Here's why world chess champion Magnus Carlsen is accusing a 19-year-old grandmaster of cheating
In the chess community, this month will be remembered for only one thing: Magnus Carlsen vs. Hans Niemann.
The reigning world chess champion and a top-50 ranked grandmaster have spent the past few weeks embroiled in a bizarre feud centered on Carlsen's apparent belief that Niemann cheated against him in an upset loss. Chess is a surprisingly dramatic sport behind closed doors, but it emerged into full public view in this case.
Carlsen turned that apparent belief into an explicit accusation Monday, when he released a statement alleging Niemann had been cheating and saying he didn't want to have to play Niemann in the future.
My statement regarding the last few weeks. pic.twitter.com/KY34DbcjLo
— Magnus Carlsen (@MagnusCarlsen) September 26, 2022
To say this story has enraptured the chess world would be an understatement. To the non-chess fans of the world, it is a profoundly nerdy fight with some background information needed to get a handle on what's happening.
Here's our best attempt at explaining.
Who is Magnus Carlsen?
The best chess player in the world, and you could make the case for the best ever.
Carlsen is the most recognizable name in chess. Even people who don't follow the game may have heard his name. He won the World Chess Championship at 22 years old and has since defended it four times. He is also a three-time World Rapid Chess Champion and five-time World Blitz Chess Champion. His peak rating of 2882 is the highest the game has ever seen, and he's currently gunning for an unprecedented 2900.
Carlsen will no longer be the world champion after this year because he recently abdicated his champion title, but his reason was basically, "He's bored and has better things to do." Suffice to say, he is extremely good at chess and anything he's going to say on the matter will bear a large amount of weight.
Who is Hans Niemann?
Until recently, he was a 19-year-old up-and-coming grandmaster who still had a long way to go before he was in Carlsen's league.
Like every grandmaster these days, Niemann was a child prodigy, and eventually reached grandmaster status in Jan. 2021 at 17 years old. As of September, he is ranked No. 49 in the world. He is also among the many elite players to cash in on the recent chess streaming boom, having amassed 59.1K followers on Twitch.
Over the last year or so, Niemann's FIDE rating, the metric that determines the world chess rating, has risen rapidly, which you don't often see at the level of the world's top grandmasters. Carlsen himself called the rise "unusual" in his statement.
Why is Magnus Carlsen accusing Hans Niemann of cheating?
It all started in St. Louis, the chess capital of the United States.
Carlsen and Niemann played each other in the third round of the St. Louis Chess Club's prestigious Sinquefield Cup, where Niemann shocked Carlsen by defeating him with black pieces. In most elite chess matches, black players typically see a draw as a win, because it is extremely hard to outright win a match when your opponent gets the first move.
This was actually the second time Niemann had defeated Carlsen while playing black, as he had done the same the previous month at the FTX Crypto Cup ("Chess speaks for itself," Niemann said at the time). However, it was in St. Louis the excrement hit the fan.
Carlsen used a rather unusual opening that Niemann happened to be completely prepared for. As Niemann said after the match via Chess24, he had luckily looked up how Carlsen had previously used the tactic that morning:
I didn’t guess it, but by some miracle I checked this today, and it’s such a ridiculous miracle that I don’t even remember why I checked it. I just remembered 12 ... h6 and everything after this, and I’ve no idea why I would check such a ridiculous thing, but I checked it, and I even knew that 13 ... Be6! is just very good. It’s so ridiculous that I checked it.
Niemann was playful in victory, saying, “It must be embarrassing for the World Champion to lose to me — I feel bad for him!”
Carlsen was less than thrilled. The champion said in his statement Monday that he believed Niemann to be a cheater before the Sinquefield Cup and actually considered withdrawing when Niemann was added to the event at the last minute.
Carlsen withdrew from the tournament the day after the match and cryptically tweeted a clip of soccer manager Jose Mourinho saying, "If I speak I'm in big trouble, and I don't want to be in big trouble." No one would say why Carlsen withdrew, but it wasn't hard to put two and two together when tournament organizers instituted extra security measures, especially with Niemann.
Hikaru Nakamura, another elite grandmaster and the biggest streamer in chess, provided the match for the gasoline-soaked situation when he speculated Carlsen believed Niemann to have cheated and revealed that Niemann had been suspended for cheating in the past.
And with that, we should probably talk about the mechanics of a modern chess cheat.
How do chess players normally cheat?
These days, it's all about computers. Chess engines surpassed the elite grandmasters in the 1990s (you may have heard the name Deep Blue) and now the gap is chasmic. Carlsen is a terrifying chess god, but the computers have ascended to a higher plane, so the basic way to cheat is to have access to a computer while playing.
If you're only, say, playing a buddy online, it is very easy to cheat. Just plug their moves into the engine, then do what the engine does. If you're playing in person, or over the board, it's a little trickier, as your opponent or tournament organizers aren't going to let you check your phone for every move. It's not impossible though, as you could have a buddy in the crowd signaling which move to make (think the Houston Astros) or check your phone for answers in the bathroom. In one infamous case, a grandmaster was banished from FIDE (the world chess federation) after being photographed with his phone on the toilet.
Elite chess tournaments are hardcore about preventing all this. They check players for electronic aids and overall have very tight security. If Niemann is cheating the normal way, he has probably found a novel way to do it.
Cheating online isn't as rewarding as you'd think, though, as Chess.com and all the major sites will have anti-cheat detection. Basically, if they notice a player making the perfect move every time, they will label them as a cheater and ban them. Including Niemann.
Wait, Niemann actually has cheated?
Yes, that is one of the few things in this mess that is not up for debate.
Niemann has admitted to cheating twice in online play, once at the age of 12 and again at the age of 16. Suffice to say, he no longer plays on Chess.com. Neither games were formally rated (so no FIDE points or prize money were at stake), but regardless, Niemann called them a mistake and insisted he had stopped cheating.
Of course, there are many people of the opinion "once a cheater, always a cheater," so Niemann isn't getting as much benefit of the doubt as you might see in a vacuum.
What has Niemann said about the current situation?
Deny. Deny. Deny.
Niemann has blasted all allegations of cheating, accusing Carlsen, Nakamura and Chess.com of trying to ruin his chess career. The lack of detail in the allegations has worked in his favor, but it's hard to beat the bigger fish even with the current on your side.
So could Niemann be cheating this time?
We really don't know!
At this point, our primary evidence that Niemann is a cheater is his past instances of cheating and the fact that Carlsen, a person who knows more about chess than you or I could ever hope to know about anything, is willing to put his reputation on the line that this person has been cheating.
Are there any baseless and crazy theories on how Niemann is cheating?
Yes, that's how a lot of people have heard about this controversy, because it's how several outlets have dressed up a story that is ultimately a slow-moving feud with few obvious answers.
Please be aware that no one of note actually thinks Niemann used vibrating anal beads to relay moves from a computer. The whole thing started when grandmaster and prominent streamer Eric Hansen (fun fact: Hansen and Nakamura were participants in an even weirder feud last year), joked that could be how Niemann is cheating because of the lack of obvious answers, and the memes followed from there.
The anal-bead theory got a lot of traction. Elon Musk, the terminally online richest man in the world, tweeted about it. Late-night talk shows joked about it. A cam site offered Niemann $1 million to play in the nude. Pretty much every story you'll read from non-chess outlets about the situation in the immediate aftermath feature the words "anal beads" in their headlines or lede.
It's one of those situations in which the oddest aspect of a story, however minor and non-serious, becomes its defining trait. Hans Niemann likely did not use anal beads to cheat against Magnus Carlsen. Moving on.
Has anything happened since the Sinquefield Cup?
Funny you should ask. Because chess is a very small world, Carlsen and Niemann were drawn against each other just a couple weeks later at the Julius Baer Generation Cup.
In that online-only tournament, Carlsen logged on, played one move, then logged off in an apparent protest of his opponent. It was at that point some chess people started getting frustrated with Carlsen, who still hadn't outright said what exactly was going on.
Carlsen kept playing the whole thing coy, simply saying he was "very impressed" with Niemann's play and his mentor Maxim Dlugy. This was more than a little pointed, as Dlugy himself has also reportedly faced accusations of cheating on Chess.com.
Carlsen, naturally, still won the tournament, then promised he would release an actual statement soon.
What has FIDE said about this situation?
The world chess authority wasn't happy with Carlsen.
It's not exactly great for a game when its rock star is quitting tournaments and cryptically poking another player, even if that player is an accused cheat. FIDE president Arkady Dvorkovich released a lengthy statement after the Julius Baer incident saying the organization takes cheating seriously, but believes there were better ways for Carlsen to handle the situation.
Essentially, they were telling Carlsen to provide evidence or start playing with regards to Niemann's alleged cheating. Carlsen has now picked the former, and the situation only figures to escalate from here.
This whole thing is going to follow Niemann for the rest of his career (Carlsen too, to a much lesser extent), but that won't be the end of the repercussions if FIDE receives actual evidence he has been cheating.