. However, it is apparent that younger players are gaining ground as the champion continues to lose games to young upstarts… twice to Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa and a high-profile game to Nodirbek Abdursattarov. The latest loss to 19-year-old Hans Moke Niemann shocked the chess world and Carlsen’s withdrawal and coded message created the rumor.
The GameNotes by ChessBase.com
Commentators all agreed that Niemann played a powerful game, but it was far from perfect. Carlsen also missed his opportunities to draw, but this result was surprising given that the champion was on a 53-game unbeaten streak. Niemann was undoubtedly in a great mood. In the post-game interview, he admitted that there were mistakes made and went through the lines very rapidly.
Video by Saint Lous Chess Club
GM Hans Moke Niemann
Photo by Lennart Ootes
The Decision and Precedents
The next day, Carlsen informed the Arbiter Chris Bird that he had decided to withdraw but the reasons were nonspecific. After the tweet, many took it to imply that Niemann was cheating. They began bringing up his rapid ascent from 2480 to 2700 in two years time as proof that something unusual was happening. They mentioned that Niemann erred when he referred to a game that Carlsen played and stated that such a game didn’t exist so he must’ve somehow done something unethical. Nigel Short weighed in citing the game to which Niemann was referring.
M, Carlsen – W, So, Kolkata 2019. This is a g3 Nimzo, by transposition. The fact that Hans Niemann could not recall whether this game was played in London, Kolkata or Ouagadougou, is proof of absolutely nothing to my mind. Playing the World Champion is not a a geography quiz. pic.twitter.com/dsKAbMvli9— Nigel Short (@nigelshortchess) September 6, 2022
While it is true that Niemann’s improvement is unusual, it does not prove that he didn’t do anything other than work on his chess like Arjun Erigaisi, Dommaraju Gukesh, and Nodirbek Abdusattarov. They also brought up the fact that he may have benefited from the “prep leak” from someone close to Carlsen. They brought up other cheating cases while not describing how Niemann could’ve pulled it off after undergoing a body scan beforehand. Some suggestions given seemed to be out of a James Bond movie.
While Carlsen has only hinted at some type of an accusation, it would not be unprecedented as Mihaela Sandu of Romania was accused of cheating after scoring 6/7 in the Women’s European Championship. A player petition was signed to have Sandu’s games on 15-minute delay. She would lose her last four games. The accusations led by Ukraine’s Natalia Zhukova, were proven false. Incidentally, Zhukova won the tournament but had to serve a three-month ban along with other petitioners.
Natalia Zhukova was suspended for falsely accusing Mihaela Sandu of cheating
and banned for three months.
The FIDE Ethics Commission’s verdict was that 15 accusing players were guilty of “a breach of art. 2.2.11 of the FIDE Code of Ethics for making reckless and unjustified accusations of cheating against WGM Mihaela Sandu, thereby injuring and discrediting her reputation as a honest chess player.”
Carlsen has not given any specifics, but apparently, it was not for health reasons. The questions remains, “Why did Carlsen withdraw?” This would be very drastic action given the importance of the tournament. Niemann was thoroughly scanned for any devices and none of the players were allowed cell phones or smartwatches. Some suggested an earpiece and signaling method, but of course, general spectating was not allowed in the venue. How was cheating supposed to occur?
Video by Daily Dose of Chess Clips
Someone pointed out that Niemann did not go through variations deeply enough in his interviews or missed ideas, but that is still not proof of anything suspicious. In fact, his analysis was too fast at times. Some pointed to the preparation he attributed to Carlsen, but stated that the variation did not match. Niemann clearly stated that the move order was different.
Even if it was the same variation, studying an opponent’s games and positions is not considered cheating. Also someone giving you intelligence about another player is not cheating… unless it illegally obtained (i.e., hacking a laptop or server). After his hard-fought draw against Alireza Firouzja, Niemann had no idea about why Carlsen may have withdrawn and was oblivious that his name was being dragged in the mud.
Hans: “I was struggling to even focus. I was thinking about it the entire game. I’ve never in my life heard of a top player forfeiting a game…— chess24.com (@chess24com) September 5, 2022
1st he gives up the title, certainly I was surprised & now this… it’s very strange, but at least I got to beat him before he left!” pic.twitter.com/zkZvDfHV2h
Saying this, it is very unprofessional to leave the chess world to speculate about these innuendos and possibly destroy the career of a young rising star before he gets going. At this point, there is no comment and the St. Louis Chess Club did not receive an explanation. Carlsen’s only hint is a tweet that references a football coach who voices his opposition to referees’ cheating. If he is not referring to Niemann, then whom was the Mourinho video directed at? Would it be a leak within his team? Even if that were true, it is not an indictment of Niemann. All of social media has been set ablaze with thousands of comments by chess personalities.
Incredibly sad day. While I am an arbiter, I am also a chess fan, and any event that Magnus plays in, is infinitely better than one without him. It’s always a privilege to watch his games in person and I sincerely hope I get that opportunity again at some point. https://t.co/ucsfFWTQML— Chris Bird (@ChrisBirdIA) September 5, 2022
No matter how his tournaments went, @MagnusCarlsen never quit. He must have had a compelling reason, or at least he believes he has it. Don’t call him a sore loser or disrespectful. I shall not speculate on the reasons of his withdrawal, but probably would expect TD to air them.— Emilchess (@EmilSutovsky) September 5, 2022
Aronian: “All of my colleagues are pretty much paranoid, and quite often I was the one telling them ‘come on guys, I know myself, I’m an idiot and I’m a good player.’ I always think that young players can play very well.” #SinquefieldCup pic.twitter.com/es9Sx876lC— Grand Chess Tour (@GrandChessTour) September 5, 2022
Caruana: “I guess there’s a lot of rumors already, and I assume [Carlsen] hasn’t given a reason yet why he decided not to play, but probably some people have a decent idea of what he’s alluding to, or what he has a problem with, I don’t know.” #SinquefieldCup pic.twitter.com/iuRlVfDBlm— Grand Chess Tour (@GrandChessTour) September 6, 2022
Making an allegation that someone has cheated at a professional chess tournament is very serious and potentially defamatory. Be careful, folks. #SinquefieldCup— Leon Watson (@LeonWatson) September 5, 2022
Will Niemann file Complaints/Lawsuits?
Hikaru Nakamura has fanned the flames on his popular Twitch channel by first offering that Carlsen believes Niemann is cheating. With 25,000 viewers looking on, he then recounted the chess.com saga where Niemann was suspended for cheating. While Nakamura was not convinced that Niemann was cheating in the actual Carlsen game, he brought up past issues drawing a connection to the Carlsen Tweet. It would not be a surprise if at least one lawsuit is brewing.
Nakamura was one of the first to comment on Carlsen’s forfeit from the #SinquefieldCup with a brutal attack on Hans.— Pro Chess Training (@ProChessT) September 6, 2022
Either Hans cheated or Magnus got so frustrated that he lost twice against him the past month that he decided to quit a tournament; it’s a sad day for chess ? pic.twitter.com/KbbEmVJvPU
Video by GM Hikaru Nakamura
If there is no proof that Niemann is cheating in his game with Carlsen, the damage has already been done. First, accusers rob him of a hard-earned victory. Second, they form a cloud of suspicion over his head. Third, Carlsen allows these rumors to circulate for more than 24 hours without any clarification on what was meant by the Tweet. This could have a tremendous impact on invitations, sponsorships, and the personal reputation of Niemann. The fact that this is being discussed by hundreds of thousands of chess players without any specific details has already been damaging. Even if not true, a cloud of suspicion has been formed.
There is actually enough evidence (from the Tweet) and the social media firestorm that Carlsen is suggesting unethical play by Niemann. If Carlsen does not make an official statement, then perhaps the FIDE Ethics Commission will get involved, not to investigate Niemann, but to investigate Carlsen. Anti-cheating regulations instituted by FIDE in Batumi, Georgia stated,
False accusation in chess is an abuse of freedom of expression that is prohibited by the Code of Ethics. An accusation of cheating that is manifestly unfounded, i.e. based only on emotion and/or insufficient data, is a false accusation. An accusation of cheating that is based on factual circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to believe that there is a reasonable chance of cheating is not considered a manifestly unfounded accusation.
Niemann perhaps will (or should) make a professional statement, hire a lawyer, contact the Association of Chess Professionals and the FIDE Ethics Commission to ponder his options. If Carlsen is convinced something happened, he should do the same thing. This is a serious accusation and it will not go away until an official statement is made. Either way, Magnus Carlsen will have a lot of explaining to do. His latest withdrawal follows his exit from the world championship. It is a dangerous pattern.
Everyone is waiting to hear what Carlsen has to say about the matter.
Breaking! Here is what Hans has to say a day after the firestorm.
Interview with GM Hans Niemann (Carlsen Issue)
Video by CCSCSL