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The plot thickens — and sickens — in Niemann chess cheating controversy

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The U.S. open and women’s annual national championship tournaments are now underway at the St. Louis Chess Club and the Hans Moke Niemann cheating controversy remains, unfortunately, the all-consuming storyline.

It’s been a tumultuous month for the 19-year-old California grandmaster, the center of a global scandal after world champion Magnus Carlsen last month effectively accused him of cheating in their game at the prestigious Sinquefield Cup tournament.

The huge online playing site Chess.com came out last week with its own internal 72-page investigation that concluded Niemann — who admitted to cheating early on in his career in some online events but adamantly denies it has continued — relied on powerful chess engines in some 100 games as recently as 2020, far later and far more extensively than he has said. But the site, which has shut down Niemann’s account, also said its analysis found no “concrete statistical evidence” the American GM’s recent over-the-board successes (including the sensational win over Carlsen) was shady.

It also has come out that Carlsen was not the only top player harboring doubts about Niemann. Top Russian GM Ian Nepomniachtchi, who very well could succeed Carlsen as world champion, revealed on his YouTube channel he was “quite unhappy” when he learned Niemann had been a last-minute addition to the Sinquefield tournament and asked the organizers for “extra measures to be taken” to keep things on the up-and-up. The Chess.com analysis found that several of the online games where Niemann allegedly used illegal assistance from computer programs were against the Russian star in June 2020.

“Maybe it’s me having trust issues after playing someone banned from Chess.com, and someone you would strongly suspect when playing online, but I think [he’s] the only young player I was slightly unsure about [given] his recent progress,” Nepomniachtchi said. “It seemed weird to me.”

The pugnacious Niemann insists he is moving forward in the eye of a massive hurricane, and opened his U.S. Championship Tournament in St. Louis last week with a nice win over 15-year-old GM Christopher Yoo, remarking in a terse postgame interview, “Chess speaks for itself, is all I can say.”

With a tough 80-move loss to second-seeded GM Fabiano Caruana, Niemann is in the middle of the pack after five rounds of the 13-round tournament that had a rest day Monday. Stay tuned.

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L’Affaire Niemann has attracted a massive amount of attention, good and bad, but it has also overshadowed the actual chess being played in St. Louis, which is a shame.

Wisconsin GM Awonder Liang, like Niemann just 19 years old, has used a carefree, nothing-to-lose approach to get off to a fast start, including a wild Scotch Gambit win over veteran GM Levon Aronian in Round 5 that left him just a half-point behind Caruana. The first nine moves look wild, but are actually standard in this gambit line. Black appears to go wrong on 13. Qg5 Nb4? (a new move in an ancient position, and apparently not a good one; 13 … Bf5 is playable here) 14. Bd2! Qd6 (Nc2? 15. Bc3 Qd6 16. Qh6 Nxa1 17. Qxh7+ Ke6 18. Na3 with overwhelming attacking compensation for the exchange) 15. Nc3 c6 16. Rad1 Bf5?! 17. g4 h6 (Bd7 was tougher, but White is better after simple moves like 18. Rfe1) 18. Qh4! Bc8 19. Bxh6 Nd3 20. Bg5 Qe5 21. f3!, and the opening of the f-file spells curtains for Black.

The defensive house of cards collapses on 24. Kh1 Be6 (Bxg4 25. Qxg4 Rxh6 26. Qg3 Rd8 27. Rf3, winning a piece) 25. Qg5 Bf7 26. Rxf7! Rxh6 (Kxf7 27. Rf1+ Nf2+ [Ke6 28. Qxg6+ Kd7 29. Rf7+ Kc8 30. Qf5+ Kb8 31. Bf4+, with mate to come] 28. Kg2 Rxh6 29. Qxh6 Rh8 30. Qf4+ Qf6 31. Qxf6+ Kxf6 32. Rxf2+, winning) 27. Rxd3! Qxd3 28. Qf6, and no amount of desperadoes can deflect White’s mating attack. In the final position, Aronian resigned as the checks will run out after 32 … Qh2+ 33. Ke3 Qh3+ 34. Kd2 Qh2+ 35. Kd3 Rd8+ 36. Kc4 b5+ 37. Kb3 and wins.

On the women’s side, Northern Virginia’s own FM Jennifer Yu bolted out of the gate with four wins and a loss to take the lead at the first break in play. Her Round 5 win over WFM Sophie Morris-Suzuki smoothly transformed the positional advantage out of a Botvinnik English into a killer attack. Black 16. b3 b4?! releases all the tension on the queenside, allowing Yu to smash through in the center and kingside against what seems at first a solid Black defensive fortress.

With 25. fxe5 Red8?! (Be6 26. Qf4 Red8 27. Rd1 Kh8 holds out longer, but White still dominates the play) 26. Qg5!, the White pieces and pawns are a thing of harmonious beauty, and a winning tactical opportunity must be in the offing.

While Black seeks a queenside distraction, Yu keeps her eyes on the prize, finishing in style: 31. Be4 Qe2 (see diagram; Black does threaten mate in one, but it’s White’s turn to move) 32. Nxg6+! fxg6 (Kg8 33. Ne7+ Kh8 34. Rxh7 mate) 33. Rxh7+! Kg8 (Kxh7 34. Qxg6+ and mate next) 34. Rxg7+! (the rook is determined to die a hero) Kxg7 35. Qxg6+ Kh8 36. Qh7 mate.

We’ll have more on the doings in St. Louis next week.

Liang —Aronian, U.S. Championship Tournament, St. Louis, October 2022

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 exd4 4. Bc4 Bc5 5. Ng5 Nh6 6. Nxf7 Nxf7 7. Bxf7+ Kxf7 8. Qh5+ g6 9. Qxc5 d5 10. c3 dxe4 11. O-O Re8 12. cxd4 Qxd4 13. Qg5 Nb4 14. Bd2 Qd6 15. Nc3 c6 16. Rad1 Bf5 17. g4 h6 18. Qh4 Bc8 19. Bxh6 Nd3 20. Bg5 Qe5 21. f3 Rh8 22. fxe4+ Kg8 23. Bh6 Qd4+ 24. Kh1 Be6 25. Qg5 Bf7 26. Rxf7 Rxh6 27. Rxd3 Qxd3 28. Qf6 Rxh2+ 29. Kxh2 Qd2+ 30. Kg1 Qc1+ 31. Kf2 Qh6 32. g5 Black resigns.

Yu — Morris-Suzuki, U.S. Women’s Championship Tournament, St. Louis, October 2022

1. c4 c5 2. Nc3 Nf6 3. e4 d6 4. g3 Nc6 5. Bg2 g6 6. Nge2 Bg7 7. d3 O-O 8. O-O Ne8 9. Be3 Nd4 10. Qd2 Nc7 11. f4 Rb8 12. Nd5 Nxe2+ 13. Qxe2 Ne6 14. e5 b5 15. Rad1 Re8 16. b3 b4 17. Qf2 Nd4 18. Bxd4 cxd4 19. Qxd4 Bg4 20. Rde1 a5 21. Qb2 a4 22. d4 Qa5 23. Qd2 Qa7 24. Kh1 dxe5 25. fxe5 Red8 26. Qg5 Qxd4 27. Re4 Qb2 28. Rxg4 Qxa2 29. Nxe7+ Kh8 30. Rh4 Rf8 31. Be4 Qe2 32. Nxg6+ fxg6 33. Rxh7+ Kg8 34. Rxg7+ Kxg7 35. Qxg6+ Kh8 36. Qh7 mate.

• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at [email protected]



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