Everything you need to know about the wild, sex toy rumor-filled, chess drama.
The world of competitive chess is being torn apart by some of the most unbelievable drama in the history of the game. At its center, Magnus Carlsen, the 31-year-old legend who has been the world’s No. 1 ranked player for an astonishing 11 years, a 19-year-old named Hans Niemann, a player from San Francisco, who prior to 2022 was only known by the deepest of chess fans — and the most astonishing game in recent memory.
Perhaps you’ve heard of this story in passing. Maybe you’ve caught snippets here or there. You might know by know that Niemann beat Carlsen in one of the world’s most prestigious tournaments, leading to the world No. 1 withdrawing, and suggesting his opponent cheated — but this is a winding tale so rife with lies and rumors that it’s becoming impossible to find the head of this snake. So let’s go back to where this all began and unpack the mystery of Niemann beating Carlsen. It’s at least worth trying to separate the truth from fiction.
It’s important to understand that Niemann didn’t “come from nowhere”
One of the biggest charges levied against Hans Niemann is based on the lie that as a chess player he ostensibly “showed up and beat the best player in the world.” While it’s true that traditional chess ranking and tradition tells us that nobody of Niemann’s skill level should beat someone of Carlsen’s level, it doesn’t mean he walked off the street or something.
Niemann’s chess career began in 2012 at the age of nine. He struggled early on, as one would expect, but steadily improved as he played more tournaments. In 2016 Niemann was named to the US Chess Federation’s “All-America Chess Team,” which he has been a member of since. Also that year he tied for first place at the North America Youth Championship, his first major win.
An active competitor for much of his life, in 2020 Niemann completed the requirements to receive the title of “grandmaster.” As a young player he was already establishing himself as a player to watch, and this continued in early 2022 when he achieved the rank of No. 98 in the world, his first trip into the Top 100.
It’s also important to know that there’s no such thing as a Cinderella in chess
You might look at that brief bio of Niemann and say to yourself, “why couldn’t he win?” The answer is simple: He’s not supposed to. This is not a game of wild upsets, unpredictability and shock performances, which is the heart of why Niemann beating Carlsen is such a headline on its own.
The Elo Rating System, which has been chess’ primary skill measurement since 1960, is a complicated mathematical equation that ends up giving players a numerical score that theoretically has no maximum. Elo can conceivable go forever, but as it stands Carlsen has the highest Elo in the history of chess with 2882, which he achieved in 2019.
In the world of Elo every point matters, but mathematically the difference becomes significant with each 100 point difference. For example, if one player has an Elo of 2500, and the other has 2600 — then the higher scoring player should win 64 percent of games, if that number climbs to a 200 point differential then the better player should win 76 percent of games.
This means that if you were to rock up, unranked, never playing a competitive game of chess in your life against Magnus Carlsen your odds of winning, according to Elo, are statistically zero. Yes, absolute zero. More specifically you are calculated to have a 0.000000000 percent chance of winning. You need to reach an Elo of 1150 to even gain a single fractional chance of winning at 0.000000001 percent.
In the case of Carlsen and Niemann we aren’t talking about a difference of thousands of points, but rather two hundred — roughly the gap between the players when they met for the infamous game in St. Louis. The devil is in the details though, because while that was the rank between the players, there are questions here are well.
Hans Niemann’s astonishing leaping Elo
Here’s where things get a lot more sticky. Conceptually the idea is that Elo should slowly, steadily improve over time so long as a player maintains the same level of play. Traditionally this is what we see. An expected huge jump from a player’s debut to their mid-teens, then leveling off to show their true skill.
For the most part players really top out by age 16-17, more or less locking in their general Elo range and from there it makes slow improvement over time — but no more mammoth jumps.
When it comes to Magnus Carlsen he crossed an Elo of 2700 in mid 2007, and since that time has spent 15 years improving 180 points in Elo. This is the greatest player of all time.
Niemann’s Elo chart is a lot more bizarre.
Niemann hit this same 16-17 year old plateau all players hit, but then exploded again 2021, taking his Elo from 2484 at the start of the year, to 2668 now. This means that Niemann took 15 years of slow, steady Carlsen improvement, and crammed it into 20 months. It’s true that climbing from the 2400s to the 2600s is far easier than the 2700s to the 2800s, however the timeline simply doesn’t match anything of other professional chess players.
How did Niemann stay stagnant for almost two years, before quickly becoming one of the greatest players in the world? This is more curious because it coincided with him becoming one of the most popular chess streamers on Twitch, which gained him a huge audience — and with it, pressure to keep improving.
Now, we get to the infamous Sinquefield Cup match
Niemann met Carlsen in the third round of the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, one of the largest and most prestigious tournaments in the world. It was a match that all odds and every ounce of logic said Carlsen should win easily.
Instead, the world No. 1 never looked comfortable. He played aggressive with his rook on move 10, but was counter-attacked throughout the match, forcing some awkward trades. By move 57 Carlsen was done, left wondering how he got so thoroughly beaten by a player who shouldn’t have stood a chance. After the game Niemann said that he had intently studied Carlsen specifically, preparing himself wholly to take down the world No. 1.
Carlsen quit the tournament the following morning, and seemed to indicate that he believed Niemann had cheated in their match.
The 2014 clip of then-Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho occurred following a question about referee Chris Foy, who the manager often had disdain for. It was essentially shorthand for Carlsen saying he believed there was impropriety, but didn’t want to get in trouble for speaking out against Niemann.
Now we had the seed planted. The best player in the world, beaten by a player he shouldn’t lose to, now making subtle accusations his opponent cheated. Now it was time for the internet to dive in. People began examining Niemann’s moves, and realized he opened with a variation of the “Nimzo-Indian Defense,” a known chess opener — but something Niemann has barely ever used in professional games, and never to much success.
It raised eyebrows. If you’re in the biggest game of your chess career do you really go all-in on a defense you’ve barely ever used before? Did Niemann make the move, or did the information come from somewhere else?
How does someone cheat at chess?
This is where we go from questions about skill and ranking, and take them into the world of the surreal. There’s only one conceivable way someone can cheat in a live chess game, and that’s with the aide of a Chess AI examining the board and feeding optimal moves to a player via wireless device.
Most often this is imagined as a small receiver in a shoe sending vibrations to a player’s foot or ankle, but the internet being the internet, people began speculating that Niemann was ... using vibrating anal beads to tell him what move to make. This would have ended as dumb online speculation, until this happened.
In a now-deleted tweet, Elon Musk made a quip about the anal bead theory and his army of worshippers passed this off and made it manifest. Suddenly it was accepted that the anal bead theory was the only way Niemann could ever beat Carlsen, and it spread like wildfire. No longer was this simply the story of a player winning and his opponent suggesting he was cheating, it was the sex toy wired cheater beating the best play in the world.
The suggestion got so wild that Niemann claimed he would play naked to prove he wasn’t using any kind of device.
The drama didn’t stop there ...
Up to this point you’d be forgiven for seeing Niemann as purely an innocent party in all this catching strays. There was absolutely no evidence he cheated at the Sinquefield, outside of Carlsen’s cryptic allegations and suggestions on the internet. Maybe he was just a great player who managed to have the game of his life?
Just as the discussion hung in the balance, another pro, Hikaru Nakamura, revealed that Niemann had previously been banned from Chess.com, the largest chess site in the world, for cheating in tournaments. When asked about this Niemann acknowledged that he did cheat when he was younger, but only in online games — never over the board (in person). Other than saying this happened “many years earlier,” we don’t really know when this cheating took place.
When you’re talking about a 19-year-old this is important. Was he 13 and didn’t know any better? Or was this a case of Niemann cheating after he’d already established his chess career? We simply don’t have the answer, but that’s a critical piece of information.
In any event, Chess.com decided to re-ban Niemann following his admission, despite there being no recent evidence of him cheating on their platform. The move seemingly sided the chess site with Carlsen against Niemann, serving as a third party to adjudicate on the issue. If they have evidence he’s been recently using a chessbot, we haven’t seen it — though it’s been suggested that the timing of Niemann’s meteoric rise is curious considering it coincided with worst stages of the Covid pandemic, when in-person chess was banned and all tournaments were taking place online.
The attention and drama might have been good for the world of chess in some ways, but serious players and analysts just wanted it to all go away. For a while it seemed that a rematch scheduled between Carlsen and Niemann might kill the discussion once and for all. Either the world No. 1 would mop the floor with his opponent, establishing that the Sinquefield Cup match was, at best, a fluke — or Niemann would win, proving that he’s just a brilliant player on the rise.
Instead, this happened.
Magnus RESIGNS after 1 move against Hans pic.twitter.com/uehT1Htp20— Meltwater Champions Chess Tour (@ChampChessTour) September 19, 2022
Analysts were left stunned when Carlsen cut his webcam off after one move, and resigned from the match. It was clearly a form of protest, and Carlsen deliberately opened with the identical move that Niemann used against him in St. Louis. There was no subtly or guessing this time, he was establishing very clearly that he thinks Niemann is a cheater.
So, what happens now?
Nobody knows. There isn’t really anything actionable on either side here, which is what’s keeping the drama swirling. Carlsen is known for being emotional, and a poor loser — so it’s difficult to put too much weight in his reaction alone, while on the other side there’s still not a shred of evidence that Niemann cheated in any of his recent games.
It’s messy, it’s ugly, and one of the world’s oldest games has never seen drama quite like this — at least not in the modern era. Chess fans are dividing themselves into camps, either standing with Marcus, or Niemann, and there’s no end in sight to all this.
This whole scenario might not be good for the polished, stoic image of professional chess, but more people are paying attention to the game than ever. Whether that’s good or not is up to you.