The chess world is in turmoil after the world champion, Magnus Carlsenpulled out of a major tournament for the first time in his career with frenzied speculation about whether an opponent had cheated.
On Monday, organizers of the $500,000 (£433,000) Sinquefield Cup announced further anti-cheating precautions, including a 15-minute delay in the broadcast of the moves and increased radio frequency identification checks. But Carlsen has already withdrawn from the event, announcing it in a tweet with a video of José Mourinho saying: “If I speak, I have big problems. Big, big problem.”
Carlsen offered no further explanation, but US grandmaster and popular streamer Hikaru Nakamura said that Carlsen withdrew because he suspected that his third-round opponent, Hans Niemann, was “probably cheating“.
The 19-year-old Niemann, who has made spectacular progress into the world’s top 50, shocked Carlsen on Sunday by beating him with the black pieces. Niemann said that “by some ludicrous miracle” he had guessed what his opponent’s obscure opening would be and had thoroughly prepared for it that morning. “Magnus must be embarrassed to lose to me,he said.
But while many praised Niemann’s victory, others were more skeptical. They included Nakamura, the world’s top-rated lightning player, who said Carlsen would not leave an event without a good reason. “Magnus would never do that in a million years,” he said. “He just doesn’t do that. He is the ultimate competitor, he is a world champion.
“He wouldn’t do this unless he really strongly believed that Hans was cheating with a very strong conviction. I think he thinks Hans is just cheating, straight up.”
Nakamura, who is closely affiliated with the world’s largest chess website, chess.com, suggested that Niemann had been banned from playing online in the past. “That’s not a debate, that’s a known fact,” he said.
This claim appeared to be supported by another American grandmaster, Andrew Tang, who suggested that he had “stopped talking to Hans because of that chess.com thing“.
However, Daniel Rensch, the chief chess officer of chess.com, declined to confirm or deny the allegations. “Chess.com does not discuss issues of fair play publicly and, as such, we decline to comment on the events at Sinquefield Cup and/or any speculation made by the community,” he said.
It is extremely difficult to prove cheating in backgammon chess and there is no evidence of wrongdoing on Niemann’s part at the event. Another grandmaster at the Sinquefield Cup, Levon Aronian, seemed to give him the benefit of the doubt, saying: “It often happens when young players play really well, there are always accusations against them.
“All my colleagues are quite paranoid and quite often I’ve been the one telling them, come on guys, I know myself, I’m an idiot and I’m a good player.”
Niemann was back at the board on Monday evening, where he drew against French player Alireza Firouzja. Niemann was asked about Carlsen’s withdrawal, but not about the cheating allegations. He expressed shock at what happened. “I was struggling to even focus, I was thinking about it the whole game,” he said.
“It’s very strange. I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but it’s very strange. At least I got to hit him before he left – that’s the good thing.”
The Guardian emailed Niemann to ask him if he cheated, what his response to Nakamura’s comments was, and if he had previously been banned from chess.com.
Another grandmaster, Jacob Aagaard, a trainer who worked with Niemann, supported the American. “It’s pretty well established that Hans cheated online at some point,” Aagard said. “This is simply a different matter. Compare it to cheating in homework club. There are times when people have cheated on their homework and I ignore it. Because it’s not a big deal. I don’t believe they’re going to start advanced Mission Impossible-style careers as high-level cheats.”
Emil Sutovsky, the director general of Fide, the chess governing body, dismissed suggestions that Carlsen quit because he was a bad loser. “He must have had a compelling reason, or at least he believes he has,” Sutovsky wrote on Twitter. “Don’t call him a sore loser or disrespectful. I won’t speculate on the reasons for his withdrawal, but I would probably expect a tournament director to air them.”