The chess world was reeling when 13 of America’s best players convened in early October for the US Chess Championship in St. Louis. The previous month, top-ranked Magnus Carlsen, 33, suffered a surprising defeat in the same city at the hands of 19-year-old upstart Hans Niemann. Carlsen accused his opponent of cheating—without providing evidence—while Niemann proclaimed his innocence.
There was little prospect of closure as Niemann, broad-shouldered with a mop of curly hair, settled into the match room in St. Louis. (Carlsen wasn’t competing.) Chess seemed to return to its usual form: a game of profound intensity played in churchlike quiet. Niemann started the two-week-long event strong, stumbled through a string of losses, then pulled it together to finish in the middle of the pack, about what you’d expect from a player at his level. Nothing about his tournament play raised any eyebrows. “Even people who were extremely critical of him are saying that his performance is not really noteworthy,” says chess journalist Greg Keener.