Alert readers will recall the “cheating” scandal last year which arose between the then world champion, Magnus Carlsen — now still ranked as global numero uno in spite of renouncing his title — and the American teenager, Hans Niemann.
The casus belli occurred when the two met over the board (OTB, as opposed to online) on September 4th 2022. It was a serious tournament game: the third round of the Sinquefield Cup in St Louis. This was chess for blood.
Sensationally, playing with the black pieces, the teenager defeated the world champion, who promptly and unprecedentedly walked out of the entire event. The following week they clashed again over the chessboard. The champion’s brusquely expressive gesture of resigning this fresh game after just one move, indicated that he refused to play against this particular opponent. Carlsen’s gambit, also unprecedented, led to allegations of cheating and a scandal which ripped the chess world apart, with grandmasters and former champions taking entrenched positions on both sides.
Not since the days of Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky had chess hit the mainstream news in such prolonged and dramatic a fashion.
An eagerly awaited report by online chess giant Chess.com, was issued on October 4th. They had intended this to be the definitive judgement as to whether Niemann had cheated or not in his famous victory against Magnus. Predictably, though, the report came down heavily on Carlsen’s side, resulting in screaming headlines that Niemann had cheated hundreds of times in online games, but also with an innuendo that the teenager might have defeated Carlsen by dubious means in their over the board game from the tournament in St Louis.
Chess.com protested (rather too loudly) that they had not acted on Carlsen’s instructions or indeed previously communicated with him in any detail on this matter. Nevertheless, the damage had been done, and Niemann’s reputation was in jeopardy of perpetual ruin. Carlsen’s financial relationship with Chess.com, with whom a multi-million dollar merger was in the offing, surely had nothing to do with their judgement? Many commentators agreed that the behaviour of Chess.com had been less than transparent, seemingly acting as advocate, jury and judge in their own case.
Returning to the Chess.com report, in spite of the media furore, cooler heads such as the English Grandmaster Nigel Davies were more sceptical. He forthrightly noted in a tweet, “72 effing pages but without any clue as to what constitutes academic rigour…”
He was supported in this viewpoint by an adviser to the English Chess Federation (ECF), Carl Portman, who tweeted, “It just gets worse. I have not read the full report but words like ‘likely’ are meaningless. In court, ‘likely, probably, might have and possibly’ are NOT enough to make a conviction…” Mr Portman should know about legal contexts, as he is the ECF manager of Chess in Prisons.
Based purely on statistical probability, Chess.com claim Niemann cheated on many more occasions online than he had admitted. Niemann had indeed confessed to two instances of illicit online consultation with chess computers earlier in his teenage years.
But had he cheated now to beat Carlsen in their over the board game?
I would say categorically no. If young players’ moves resemble those of a computer, this surely means that young players training intensively with a computer will end up playing like a computer. I predicted this in my lecture to the Royal Institution almost thirty years ago, even before Garry Kasparov lost to IBM’s Deep Blue computer in their 1997 match. Furthermore, I subsequently subjected the notorious game to computer analysis and, in fact, Niemann’s conduct of the endgame, in spite of his training with computers, was far from flawless. This fact alone argues decisively against computer intervention.
Former Reuters chess correspondent Adam Black observed that had the mechanism suggested by some, as the means for cheating in an over-the-board game, been really viable, it would have been far more profitably employed on the gaming tables of Las Vegas than the chess boards of St. Louis.
The Chess.com report also damned Niemann for a statistically improbable rapid rise in rating. I wonder what they would have said about the rise of the young Capablanca, Fischer and Kasparov or, indeed, Carlsen himself, had mass online competition been available during their early years.
Crucially, the authors of the report from Chess.com were still insinuating that Niemann’s OTB win against Carlsen, was suspicious. Their own report stated, “Despite the public speculation on these questions, in our view, there is no direct evidence that proves Hans cheated at the September 4, 2022 game with Magnus, or proves that he has cheated in other OTB games in the past.”
However, the report’s authors then proceeded to undermine that “incontrovertible” statement: “We believe certain aspects of the September 4 game were suspicious, and Hans’s explanation of his win post-event added to our suspicion.”
My consistent advice to Niemann had been to consult M’Learned Friends. Niemann indeed took my advice, using the US law firm of Oved & Oved LLP and local Missouri counsel The Gartner Law Firm. Going to law tends to act like acid poured over both untenable accusations and unwarranted insinuations.
The outcome of the case has now been announced. On August 28, Chess.com conceded that Hans Niemann is back on their platform.
In the edition of The New York Times, also dated August 28 this year, Dylan Loeb McClain wrote the following:
A $100 million defamation lawsuit filed against the five-time world chess champion Magnus Carlsen, a top chess streamer and the world’s largest chess site has been settled.
Terms were not disclosed, but, in the parlance of chess, all of the parties appear to have called it a draw, meaning there were no winners — or losers.
Hikaru Nakamura, 35, who in addition to having nearly two million followers on Twitch is ranked No. 2 in the world, behind Carlsen, had addressed the controversy on his streaming channel, seeming to side with Carlsen , while also denigrating Niemann’s abilities as a player.
Niemann’s suit named Carlsen, Nakamura and Chess.com as defendants.
In the statement announcing the settlement, Chess.com said it was rescinding its ban of Niemann and allowing him to participate in all activities on its site, including tournaments with cash prizes that can be hundreds of thousands of dollars. Chess.com said it stood by the findings of its report about Niemann from last year.
In the announcement of the settlement, Carlsen acknowledged that there was “no determinative evidence that Niemann cheated in his game against me at the Sinquefield Cup.” He added, “I am willing to play Niemann in future events.”
For his part, Niemann said he was pleased that the suit had been resolved in a “mutually acceptable manner” and that he would be allowed to play again on Chess.com, adding, “I look forward to competing against Magnus in chess rather than in court.”
However, there is a twist which makes me believe that Chess.com were the first to offer a draw.
The court ruling in June indeed threw out the antitrust claims, but, crucially, not the defamation plea. The judge ruled, under Eleusinian stipulations of US jurisprudence, which I utterly fail to comprehend, that the court had no jurisdiction because there was no diversity issue — that is, that at least one of the defendants was from the same state as Niemann. So Niemann was going to have to refile the case in state court, meaning that the process would have started all over again. It was at that point that the parties to the suit began to negotiate. In my column of August 26, I observed that Niemann’s legal eagles seemed to be offering little leeway. Within days it became clear that Oved & Oved, His Learned Friends, to whom he paid tribute in his own statement, had by no means withdrawn their talons.
The global chess community would love to know what monies changed hands. How much did the Pipe of Peace cost, and who paid for the tobacco? All we know is that Rumours, painted with many tongues, as Shakespeare put it in the Prologue to Henry IV Part Two, abound that the settlement has cost Chess.com $12 million. This has been hotly denied, which leads me to suspect that the painted tongues are not forked and therefore true. Further evidence of a substantial settlement in David’s favour in his battle against Goliath is that the now 20-year-old Niemann has just announced a series of $10,000 grants to help aspiring young players. Such magnanimity surely argues the case for Niemann having received a considerable windfall.
Further evidence that Niemann has suddenly acquired fresh finance arises from a bizarre contretemps with another former world champion, Vladimir Kramnik. In a recent online game, Niemann defeated Kramnik (incidentally adopting the Berlin Wall defence which Kramnik popularised in his victorious London 2000 championship bout against Kasparov, which I organised.) The disgruntled Kramnik, hinting darkly at more Niemann cheating, somewhat petulantly chose a suicide route in their second game which went: Niemann (White) vs. Kramnik (Black) : 1. e4 f6 2. d4 g5, insultingly echoing Carlsen’s instant resignation as his response to Niemann in their next game after Niemann’s famous victory.
First, after 1… f6, Niemann smiles and buries his head in his hands – he knows what is about to happen. After Kramnik confirms the worst with 2… g5. Now Niemann could have won with 3. Qh5 checkmate. Disdaining an instant win, Niemann instead renounced earthly gains by resigning himself and quite clearly states, “I have so much respect for this guy. Why does he …” . The whole two moves are recorded on the Twitch platform.
Even more shocking, instead of going berserk with self-pitying rage, the newly wealthy Niemann, endowed with the perspective, equanimity and peace of mind that lifetime financial security can bring, delivered a remarkable online homily in praise of Kramnik and in a staggering display of humility and conciliation, asked to take lessons from Kramnik, and pay for them!
I am now assiduously scouring the skies over Castle Keene in Clapham, searching for sightings of airborne hogs.
Sadly , they will not be appearing. On the morning of September 14, Niemann suddenly trashed his new found reputation for maturity and tolerance by offering another $10,000 reward, this time for anyone who could offer evidence that Kramnik cheated in his 2006 title match against Topalov. With his back against the wall at that time, Topalov concocted some tenuous allegations that Kramnik had been consulting a computer during his toilet breaks. The controversy blew up, blew over and was widely and wisely dismissed.
Reductio ad absurdum: Kramnik’s play had been so bad that he could not conceivably have been assisted by a computer. Topalov’s problem was that his play had been even worse. To dredge up these ancient and discredited “Toiletgate” allegations is beneath Niemann’s dignity and seriously deleterious to his new found reputation for moderation. I would advise him to delete the tweet (I now like to call them Xocets) and let us hear no more about it!
Although Niemann seems to have emerged with at least a draw from his legal struggles, there may still be one remaining piece of unjust collateral damage. If so, it urgently needs to be rectified.
In an additional attempt to damn Niemann by association, Carlsen had attributed Niemann’s success to having worked with former US Chess Federation President and junior world champion, the Russian-born American grandmaster Maxim Dlugy.
This aside was accompanied by innuendo about Dlugy himself cheating on Chess.com. After initially denying they were the source, Chess.com later had to retract their denial of having leaked this confidential correspondence. Dlugy responded at length to repudiate any attack on his reputation and it remains to be seen whether Dlugy’s integrity has also been vindicated by the latest concordat.
My carrier pigeon, having winged its way towards Max Dlugy to learn his side of the story after recent twists and turns, has returned with the bombshell intelligence that Max is now also consulting Oved & Oved. Watch this space for future inside track developments.
Meanwhile, let us remind ourselves of the game in question, available as usual to follow on-line at chessgames.com. The final word of exegesis on this contested battlefield follows; these are based on the notes which appear in my latest (206th) book, which was published last month.
Carlsen vs. Niemann
Sinquefield Cup (2022), St Louis, round 3
analysis by Ray Keene, Adam Black and the Stockfish analysis engine
1.d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. g3
We were relieved to have the Stockfish analysis engine at our side for this crucial, complex and difficult encounter. We shall endeavour to incorporate the large amount of published analysis and to synthesise a unique and reliable guide for TheArticle’s readers. Our adventure takes us into one of the lesser-trodden paths of the Nimzo-Indian.
4… O-O 5. Bg2 d5 6. a3 Bxc3+ 7. bxc3 dxc4 8. Nf3 c5 9. O-O cxd4
Even at this early stage, databases indicate that Black has had by far the better results in this line.
After 10… cxd4, Black would enjoy a 3-1 pawn advantage on the Q-side. Although white’s g2 bishop inhibits any immediate threats, this would promise Black an edge later in the game.
10… Nc6 11. Qxc4
And although this move may not be a theoretical novelty (i.e. a new move) there are no master games that we can identify on record, after this move.
11… e5 12. Bg5 h6 13. Rfd1?
An understandable error but an inaccuracy nevertheless. Better was 13. Bxf6 Qxf6 14. Qb5!
An unexpected riposte, with Niemann ignoring the attack against his queen.
If instead 13… Qe7 14. Bxf6 Qxf6 15. Nd2 White would gain an edge, threatening 16. Ne4 with tempo and then Nc5 controlling the critical e6 and b7 squares and thereby limiting the scope of the c8 bishop.
Carlsen gets what he wants, an endgame where his unparalleled skill can operate to its true potential.
14… Bxc4 15. Rxa8 Rxa8 16. Bxf6 gxf6
The upshot of the opening has been favourable for Black, on the basis that it is perhaps more difficult for White to exploit the doubled pawn weakness on the f-file than it is for Black to put pressure the loose pawn on c3 and down the semi-open c-file.
To protect the pawn on e2 but Stockfish thinks that this is another minor inaccuracy and that these are beginning to mount up. Better was 17. Nh4
17… Rd8 18. Ke1 Na5 19. Rd1 Rc8 20. Nd2 Be6
With this move, Carlsen pragmatically elects to eliminate his pawn weakness for some activity. It is debatable whether sufficient compensation for this pawn is ever realised. Stockfish suggests the fiendishly non-human 21. Ne4! as a more cautious approach:
21… Bxc4 22. Nxc4 Rxc4
Niemann is a pawn to the good and his structure is superior.
23. Rd8+ Kg7 24. Bd5!
The natural 24. Rd7 fails miserably to 24… Rc1+.
Black has a tangible plus. However, many players might evaluate that White’s centralised bishop controlling Black’s poorly situated knight, more active king, better pawn structure and the bishop’s ability to control both flanks, bestow upon White at least practical chances, for the pawn invested.
25. Ra8 a6 26. Rb8 f5 27. Re8 e4
It is difficult to know whether by this stage, Carlsen was either complacent about his objective position or under pressure through his loss of control; but either way, this move is far too optimistic. 28. Rd8 is more measured.
28… Rc5 29. Ba2 Nc4?
Many commentators have claimed that Niemann played a flawless game, and it is good; but not flawless, as this move demonstrates. Better was: 29… fxg4 30. Rxe4 f5 31. Re7+ Kf6 when Black retains a tangible advantage. However, one can certainly appreciate why Niemann wished to take the opportunity with the text move to release his wretched knight from flank captivity.
An inaccuracy and perhaps White’s last chance to be master of his own destiny. After 30. Bxc4! Rxc4 31. gxf5 Ra4 32. Rb8 b5 33. Rb6 Rxa3 34. h4!! it is a difficult technical challenge for Black to realise his advantage despite the connected passed pawns.
30… Nd6 31. Re7
White may already be losing after this move; the inaccuracies having accumulated to something substantial. Slightly better was 31. Rd8
A mistake and a strange move for someone allegedly being assisted by computers or space-age nanotechnology. Black could maintain his substantive advantage with 31… Rc2
- Rd7 e3 33. fxe3
But not 33. Rxd6? Rc1+ 34. Rd1 Rxd1+ 35. Kxd1 exf2!!
33… Ne4 34. Kf1 Rc1+
Another mistaken path from the allegedly bionic player of the black pieces. Better would have been 34… Rf5+!
35.Kg2 Rc2 36. Bxf7 Rxe2+ 37. Kg1 Re1+ 38. Kg2 Re2+ 39. Kg1
Niemann declines the implicit draw by repetition.
You can tell that this is proving to be anything but a smooth outing for Carlsen. This could be why he was so provoked by Niemann’s calm and placid demeanour? Here White could again improve on the text by 40. Rxb7 Ng5 41. Bh5 Nf3+ 42. Kf1 Rc2 43. h4 Rc5 44. Rb6+ Kg7 45. Be8 Nxh4 46. Rxa6 when, perhaps temporarily, material equality is once more realised.
40…Rd2! 41. Rf7+ Kg6 42. Rd7??
A fatal blunder by Carlsen. In the two alternative improvements …
- 42. Re7+ AND B. 42. Rf4
… White is still worse but either would make Black work harder for the win.
42… Ng5 43. Bf7+
Yet another error: Niemann is having trouble converting his substantial advantage. Perhaps he is playing poor moves to subsequently establish plausible deniability? But then again, probably not! Clearly better was 43… Kf6 44. Rxd2 Nf3+ when White is doomed.
- Rxd2 Nf3+ 45. Kg2 Nxd2 46. a5 Ke5 47. Kg3 Nf1+ 48. Kf2
A final error. Better was 48. Kxg4
48… Nxh2 49. e4 Kxe4 50. Be6 Kf4 51. Bc8 Nf3 52.Bxb7 Ne5 53. Bxa6 Nc6 54. Bb7 Nxa5 55. Bd5 h5 56.Bf7 h4 57. Bd5 Ke5 White resigns 0-1
A flawed performance from both contestants, but without doubt, a human — not a silicon — encounter.
Raymond Keene’s book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from Blackwell’s. Meanwhile, Ray’s 206th book, “Chess in the Year of the King”, with a foreword by TheArticle contributor Patrick Heren, and written in collaboration with former Reuters chess correspondent, Adam Black, has just appeared and is also available from the same source or from Amazon
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