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. Here’s the story behind it all.
How it started
The Norwegian grandmaster left the highly-anticipated match 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.
Carlsen had never explicitly accused Niemman of cheating before. Here’s the moment he left the match:
Carlsen’s coach, Peter Heine Nielsen, is expected to join the next live broadcast on Sept. 20. The coach could bring new insight on the ongoing saga that 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 Carlson, 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.” Niemman 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 Magnus 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, 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 — the largest online chess platform in the world — 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.'”