It took less than a minute to reignite the feud. Hans Niemann v Magnus Carlsen at the Julius Baer Generation Cup opened conventionally with 1 d2-d4 Ng8-f6 2 c2-c4. But then Carlsen disappeared from the screen, the commentators were aghast, while Niemann shrugged and then also disconnected. The world champion’s father, Henrik Carlsen, had already announced that his normally media-friendly son would give no press interviews during the tournament. The action was captured live on the chess24 broadcast.
Monday’s cameo was the sequel to the controversial incident earlier this month across the board at the $350,000 Sinquefield Cup in St Louis. Carlsen was outplayed by Niemann, suffering a rare defeat as White, and withdrew from the tournament.
He then published a cryptic tweet alongside a video of the football manager José Mourinho saying: “If I speak, I am in big trouble.”
Niemann admitted to being banned twice by chess.com for cheating online, but denied cheating over the board. The St Louis organisers explained all their many anti-cheating procedures and emphasised there had been no wrongdoing at their event.
A third round of Carlsen v Niemann is possible but unlikely this weekend. The format of the Julius Baer Generation Cup is an all-play-all of 16 from Monday to Thursday, followed by a knockout among the top eight from Friday to Sunday. Despite his self-inflicted zero against Niemann, Carlsen was in imperious form and was unbeaten in his other 14 games. Niemann finished a strong third and will meet Vietnam’s Le Quang Liem in Thursday’s quarter-final. The American cannot be paired with Carlsen again unless both reach the two-day final on Saturday and Sunday. Play starts at 5pm BST each day.
Monday’s bizarre occurrence is almost without precedent in international chess. Bobby Fischer and Vlad Kramnik defaulted games in world championship matches, but their protests were against organisational decisions. The nearest precedent is probably the 1 c4 Resigns of Fischer v Oscar Panno at the 1970 interzonal, when the Argentinian grandmaster resigned in protest at changes in the schedule to accommodate the religious beliefs of Fischer and Samuel Reshevsky.
England’s leading female player, Jovanka Houska, accused Carlsen of “pouring more fuel on the fire” of the controversy. On Norwegian TV, Carlsen’s former teammate and aide, Jon Ludvig Hammer, called for sanctions. “It’s the most unacceptable behaviour to lose on purpose,” he said. “It’s the most unsportsmanlike thing you can do.”
It is believed Carlsen chose to make a single move rather than none at all so as to technically fulfil his contract with the organisers. If one or both players fails to make a move, the game counts as a default and not as a completed game.
Carlsen finally broke his silence on Wednesday night when he told Norway’s TV2 that he is likely to make a statement on Monday, after the end of the Julius Baer Generation Cup. The world champion added that he understands very well “that the situation is unfortunate for many”. In another interview, with chess24’s Kaja Snare, Carlsen was asked directly: “What was the reason you withdrew from the Niemann game?” and replied: “Unfortunately I cannot particularly speak on that, but people can draw their own conclusions and they certainly have.”
In a new Chessbase article, Prof Ken Regan, widely regarded as the leading authority on anti-cheating, reveals he has examined all Niemann’s over the board and online games for the past two years and found no evidence against the American. In particular, Regan analysed Niemann’s games at the 2022 Capablanca Memorial in Cuba, where there had been several claims of cheating, and found that while Niemann’s accuracy rate was normal, his opponents had underperformed, in a similar way to games of Mikhail Tal and Alexei Shirov in past decades.
In his streaming broadcasts, Hikaru Nakamura, the world No 6, has claimed Niemann’s rate of improvement has been faster than other prodigies and is therefore suspect. The reality is that Niemann, at age 19, is far from the top prospect among the fast-rising teenage generation. He is the same age as Alireza Firouzja, fresh from his brilliant success at the Sinquefield Cup, but is around 90 rating points behind the Iranian-born Frenchman. He has a similar rating to Uzbekistan’s Nodirbek Abdusattorov and the Indian pair Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa and Dommaraju Gukesh, but the trio are all two to three years younger than the American. Gukesh is playing in the Spanish League, where he won in fine style against England’s Gawain Jones on Sunday.
Niemann wants to be world champion, but his four rivals have the same ambition. That probably means, in terms of his spat with Carlsen, their paths are likely to cross less frequently in future and that will be accentuated by organisers knowing they cannot include them both.
In Monday’s fifth round, immediately before the fateful rendezvous with Carlsen, Niemann was paired with the tournament leader, Arjun Erigaisi, and (see board above) made the kind of basic error a 1700 player should be ashamed of, let alone a 2700.
In complete contrast to the above disaster, Niemann scored brilliantly in 21 moves against world No 10 Levon Aronian on Tuesday night to keep his quarter-final hopes alive. At the end 21…Kd7 22 Qe7+ Kc6 23 Nd4 is checkmate.
3834 1 Qxe5! and mate next move.