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Thank god Bobby Fischer isn't alive to see this. And I don't waste time playing chess.

The Scandal Rocking the Chess World

Did Hans Niemann cheat to defeat Magnus Carlsen? And does anyone know how to lose with grace?

By Elliot Kaufman, WSJ

Sept. 9, 2022 5:45 pm ET

My chess career peaked when I was 6. One game away from victory in the Ontario Chess Championships for the first grade, I blundered and lost.

Since then, I’ve traded on chess trivia. My father spiked a tennis ball into the face of Aman Hambleton, now a grandmaster and popular online chess streamer, when Mr. Hambleton was 12. I tried, without success, to recruit grandmaster Daniel Naroditsky to my college fraternity. In hindsight, his wonderful attacking style might not have translated to the beer-pong table. After my brother accepted a draw in a game at the 2004 World Youth Chess Championships, a 12-year-old Fabiano Caruana, now one of the world’s top players, leaned over from a neighboring board and told him that there had been a way to win. After a decade of second-guessing, my brother entered the game into a computer engine and found out it was a dead draw. Mr. Caruana had been wrong.

Computer engines have another use in chess: cheating. Magnus Carlsen, the best in the world, wouldn’t stand a chance against Stockfish, a top engine. That’s the issue today in a scandal that has the chess world as agitated as a Russian chain smoker with his chess clock winding down.

Outplayed from start to finish, the 31-year old Mr. Carlsen was defeated on Sept. 4 by Hans Niemann, a much weaker, 19-year-old American upstart, at the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis. Mr. Carlsen responded by withdrawing from the tournament and posting on Twitter a video of Portuguese soccer manager Jose Mourinho saying, “If I speak, I am in big trouble.” This was widely taken as an allegation that Mr. Niemann cheated. The American has been dogged by rumors in the past.

The small, elite tournament (prize fund: $350,000) was thrown into disarray. Prior games against Mr. Carlsen won’t count and future ones won’t occur, rendering the remaining pairings unfair and illogical. Mr. Caruana, for example, will play two more matches with the black pieces, a disadvantage, than with the white. By chess etiquette, leaving midtournament is inexcusable except in instances of illness, death in the family or the like. So, the thinking has gone, Mr. Carlsen must have had a very good reason.

Many of the game’s biggest personalities piled on Mr. Niemann. Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura lambasted Mr. Niemann’s poor postgame chess analysis, casting doubt on his recent rise in rating, which Mr. Nakamura claimed was “unprecedented in the entire history of chess.” Mr. Nakamura declared himself “sus,” or suspicious, that Mr. Niemann had prepared the morning of, as he claimed, for the unlikely opening moves that Mr. Carlsen ultimately played. Grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi called Mr. Niemann’s play “more than impressive.” No one, not even Mr. Carlsen, would come out and say Mr. Niemann cheated. But they all implied it.

Their reluctance, or cowardice, is a consequence of the complete lack of proof. But that didn’t stop the Sinquefield Cup from implementing an elaborate, televised wanding of Mr. Niemann and a 15-minute delay on its next broadcasts. No hidden earpieces or receivers were found.

Mr. Niemann then spoke up. He admitted to having cheated before with computer engines, but only in online matches, and only twice, when he was 12 and 16. With nervous energy and surprising eloquence, he denied ever cheating against Mr. Carlsen or in an in-person game, and swore that he has dedicated himself entirely to chess to redeem himself ever since his mistake three years ago. “I don’t go outside, other than when I pick up my food,” he said. Furious that his childhood heroes have doubted his greatest accomplishment and turned it into his greatest nightmare, he laid it all on the line.

Is he telling the truth? As grandmaster Levon Aronian commented, “All of my colleagues are pretty much paranoid.” Mr. Carlsen is no Bobby Fischer, but elite chess trainer Jacob Aasgard noted that “ ‘Magnus behaved like an entitled brat’ is at least an equally reasonable theory” as Mr. Niemann’s cheating. If Mr. Carlsen won’t make a formal accusation, he should apologize.

I sympathize with the young Mr. Niemann, but only to a point. Anyone who would cheat at chess once or twice, because it was only an online tournament, is capable of doing it a third time, or of producing a new excuse to take it further. It is unlikely that he cheated this time, given the logistical difficulties involved. Yet soon after Mr. Niemann “came clean” for his past misdeeds,, the online-chess behemoth, said it has “information that contradicts his statements regarding the amount and seriousness of his cheating on”

Every chess game, whether between young children or old men, begins and ends with a handshake. If Bob Dylan is still searching for dignity, I know where he can find it: Even during the worst of the pandemic, the ragged chess hustlers of New York’s Washington Square Park extended their hands to me, no matter the result. How to lose was one of the most important lessons I learned, slowly and imperfectly, from youth chess. But I suppose the greatest players never learn even that. If they did, they might not be the greatest.

Mr. Kaufman is the Journal’s letters editor.

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