Well, our beloved game is generating front-page headlines, getting coverage on the big network broadcasts and serving as the focus for deep-think pieces from pundits the world over.
Of course, all the attention isn’t due to some amazing combination or hard-fought match but to the contretemps kicked up by world champion Magnus Carlsen’s charges that young American GM Hans Moke Niemann cheated to win their game at last month’s 9th Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis.
Niemann staunchly denied it, but Carlsen has kept up his protest, forfeiting a subsequent online game against the American after just one move and issuing a new statement last week that he believes that “Niemann has cheated more — and more recently — than he has publicly admitted.”
“His over-the-board progress has been unusual,” Carlsen’s statement read in part, “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, while outplaying me as Black in a way I think only a handful of players can do. This game contributed to changing my perspective.”
“We must do something about cheating,” the champ continued, “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.”
The cheating allegations and the plain fact that today’s chess-playing computers can easily out-calculate Carlsen, Niemann and every other grandmaster these days is of course what caught the wider world’s attention. So far, no one has offered hard proof that Niemann did bend the rule or how he might have done it, and, significantly, the U.S. chess officials announced he will be in the field for this week’s U.S. Chess Championships at the St. Louis Chess Club.
Even expert chess-cheating sleuths appear divided over whether Niemann’s play is sketchy and FIDE, the international chess federation, announced it is forming a special committee to look into Carlsen’s explosive charges. Stay tuned.
For all the new outside attention, the cheating concerns are nothing new for the chess world, as today’s game — played 16 years ago — can attest.
The unfortunately named “Toiletgate” got some front-page love of its own at the time, overshadowing the actual play in the watershed 2006 match between Bulgarian GM Veselin Topalov and Russian star GM Vladimir Kramnik that — finally — reunified the long-divided world championship crown.
The claim by Topalov’s team that Kramnik was using a high number of midgame trips to the bathroom to get unfair help hasn’t worn well: No proof has ever emerged of nefarious doings, and Kramnik was strong enough on his own to win.
But the controversy nearly blew up the match, as the Russian forfeited Game 5 to protest the accusations and only claimed the crown in a two-game rapid playoff after the classical portion of the match ended in a tie.
If Black was getting silicon hints in the match’s famous second game, it’s not evident early on, where human foibles and human misjudgments prevail. Kramnik’s 16. f4 Bxd3?! experiment in this well-known QGD Slav line fares poorly as Topalov, one of the world’s great attackers, builds up formidable pressure on the kingside. Things come to a head on 28. Qc2 Rxb2 29. hxg6! (a very dangerous idea, as 29…Rxc2?? [also bad is 29…Nxg6?? 30. Qxg6+! hxg6 31. Rxg6+ Kh7 32. R6g3 Bh4 33. Rh3, with mate to come] 30. gxh7+ Kxh7 [Kf7 31. h8=N mate is pretty cool, too] 31. Rg7+ Kh6 32. f5+ Kh5 33. f6 Bxf6 34. exf6, with 35. R1g5+ Kh6 36. Rf5 mate on tap) h5 30. g7 hxg4 31. gxf8=Q+ (see diagram) Bxf8?? (also losing was 31…Rxf8?? 32. Qg6+ Kh8 33. Qh5+ Kg8 34. Rxg4+ Bg5 35. Rxg5 mate; mandatory was 31…Kxf8 32. Qh7 Qe2!, with hopes of counterplay), a losing move that even the computers of 2006 would not play.
But White returns the favor with 32. Qg6+!? (Rxg4+! Bg7 33. Qc7! looks just winning; e.g. 33…Qf1+ 34. Ng1 Qg2+ 35. Rxg2 Rxg2 36. Kxg2) Bg7 33. f5 Re7! 34. f6 Qe2 35. Qxg4 Rf7, and Black can breathe easier — he’s not getting mated and has the exchange and a pawn to barter to ease the pressure.
Having missed the win, White understandably has trouble shifting gears to hold the draw, with fascinating tactical touches all around: 36. Rc1?! (Qh5! still poses real problems for Black — 36…a5 [Qxe3?? 37. Ng5 is crushing] 37. Rg3 Qxe3 38. fxg7 Rb1+ 39. Kh2 Rb2+ 40. Kh3 Rxhg7 41. Ng5, with a powerful attack) Rc2! 37. Rxc2 Qd1+ 38. Kg2 Qxc2+ 39. Kg3 Qe4, and after the queens come off, Kramnik’s queenside pawns will be ready to roll.
After 40, Bf4 Qf5 41. Qxf5 exf5 42. Bg5 (Black is better after 42. fxg7?! Rxg7+ 43. Kf2 Rg4 44. Bd2 Kf7) a5 43. Kf4 (fxg7 Rxg7+ 44. Kf4 a4 45. Nd2 a3 46. e6 a2 47. Nb3 Rh7 48. Kxf5 Rh1 and wins) a4 44. Kxf5, Topalov gets two scary-looking passed pawns in the center, but Black has his own pawns to advance and trades down to a winning ending on 50. e7 Re1+ 51. Kxd5 Bxe7 52. fxe7 Rxe7 53. Kd6 Re1. In the final position after 63. Kf6 Re3, the Black rook dominates White’s knight and the White king can’t help the e-pawn. After lines like 64. Kf7 b3 65. Na4 Kd7 66. Kf6 Kxd6, it’s an easy endgame win for Kramnik, and Topalov resigned.
The sad thing here is that Toiletgate overshadowed one of the great world championship games of the modern era.
In brief … As noted above, Niemann will join an expanded field of 14 GMs for the kick-off of this year’s U.S. Championship starting Wednesday and running through Oct. 20 at the St. Louis Chess Club. The U.S. Women’s Championship, also with 14 players, kicks off at the same time and same locale. GM Wesley So and IM Carissa Yip are back to defend their 2021 titles, and we’ll have all the action and color in upcoming columns. … Congrats to the 2022 class of inductees into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame: 19th century promoter and chess author Daniel Willard Fiske, GM James Tarjan and IM and superb chess author John Watson. For more details on their remarkable careers, check out the Hall of Fame’s website here.
Topalov-Kramnik, World Championship Match, Game 2, Elista, Russia, September 2006
(Click on the image above to see the entire chessboard.)
1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Nf3 dxc4 5. a4 Bf5 6. e3 e6 7. Bxc4 Bb4 8. O-O Nbd7 9. Qe2 Bg6 10. e4 O-O 11. Bd3 Bh5 12. e5 Nd5 13. Nxd5 cxd5 14. Qe3 Bg6 15. Ng5 Re8 16. f4 Bxd3 17. Qxd3 f5 18. Be3 Nf8 19. Kh1 Rc8 20. g4 Qd7 21. Rg1 Be7 22. Nf3 Rc4 23. Rg2 fxg4 24. Rxg4 Rxa4 25. Rag1 g6 26. h4 Rb4 27. h5 Qb5 28. Qc2 Rxb2 29. hxg6 h5 30. g7 hxg4 31. gxf8=Q+ Bxf8 32. Qg6+ Bg7 33. f5 Re7 34. f6 Qe2 35. Qxg4 Rf7 36. Rc1 Rc2 37. Rxc2 Qd1+ 38. Kg2 Qxc2+ 39. Kg3 Qe4 40. Bf4 Qf5 41. Qxf5 exf5 42. Bg5 a5 43. Kf4 a4 44. Kxf5 a3 45. Bc1 Bf8 46. e6 Rc7 47. Bxa3 Bxa3 48. Ke5 Rc1 49. Ng5 Rf1 50. e7 Re1+ 51. Kxd5 Bxe7 52. fxe7 Rxe7 53. Kd6 Re1 54. d5 Kf8 55. Ne6+ Ke8 56. Nc7+ Kd8 57. Ne6+ Kc8 58. Ke7 Rh1 59. Ng5 b5 60. d6 Rd1 61. Ne6 b4 62. Nc5 Re1+ 63. Kf6 Re3 White resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at email@example.com.