Hans Niemann was never the stereotypical teenage chess Grandmaster. Modest, introverted – that’s not 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.
Keeping his distance from the other travelling 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 (TPCP), 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 New York Times, that had 250 employees and a market capitalisation of close to $115 million.
“Did you seek his advice?”, the TPCP 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, at least on paper, he looked out of place and depth. In the company of the world’s leading top 9 players, including Carlsen, he was an oddball.
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 who followed the game 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 demoralised 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: ‘If I speak, I’m in big trouble.’ 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.
Neimann, as expected, reacted. “I am not going to let chess.com, Carlsen … simply slander my reputation.” he said.
And then he said something that changed the hue 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 hadn’t cheated. There was no pattern in his play that day that suggested that he was aided by computers.
But that didn’t quite wipe the chess board clean. American GM, Hikaru Nakamura, said no one doubted Neimann of cheating in his defeat to Carlsen but it was the past that was bothersome.
“I don’t believe that anybody who’s had suspicions or said things, it relates to the Sinquefield Cup (where Neimann beat Carlsen). If you look at the history of Hans over the last couple of years, he’s had probably the most meteoric rise in the entire history of chess of any 17-year-old by far. … I think a lot of grandmasters are definitely suspicious,” he said.
The pandemic time boom in online chess has seen a spike in cheating rate and it has made players paranoid. Chess.com would usually ban about 5,000 players each month in 2021 but in August this year the count had gone up to 17,000. Carlsen’s snub to Niemann, many feel, was his way of amplifying the frustration of the fraternity that wanted action against those who were bending rules and now entering the top echelon of chess.
But 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 Defence was about the Corleones going to the mattresses when attacked by Sollozzos.
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.
Who is this man responsible for this dramatic chess churn?
Niemann’s backstory is very different from Carlsen’s. Unlike the Norwegian chess rockstar, Niemann didn’t enjoy early success growing up. He’s a struggler with no fixed address. There are scratchy details about his parents in the public domain, apart from the fact that Niemann has a Hawaiian-Danish ancestry.
He was born in San Francisco but the family moved to the Netherlands when Neimann was very young. He would take up chess at the age of 8. It was a taunt from a teacher, writing him off as a chess player, that saw him take to the game with vengeance.
The Neimanns moved back to the US soon after and this time settled in the suburb of Berkeley. It was a stroke of luck that they opted for the Bay Area, America’s chess bowl. The young boy would frequent a cafe that was famous for its “coffee chess games.” In a twist straight out of a movie script, this was a blessing in disguise.
In TPCP, he shares the endearing story about him meeting his surprise benefactor at the cafe. “There was this man who looked like a homeless man but was really wealthy. The guy, in a hideous way possible, tries to look the most run-down. But actually, he was a chess philanthropist. He paid for the majority of my lessons,” said Neimann.
More nuggets about Neimann’s inspiring journey shine from a Chess Life cover story, titled The Road Grandmaster, that he himself wrote.
For better chess prospects, the family moved to Connecticut. Once again, Neimann had to be the new boy in a new school. His parents insisted that he needed to have a college education.
A scholarship at a reputed New York school came through. His family of six couldn’t afford NY rents so the chess prodigy-cum- class topper had to stay on his own. Even for Neimann’s single-person accommodation, he had to work “20 to 30 hours a week teaching chess”. He also was trying to get into a reputed college and that’s when the Harvard snub happened. It’s a blow that makes him sarcastic.
“They rejected a 16-year-old who was living alone, had his own job, had a full scholarship from the best prep school in the country, and had great grades. I didn’t care about going to school. I just wanted to be accepted. I wanted to reject them. Hey, no one cares about Harvard, your school is just a Wall Street factory,” says the obsessively-driven boy known to be sensitive to snubs and rejections.
Finally, chess would get its unflinching focus. Streaming would give Neimann cash to survive on the circuit. He would become a monk in penance to experience chess’ stratospheric heights. His typical day would start at 6 am with an hour and a half of swimming. “After the swim, I would put in 10 to 12 hours of chess a day,” he says. Being hard on himself is another trait, as Niemann says, “If I don’t finish in Top 10, I will be a failure in chess and failure in life”.
This is a battle where the stakes are high. Neimann has set the bar way too high for him and he wouldn’t want to be remembered as a cheater.
In times when the credibility of the game is being questioned, Scottish GM Jacob Aagaard has written a provocative blog. It’s been extensively forwarded among players and fans. Early in the piece, titled ‘Paranoia and Insanity’, he talks about his association with Niemann. The one-time camp mates have stayed in touch. Niemann at one point had also joined Aagaard’s academy. The piece gets into the mind of chess’ sharpest brain. He puts to test Carlsen’s “good boy” image and leans towards Neimann.
He wrote: “People say that Carlsen does not behave badly when he is losing in his Meltwater Tour to Praggnanandhaa. It is partly because it is like Federer losing a set. It is partly because Praggnanandhaa is deferential to Magnus. Hans is not. Hans wants to kill the king. Wants to take the throne. He has no remorse over this at all.” He put out a reminder that Carlsen hasn’t been the most gracious loser. “’Magnus behaved like an entitled brat’ is at least an equally reasonable theory. This is not new behaviour.”
This Carl-Niem affair puts chess in a tight spot. A sport is only as good as its credibility. Online chess, where Niemann admitted to cheating, faces a serious regulation deficit.
If Carlsen harbours doubts about whether an opponent is cheating, or that his past indiscretions have gone unpunished, it is the sport’s failure. An open, transparent troubleshooting by FIDE as soon as it got the whiff of the matter, could’ve prevented this saga. Needing to riff a Mourinho quote for a cryptic tweet – open to a million interpretations – points to a shocking absence of a forum to raise his concerns. And simultaneously unfair on Niemann, who remains a sitting duck for speculation.
Matters got complicated further when Carlsen said, “I have to say I’m very impressed by Niemann’s play and I think his mentor GM Maxim Dlugy must be doing a great job.” Dlugy, by the way, was banned by Chess.com in 2017. The reason: Cheating.
Chess for now 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. 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.