US teenager Hans Niemann’s surprise victory over world chess champion Magnus Carlsen this month could have been hailed as the arrival of a new force in the old big league strategy game.
Instead, the match, which ended a 53-game unbeaten streak for the Norwegian, who is regarded as the greatest player of all time, has sparked bitter allegations of cheating, protests, legal threats and wild conspiracy theories spearheaded by Tesla’s Elon Musk about insertable sex toys were reinforced.
The excitement began when Carlsen, 31, withdrew from the tournament in St. Louis after his loss and tweeted a video of football manager José Mourinho saying: ‘When I speak I’m in big trouble and I don’t want to be there its big trouble.”
The chess world took the hint. It was widely believed on social media, live streams and blogs that Carlsen was accusing his 19-year-old opponent of cheating.
“It got hot very quickly,” Hikaru Nakamura, a top US player, said on his popular stream, adding, “Am I suggesting that something happened? I say Magnus is suspicious.” Ian Nepomniachtchi, a Russian grandmaster, described Niemann’s win as “more than impressive”.
In an emotional interview after his win, Niemann admitted to cheating in online games when he was 12 and again several years later to grow his livestream audience. He called it the “biggest single mistake of my life,” but denied ever cheating in an over-the-board game.
“To see my absolute hero trying to ruin my reputation and my chess career in such a frivolous way is really disappointing,” Niemann said of Carlsen.
As the rumor mill went into overdrive, Chess.com issued a statement saying it had evidence that “contradicts itself [Niemann’s] Statements as to the extent and seriousness of his fraud”. The website acquired Carlsen’s Play Magnus for $82 million this summer.
When Carlsen and Niemann went head-to-head in an online rematch last week, the Norwegian shocked his fans again by resigning after just one move in an apparent act of protest. On Tuesday, he directly accused the American: “I think that Niemann has cheated more – and lately – than he publicly admitted.”
“I got the impression he wasn’t tense or even fully focused,” Carlsen continued as he cheated during their game in St. Louis, calling cheating an “existential threat to the game.”
It was the latest in a string of recent statements that have sowed chaos as Carlsen’s decade at the top of the game comes to an end. In July he announced he would not be defending his world title, saying he was “not motivated to play another match”.
Susan Polgar, a former women’s world champion, said on CNN that cheating has been a “serious problem in chess for many years” and discussed the various ways it could be done, such as hidden cell phones and schemes with co-conspirator signals.
Niemann currently ranks 40th in the world. In late 2020, after quitting playing online as HansCoolNiemann, he embarked on a feverish frenzy of in-person gaming that caused his rating to rise rapidly. But his rapid rise has also raised suspicions.
There is no evidence of cheating in the game in St. Louis. One absurd theory that emerged from a post on popular online forum Reddit was that he was using artificially intelligent “anal beads” to provide illicit, vibrating assistance. Tesla founder Musk picked it up, tweeting to his 107 million followers: “Talent hits a target no one else can, genius hits a target no one can see (because it’s up your butt)”.
The internet fueled the popularity of chess with the growth of online streaming, making it a highly watchable e-sport. But technology has also sown the seeds of game destruction. A free mobile app could easily beat the strongest human gamer ever, and cues from a machine could turn a hobbyist into an instant grandmaster at crucial moments.
In the wake of the cheating row, amateur investigators pondered Niemann’s moves to determine if his play against Carlsen was too perfect, too robotic. A statistical analysis claimed to show no evidence of fraud; another said it pointed to strong signs of it.
But the resulting encounter with a crowd-sourced mob cryptically joined by the most powerful man in chess has left many in the normally staid world of chess uneasy.
“It makes me feel dirty,” said Levy Rozman, an international champion and commentator on the popular GothamChess stream. “It hurts me humanly.” Representatives from Carlsen and Niemann did not respond to the Financial Times’ request for comment.
Fide, the international governing body of chess, has taken a stand against the so-called “Carlsen-Niemann polemic” by vowing to prevent cheating from becoming a “plague”. It also criticized Carlsen, a “football ambassador” with “moral responsibility”: “We firmly believe that there are better ways of dealing with this situation.”
Niemann has not spoken publicly since the spate of defiant tweets following the St. Louis showdown. Then he asked, “If there is real evidence, why not show it? Does anyone take responsibility for the damage he caused?”
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