Ian Nepomniachtchi expressed concern about Hans Niemann to the St Louis organisers, asking for additional anti-cheating measures once he heard the American 19-year-old would be playing in the event. Fabiano Caruana also weighs in on the scandal, revealing new behind-the-scenes information.
The World Championship challenger says he was very nervous when he learned that Hans Niemann would be playing in the Sinquefield Cup as a replacement for Richard Rapport. He says he tried to get the organisers to increase the anti-cheating measures.
I was quite unhappy about this particular replacement, because somehow I felt things could go a little bit wrong. The moment I received the letter with the news, Jeffery as the replacement in rapid & blitz and Hans as replacement in the classical part, I asked the organisers for some extra measures to be taken and extra things to be done to make the tournament more safe and clean in advance.
Carlsen shocked the chess world three weeks ago after losing to the up and coming 19-year-old in the third round of the Sinquefield Cup in St Louis. Before the next round, Carlsen sensationally withdrew from the event.
Hans Niemann beat Magnus Carlsen in Sinquefield Cup, causing the World Champion to withdraw. | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour
His withdrawal, the first one in his career, coupled with a cryptic post on Twitter, sent speculation into overdrive about whether it was because he thought Niemann had cheated. Several top grandmasters discussed the issue, including fellow American Hikaru Nakamura.
The organisers in St. Louis did not take any extra measures until after Carlsen withdrew before Round 4, Nepomniachtchi says. The organisers then announced that a 15-minute delay on the broadcast would be implemented.
I am not sure what is the correct amount of delay, but if you want to be 100% sure, it should be 30 minutes or more. I think 15 minutes leaves you an opportunity to think for quite some time, like 2-3 times per game.
Several leading grandmasters have come out in support of Niemann, saying they see no signs of cheating in St. Louis.
Kenneth Regan, an international master, professor and FIDE's leading authority on anti-cheating, told Norwegian media that he found no foul play after an analysis of Niemann's classical games since 2020.
Nepo, however, has previously been suspicious of Niemann after having played him online during the pandemic, but notes that it's just his own intuition. The 19-year-old admitted to cheating twice as a 12 and 16-year-old, but chess.com published a statement saying that he wasn't telling the entire truth about the extent of cheating on their site.
Until the pandemic, I had no idea who this guy is. I played quite a lot of games against him on chess.com. Some of the games were more weird than others. He had like 2800-2900. He was streaming all the time, so it was not too suspicious. Whenever you play online, you should not be surprised when someone crushes you in a brilliant manner, out of the blue.
He points out Niemann then started to make small and steady gains over a long period of time once over-the-board tournaments became the norm again. He found some things "weird and quite uncommon".
His rise was very consistent. Maybe it's me having trust issues after playing someone banned from chess.com, and someone you would strongly suspect when playing online, but I think it's the only young player I was slightly unsure about his recent progress. (...) It seemed weird to me.
Nepomniachtchi talks about how difficult it is to detect someone cheating if they are smart about it, especially fast-rising young players.
That's a big problem, because it's a very easy alibi. If you are going to catch someone in action, then this person can just state that he's such a hard worker, he's lucky, having a good day or his best experience in his life, and that's why he's playing well.
Nepomniachtchi notes that "confirmation bias" might be a factor, as "if you want to see something weird, you will see it, and if you don’t want to, you won’t."
The Russian isn't the only player who has spoken openly about the cheating drama.
This week Fabiano Caruana also gave some new information about what went on behind the scenes in St Louis. His comments came on the C-Squared podcast with his own second and St Louis commentator, grandmaster Christian Chirila.
People think that this happened because he lost a game to Hans. It predates this, by a few days. He was already upset about Hans' inclusion in the Sinquefield Cup and he was already considering leaving. We know this. That's interesting, because there was only a short window of three days between the tournaments. So what happened in those few days? This we don't know.
Carlsen had been in Miami for the FTX Crypto Cup final, along with Niemann. The two were filming scenes for the organisers while playing chess on the beach, with Anish Giri as a spectator.
Magnus Carlsen and Hans Niemann in a friendly game on the beach, while being filmed by the organisers. Photo: Champions Chess Tour
Carlsen returned to Norway for a few days before St. Louis. Caruana has his own theory about what happened.
He suspects the guy. My feeling is that he has had the suspicion about Hans for a long time, then something about the first three days of the Sinquefield Cup made him either extra suspicious or extra emotional about it.
The US star says he doesn't see Niemann's games in the Sinquefield Cup as "very suspicious".
He played very well the first three games. The game against Magnus was impressive. The game against Shakhriyar was impressive. But nothing out of the ordinary, right? Nothing that you wouldn't consider a player of Hans' level, between the level of 2650 to 2700, something a player of that level is capable of doing.
Magnus Carlsen during the end of his game against Hans Niemann. | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour
Caruana doesn't think Carlsen's decision to leave the tournament was the right one, but notes:
He felt uncomfortable. That's very clear. He felt uncomfortable before the tournament, and maybe the first three games exacerbated that. That just gave him the impulse to leave the tournament.
Carlsen's challenger in the 2018 World Championship match says the Norwegian has suspected Niemann of cheating for a while.
I didn't think about this at all. I didn't really know Hans as a player. I only met him last year. I didn't think much of it. He's a talented player. I've played blitz with him last year in Riga. We've played bughouse, and he's obviously a talented blitz and classical player.
He goes on to say that rumours about Niemann has been circulating in the chess world for some time already.
On half a dozen occassions over the past year people ask me "What do you think about him?" "Do you think he is cheating?" There is a lot of speculation going on. And of course this reaches Magnus, this reaches everyone. The chess world is a small world, and if some people start talking about how someone maybe is cheating, then all people start to hear about it more and more. So this is not something recent.
Caruana couldn't take "stupid rumours" about Niemann cheating seriously.
It was based on either very circumstantial anectodal data, or nothing at all, just based on pure emotion and bias. And I wrote it off. Also I understand how these things go. I have also been suspicious of people on more than one occasion. You get suspicion, we're in the computer age. That always penetrates your thoughts, that maybe someone is cheating. I know that I've had these suspicions, they haven't always been logical. Maybe they've been accurate, sometimes maybe more often than not they've been misguided. I know how that can influence people. You think someone is cheating then you grab on to this little piece of data that confirms your bias and so on.
He goes on to talk about Niemann's history of cheating online.
What is relevant is that Hans has showed a willingness to cheat. If he's willing to do it once, you can speculate that maybe he is willing to do it again. That shows a facet of personality. That he is not entirely opposed to do it. Some people out of principle will never cheat. Some people might. That does give some cause for suspicion.
Chirila highlights the risk of getting sued in the US if you wrongfully accuse someone of cheating.
That's why I would say chess.com is not at least directly accusing anybody, but since they are a business they can pretty much shut anybody's account based on their suspicions. But they can not accuse directly and publicly because they will get sued, unless they have 100% proof on camera, which is extremely difficult to have.
The only way to combat cheating in chess was to have somebody with some influence, somebody who will be taking some serious heat, which is right now Magnus, to come and say something, or at least to take some very strong measures to point to the fact that he believes.
Even though I don't think Magnus did the right thing, necessarily, I understand his position. It's not a selfish position. He is taking a principled stand based on what he believes in, and if he's right then he is actually doing something that potentially harms himself for the good of chess. If he's wrong, then he jumped the gun and possibly is damaging another person. We can only argue if he's a bit cavalier with his approach, but he's not doing it out of selfish reasons. He really thinks something wrong is going around. That's why I don't think he's a bad guy for this. He might be wrong about it, but I don't think he has bad intentions.
Carlsen has given limited insight on the reasons for his withdrawal and the shocking resignation against Niemann on move 2 in the Julius Baer Generation Cup , but broke the silence after Round 4 in the event.
Unfortunately I cannot particularly speak on that, but people can draw their own conclusion, and they certainly have. I have to say I’m very impressed by Niemann’s play, and I think his mentor Maxim Dlugy must be doing a great job.
Since then several top players have indicated they understand the Norwegian's decision, even if they don't necessarily agree with the method.
Carlsen told chess24's Kaja Snare:
Some people have been saying... maybe more supportive things privately than they have publicly, which I very much understand and I certainly appreciate.
On Friday FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich in a carefully-worded statement expressed mild criticism of the World Champion's actions, saying "We strongly believe that there were better ways to handle this situation."
He also added that "it is [FIDE's] duty to protect the integrity of the game and its image", and suggested referring the case to FIDE's Fair Play Commission for further investigation.
FIDE is prepared to task its Fair Play commission with a thorough investigation of the incident, when the adequate initial proof is provided, and all parties involved disclose the information at their disposal. We are fully aware that, in some cases, uncertainty can harm players' performance. It also can be damaging to a player's reputation - that's why we insist on the anti-cheating protocols to be followed.
Carlsen has said he expects to give more information "on Monday or some time early next week."
The scandal didn't seem to affect Carlsen's play negatively, as the Norwegian dominated the Julius Baer Generation Cup and beat Arjun Erigaisi in style winning the final 2-0 in matches.