Hans Niemann is launching a counterattack in his dispute with chess world champion Magnus Carlsen, filing a federal lawsuit that accuses Carlsen of maliciously colluding with others to defame the 19-year-old grandmaster and ruin his career.
It's the latest move in a scandal that has injected unprecedented levels of drama into the world of elite chess since early September, when Carlsen suggested Niemann's upset victory over him at the Sinquefield Cup tournament in St. Louis was the result of cheating.
Niemann wants a federal court in Missouri's eastern district to award him at least $100 million in damages. Defendants in the lawsuit include Carlsen, his company Play Magnus Group, the online platform Chess.com and its leader, Danny Rensch, along with grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura.
The lawsuit says that in the aftermath of Niemann's upset win in September, Carlsen has been motivated to preserve his status as the "king of chess" so he could complete his company's buyout by Chess.com — a deal worth tens of millions of dollars.
The court filing accuses Rensch and Nakamura of using their influence to amplify and bolster Carlsen's claims that Niemann is a cheater. The suit seeking a jury trial was filed on Thursday, one day after Niemann finished the U.S. Chess Championship tournament in a five-way tie for fifth place.
Chess.com again rejects Niemann's version of events
Niemann has publicly admitted using electronic devices to cheat in online matches — but he insists he only did so when he was 12 and 16 years old. He called one of those instances "an absolutely ridiculous mistake." And other than when he was 12, Niemann said, he had never cheated in a tournament with prize money. He called it "the worst thing that I could ever do."
Niemann, who like other top players hosts lucrative video accounts on Twitch and other services, also said he hadn't cheated when he was streaming games.
But in early October, Chess.com issued a report rejecting Niemann's narrative, stating, "Hans has likely cheated in more than 100 online chess games, including several prize money events. He was already 17 when he likely cheated in some of these matches and games. He was also streaming in 25 of these games."
In response to the new lawsuit, Chess.com published a statement from its attorneys saying that the new allegations have no merit, and that the company "looks forward to setting the record straight on behalf of its team and all honest chess players."
Noting that Niemann last month publicly confessed to cheating, the company added, "the resulting fallout is of his own making."
NPR's requests for comment from other defendants in the lawsuit were not answered before this article was published.
Niemann says Carlsen couldn't handle losing to him
The lawsuit provides Niemann's fullest account yet about his high-stakes dispute with Carlsen. It describes the Norwegian, who is regarded as one of the best chess players in history, as being "notorious for his inability to cope with defeat."
Carlsen rattled the chess world in late September, when he was once again matched against Niemann in a tournament — but according to Niemann's lawsuit, Carlsen "gutlessly forfeited the game after making one move." Carlsen later stated outright that he would refuse to play Niemann because of his past links to cheating.
Niemann says that stance amounts to blacklisting him, as tournaments that are either sponsored by companies affiliated with Carlsen or that want the world champion to appear would be motivated not to extend an invitation to Niemann.
"Defendants' malicious defamation and unlawful collusion has, by design, destroyed Niemann's remarkable career in its prime and ruined his life," the lawsuit states.
In Niemann's view, his victory over Carlsen "should have propelled Niemann's career to the next level and allowed him to continue realizing his enormous potential as the next great American chess player." But, the lawsuit adds, "Unbeknownst to Niemann at the time, Defendants would do whatever it took ensure that this would never happen."