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Chess: Carlsen lawyers move to dismiss Niemann libel suit

Deutsche Welle 12/3/2022 Mark Hallam, Deutsche Welle
63513274_303.jpg © Crystal Fuller/Saint Louis Chess Club/dpa/picture alliance 63513274_303.jpg

In chess' cheating drama, lawyers for Magnus Carlsen and the chess.com company have called on US courts to dismiss Hans Niemann's claim for $100 million in damages with prejudice. They say Niemann should pay their costs.World champion Magnus Carlsen and chess.com's lawyers made the next move in professional chess' recent high-profile cheating scandal on Friday, filing motions urging US courts to throw out a defamation lawsuit submitted by teenage American grandmaster Hans Niemann.

They argued that Niemann's allegations of defamation and commercial conspiracy failed on multiple grounds, most notably because they say he never demonstrated an instance of legally actionable defamation or evidence of conspiracy.

"After years of trying to curate a reputation as the bad boy of chess, Plaintiff Hans Niemann wants to cash in by blaming others for the fallout from his own admitted misconduct," Carlsen's lawyers, from Axinn, Veltrop & Harkinder, wrote.

"Niemann's Amended Complaint concedes that he has a well-known history of cheating. But rather than dealing with the unsurprising consequences of his own actions, Niemann now seeks to shift blame to reigning World Champion Magnus Carlsen and others, claiming a wholly implausible conspiracy to defame and boycott Niemann that somehow damaged his already dubious reputation to the tune of $100 million."

They called for the case to be thrown out with prejudice and requested that Niemann be asked to cover Carlsen's legal costs.

Chess.com's court filing argues that all five elements of Niemann's complaint are "plainly without merit," and that the case "could have been brought only as a publicity stunt."

The two motions were filed on the same day and make reference to their similarity to one another.

How did this all begin?

The case has brought increased attention, also from outside the chess world, to the issue of cheating in chess and even prompted beefed-up security at other tournaments.

It started early in September when Carlsen withdrew from the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis a day after losing to Niemann.

At first, Carlsen was cryptic in his comments, although people, including Nakamura in his streams, soon inferred he was hinting at Niemann's reputation for having cheated in online play in the past. Niemann's chess.com account was also suspended.

Niemann responded with criticism of Carlsen, chess.com, Nakamura, and others, and said he had only ever cheated a handful of times online as a young boy and never in prize tournaments.

Then, Carlsen resigned after playing just one move against Niemann in another competition just a week later, seemingly confirming the already-furious gossip about his initial reasons.

"I believe that Hans Niemann has cheated more -- and more recently -- than he has publicly admitted," Carlsen eventually said of the case, adding that he did not want to play against people with a history of cheating in the future and urging professional chess to do more to prevent it.

He also said Niemann's behavior in his over-the-board, in-person defeat in September had seemed suspicious to him, but again he stopped short of a direct accusation pertaining to that game.

Around the same time, chess.com published a detailed report on its decision to suspend Niemann for six months in 2020, including a computer analysis of 100 games, and direct communications between Niemann and chess.com's chief chess officer, international master Danny Rensch. In these, Niemann admits to the wrongdoing and calls his sanction "very fair."

Despite this online history, there's no known evidence of Niemann cheating at an over-the-board tournament, including according to final reports from the Sinquefield Cup arbiters. Carlsen's lawyers however noted that security measures were only tightened after Carlsen's defeat and withdrawal from the competition.

In October, Niemann sued Carlsen, his Play Magnus Group companies, chess.com, Rensch and Nakamura for defamation, conspiracy, and a conscious effort to stifle his ability to earn money as a professional chess player.

No evidence of intentional and conscious lying?

One part of the dispute rests over jurisdiction, where the case should be tried and which US state's law applies. Carlsen's legal team argues it should be Connecticut, not Missouri where Niemann filed suit, because it is both Niemann's place of residence and the site of the Sinquefield Cup game between Carlsen and Niemann that triggered the whole affair.

But the lawyers argue the defamation claims, which they say underpin all the other charges, fall apart under any US jurisdiction.

Carlsen's lawyers argue that neither his withdrawal from the Sinquefield Cup nor his resignation in the later game can be slanderous or libelous as they are actions rather than verbal statements.

They also say Carlsen talking to the Sinquefield Cup director about boosting security before his withdrawal is protected by qualified privilege and cannot be libelous, as both Carlsen and the tournament director were involved and had a direct interest in cheat detection there.

They then argue that all the allegedly defamatory or slanderous statements identified by Niemann can be shown to be Carlsen's opinions and "protected speech" under US law, as they concern a fellow public figure.

"As a public figure, Niemann must allege either that Carlsen knew the statements he allegedly made were false or was reckless about whether they were true. Niemann's own allegations show he cannot meet this high bar," they write.

Instead, they argue that the defendants were voicing their "sincerely held opinions" based either on personal impressions, computer analysis, or known history.

No evidence of conspiracy or causation?

The motions to dismiss also argue Niemann failed to show any proof of a conspiracy between the parties -- neither to defame Niemann nor to "boycott and blacklist" him from the chess world. They say the only evidence of the known commercial ties that do bind them.

Chess.com, for which Nakamura is a high-profile contributor as a player, streamer and pundit, recently bought out Carlsen's Play Magnus chain of chess businesses for $80 million.

Chess.com's lawyers have called the player's suspension on the website and exclusion from tournaments it runs a consequence of Niemann's actions rather than Carlsen's comments.

Niemann had also cited third-party earnings opportunities that had fallen through and blamed the defendants for this, namely a revoked invitation to the Tata Steel Chess Tournament and a canceled match with German teenage star Vincent Keymer.

But the defendant's lawyers, in this case chess.com's, argue that Niemann's lawsuit "fails to allege any facts regarding Chess.com's actual knowledge of his negotiations with the Tata Steel Chess Tournament or a planned match with Keymer."

What comes next is not clear. Niemann's lawyers have an opportunity to respond, as would the defendants' lawyers in a reply brief thereafter. The likely eventual upshot is the court holding a hearing to decide whether a trial should go ahead.

Edited by: Sean Sinico

Copyright 2022 DW.COM, Deutsche Welle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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