American grandmaster Hans Niemann, appearing this week in Jerusalem in his first tournament since launching a $100 million lawsuit against the world chess champion who calls him a cheat, refused interviews and maintained an insistent silence as he played matches closely watched by spectators in person and online.
But his US team captain at the FIDE World Team Championship being held till Friday in Jerusalem has spoken out in support of the 19-year-old player, who is currently embroiled in one of the most serious – and bizarre – scandals to rock the world of chess.
“In the case of Hans in over-the-board play, I’ve not seen evidence [of cheating],” said international chess master John Donaldson, captain of the USA team, in an interview with The Times of Israel.
“In the United States, you are innocent until proven guilty,” Donaldson went on. “Show me the evidence.” The cheating allegations, he stressed, are “not an issue for our team.”
Niemann, the lead player on the US team, did not excel at the tournament — with two losses and three draws in his five games — and the US was eliminated in the initial group stage.
Speaking in between matches held in Mount Scopus Hall in the Dan Hotel, Donaldson noted that he has known Niemann since he was 10 years old, and that his talent was always obvious.
“He went from beginner to an expert-rated player in the first year he was playing. So it was very clear to everybody that he was a great talent,” Donaldson said. “When he moved to New York, we didn’t have much contact but I followed his career from a distance.”
The captain added that unusually, the young chess champion has been living on his own since he was 16 years old and did not have a coach, as is common among promising players.
“Another thing that makes him even more remarkable is that he’s gone off to play tournaments in Uzbekistan, Asia, Eastern Europe from a young age. I don’t know about you, but when I was 16-17, I wasn’t quite as competent to do that. He has shown a great deal of commitment and maturity.”
Referring to Niemann appearing a little nervous at the opening ceremony of the championship, Donaldson said that he was simply getting ready for the games ahead. “He’s very focused. He’s 19 years old, it’s his first time as the lead player for the US team, so he feels a big sense of responsibility,” he noted. “Usually opening ceremonies are typically held the day before,” Donaldson added. “It’s not often they’re held 30 minutes before the first game.”
Donaldson’s supportive remarks from Niemann come in stark contrast to the accusations the player is battling.
Niemann has admitted to cheating twice in online matches as a 12- and 16-year-old, but denied he has done so in recent years.
In late September, however, world chess champion Magnus Carlsen, 31, claimed Niemann repeatedly cheated in his games. “I believe that Niemann has cheated more — and more recently — than he has publicly admitted,” Carlsen wrote in a statement posted on Twitter.
My statement regarding the last few weeks. pic.twitter.com/KY34DbcjLoAdvertisement
— Magnus Carlsen (@MagnusCarlsen) September 26, 2022
“His over the board progress has been unusual, and throughout our game in the Sinquefield Cup I had the impression that he wasn’t tense or even fully concentrating on the game in critical positions, while outplaying me as black in a way I think only a handful of players can do,” the Norwegian champion continued.
A week later, Chess.com, one of the largest online chess platforms, published a 72-page report stating that Niemann had “most likely” cheated in over 100 games on its site and implied that he consulted a computer engine. The platform has since banned his account.
On October 21, Niemann launched a $100 million lawsuit against Carlsen, Chess.com and others.
Donaldson added that he finds the whole scandal very confusing.
“On the one hand, I definitely understand that with computer technology, cheating is an issue that needs to be addressed front and center. But on the other hand, if you are going to make allegations, you should offer some evidence for it, not some intuition, if you will.”
Referring specifically to Carlsen’s accusations, Donaldson said he was at a loss.
“Magnus Carlsen has been a brilliant world champion. He’s not only on the shortlist of the greatest world champions of all time, but also has been a great ambassador for the game by trying to support others. He doesn’t usually make a habit of crying over spilled milk when he loses a game. Obviously, he must feel that something is going on — but on the other hand, he hasn’t offered any evidence. So I just don’t know what to say,” he concluded.
‘This problem will crop up again’
Viswanathan Anand, an Indian chess grandmaster and five-time World Chess Champion who is one of the commentators at the Jerusalem championship, said that he personally had not noticed any irregularities in Niemann’s playing.
“I couldn’t see it with my eyes,” he said. “But then again, no one can. In chess, there’s no single move which you can say — that is it! Rather, it’s a pattern you’re looking for, so it’s a much harder thing to do.”
Anand noted that, due to the explosion of online chess in recent years, it has “perhaps become easier to cheat. But I’m not that concerned. I believe that basically most players are honest and wouldn’t do such a thing.”
He added that the World Chess Federation has a commission that will look into the allegations closely.
“We are not only talking about this game between Carlsen and Niemann but also about the future, because this problem will crop up again. So I hope we will find a decent solution.”
However, definitive answers are not easy to come by. “We are not even 100% sure a crime was committed, much less whether a person is guilty or not. So we are going to live in this slightly fuzzy world for a while,” Anand said.
He added that there have been instances of foul play in the chess world which were dealt with internally.
“There are many cases where people just admitted it (cheating), but it has not been out in the public a lot. There’s been gurgling in the background but it hasn’t come out.”
The issue of cheating is a “moving target,” noted Anand. “We will scan for some kind of devices [that enable cheating] this year, but next year they will get even smaller. It’s an arms race as well.”
“We need to talk to experts who understand this better,” he said. “Israel is not at all a bad place to start this discussion.”
Russian team banned
Due to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war, Russia was banned from competing at the 12-nation Jerusalem event, as was Belarus.
Donaldson, who has enjoyed an illustrious career as a successful player, author, and captain for American teams since 1986, said that it was a very unfortunate situation for Russian chess players.
“With very few exceptions, they are very much against what is happening in Ukraine. They have friends there, some have lived there in the past. Chess players tend to be much more international than an average person, because they travel a lot. Everyone is pretty much horrified by what is going on,” he said.
“It would be great to have the Russian chess players, but it is completely understandable at the present time that they are not playing here,” he concluded.
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