Poised to Blunder: An Analysis of the District Court’s Position in Niemann v. Carlsen

Christopher TenEyck

The chess world’s eyes are currently fixed on the Eastern District of Missouri. There, a case is slowly making its way through pre-trial filings. The case involves perhaps the greatest chess player of all time, Magnus Carlsen. Carlsen is being sued for defamation by an upstart American player named Hans Niemann. The facts surrounding the case are relatively salacious, especially in the sometimes stuffy universe of chess.

At the 2022 Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, Niemann beat Carlsen in an intense game that lasted 57 moves and several hours.[1] The loss ended Carlsen’s 53-game unbeaten streak in classical, over-the-board tournaments. [2] To add further intrigue, the loss came despite Carlsen playing the white pieces, which confer the advantage of playing first. After the game at Sinquefield, Carlsen withdrew from the tournament. This was a very surprising decision, as he was still in the running to win. A week later, at a different tournament, Carlsen was again slated to play Niemann. This time, Carlsen made two moves before resigning in protest.[3] Carlsen followed up on his resignation with a series of tweets alleging that Niemann had cheated in their game at Sinquefield and had cheated to achieve his overall ranking.[4] Niemann responded by suing Carlsen for defamation, among other claims, in the Eastern District of Missouri.[5]

This case gives fascinating insight into the world of elite chess, but also raises an important question:  could any judge or jury do better than Magnus Carlsen in assessing the legitimacy of his opponent’s play?

During chess tournaments, the games are often streamed and feature real-time commentary by grandmasters or chess enthusiasts. As the players make their moves, these commentators assess the board position, point out relative strengths and weaknesses, and generally offer their insight into the players’ moves. However, when one of the players is Magnus Carlsen, universally heralded as one of the greatest players of all time, such commentary can come across as absurd. Carlsen, even compared to other professional chess players, is in a world of his own. When commentators second guess one of Carlsen’s moves, what they are often saying is that Stockfish, an open-source chess engine, has evaluated his position to be slightly worse or the same as it was before he made the move. The commentators then feel free to engage in an ex-post rationalization of why the move Carlsen chose was not the best of his options. Of course, if these commentators were able to pick apart Carlsen’s games in real-time and without the help of a computer, they wouldn’t be sitting in the booth but competing for a world championship.

This brings us back to Carlsen’s allegations against Niemann. After his two-move resignation, Carlsen tweeted, “Throughout our game in the Sinquefield Cup I had the impression that he [Niemann] 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.”[6] Niemann essentially agreed that the game was not difficult for him.  He claimed that, on the morning of his game against Carlsen, he had happened to study the exact opening that Carlsen ended up using in their game, and had scripted a precise, multi-move rebuttal to Carlsen’s plan. This, in his eyes, explained his seemingly effortless play during the game.[7] Niemann’s claim rang false to many observers, who pointed out that the opening Carlsen used is exceedingly rare, and that there is no evidence that Carlsen had ever played that opening at any previous tournament.[8] Why, they asked, would Niemann spend his morning studying a random opening that his opponent had seemingly never used?

The upshot is that the situation has developed into a classic “he-said-he-said.” Carlsen claims that Niemann’s play with the black pieces was virtually impossible without outside help, while Niemann responds that his result was a combination of preparation and brilliance. Enter the Eastern District of Missouri, where judges and juries who will soon be tasked with picking sides and separating fact from fiction. I fear that these (presumptive) chess novices are poorly positioned to deliver anything close to justice in this case. If the grandmasters who provide commentary on Carlsen’s games cannot be expected to give definitive critiques of his moves, how could the average judge and jury hope to understand the nuances that belie Carlsen’s allegations?

To understand the claims that Carlsen is making—to really get inside of his head and see whether his allegations are the result of studied observation or petulant poor-sportsmanship—a fact-finder would need the skillset and experience of Carlsen. Unfortunately, no one in the world—not even other grandmasters—can make that claim. No expert witness called by either side could claim to possess a better grasp of the chess principles in play than Carlsen himself. Even in the arbitration context, which is often used for sporting disputes (in part because of the parties’ ability to choose arbitrators with sport-specific knowledge and experience) the task here would be herculean. Perhaps an arbitration panel comprised of Garry Kasparov, Mikhail Tal, and Alexander Alekhine could parse the complexities of Carlsen’s attack and Niemann’s defense, but the well-intentioned people of the Eastern District may find themselves in a losing position before the first move is even played.


[1] Magnus Carlsen vs Hans Niemann - Sinquefield Cup 2022, Chess.com, https://www.chess.com/events/2022-sinquefield-cup/03/Carlsen Magnus-Niemann Hans Moke [https://perma.cc/T6N9-WXXL] [https://web.archive.org/web/20230309201500/https://www.chess.com/events/2022-sinquefield-cup] (last visited Mar. 9, 2023).

[2] Greg Keener, The Chess World Isn’t Ready for a Cheating Scandal, N.Y. Times (Sept. 13, 2022), www.nytimes.com/2022/09/13/crosswords/hans-niemann-magnus-carlsen-cheating-accusation.html



[3] Id.

[4] Amended Complaint & Demand for Jury Trial at 33, Niemann v. Carlsen, No. 4:22-CV-01110-AGF (E.D. Mo. Jan. 10, 2023), https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/65592749/75/niemann-v-carlsen/ [https://perma.cc/LR34-LKEW] [https://web.archive.org/web/20230309201947/https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/65592749/75/niemann-v-carlsen/].

[5] Id.

[6] Greg Keener, Cheating Allegation Looms Over Elite Chess, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2022), www.nytimes.com/2022/09/28/crosswords/hans-niemann-magnus-carlsen-cheating-update.html#:~:text=Carlsen%20added%2C%20%E2%80%9CThroughout%20our%20game [https://perma.cc/KA4S-WY3J] [https://web.archive.org/web/20230309202627/https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/28/crosswords/hans-niemann-magnus-carlsen-cheating-update.html].

[7] Albert Silver, The Carlsen-Niemann Affair, Chess News (Sept. 8 2022), en.chessbase.com/post/the-carlsen-niemann-affair [https://perma.cc/WNW4-6VN2] [https://web.archive.org/web/20230309202714/https://en.chessbase.com/post/the-carlsen-niemann-affair].

[8] Id.