#019 — A Very Serious Wanding

Hi, hello, how are you? It’s me — Adam Wood — back in your inbox / junk folder with a weekly update from an Oxford increasingly, tantalisingly close to jumper weather.

It’s been a slow news week here in the UK, but fear not, I have managed to find something to write to you about. This is long, and I appreciate that perhaps only a small subset of readers will find it at all interesting, but hey… I have been gripped!

In-between the whole new Prime Minister thing, and the whole new monarch thing, the greater internet was obsessed this week, with drama surrounding Olivia Wilde’s new film Don’t Worry Darling. Though I have (twice) had my special lady friend explain the whole mess to me, I still don’t feel as though I understand what the heck is going on between Wilde, Jason Sudeikis, Florence Pugh, Shia LaBeouf, Chris Pine, & Harry Styles. (If you’re interested, and similarly clueless, Vox even put out a 2,600 word explainer — which, I must admit, I have not read.)

Fortunately for me, something every bit as ridiculous and juicy has been going on in the chess world this week. I know that one of the primary reasons you subscribe to Tendrils is for updates on chess drama, so let me break it all down for you. No, I insist — It would be my pleasure.

Currently, the Sinquefield Cup is being played in St Louis. This annual round-robin tournament is part of the Grand Chess Tour, and is often one of the most-watched chess events on the calendar. Possible best player of all time, world number one, and reigning World Champion (though soon abdicator of that title) Magnus Carlsen, has won both the Sinquefield & GCT on two prior occasions. In the third round of this year’s tournament (played last Sunday) however, he lost to a young American player named Hans Niemann.

Carlsen losing a game of classical-format chess (as opposed to rapid, blitz, bullet etc.) is rare enough. He actually holds the all-time record for the longest stretch of classical games without a loss: 125 games over a period of more than 26 months. What makes this loss even more notable, is that Carlsen had the white pieces. (In case you’re entirely unfamiliar with the game of chess, this means he plays first, which incurs a small but statistically significant advantage.) As far as I was able to discern, Magnus hasn’t lost a game of classical-format chess, with the white pieces, since 2020.

The next day, Carlsen didn’t turn up to his fourth round game against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, and announced his withdrawal from the tournament via Twitter. Several things here are notable. Firstly, it is almost unheard of for a top-level player to pull out of a tournament already in progress. Except for cases of sudden, debilitating illness, nothing comparable has happened in 55 years. Secondly, Carlsen’s aforementioned Tweet included a clip of football manager José Mourinho saying in an interview that he couldn’t answer a question: “If I speak, I am in big trouble”.

This led to a wildfire of speculation, perhaps most prominently by the chess world’s most popular Twitch streamer (and current 6th highest-rated player in the world): Hikaru Nakamura, who said on his livestream that Magnus almost certainly quit the tournament because he believed that Niemann was cheating. Without confirming as much, after his own Sinquefield game, Fabiano Caruana said in an interview that other players know why Magnus left. In yet another post-game interview, fellow competitor (and, as Tendrils-readers will know, World Championship challenger-in-waiting) Ian ‘Nepo’ Nepomniachtchi, referred to Niemann’s performance in his win over Carlsen as “more than impressive” (the best part is the grin he has when saying it).

The next day, ahead of the fourth round games, the organisers of the tournament suddenly introduced additional security measures: implementing a 15 minute delay on the broadcast of games, and beefing up the scanning of players at the start of the day. Niemann, in particular, was subjected to what the commentators referred to as “a very serious wanding”.

For his part, in the post-game interview after his victory over Carlsen, Hans Niemann had said that “by some ridiculous miracle” his preparation for the game had included studying Carlsen’s use of the g3 Nimzo-Indian against Wesley So, in London in 2018. Now, you don’t need to know many of those words! It just means that out of all the possible board states that a game could reach, Niemann says he prepared for one that arose in his game with Carlsen, based on a previous game, in which Carlsen played the same line. However, this game does not exist. In fact, neither Carlsen or Wesley So played in the London tournament in 2018. And, what’s more — as people quickly discovered, with the magic of chess databases — Carlsen has in fact never played the line in question before.

These comments stoked the rumour fires, with many commentators airing their own feelings about the unprecedented way in which Niemann has rocketed up the FIDE player rankings in the past year (FWIW he is currently ranked 49th). Then, following his drawn game in the Sinquefield’s fourth round, Niemann gave a very strange analysis of his play, in which he appeared unable to explain moves he had made. Again the commentators, including Nakamura on his stream, went over the interview and stressed the extent to which Niemann’s analysis of his own play was not befitting a player with a 2700 rating. Several also pointed out that Niemann had previously been subject to bans from online chess platform Chess.com for using additional software to cheat during games. Also, as though to support the accusations of fraudulence, clips started to circulate showing a stark (and, yes, weird) difference in Niemann’s accent between two years ago and now.

Away from the tournament, Magnus Carlsen’s company PlayMagnus posted, and then promptly deleted, an article about the history of cheating in chess, and Chess.com locked Niemann’s account, emailing him to say he is once again banned from playing on the site. This is particularly notable because — as announced only a couple of weeks ago — the latter company is currently in the process of acquiring the former!

With all of this boiling away in the background, and Carlsen having made no further statement, Niemann played to another draw in the 5th round, and then gave a stunning, impassioned post-game interview. First of all, he defended the shift in his accent, saying that it is a result of living out of a suitcase, travelling to chess tournaments all over the world, and not speaking to anyone for two years, whilst he spends his every day studying chess, only leaving his hotel room to get food. He then admitted to having cheated in games on Chess.com when he was he was 16 years old. He expressed great contrition over what he called “the greatest mistake of my life”, and said that he did it only because he was living, on his own, in New York at 16 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. His only source of income, he says, was from live-streaming chess, and so he cheated to boost his ratings. Along with profuse apologies for having cheated online, Niemann also strains repeatedly to insist that he has never cheated in an over-the-board game.

He also makes forceful defences of both his odd post-fourth round interview, and his prior claim to have studied Carlsen’s use of the g3 Nimzo-Indian. (I realise that this is already ridiculously, self-indulgently long and of questionable interest to any of you still reading, so I’ll leave the detail out. Suffice to say, the latter explanation relies upon ’transposition‘, and its strength is now a matter of some strenuous debate amongst the chess commentariat. If you have 20 additional minutes to devote to this topic, I recommend watching that whole interview, it’s wild!) He ends the interview by offering to play entirely naked, whilst sat in a box designed to block radio-wave transmissions.

The moment of Niemann’s monologue that has stuck with me though, is the story of when, aged 9, he went to see Magnus Carlsen play a simul (ie. a showcase event in which a strong player takes on several opponents at once, each on their own board). The cost to participate, Niemann says, was something like $1,000 and though his mother offered to pay it if Hans really wanted to play, he knew they couldn’t really afford it. He recalls saying “that’s OK mom; one day I’ll play him for free”.

In the days since that interview, there seems to have been something of a shift in the tenor around this scandal. Niemann has repeatedly lashed out at the continued silence of his critics, and he has been joined by several Grandmasters (incl. Karpov & Kasparov) in saying that it is incumbent upon his accusers to provide evidence. Chess.com have Tweeted that the ban they levied on Niemann is based upon evidence they have decided not to make public, and that they have offered him the opportunity to respond to them with an explanation.

Just last night, the Chief Arbiter of the Sinquefield Cup released a statement saying that they have no evidence of cheating at the tournament, explicitly including the first three rounds prior to the implementation of the additional security measures. And that brings us up to date on the whole spectacle, but never fear: I’ll stay up to date, and will inform you of any and all developments! (This is a joke, I almost promise not to bring this up again for any more than a paragraph.)

• • •

Be honest, did you skim / skip that whole chess thing above? I don’t blame you. Let’s hope there’s something more interesting in the bullets:

• the Booker Prize shortlist was announced this week (immediately annulling my prediction that Maddie Mortimer’s Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies would win);

• if you would like to hear someone talk about Tony Scott’s 1986 action spectacle Top Gun for ~50 minutes, I did just that on my podcast1 this week;

• I really like these posters by Agata Yamaguchi;

• if by any chance you’re playing Splatoon 3 and need a buddy, send me a Switch friend request @ SW-6812-1413-9419;

• music pick of the week is this new, evolving playlist from one of my favourite labels: Ghostly Selects — Ambient [Apple Music / Spotify]

That, as they say, will do. I hope you’re keeping well and that your autumn jacket is happy to see you. By the time I next write to you, I will have ingested some spice-of-the-pumpkin, perhaps whilst listening to Taylor Swift’s Red. That’s my vow to you. In the meantime, have a week!


— Adam

  1. Update: the podcast is on hiatus and has been archived  ↩︎