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The biggest upset so far in this year’s chess calendar has clearly been the scintillating victory of Hans Niemann over the reigning world chess champion Magnus Carlsen. What transpired at the beginning of September during the proceedings of the Sinquefield Cup has got the entire chess hierarchy up on their heels.

Who is Hans Niemann?

The central figure behind the whole controversy happens to be the American teenager Hans Moke Niemann. He is a nineteen-year-old chess prodigy from San Francisco, California. Neimann captured the ‘Grandmaster’ title in January 2021 and quickly rose up the ranks.

Image: Lennart Ootes

Hans Niemann’s FIDE Rating

GM Hans Niemann currently has a FIDE rating of 2698. But this is supposed to be over the 2700 threshold when the new ratings are compiled next month.

Hans Niemann’s Harvard Story

In a YouTube video released earlier this year, Mr. Hans Niemann recounted how he was rejected by Harvard University a year back and how that affected his overall confidence. He added that he gathered the mental strength to bounce back from that disappointment and build his career in chess

What was the Hans Niemann Controversy?

The reigning undisputed world chess champion Magnus Carlsen went into the annual Sinquefield Cup, held in honour of the founders of the Saint Louis Chess Club – Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield, with the usual confidence.

However, to the shock of everyone at the tournament that has been declared as part of the Grand Chess Tour, American GM Hans Niemann stopped Carlsen’s 53-match unbeaten streak in the game’s classical version during their third-round match.

Till this point, the victory of Hans Niemann over Magnus Carlsen was seen as one of those shock upsets that happen once in a while in the chess arena. But to the dismay of many, Carlsen took the call of quitting the event the next day.

Moreover, he posted a message on his Twitter account without clearly addressing the reason for his withdrawal from the competition. It simply read, “I’ve withdrawn from the tournament. I’ve always enjoyed playing in the @STLChessClub, and hope to be back in the future.”

To begin with, the instance of an elite-level GM leaving a top-level chess competition midway is a scarce occasion. The circumstances under which Carlsen withdrew himself from the scene left several chess observers with the idea that something must have been amiss during his one-on-one match against Niemann.

The primary reason why Carlsen’s tweet the day after he quit Sinquefield Cup 2022 has caused such a big stir in the chess world is because of the presence of a so-called ‘cryptic’ video starring Portuguese football manager Jose Mourinho attached to it.

If you play the video of Mourinho, you will hear him say – “If I speak I am in big trouble….” To clear the doubts of all those readers unfamiliar with this famous Mourinho interview, he said these words after his team lost bizarrely. Mourinho believed that his side had lost the game because of poor officiating.

Unsurprisingly, netizens have picked on this and read the situation surrounding Carlsen’s defeat and subsequent departure with a suspicious stance. As was expected, the initial spark soon became a fire and spread throughout the chess sphere like wildfire.

Ethical Standards Under Scrutiny

The whole Carlsen-Niemann affair soon metamorphosed into the question of cheating and unfair practices in the game today. This happened at the forefront of the accusation brought forward by several individuals that Niemann could not have beaten Carlsen without using illegal methods.

The silence of the Carlsen camp after journalists tried very hard to get a response out of them fuelled what was already spiralling out of control. The spokesperson of the Saint Louis Chess Club, where the Sinquefield Cup is held, stated that the tournament respected a contestant’s decision to withdraw and shied away from talking about the controversy concerning the Carlsen-Niemann match.

GM Hikaru Nakamura, a fellow countryman of Hans Niemann, went a notch ahead and dug up evidence from Mr. Niemann’s past about the latter’s credentials. GM Nakamura commented on Twitch’s social media platform that Mr. Niemann was barred from competing on for six months due to evidence of cheating during games.

Upon further investigation, it was found that Mr. Niemann’s account had been terminated by sometime back. All these have brought Mr. Hans Niemann’s integrity under the spotlight.

Right after GM Nakamura made his thoughts clear on the Carlsen-Niemann saga, it was reported that Mr. Niemann had admitted to having cheated in the past on at least two occasions. But he denied taking any illegal steps while facing Carlsen during their face-off.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Saint Louis Chess Club has, till now, not charged Mr. Niemann with any misconduct. The executive director of the Sinquefield Cup tournament, Mr. Tony Rich, has time and again reiterated that they have not received any complaint from Mr. Carlsen’s camp on the issue of the usage of unfair practices concerning Mr. Niemann.

Mr. Rich stressed that being a competition of the highest level, the authorities at Saint Louis Chess Club have always placed significant weightage on the participant’s adherence to the game’s integrity and rules.

There are several ways by which the management makes sure that there is no dearth of security measures in place during the proceedings of the entire tournament. And anyone suspected of bringing disrepute to the game would always be put under the strictest scrutiny.

Mr. Niemann’s Reputation put Under the Lens

What has certainly not worked in favour of Mr. Niemann is the statistics of the participating players in the Sinquefield Cup 2022. Out of the chess professionals invited to play in the event, Mr. Niemann incidentally had the lowest rating.

Naturally, no one in their wildest dreams would have imagined that he would go on to produce one of the all-time chess upsets of the modern era by getting the better of world number one Magnus Carlsen, and that too in the latter’s favourite chess format, the classical variant.

To see Mr. Niemann’s achievement in perspective, Carlsen had not been beaten with black pieces over the board in more than two years until September 4, when the unthinkable occurred in round three of the Sinquefield Cup.

Carlsen is famous for being an absolute beast while playing with white pieces. With white pieces, he is almost unbeatable in the classical version of the game. So, for someone of that stature to get beaten by a complete outsider has come to be associated with the game’s moral downfall in recent times.

Mr. Hans Niemann’s record over the last twelve months has been nearly unbelievable, as described by the chess analysis blog ‘Pawnalyze’. Having a chess rating of close to 2500 in January 2021, Mr. Niemann has repeatedly outplayed opponents with much higher ratings.

The rate at which Mr. Niemann’s chess rating has risen over the last few months has left a big chunk of chess observers speechless. Post his victory over Magnus Carlsen, Mr. Niemann’s rating will now cross the 2700 mark for the first time in his career. There has not been anyone in chess history whose rating has increased sp steeply in a single year as that of Mr. Niemann in 2021-22.

Within a week after the chess world created such a huge furore over the defeat of Magnus Carlsen, the officials at the Sinquefield Cup gave an official briefing about the whole incident. Mr. Chris Bird, chief arbiter of the tournament, said that an internal investigation has not found any sign of illegality from any of the competitors at the recently-concluded chess meet, including Mr. Hans Niemann.

Security Review On the Cards

It is very likely that the chess’s governing body on the global scale – the Federation Internationale des Echecs (FIDE), will have a closer look at the whole situation and consider taking broad measures to tackle any suspicion of chess players committing forgery at important chess tournaments.

It will be interesting to see the way forward for chess tournaments post the infamous Carlsen-Niemann incident. It has become common knowledge that computer chess engines heavily influence modern games. So much so that notable grandmasters repeatedly take the help of the top chess engines to prepare for mega-events.

On the other side of the spectrum, a handful of top-rated chess players, such as Levon Aronian, have come in defense of Mr. Hans Niemann. Mr. Levonian has recorded that young players like Mr. Niemann can stage upsets at any given time and place.

Although a victory over Magnus Carlsen may sound almost impossible, it cannot be completely ruled out. With the aid of new chess moves and openings, the odds of beating Carlsen are only decreasing day by day.

If you want more information about chess engines and how they affect a game, check out our blog titled ‘What Makes Stockfish Chess the Best AI Engine?