Hans Niemann was never the stereotypical teenage chess Grandmaster. Modest, introverted; use him At 19, the frighteningly-talented American was outrageously outspoken, unapologetically boastful and audaciously irreverent.
He seemed in a tearing hurry to climb the sport’s rating chart – the Elo pyramid – that had the game’s unquestionable GOAT, 31-year-old Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, at the top. Playing around Europe for most of this year, the journeyman had an unreal meteoric rise.
This is truly a humbling day for me. I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to play chess at the highest level and live out my dreams. A few years ago, my chess dreams were quickly dwindling but thankfully they rose from the dead. This is only the beginning…
— Hans Niemann (@HansMokeNiemann) September 4, 2022
Keeping his distance from the other US kids, the self-made maverick had the unsettling aura of a lone-wolf about him. His uncombed hair and dreamy eyes went well with his rebellious image. He was an outlier, the kind who makes the powerful doubt their invincibility.
In March this year, on the very popular show The Perpetual Chess Podcast, Niemann was asked about his association with Carlsen. The two had spent time together, played football and talked shop. The young challenger was also signed up and supported by Carlsen’s company PlayMagnus, a business enterprise, according to the New York Times, with 250 employees and a market capitalization of close to $115 million.
“Did you seek his advice?”, host Ben Johnson asked.
“If I ask him for advice, he would think he is better than me. I want him to feel that I will be better than him one day. I don’t want to give him that psychological edge of fear. Magnus’ edge comes from his opponents being afraid of him,” Niemann said in a cold and calculated tone.
About five months later, Niemann got his “one day”. He got invited to a tournament where he looked out of place and depth. In the company of the world’s top 9, including Carlsen, he was the odd ball. Most had far superior ratings than the one-time streamer.
Niemann, as recently as December last year, had covered Carlsen’s world championship in Dubai with a media accreditation card hanging around his neck.
In Round 3, Niemann got his moment. He sat across the board against the world’s best player. The young sniper finally had his target in sight. Pundits say that the American that day was ultra-aggressive, almost disrespectful in his play. A rattled Carlsen would lose, that too while playing with white.
Niemann’s post-match comments were hardly measured or modest. “I think he seemed so demoralized losing to an idiot like me. Must be embarrassing for the World Champion to lose to me. I feel bad for him,” he would say.
As Niemann was twisting the knife, at Camp Carlsen, weapons were being sharpened.
Carlsen struck back with his now famous cryptic Jose Mourinho meme tweet. It was an obvious insinuation that Niemann had cheated. It was a “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” allegation. Reacting to the furore, chess.com, the world’s most frequented online platform, would un-invite Neimann from a forthcoming global chess tournament and also strike him off the website.
I’ve withdrawn from the tournament. I’ve always enjoyed playing in the @STLChessCluband hope to be back in the future https://t.co/YFSpl8er3u
— Magnus Carlsen (@MagnusCarlsen) September 5, 2022
The underdog’s thunder was stolen, but Neimann was not the kind to sit and sulk. “I am not going to let chess.com, Carlsen … simply slander my reputation.” he said in his booming confident voice.
And then he said something that changed the tone of the debate. He said he had cheated in the past. “I had to get some rating to play stronger players, so I cheated in random games on chess.com. I was confronted and I confessed and that was the single biggest mistake of my life,” he said.
So used to dealing with pieces of contrasting colours, the chess world, in an instant, painted the lead actors – one in black, the other in white. The champion was white, the cheater black.
The popular narrative missed the shades of grey. Highly reliable analysis of International Master, statistical academic and world-renowned chess cheat cop, Professor Kenneth Regan showed that Neimann was clean. There was no pattern in his play that day that suggested that he was aided by computers.
The silence of my critics clearly speaks for itself. If there was any real evidence, why not show it? @GMHikaru has continued to completely ignore my interview and is trying to sweep everything under the rug. Is anyone going to take accountability for the damage they’ve done?
— Hans Niemann (@HansMokeNiemann) September 7, 2022
If history showed that Neimann had not always won fairly, Carlsen too has been known to be a bad loser. Scottish GM Jacob Aagaard has written an engrossing blog where he calls the world champion “entitled brat” who couldn’t stomach a defeat against a self-confessed “idiot”.
There was another layer of intrigue. Chess.com was in merger talks with PlayMagnus, it’s a tie-up that pushes Carlsen in a conflict-of-interest maze.
There were whispers about chess.com planning a rematch by reinviting Neimann for a mega face-off with Carlsen. For the first time in decades, chess, not the most riveting spectator sport, was getting unprecedented attention from even those who think that Sicilian Defense was about the Corleones going to the mattresses when attacked by Sollozzos.
Game’s administrators were reportedly telling the world that their inboxes were overwhelmingly flooded with inquiries and chess news from around the world. So, who benefits most from this unprecedented global interest in this boxing-like chess rivalry? Was this chess’ foray into reality TV? It’s a season of serious unverified allegations.
Chess faces the classic endgame situation. Players known to think ahead, plan several steps in advance, aren’t known to do things in the heat of the moment. Suddenly, the pieces that were once on the board seem to have come alive and stepped off the board to be in the real world. The world waits for them to choose the squares they would move to – white or black.
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National Sports Editor
The Indian Express