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Cheating accusation tips chess world into turmoil

US teenager Hans Niemann’s shock victory over world chess champion Magnus Carlsen this month might have been celebrated as the big-league arrival of a new force in the ancient game of strategy.

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 accusations of cheating, protests, legal threats and wild conspiracy theories amplified by Tesla’s Elon Musk involving insertable sex toys.

The furore began when Carlsen, 31, withdrew from the tournament in St Louis after his loss and tweeted a video of football manager José Mourinho saying: “If I speak, I’m in big trouble, and I don’t want to be in big trouble.”

The chess world took the hint. On social media, livestreams and blogs, it was widely assumed that Carlsen was accusing his 19-year old opponent of cheating.

“This got spicy really fast,” said Hikaru Nakamura, a top US player, on his popular stream, adding: “Am I suggesting that something happened? I’m saying Magnus is suspicious.” Ian Nepomniachtchi, a Russian grandmaster, called Niemann’s win “more than impressive”.

In an emotional interview after his win, Niemann admitted cheating in online games when he was 12 and again a few years later in an effort, he said, to grow his livestream audience. He called it the “single biggest mistake of my life”, but denied ever cheating in an over-the-board game.

“To see my absolute hero try to ruin my reputation, ruin my chess career and to do it in such a frivolous way is really disappointing,” Niemann said of Carlsen.

As the rumour mill went into overdrive, Chess.com issued a statement saying it had evidence that “contradicts [Niemann’s] statements regarding the amount and seriousness of his cheating”. The site acquired Carlsen’s company, Play Magnus, in an $82mn deal this summer.

Hans Niemann ranks 40th in the world © Lennart Ootes/Saint Louis Chess Club

Then last week, as Carlsen and Niemann faced off in an online rematch, the Norwegian again shocked his fans by resigning after just one move in an apparent act of protest. On Tuesday, he accused the American directly: “I believe that Niemann has cheated more — and more recently — than he has publicly admitted.”

“I had the impression that he wasn’t tense or even fully concentrating” during their game in St Louis, Carlsen continued, as he called cheating an “existential threat to the game”.

It was the latest in a run of recent statements that have sown havoc just as Carlsen’s decade atop 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”.

Speaking on CNN, Susan Polgar, a former women’s world champion, said cheating had been a “serious problem in chess for many years” and discussed the various ways it could be done, such as hidden mobile phones and schemes involving signals from co-conspirators.

Niemann currently ranks 40th in the world. In late 2020, after he stopped playing online as HansCoolNiemann, he began a feverish spree of in-person play that led to his rating climbing quickly. But his rapid ascent has also raised suspicion.

There is no evidence of cheating in the St Louis match. One farcical theory, which evolved from a post of the popular Reddit online forum, was that he used artificially intelligent “anal beads” to provide illicit, vibrating assistance. Tesla founder Musk picked up on it, tweeting to his 107mn followers: “Talent hits a target no one else can hit, genius hits a target no one can see (cause it’s in ur butt)”.

The internet has fuelled chess’s popularity via the growth of online streaming, which has made it a highly watchable e-sport. But technology has also sowed the seeds of the game’s destruction. A free mobile phone app could easily beat the strongest human player of all time, and hints from a machine, at crucial moments, could turn a hobbyist into an instant grandmaster.

In the wake of the cheating row, amateur investigators have pored over Niemann’s moves in an attempt to ascertain whether his game against Carlsen was too perfect, too robotic. One statistical analysis claimed to show no signs of cheating; another said it indicated strong signs of it.

But the resultant pile-on, with a crowdsourced mob cryptically joined by the most powerful man in chess, has left many in the normally staid world of chess feeling uneasy.

“It makes me feel dirty,” said Levy Rozman, an international master and commentator on the popular GothamChess stream. “This hurts me on a human level.” Representatives for Carlsen and Niemann did not respond to the requests for comment from the Financial Times.

Fide, chess’s international governing body, has weighed in on what it called “the Carlsen-Niemann polemic” by vowing to stop cheating from becoming a “plague”. It also criticised Carlsen, an “ambassador for the game” with a “moral responsibility”: “We strongly believe that there were better ways to handle this situation.”

Niemann has not commented publicly since the flurry of defiant tweets in the wake of the St Louis showdown. Then he asked: “If there was any real evidence, why not show it? Is anyone going to take accountability for the damage they’ve done?”

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