The feud between rising chess star Hans Niemann and grandmaster Magnus Carlsen has taken another dramatic turn.
Niemann, 19, announced early on Friday that he is pursuing legal action against Carlsen, 31, seeking $160 million (US$100 million) in damages from his arch nemesis and former idol.
Carlsen’s company Play Magnus Group was also named, along with Chess.com boss Daniel Rensch, Chess.com and grandmaster and streamer Hikaru Nakamura.
The filing said that the defendants had inflicted “devastating” damage on Niemann’s career and reputation.
“Niemann is a 19-year-old, self-taught chess prodigy,” it reads.
“He brings this action to recover from the devastating damages that Defendants have inflicted upon his reputation, career, and life by egregiously defaming him and unlawfully colluding to blacklist him from the profession to which he has dedicated his life.”
Months of drama
The lawsuit is the culmination of two months back and forth between the two players.
Carlsen is widely considered the greatest chess player of all time, with Niemann at one point confessing he was his all-time idol as a child.
The drama began in September when Niemann, a relatively unknown player at the time, beat Carlsen in the Sinquefield Cup.
In doing so, he broke his 53-game winning streak – an incredible feat for a low-ranked player.
The loss clearly rocked Carlsen. He withdrew from the tournament the next day – the first time he had done so in his career.
He offered very little details about why he had chosen to call it quits.
Carlsen sent a cryptic tweet, which included a video of Portuguese soccer manager José Mourinho saying: “I prefer really not to speak. If I speak, I am in big trouble.”
The rumour mill spun further when Carlsen retired from his next match against Niemann – this time after his opponent had played just one turn.
Carlsen’s uncharacteristic behaviour spawned several outrageous theories – including that the grandmaster believed Niemann had used anal beads to receive signals about which move he should take next.
A statement by Carlsen weeks later confirmed that he suspected Niemann had cheated in some shape or form.
Perhaps not using anal beads, but he did suspect something wasn’t quite right.
“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,” he said.
“We must do something about cheating, and for my part going forward, I don’t want to play against people that have cheated repeatedly in the past, because I don’t know what they are capable of doing in the future.”
Niemann even volunteered to play naked at one point in order to prove his innocence. But the internet largely appeared to be on Carlsen’s side.
Web of connections
The defendants named by Niemann are all connected, suggesting that Niemann may believe the accusations hurled at him were part of a co-ordinated attack.
Chess.com, which is the largest online chess-playing platform, is in the process of taking over Carlsen’s Play Magnus Group in a $130 million merger.
The site released a bombshell report last month that alleged that Niemann “likely cheated” in more than a hundred games.
Niemann had previously admitted that he had cheated in two games in his youth – but that his cheating ways were now in the past.
But the Chess.com report claimed otherwise.
The report analysed hundreds of Niemann’s career matches using cheating detection tools, and alleged that he likely received illegal assistance in 102 games.
The report cast doubt on Niemann’s meteoric rise to the top of the sport.
“Outside his online play, Hans is the fastest-rising top player in Classical OTB chess in modern history,” it stated.
“Looking purely at rating, Hans should be classified as a member of this group of top players. While we do not doubt that Hans is a talented player, we note that his results are statistically extraordinary.”
Niemann’s filing also singled out Chess.com boss Daniel Rensch.
It claimed that Rensch played a key part in the media storm, and “issued defamatory press releases, and leaked defamatory ‘reports’ to prominent press outlets”.
Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, also named in the lawsuit, also holds a connection to Chess.com – serving as the site’s top streaming partner.
He had speculated that Carlsen likely thought Niemann had cheated in the early days of the drama.
“He probably believes in his heart of hearts that Hans cheated in that game,” Nakamura told his viewers.
Niemann accused Nakamura of “amplifying and attempting to bolster Carlsen’s false cheating allegations”.
While Nakamura and Carlsen are yet to address the lawsuit, Chess.com’s lawyers said they were “saddened” by Niemann’s legal action.
“Hans confessed publicly to cheating online in the wake of the Sinquefield Cup, and the resulting fallout is of his own making,” they told ABC Sport.
“As stated in its October 2022 report, Chess.com had historically dealt with Hans’s prior cheating privately, and was forced to clarify its position only after he spoke out publicly.
“There is no merit to Hans’s allegations, and Chess.com looks forward to setting the record straight on behalf of its team and all honest chess players.”
‘Not a game’
Aside from admitting he had cheated twice as a teenager, Niemann has maintained his innocence throughout the months-long drama.
Niemann says he has missed out on numerous opportunities – thanks to his permanent attachment to what is now widely regarded as the ‘biggest chess cheating scandal of all time’.
The filing said the “malicious defamation and unlawful collusion” had “destroyed Niemann’s remarkable career in its prime and ruined his life.”
In the fallout following the cheating allegations, Niemann was subsequently banned from all FIDE-sanctioned tournaments.
It says he is unable to find work as a chess teacher at a reputable school, thanks to his tarnished reputation.
Niemann hopes the legal action will clear his name, his lawyers telling the media that the lawsuit would “set the record straight”.
“This is not a game. Defendants have destroyed Niemann’s life, simply because he had the talent, dedication and audacity to defeat the so-called ‘King of Chess’,” they told ABC Sport.
Niemann is seeking US$100 million ($160 million) in four causes of auction.
This means that, if successful, Niemann could be walking home with a whopping US$400 million ($640 million) in total damages.