SEPTEMBER 23 — These past three months have been tumultuous for professional chess and all the incidents involve reigning and five-times world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway.
First, in July, Carlsen declared he’ll not be defending his world title which he’s held since 2013. This was quite a shocker as Carlsen is, after all, the highest rated player of all time.
Then earlier this month, Carlsen pulled out of the prestigious Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, Missouri, after losing to American teenager Hans Niemann.
The day he withdrew from the competition, he tweeted a cryptic video of football coach José Mourinho saying that he can’t say anything lest he gets into trouble.
What followed from this were allegations of cheating committed by Niemann who, of course, denied it. While Niemann admitted to cheating seven years earlier, he insisted this time he was innocent.
Note that Carlsen is ranked almost, though not quite, 2900 whereas Niemann is barely 2700. That 200-point gulf is what some people point to, plus the fact that Carlsen was playing with the white pieces (generally acknowledged to confer a small advantage), as “evidence” something wass amiss with the outcome.
The reactions were, predictably, mixed. Fellow top grandmasters like Levon Aronian and Fabiano Caruana defended Niemann whereas others like player slash podcaster Hikaru Nakamura were less eager to believe Niemann’s innocence.
Niemann’s case wasn’t helped by some vague and sloppy comments he made during his post-game analysis (not only of the match with Carlsen but also with Alireza Firouzja) where he certainly gave the impression he wasn’t fully sure of what he was thinking (so, thus the argument goes, how can this individual defeat Carlsen who was on an amazing 53-game unbeaten streak before that loss?).
Former world champion Gary Kasparov even weighed in on the controversy, essentially demanding that Carlsen explain his withdrawal adding that “the world title comes with responsibilities.”
As if the scandal index wasn’t high enough last Monday — at the highly anticipated rematch between Carlsen and Niemann played during the Julius Baer Generation Cup, an online chess tournament — the world champion resigned after just one move.
He was playing Black and Niemann, on White, played a standard Queen’s pawn opening. Carlsen responded with a very common King’s Knight to the f3 square but after Niemann moved his Bishop pawn two squares forward, Carlsen resigned and logged off.
There is simply no question that this resignation was a protest move by the world champion, adding even more fuel to the fire of insinuations surrounding Niemann’s cheating.
It has to be said that the whole situation remains shrouded in cloak-and-dagger intrigue because, apart from that Mourinho-ish tweet, Carlsen has not commented at all on his withdrawal from the Sinquefield Cup nor last Monday’s “resignation” (he refused to speak to the press after the game).
Elite-level cheating or sore losing?
Magnus Carlsen (left), of Norway, makes a move against Sergey Karjakin, of Russia, during their opening match in the 2016 World Chess Championship in New York November 11, 2016. — Reuters pic
The bad news for Carlsen is that there is, as of today, not a shred of evidence that Hans Niemann committed foul play at the Sinquefield Cup match.
Nothing has been found on his person, no “witness” has come forward with an incriminating story, and no one has produced any idea of a credible method whereby Niemann could’ve had unfair assistance (although there was an intriguing story about the use of anal beads, a kind of sex toy, to receive messages through his, uh, behind).
Whatever arguments used against Niemann depend entirely on his admission of cheating in the past, his poor post-match analysis and discussions, and the fact that his performance in the Sinquefield Cup dropped after stricter anti-cheating procedures were introduced (right after his game with Carlsen, in fact).
That’s really it. Whatever the case, even assuming Niemann cheated against Carlsen, it would have to be cheating involving impressive high-tech devices rivalling what we see in Mission: Impossible. But as of now, we have nothing.
On the other hand, some folks are suggesting that Carlsen is simply acting like a sore loser. While I find this harsh, it’s undoubtedly difficult to dismiss this possibility as long as the world champ doesn’t say anything.
Someone suggested to me that maybe Carlsen has submitted evidence to the Sinquefield organisers and they’re looking into it. Hence, Carlsen’s silence.
This is, of course, sheer speculation. Even if true, something nobody has confirmed (least of all Carlsen himself), this would not justify Carlsen’s behaviour which more and more people are saying is unprofessional and disrespectful to other players and the chess world as a whole.
So the question everyone is asking is: How long will Carlsen continue to disrupt matches and tournaments from here on? In the absence of evidence (as opposed to sheer speculation) will presumed innocence prevail?
And, most excitingly, how much more drama are we going to get?
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.