Magnus Carlsen and Hans Niemann in the third round of the Sinquefield Cup © Courtesy of Saint Louis Chess Club/Crystal Fuller

Magnus Carlsen, the world champion, shocked chess on Monday when he withdrew from the prestige Sinquefield Cup in St Louis following his third round loss to the new US star Hans Niemann, 19. It was the first withdrawal of the Norwegian’s entire career, and the only explanation in his tweet was a cryptic video clip of the football manager José Mourinho commenting: “If I speak I am in big trouble”, during one of his press conferences about match refereeing.

St Louis officials reacted by delaying the broadcasts for round four by 15 minutes, a measure generally applied to prevent cheating, and by intensifying the metal detector checks on players at the start of the round. Results were negative.

Niemann’s 57-move victory with the black pieces, which gave him the tournament lead and took his world rating to above 2700, had proved a triumph of anticipation.

He had prepared that morning for Carlsen’s unlikely opening choice of 4 g3 against the Nimzo-Indian 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 e6 3 Nc3 Bb4. Carlsen had used the same variation by transposition at Kolkata 2019.

There were allegations that Carlsen may have believed that his own preparations might not have been private. Long ago, during the 1986 world championship match, Garry Kasparov lost three games in a row to Anatoly Karpov, and dismissed one of his aides, Yevgeniy Vladimirov, for allegedly passing information.

Niemann obtained easy equality out of the opening, but the position was still objectively nearly level with a black advantage of just 0.3 according to the supercomputer Sesse. Carlsen missed several later chances to steer for a draw, by 22 Ne4! 40 Rxb7! or 42 Rf4!

The teenager from California, who does not have a coach but whose rating has jumped 250 points in three years, had already beaten the world champion a month earlier in an online tournament in Miami, when he made headlines for a one-sentence victory interview where he replied: “Chess speaks for itself,” before walking off. This time his postgame comment was: “It must be embarrassing for the world champion to lose to an idiot like me. I feel bad for him!”

Carlsen’s loss ended a run of 53 classical games without defeat for the world champion, and will raise questions about his motivation following his announcement that he would not defend his world title against Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi.

He had begun well in St Louis, defeating Nepomniachtchi in the first round by means of a trademark Carlsen grind from an apparently level opening, and taking his score against his rival to six points from their last seven meetings.

That fatal third round on Sunday has changed everything. Carlsen’s tournament score will be cancelled, but his games will be rated and his ambition of a record 2900 rating will be more distant. Meanwhile, cheating allegations have continued online, notably on GM Hikaru Nakamura’s Twitch stream, and the whole episode probably has further to run.

Puzzle 2485

White mates in two moves, against any black defence (by Fritz Giegold, Die Zeit 1972). Clue: White has several tempting checks, but none of them work.

Click here for solution

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