Competitive chess is being rocked by its biggest scandal in 16 years, an epic saga that encompasses the game’s most famous players, a prestigious tournament, something called the “Fianchetto Variation,” and maybe, possibly, sex toys.
Though competitive chess remains a niche sport, it’s become more familiar to the larger public in recent years, thanks to lockdown-fueled online matchups and the megapopularity of The Queen’s Gambit. And now that many of the game’s top players stream on Twitch, they’re much more accessible to viewers everywhere. These days, even the game’s often-technical controversies now command a wider audience, and tend to escalate. Case in point: It was shocking to avid chess observers when world chess champion Magnus Carlsen lost his third match last week at the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis and subsequently withdrew from the tournament. (Among the shocked: yours truly, who’d interviewed Carlsen on the eve of the event.) But when the Norwegian grandmaster seemed to imply his opponent had cheated, the accusation spread everywhere, to the point where Elon Musk was weighing in—and suggesting anal beads had something to do with this.
What? How did we get here? Are Carlsen’s gripes credible? Why is Tesla’s CEO weighing in with his own theories, anyway? The Sinquefield Cup may be over, but since the furor isn’t calming, we’re answering all your questions about this whole misadventure here.
How did this all start? Take us through the opening moves.
On Sept. 2, the final tournament of the multistage Grand Chess Tour kicked off at the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis. The tour, which attracts many of the world’s best chess masters, was set to finish out with the Sinquefield Cup, an invite-only series recognized as most important chess event in North America. World No. 1 Magnus Carlsen is closely affiliated with the tourney, having won the very first Sinquefield Cup nearly 10 years ago; this year represented his first appearance since 2019.
Was this a huge upset? Have they played before?
As recently as August, when they competed in August’s FTX Crypto Cup. That match was a best-of-four-games affair, and Niemann did take the first game—but Carlsen swept the next three, clinching the overall match on his way to winning that entire tournament. Sinquefield was their first rematch since then—and it was indeed a fairly shocking upset that Niemann, the lowest-rated grandmaster playing in St. Louis, defeated Carlsen. Afterward, Niemann crowed, “It must be embarrassing for the world champion to lose to me. I feel bad for him!” (He did not get much further, losing to U.S. chess champion Wesley So four days later.)
Carlsen, meanwhile, withdrew from the tournament the following day—the first time he’d ever done such a thing. The director-general of the International Chess Federation, the game’s controversial governing body, tweeted that Carlsen “must have had a compelling reason” to quit, “or at least he believes he has it.”
Did Carlsen accuse Niemann of cheating?
Not in so many words, but his tweet did include the classic video of former Chelsea football manager Jose Mourinho saying, “If I speak I’m in big trouble, in big trouble, and I don’t want to be in big trouble.”
Even more suspicious: On Sept. 5, the same day Carlsen withdrew, the World Chess Hall of Fame suddenly beefed up its anti-cheating security measures, including scanning Niemann for a minute and a half before his next match.
Did something seem suspicious about the match itself? When explaining, please keep in mind that I don’t know anything about chess.
Carlsen was playing with the white pieces, which meant he moved first and set the opening tenor; Niemann, because he was playing the black pieces, was already considered to be at a disadvantage. (Players tend to switch colors game by game.) Carlsen kicked things off with the queen’s pawn, one of the game’s most popular opening moves; this entails pushing the pawn in front of your queen two squares ahead, allowing the player to dominate the center of the board.
Got it. Makes total sense.
In response, Niemann began building up to the Nimzo-Indian defense, a routine that helps black-piece players counter the powerful queen’s pawn. The defense requires that the disadvantaged player activate their knights and bishops early on, using the bishops to pin the opponent’s knight and prevent it from supporting the center gambit.
[Googling furiously] Is the Nimzo-Indian defense named for its inventor, the pioneering chess master Aron Nimzowitsch?
Yes. It’s a well-known tactic, so it’s not surprising Niemann would employ it. But in turn, Carlsen utilized the “Fianchetto variation,” allowing him to take out Niemann’s threatening bishop.
Sure, of course.
Niemann then employed an obscure counter to Carlsen’s savvy trick, allowing him to snap up more of the Norwegian player’s pawns and force him into an endgame Carlsen did not expect. The champion, who took an uncharacteristically long time to ponder certain moves, clearly didn’t plan that Niemann would know how to respond so well to the Fianchetto.
Surprising as the outcome was, it maybe wouldn’t have seemed that shady had Niemann not called attention to the unlikelihood of his success in his post-match interview—claiming that, thanks to “a ridiculous miracle,” he’d just happened to rewatch, that very morning, a 4-year-old Carlsen match in which the grandmaster used a similar gambit.
That does seem a little suspect. Do other chess players agree?
Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura declared on a Twitch stream that it was “a known fact” Niemann had previously been caught cheating during prize-money matches on Chess.com, through tech-related means, and had previously been banned from the site. Canadian grandmaster Eric Hansen—who, incidentally, once engaged in a fierce rivalry with Nakamura that culminated in a 2018 fistfight—later added that he’d removed Niemann from chess events he’d hosted due to cheating suspicions.
Yikes! How did Niemann respond to this attack from all sides?
He went on the offensive, calling out Nakamura on Twitter for “making frivolous implications.” But he also admitted he had indeed cheated during virtual Chess.com tournaments when he was younger. However, Niemann said, he “never cheated in an over-the-board game.” The young grandmaster further called the accusations a “targeted attack” that has “nothing to do with my games” and is intended to “ruin my chess career.” The next day, Niemann tweeted at Nakamura, inviting him to show examples of “real evidence” of Sinquefield misconduct.
Who has the upper hand in this battle?
Here’s what evidence says so far. Niemann had declared he’d been prepared to counter the world champion’s moves because that morning he happened to rewatch a 2018 game between Carlsen and Wesley So in London, where Carlsen had employed a similar opening move to the one he used against Niemann. But as chess fans pointed out, Carlsen and So never played each other in London that year—though they did play in a 2019 match in India, where Carlsen deployed a different version of the move in question. However, as Defector reported, “Nakamura and So himself argued that the  game’s different structure nullified comparisons between the two.”
Yet Niemann has his defenders. Many grandmasters, like Garry Kasparov, have analyzed the Sinquefield moves and claimed Niemann is very likely “clean.” To them, the most likely explanation for this upset is that Carlsen just had a bad game against a supertalented player on the rise. Some have called on Nakamura to apologize (he hasn’t) and for Carlsen to give a more detailed story. Others pointed out that Chess.com, which has once again banned Niemann, is not exactly a disinterested party: Carlsen is one of the site’s shareholders. And on Sept. 10, the Sinquefield Cup’s chief arbiter released a statement: “We currently have no indication that any player has been playing unfairly in the 2022 Sinquefield Cup. This includes all rounds played to date.”
Sounds like a stalemate!
Things have gotten a little weird. People are now surmising that Carlsen’s gameplay plans were somehow “leaked” to Niemann in advance, or that anal beads were involved—
Yeah, so there’s an anonymous, joke-y rumor that players like Carlsen have made use of electronic anal beads in order to cheat. The theory that Niemann made use of the bead-vibration system this time was amplified by Twitch streamers and then by Elon Musk in a now-deleted string of tweets. (Turns out, as a schoolboy, the tech titan was quite the chess player himself, though he now brushes it off as a “simple game.”)
How would that even work? Please be very specific.
I guess you could have a friend observe your opponent and look up his moves in previous matches and surreptitiously send, like, different patterns of vibrations to your butthole? Informing you what move you should make? Using Morse code or something? Kinda like how the gangsters fixed the poker game in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels? Look, I’m not a grandmaster.
When is the last time that a major chess scandal involved butts?
During the 2006 World Chess Championship, then–world No. 1 Veselin Topalov accused his opponent, Russia’s Vladimir Kramnik, “of visiting his personal loo too often during play,” as the Guardian put it. It was a personal vendetta for Topalov, who lost his championship to Kramnik that year. The controversy earned the name “Toiletgate,” naturally.
Is Niemann aware of Musk’s outrageous yet tantalizingly funny accusation?
Probably, considering that he said he’d play fully in the nude against Carlsen in order to disprove the cheating allegations.
Will … we actually get a naked match?
I mean, that could help settle things, couldn’t it? After all, when Eve Babitz played Marcel Duchamp in 1963, one thing was certain: She didn’t cheat.
Update, Sept. 16, 2022: This piece has been updated to clarify the use and popularity of the queen’s pawn opening.