It's not often that the mainstream world of sports shines the spotlight on chess, but allegations of a cheating scandal captivated the attention of many. There is currently a $100,000,000 lawsuit in play, two amended complaints and no end in sight yet.
The world took notice on Sept. 19, when Magnus Carlsen -- world No. 1 and the World Chess Champion since 2013 -- resigned unexpectedly while playing against Hans Niemann in the sixth round of the Julius Baer Generation Cup. After a week of silence, he finally explained his reason.
"I believe that Niemann has cheated more -- and more recently -- than he has publicly admitted," Carlsen said in a statement on Sept. 26.
That was in reference to Niemann admitting publicly to having cheated twice earlier in his career. However, Chess.com -- the largest online chess platform in the world -- has been investigating Niemann, and it came up with a 72-page report claiming he likely received illegal assistance in more than 100 online games.
Niemann fired back and initiated a lawsuit against Carlsen, Chess.com and other defendants for "egregiously defaming him and unlawfully colluding to blacklist him" on Oct. 20.
Defamation lawsuits are difficult to win, but Niemann is not giving up. There have been two amended complaints since the original one.
In the latest update of this saga, Carlsen's legal team filed a motion to dismiss on Jan 24.
"Niemann has now amended his complaint multiple times. The most Niemann has been able to do . . . is double down on his tale of persecution by engaging in gamesmanship and asserting new—but equally specious—claims," reads the document.
Here's the story behind it all.
How it started
Norwegian grandmaster Carlsen left the highly-anticipated match at the Julius Baer Generation Cup without explanation during Move 2, surprising everyone when he simply turned off his camera and disappeared. It was a dramatic moment, but one that was likely intended by Carlsen to get his point across regarding how he feels about the Niemann, a 19-year-old American player.
Here's the moment he left the match:
Another shocker as @MagnusCarlsen simply resigns on move 2 vs. @HansMokeNiemann! https://t.co/2fpx8lplTI#ChessChamps #JuliusBaerGenerationCup pic.twitter.com/5PO7kdZFOZ— chess24.com (@chess24com) September 19, 2022
It wasn't until Sept. 21 when Carlsen finally said something about the situation, although it wasn't much because he was still competing in the event.
"Unfortunately, I cannot particularly speak on that. People come to their own conclusions," he told Kaja Snare during a live interview. "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."
Name-dropping Dlugy was an interesting decision, as Dugly was suspended from Chess.com in 2017 and 2020 after being suspected of cheating. On Sept. 28, Vice published an article regarding emails in which Dlugy admits to cheating and explains that one of his students used a chess AI to feed him moves.
The ongoing saga began weeks before the Julius Baer Generation Cup. On Sept. 4, Niemann and Carlsen faced each other in Round 3 of the 2022 Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis. Niemann entered as the lowest-rated player in the field, but was able to pull off an upset against Carlsen, who was on a 53-match winning streak and had the advantage of the white pieces.
"I think he was just so demoralized because he's losing to an idiot like me. It must be embarrassing for the world champion to lose to me. I feel bad for him." Niemann said in his post-match interview.
He said that a "ridiculous miracle" helped him with his preparation for their match and also to guess how Carlsen would start the game. It was an interesting guess because, as interviewer Alejandro Ramirez pointed out, Carlsen was doing an unusual variation of his typical game.
Niemann said that his 31-year-old opponent played a similar variation against Wesley So at the 2018 London Chess classic, although Niemann might have accidentally referred to the wrong match because neither Carlsen nor Wesley played in that tournament. He also explained that the veteran has a tendency for "these kinds of weird things" and that Carlsen has "mannerisms" that he has been able to learn because he grew up watching his games and interviews.
Carlsen's move the following day was even more unexpected -- he withdrew from the tournament for the first time in his career. He did not say much as to why, except for a cryptic tweet that referenced a quote by Roma head coach Jose Mourinho.
"I prefer really not to speak. If I speak, I am in big trouble, in big trouble. And I don't want to be in big trouble." Mourinho says in the video linked by the grandmaster.
I've withdrawn from the tournament. I've always enjoyed playing in the @STLChessClub, and hope to be back in the future https://t.co/YFSpl8er3u— Magnus Carlsen (@MagnusCarlsen) September 5, 2022
Emil Sutovsky, Director general of the International Chess Federation (FIDE), said on Sept. 5 that he was not going to speculate on the reason for Carlsen's withdrawal, but emphasized that it seemed out of character.
"He must have had a compelling reason, or at least he believes he has it. Don't call him a sore loser or disrespectful," Sutovsky tweeted.
The cheating allegations
Grandmaster and online streamer Hikaru Nakamura theorized that the reason Carlsen withdrew was because he suspected Niemann of cheating. Nakamura even shared a clip of Canadian grandmaster Eric Hansen saying he removed Niemann from chess events he hosted due to cheating suspicions. Meanwhile, Chess.com also believed Niemann might not be an honest player and banned him from the site.
"A lot of my heroes, who I once had respect for, who I once looked up to, a lot of my heroes have decided to hop on this bandwagon," Niemann said in an interview on Sept. 6. "There has been a lot of speculation and there have been a lot of things said. I'm the only one who knows the truth."
Niemann admitted he has cheated twice through his chess career, once when he was 12 years old and again at the age of 16. That second time, he explained, was because he was looking to enhance his ranking to play stronger opponents. Niemann said cheating was the biggest regret of his career but he learned from it and that he would never cheat in a tournament with prize money.
Niemann said Chess.com has what he described as "the best cheat detection in the world" and that he has been open with them about his past. Niemann then argued it was "ridiculous" that they banned him simply because Carlsen insinuated he did something wrong.
"I'm not going to let Chess.com, I'm not going to let Magnus Carlsen, I'm not going to let Hikaru Nakamura -- the three arguably biggest entities in chess -- simply slander my reputation," Niemann said.
Watch the entire interview, not just the clips. This is my truth. https://t.co/KhoevyBe1Z— Hans Niemann (@HansMokeNiemann) September 6, 2022
Unfortunately for Niemann, the speculation didn't die down. Rumors of cheating continued spreading, and even Tesla CEO Elon Musk got involved when a particularly strange cheating rumor began gaining more traction online. A Reddit post suggested that Niemann could have used a sex toy to cheat. There is no evidence of that happening, although technically it would be possible to use vibrations to communicate.
In July, programmer James Stanley proved he could cheat by using vibrations in his shoes.
"If they want me to strip fully naked, I will do it. I don't care because I know I am clean," Niemann said. "You want me to play in a closed box with zero electronic transmission, I don't care. I'm here to win and that is my goal regardless."
On Sept. 8, Chess.com Chief Chess Officer Danny Rensch said Niemann had been banned because they found information that contradicts his statements regarding the amount and seriousness of his cheating on the website. Rensch added that they invited Niemann to provide an explanation and response to try to find a resolution.
Two days later, the Sinquefield Cup sent an official statement saying there was no indication that any player had cheated in the tournament. However, the tournament set additional anti-cheating measures after the incident. These precautions included radio-frequency identification checks for players and a 15-minute delay in the live broadcast.
The Niemann vs. Carlsen rematch at the Julius Baer Generation Cup -- the seventh event of the Champions Chess Tour -- was highly anticipated by those who were aware of the context. Some hoped the match between them would bring a sense of normalcy, but the opposite happened when Carlsen resigned.
Even though neither the Julius Baer Generation Cup nor the Sinquefield Cup are FIDE events, the world's chess governing body released an official statement on Sept. 23 regarding Carlsen's actions.
"First of all, we strongly believe that the World Champion has a moral responsibility attached to his status, since he is viewed as a global ambassador of the game," wrote FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich. "His actions impact the reputation of his colleagues, sportive results, and eventually can be damaging to our game. We strongly believe that there were better ways to handle this situation. At the same time, we share his deep concerns about the damage that cheating brings to chess."
FIDE statement on the Carlsen - Niemann polemichttps://t.co/bttAPW3wq5 pic.twitter.com/d96naywBgj— International Chess Federation (@FIDE_chess) September 23, 2022
Carlsen speaks out
Carlsen went on to win the Julius Baer Generation Cup on Sept. 25. A day after the winning the tournament, he explained that Niemann's over the board progress was "unusual" and that he thought the way he played in the Sinquefield Cup seemed suspicious.
"We must do something about cheating, and for my part going forward, I don't want to play against people that have cheated repeatedly in the past, because I don't know what they are capable of doing in the future," Carlsen said. "There is more that I would like to say. Unfortunately, at this time I am limited in what I can say without explicit permission from Niemann to speak openly. So far I have only been able to speak with my actions, and those actions have stated clearly that I am not willing to play chess with Niemann. I hope that the truth on this matter comes out, whatever it may be."
My statement regarding the last few weeks. pic.twitter.com/KY34DbcjLo— Magnus Carlsen (@MagnusCarlsen) September 26, 2022
Chess.com shares 72-page report
The website released its extensive report on Oct. 4, listing several games played in their platform in which Niemann "likely" cheated. Chess.com shared some communication between them and the player when he admitted to cheating in 2020. They had kept that information private, but decided to go public this year to clarify the situation.
Niemann explicitly confessed to cheating in an email sent on July 7, 2020, as shown in Exhibit C. He said he did it thinking "everybody is doing it" and because he was "bored."
"I want to apologise for my behavior this will never happen again! I am sorry for what I did and feel ashamed about the fact. Thanks a lot for giving me this chance and did not made this public," Niemann wrote. "Actually I was suprised you catched me because I cheated only in 5 games in this (redacted). I cheated games (redacted). The others I didn't thats why I think you are doing fantastic job. Once again I apologise for my behavior."
Chess.com said that there is "no direct evidence" that proves Hans cheated during the Sinquefield Cup game against Carlsen, but that they believe certain aspects of the game were suspicious. Niemann's explanation of his strategy after the game also raised some questions. The website said nothing they have done has been at Carlsen's request, and that they are "open to continuing a dialogue with Hans to discuss his status on Chess.com."
Niemann files lawsuit
On. Oct. 20, Niemann played his next move in the ongoing saga: a lawsuit.
"My lawsuit speaks for itself," he tweeted.
My lawsuit speaks for itself https://t.co/rOfUxiNYCH— Hans Niemann (@HansMokeNiemann) October 20, 2022
The 44-page document listed Magnus, Nakamura, Chess.com and Rensch as defendants because they put him in "the center of what is now widely reported as the single biggest chess scandal in history." Niemann is seeking $100,000,000 in damages.
"He brings this action to recover from the devastating damages that Defendants have inflicted upon his reputation, career, and life by egregiously defaming him and unlawfully colluding to blacklist him from the profession to which he has dedicated his life," reads the document.
The lawsuit listed the five claims against defendants: (1) slander; (2) libel; (3) unlawful group boycott under the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1, et. seq.; (4) tortious interference with contract and business expectancies; and (5) civil conspiracy.
"Despite the falsity of Defendants' accusations, Defendants' malicious defamation and unlawful collusion has, by design, destroyed Niemann's remarkable career in its prime and ruined his life," reads the document.
Attorneys for Chess.com told USA Today that "there is no merit" to Niemann's claims because Chess.com had originally dealt with his prior cheating privately, but was later forced to clarify its position after he spoke out publicly.
Niemann's legal team has already submitted a second amended complaint.
The latest document had 13 more pages than the original one. It accused Carlsen of paying €300 (a little over $325) to fellow Norwegian grandmaster Aryan Tari to yell "Cheater Hans" at the closing ceremony of the European Club Cup on Oct. 9, 2022. It also claimed that "the entire Norwegian chess team, including Carlsen, were observed publicly chanting "Ukse Hans" in bars and the streets of the Austrian town where the European Club Cup was held."
Axinn, Veltrop & Harkrider LLP -- representing Carlsen -- addressed the allegations by saying Niemann is claiming the incident happened "without identifying who heard this purportedly defamatory statement."
Proving that a defendant made a statement with actual malice is one of the biggest difficulties in a defamation lawsuit. Furthermore, different states have different laws.
Niemann filed the original lawsuit in Missouri -- where the Sinquefield Cup took place. However, in his original complaint and first amended complaint, Niemman acknowledged he is "a natural person and a Connecticut resident." Carlsen's legal team pointed out that Missouri federal courts apply the law of the jurisdiction where a plaintiff resides when evaluating state-law defamation claims, implying that Niemann has tried to get around that.
"Niemann responded to defendants' motions to dismiss by claiming that his citizenship in Connecticut is a technicality and that he does not 'keep a residence in Connecticut' after all," reads the motion to dismiss.