The Carlsen-Niemann Affair

by Albert Silver
9/8/2022 – In the last few days the chess world has been in enormous upheaval after the World Champion Magnus Carlsen withdrew from the Sinquefield Cup in protest after three rounds, with an unspoken accusation of cheating of the player who had defeated him, US rising star Hans Niemann. Lines were drawn, accusations made and defenses stated. Here is a full overview of both sides of this explosive controversy.

ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024 ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024

It is the program of choice for anyone who loves the game and wants to know more about it. Start your personal success story with ChessBase and enjoy the game even more.


It started all quite quietly. The classical stage of the Sinquefield Cup began with a few small surprises, with notably the American junior on the rise, Hans Niemann, being granted a wild card after Richard Rapport could not make it for Covid reasons. A rare and golden opportunity to brush shoulders (or knock heads as it turned out) with the greatest players of the day, including none other than the world No. 1 Magnus Carlsen.

Who is Hans Niemann?

For many outsiders, the name did not even ring a bell before all the ruckus, and understandably so. While prodigies such as Hikaru Nakamura, Sam Sevian and others, rose the rungs over a period of many years, giving fans plenty of time to acquaint themselves with their names, 19-year-old Hans Niemann's rise was nothing short of meteoric. 

Consider his ratings according to the FIDE lists:

September 2020 - 2465 FIDE
September 2021 - 2609 FIDE
September 2022 - 2688 FIDE

Extraordinary and completely unprecedented! Almost unprecedented. Though not exactly on the same level, one current player, playing in the Sinquefield Cup no less, experienced a similar late bloom blast off in his rating: Levon Aronian. The great Armenian player, who peaked at 2835 FIDE, was actually an unimpressive 2581 FIDE just days before his 21st birthday, and not in the Top 100 players at all, yet would be world No. 3 at 2756 FIDE just three and a half years later.

With an elevated rating to start with, for ratings purposes, a lot of games would need to be played to raise it so much, and needless to say Hans Niemann was not idle. In those two years, he played roughly 360 rated classical games, or a game every other day on average, and this does not include rapid events or other! It is no exaggeration to say he was eating and breathing chess.

The Stage is set

"A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!"

- William Shakespeare (Henry V, Prologue)

The tournament started very much as one would have expected. In round one, Magnus Carlsen faced his would-be World Championship rival Ian Nepomniachtchi (would-be because Carlsen has declined to defend his title, as we know) in a fascinating struggle in which the Norwegian player showed enormous will and eventually broke his opponent down in a masterful display. Without even looking at any of the other games or boards, for the pundits it seemed to herald yet another title for his ever-growing collection.

Newcomer Hans Niemann faced Levon Aronian, and though he achieved a significant edge, in which conversion was not obvious, he failed to reel in the full point. A promising start and a sign he might not be the pushover one might fear in his first introduction to the elite. 

In round two, Carlsen drew against Aronian, while 'Nepo' bounced back with an impressive win over Firouzja. Hans Niemann also surprised with a win over Mamedyarov, though much of it was self-inflicted as the hyper-aggressive Azeri forced a line of attack and defense from which he emerged lost.

Round three was to see Magnus Carlsen and Hans Niemann finally meet, and by now it was anticipated with rubbing hands of glee by the spectators. Niemann was obviously excited to face his hero but Carlsen was also looking forward to it, having recently stated in an interview that he was anxious to play the new generation of players and show them who was boss. 

Whatever his plans, they quickly went awry as his opening choice backfired and he emerged in a slightly worse endgame by move 17. This was obviously not the outcome he or anyone had envisioned, but it was what it was and he would now have to suffer through it and content himself with a draw. Whether rattled by his unwelcome situation, or his opponent's refusal to just timidly shake hands, the World Champion's play began to degrade until a horrific blunder 28. g4?? left him with a lost game. He tried hard to keep a dream of a draw alive, but Niemann's play was impeccable and he converted the gift into a full point.

If the chess world was stunned then, the next day reserved far bigger reasons to be so. As the live transmission started, security of the players was noticeably beefed up as they walked in, and the commentators prepared to see the next games. Magnus was late, with no news of what was going on, and then it was announced: Magnus Carlsen had withdrawn from the tournament, having informed the organizers, and had posted a provocative and cryptic tweet:

The provocativeness was not the message of the withdrawal itself, however surprising, it was the link to a quote by famed football coach Mourinho saying, "If I speak I am in big trouble, big trouble, and I don't want to be in big trouble."

The chess world and internet went crazy.

The accusations

As Carlsen had never before in his career withdrawn from a tournament, it was safe to assume that he must have had a very good reason for this drastic step. And although the world No. 1 did not state it openly, hiding behind the very words of Mourinho: he cannot say what he thinks because of the trouble it might cause him. The implications did not need Sherlock Holmes to know what he meant. It was his opinion that he had been victim of cheating, and he would not even deign to continue in the tournament in such circumstances.

For 48 hours social media and the internet at large had a field day. Players at the tournament were asked about the withdrawal by Carlsen, without explicitly citing the reason all knew to be the case (Magnus was in good health and not sick, so that was not a viable dodge). Some players visibly sided with Magnus on this, whether because they just believed him or because they shared his point-of-view, such as a smirking Ian Nepomniachtchi who declared Niemann's play had been "more than impressive".

Others after round four, such as Levon Aronian, were less quick to reach such conclusions and urged level-headedness and an open mind.

One of the earliest and most visible critics was elite player and streamer-extraordinaire Hikaru Nakamura who during his stream was unequivocal about his position on the matter. The main points were summed up in a YouTube video posted in his channel, citing the various issues he had and what he perceived and thought.

And here is a round-by-round summary of the scandal, and the opinion of top players and officials to what has transpired.

Specifically you can listen to the opinions of the people involved. Most statements were elicited by official commentator in Saint Louis, GM Alejandro Ramirez:

  • 5'30" – Tony Rich (Executive Director of the Saint Louis Chess Club)
  • 6'56" – Levon Aronian
  • 7'54" – Fabiano Caruana
  • 8'23" – Ian  Nepomniachtchi
  • 9'02" – Hikaru Nakamura
  • 10'34" – Hans Niemann's reply
  • 12'55" – Shakhriyar Mamedyarov
  • 13'54" –  Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
  • 16'29" – Fabiano Caruana
  • 17'39" – Wesley So
  • 19'30" – Hans Niemann, full statement

Banned by for cheating

Among the points Nakamura brought up were Niemann's documented cheating issues in the past. He had twice been banned by, though allowed to rejoin the site thereafter. These are public knowledge and not open to debate he pointed out, whatever one may think of the current scandal.

Doesn't analyze like a 2700

Another damning point in his opinion was the failure of Hans Niemann to properly analyze and present moves of a standard he expected of a 2700 player in a post-game interview. He explained that these moves and suggestions were not those of a player supposedly of 2700 strength, implying therefore that the rating is fraudulent and not representative of Niemann's true strength. Furthermore, the moves all seemed to be improvised and not from his over-the-board play.

Removed from Fight Chess

Nakamura's oft-rival in one-minute chess games, Canadian GM Eric Hansen, said that he had removed Niemann from his Fight Chess events due to cheating suspicions. It was not clear whether he had confronted the American player with this, or simply taken him off the roster of possible invitees.

Where is his accent?

Yes, as frivolous and strange an entry into this list as that may seem, Nakamura repeatedly wondered at the lack of a distinct American accent by Niemann in his interviews at the Sinquefield Cup. The only reason this is brought up here is because it was actually the first thing Niemann addressed later.

The Mystery of the Opening Preparation

A powerful issue that was debated heatedly online was regarding Niemann's claims of how he prepared such an obscure line against Carlsen. He had even claimed to have analyzed the key moves that very morning, hence his familiarity with it. Niemann cited a game by Magnus played in London some years before, but no one could find this mythical reference. Since a critical and difficult move had been played very quickly, it was pointed out as evidence he was lying and had outside help.

If Nakamura seems to be cited more than anyone, it is because his audience is the largest, and he was the most explicit in his comments, not contenting himself with dodgy tweets or suggestive comments. However, nor did he openly accuse Hans, however transparent his feelings on the topic may seem, and he cited the various issues that bothered him in the entire debacle, which are no doubt echoed by many others.

As such, the Internet and Social Media rest their case, your honor.

The Defense

In Internet terms, it was an eternity in coming, and anyone hoping to see Hans Niemann address this the next day was in for a disappointment. He analyzed his game against Firouzja in his usual way, and seemed quite oblivious to what was actually being said about him or the reasons for Carlsen's withdrawal. He joked, "I am glad I beat him before he left".

It would be a day more in the coming, and while Niemann had his fair share of online defenders such as former Challenger Nigel Short, to name but a few, there is no question that the two largest contributors to his case were GM Jacob Aagaard and Hans Niemann himself.

By now the level of mudslinging and the smear campaign at large had reached a point in which Hans Niemann's very ability to play at a high level was seriously cast in doubt. Enter GM Jacob Aagaard.

Jacob Aaagard's account

GM Aagaard is well-respected as one of the top chess coaches today, having worked with promising juniors to players already past 2700. He is also a profuse author with many fantastic chess training books (this is the author's personal opinion). On September 6th he posted a long and detailed defense of Hans Niemann based on his personal interactions with the young player from precisely the moment he began his astonishing rise. It was titled 'Paranoia and insanity' and presented impressions of Hans Niemann as a person, as a player, and as a talent.

While you are encouraged to read his entire post, here are two excerpts that highlight his character and his ability according to Aagaard.

His personal impressions

"First of all, my personal relationship with Hans Niemann: I met him at a camp in St Louis in 2019. He was about 2450 and clearly a socially awkward character that had a feeling that all eyes were on him all the time. But he was smart, funny, and likeable. It was a good camp and we had some laughs. At the time he was talking about quitting chess a lot, but it was clear that the issue was he cared so much and had not found a mental position that worked for him.

We were sort of in contact on and off over the next two years. He was 2500 18 months ago and playing all the time. His attitude had changed. Instead of being scared of admitting that he wanted to be great, he now gave it his all."

Is he really talented?

While the above certainly helps put into perspective some of his over-the-top self-belief comments, denial or lack of objectivity could lead to similar statements by a player. So what does this veteran coach actually think?

"Hans was difficult to train. I tried to do calculation and endgame training with him (he had requested endgame training). At first, I showed exercises from recent games (last 18 months) that I really liked. He knew them ALL. I was astonished by his memory. I was astonished by his intuition. Both were off the charts for what I have seen training Shankland, Gelfand, and other 2600+ and a few 2700s."

This served as a powerful testimony by a professional coach whose experience with players of all strengths and integrity are unquestioned. However, after the fifth round, the commentator GM Alejandro Ramirez, who had led the player interviews throughout, sprung the question that needed to be asked, "We've got to speak about the elephant in the room."

Hans Niemann speaks out

Whatever one's stance on all this, one cannot but take one's hat off to the impressive defense presented by Hans regarding the many issues. Hans addressed Hikaru Nakamura's video and commented quite directly and obviously, having seen it and been equally bothered by it.

Hans Niemann's impassioned defense and love of chess left no one indifferent or unaffected, and GM Peter Svidler was so moved he declined to add words. 

His accent

Hans opened his comments with what was said about his accent. He noted that having spent years living in Europe, surrounded by people who spoke poor English, the change was a consequence of his environment, and might easily change again if he stayed in the US now. This explanation is actually valid and not even terribly unusual, though some people are less prone to it than others.

The ban for cheating

This was a very important issue and one that Niemann faced head on. He admitted that he had indeed twice been banned and had come clean on them with The first time had been when he was a 12-year-old boy, and one he was embarrassed to this day about, but he had learned from. The second time was at age 16 playing some random games, unaffiliated with any tournament to jack up his rating to play stronger players. He confessed it to IM Danny Rensch who issued him a clean slate, but decided that he needed to redeem himself not just to others but to himself. After this Hans began to dedicate himself entirely to chess and over-the-board play.

"I have never ever in my life cheated in an over-the-board game. I do not want any misrepresentation. I am proud of myself that I learned from that mistake and now have
given everything to chess. I have sacrificed everything for chess and I do everything I can to improve.

I know that my actions have consequences and I suffered those consequences during that time. I completely stepped away from a very lucrative streaming career, I stopped playing at all events and I lost a lot of close friendships and relationships that meant a lot to me.

I decided to myself that the only way to make up for my mistake was to prove to myself and to prove to others that I could win myself. That has been my mission and that is why I've lived in a suitcase for two years, that is why I have played 260 games in one year, that is why I have been training 12 hours a day: because I have something to prove."

Opening preparation

He explained that he works with patterns more than precise moves and the general ideas of g3 and the Catalan were seen in games he viewed as he prepared, one leading to another.

"At this point since it's not a direct transposition I should obviously take some time to make sure that the position is going to be transposed properly here."

His extended thinking during his game against the World Champion was both due to who his opponent was, and his desire for extra verification that the transpositions were not going to lead him to a disaster.

"I'm spending extra time to make sure that the transposition is correct because it's the world champion."

Regarding his confusion on the actual source game and location, Nigel Short had this to say:

Analyzing like a 2700

Hikaru Nakamura was visibly bothered by what he deemed to be post-game analysis unworthy of a 2700 player, declaring in no uncertain terms that no 2700 player would analyze like this. This opinion is not universally shared and not only did GM Aagaard contradict it by writing in his post:

"When Nakamura is saying that no 2700 calculates this poorly, he is flat out wrong. I can also show positional mistakes from Nakamura that undermines the credibility of the playing strength of the former No. 2. Mistakes that Hans would simply not believe a GM had made. Because they are his strengths and Nakamura’s weaknesses."

But he is not alone, and Nigel Short points out:

"Chess is my entire life and I've sacrificed everything for this game, and I'm willing to do anything to prove myself and to improve at chess. (...) Chess is everything to me." 

- Hans Niemann (2022)

The evidence

While the debate on right or wrong, guilty or not guilty, has been raging for days now, two things remain quite missing. One is a proper declaration and position by Magnus Carlsen. He started this affair and massive storm in the chess world, not to mention the legions attacking Niemann, and as a result should own up to his words and make his position clear. It was not merely a powerful condemnation of a young player on the rise, but his withdrawal from the tournament is an unprecedented act that should be justified.

The second and most obvious missing piece here is any shred of genuine evidence to condemn Hans Niemann. The fact is that while some pointed out Hans Niemann's excellent play and win against Magnus Carlsen as a source of suspicion, more significant was the poor quality of the World Champion's play against Hans. As a colleague was quick to point out, "with those mistakes any 2700 would have beaten Carlsen." In other words, Magnus lost the game through his own doing, and not as a result of god-like moves unleashed by his opponent.

The Consequences

There are few things more brutal and unfeeling than an Internet lynch mob out for blood. It is perfectly fine to harbor doubts, and feelings, but to condemn someone without any form of proper evidence is something we would hope we were above. As an American, the concept of innocent until proven guilty is one that is taken to heart and lived by, and one cannot but wonder at how damaging this can be for the career of a young player making waves, who instead of celebrating the greatest moment of his career is forced to defend it as if it were a shameful crime that needed explaining. 

"You know you spend your entire life looking up to someone and then you meet them and then you know my dream came true. I lived my dream for a day beating Magnus and then all this happened."

According to Hans Niemann, there are already consequences as he was informed he was not only being removed from the Global Chess Championship organized by, but his account had also been summarily suspended.

Let us hope that cooler heads prevail, but one thing is also true: The controversy has single-handedly made certain the entire world knows who Hans Niemann is. Hans said that in his life he was most fueled by people telling him he was not good enough or unworthy, and the desire to prove them wrong.

"Spite has been a strong fuel for me. When I was starting to play chess in the Netherlands my school teacher told me I wasn't good enough and that certainly fueled me. I've always been one to prove people wrong and this absolutely fuels me and makes me want to win the tournament even more."

One cannot imagine a greater motivator, however dark in origin, than what he has undergone now.


Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications, and the content creator of the YouTube channel, Chess & Tech.


Rules for reader comments


Not registered yet? Register