The chess world is in turmoil after world champion Magnus Carlsen pulled out of a major tournament for the first time in his career amid frenzied speculation over whether an opponent cheated.
On Monday, organizers of the $500,000 (£433,000) Sinquefield Cup announced additional anti-cheating precautions, including a 15-minute delay in broadcast moves and increased radio frequency identification checks. But Carlsen had already pulled out of the event, announcing it in a tweet with a video of Jose Mourinho saying: “If I talk I’m in big trouble. Big, big trouble.
Carlsen gave no further explanation, but American grandmaster and popular streamer Hikaru Nakamura said Carlsen pulled out because he suspected his third-round opponent Hans Niemann was “probably cheating”. .
Niemann, 19, who has made dramatic progress into the world top 50, shocked Carlsen on Sunday by beating him with the black pieces. Niemann said that “by some ridiculous miracle” he guessed what his opponent’s obscure opening would be and prepared himself deeply for it that morning. “Magnus must be embarrassed losing to me,” he said.
But while many praised Niemann’s victory, others were more skeptical. They included Nakamura, the highest-rated blitz player in the world, who said Carlsen wouldn’t leave an event without good reason. “Magnus would never do that in a million years,” he said. “He just doesn’t do that. He’s the ultimate competitor, he’s a world champion.
“He wouldn’t do that unless he really strongly believes that Hans is cheating with a very strong conviction. I think he just thinks Hans is cheating, outright.
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. “It’s not up for debate, it’s a known fact,” he said.
This claim seems to be backed up by another American grandmaster, Andrew Tang, who suggested that he “stopped talking to Hans because of that chess.com thing”.
However, Daniel Rensch, the chess director of chess.com, refused to confirm or deny the allegations. “Chess.com does not publicly discuss fair play matters and as such we decline to comment on the events of the Sinquefield Cup and/or any speculation made by the community,” he said.
It is extremely difficult to prove that he cheated at outboard chess and there is no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Niemann at the event. Another Sinquefield Cup grandmaster, Levon Aronian, seemed to give him the benefit of the doubt, saying: “It happens quite often when young players play very well, there are always accusations against them.
“All my colleagues are pretty much paranoid and it’s often me telling them, come on guys, I know myself, I’m an idiot and I’m a good player.”
Niemann was back on the board on Monday night, where he drew against French player Alireza Firouzja. Niemann was asked about Carlsen’s withdrawal, but not about the cheating allegations. He expressed his shock at what had happened. “I had trouble concentrating, I thought about it the whole game,” he said.
“It’s very weird. I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but it’s very strange. At least I have to beat him before he leaves – that’s the good thing.
The Guardian has emailed Niemann asking if he cheated, what his response to Nakamura’s comments is and if he has ever been banned from chess.com.
Another grandmaster, Jacob Aagaard, a trainer who worked with Niemann, supported the American. “It’s reasonably well established that Hans cheated online at some point,” Aagard said. “It’s just a different thing. Compare that to cheating in a homework club. There are times when people have cheated on their homework and I ignore it. Because it’s not a big deal. It does not make me believe that they will start advanced Mission Impossible style careers as advanced cheaters.
Emil Sutovsky, the chief executive of chess governing body Fide, dismissed suggestions that Carlsen quit because he was a sore loser. “He must have had a compelling reason, or at least he thinks he has,” Sutovsky wrote on Twitter. “Don’t call him a sore loser or disrespectful. I won’t speculate on the reasons for his removal, but I would probably expect a Tournament Director to broadcast them.