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Chess world champion Magnus Carlsen accuses Hans Niemann of cheating

Magnus Carlsen says he will not play Hans Niemann again because he believes Niemann "has cheated more — and more recently — than he has publicly admitted."
Dean Mouhtaropoulos
Getty Images
Magnus Carlsen says he will not play Hans Niemann again because he believes Niemann "has cheated more — and more recently — than he has publicly admitted."

One week after stunning the chess world by resigning from a game after making just one move, reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen has broken his silence to accuse Hans Niemann, 19, of cheating.

Niemann recently acknowledged cheating in the past, but he insists he has been playing by the rules since he was confronted and punished.

Carlsen is not convinced.

"I am not willing to play chess with Niemann," the 31-year-old Norwegian said via Twitter, after stating he believes Niemann "has cheated more — and more recently — than he has publicly admitted."

Bombshells have rocked elite chess this month

Carlsen's overt accusation is the latest development in a scandal that's been the talk of the chess world since Sept. 4, when Carlsen abruptly withdrew from the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis following a loss to Niemann, of the U.S. At the time, Carlsen issued a cryptic tweet that led many to believe he suspected Niemann of foul play.

As speculation swirled, Niemann admitted in an interview that he had previously cheated by using an electronic device to find the best moves. But he said the incidents took place only when he was 12 and 16, and he maintained that he hasn't cheated since.

Niemann made those comments after Chess.com hit him with a new ban. In response to his remarks, Chess.com said it has sent "detailed evidence" to Niemann "that contradicts his statements regarding the amount and seriousness of his cheating on Chess.com."

Against that backdrop, there was intense interest when Carlsen and Niemann were slated to play a rematch last Monday. But after Niemann made his first move as white, Carlsen responded with a single move as black and then quit.

Carlsen went on to win that tournament, the Julius Baer Generation Cup, on Sunday. He issued his statement about Niemann the next day.

Carlsen's refusal to play Niemann triggered calls for him to explain himself, and for the International Chess Federation to review the case, which Carlsen admits is "unprecedented."

Carlsen explains his suspicions about Niemann

Carlsen, who has dominated world chess for years, provided few new details to support his allegation against Niemann. He said Niemann's global ranking (he's currently at No. 49) has seen "unusual" gains. Carlsen also noted his opponent's demeanor.

When he played Niemann in St. Louis, Carlsen said, "I had the impression that he wasn't tense or even fully concentrating on the game in critical positions, while outplaying me as black in a way I think only a handful of players can do. This game contributed to changing my perspective."

When they played in person on Sept. 4, both players were subjected to a security check using handheld metal detector wands, as video from the event shows.

But Carlsen says chess must toughen its stance against cheating further. And he suggested he might never be able to trust a player if they've cheated in the past, "because I don't know what they are capable of doing in the future."

Carlsen has been accused of not being transparent enough in the past three weeks, fueling drama among chess's top players and prompting questions about how to verify eye-popping performances by young prodigies.

Commenting on the scandal, International Chess Federation Director-General Emil Sutovsky said on Tuesday, "We need to follow procedures. Also we need a social contract, agreeing that cheating, in particular online, will often remain in the gray zone."

It will be the federation's job, he said, to navigate that process.

The scandal triggers calls for a clampdown on cheating

On Monday, chess grandmaster Andrew Tang credited Carlsen for airing "an issue the chess community wanted to pretend doesn't exist," suggesting Niemann is not alone in cheating.

When the scandal first erupted, Tang, 22, said he's been waiting to see a reckoning over cheating in online games, adding, "Guess what it still seems pretty easy to get away with and many GMs besides [Hans] have done it!"

For in-person events like the Sept. 4 match, organizers "try to do everything they can" to block cheating, grandmaster Maurice Ashley recently told NPR. But in the open halls where some matches take place, he added, players don't always need a device to gain an unfair edge.

"I know of a situation with a player where the coach had a code for where they stood on the floor," Ashley said, "and they just had to stand in the right place for you to know what piece to move."

If the coach stood in a corner, for instance, that could signal the player to move their bishop.

Such actions damage the sport by undermining trust, Ashley said: "I mean, conspiracies are everywhere now. Everybody's paranoid, and that's not a good place for chess to be at all."

Maria Gevorgyan, a grandmaster and four-time Armenian women's chess champion, says she has heard of cases in which a player at an over-the-board competition consulted a phone hidden in the bathroom.

But she admits to being a little mystified as to why anyone would go to such lengths.

"I will not understand the fun of winning with a machine's help in anything," she told NPR on Tuesday, "so I can't really explain why people want to do it."

It could be the prize money and the excitement of winning, Gevorgyan said. But, she added, none of those things are worth risking one's reputation.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.