Teenage chess grandmaster Hans Niemann “likely cheated” in more than 100 online matches, according to a bombshell report released by the largest chess website in the world.
Chess.com released a 72-page report on the accusations following a month of controversy that has rocked the world of elite chess. The scandal has centred around 19-year-old upstart chess champion Niemann, who recently beat the best chess player in the world, Magnus Carlsen, in an over-the-board tournament — sparking a discussion about cheating that gave rise to wild allegations.
According to the report, which was first obtained by The Wall Street Journal, Niemann cheated in more than 100 online matches on Chess.com, including games where prize money was on the line as well as 25 games in which Niemann himself was livestreaming. Niemann has so far not responded publicly to the report.
Chess.com uses a variety of cheating-detection tools, including comparing a player’s moves with those recommended by chess engines — which can consistently beat even the best human players.
The report details that Niemann privately confessed to cheating to Chess.com’s chief chess officer in 2020, leading to a temporary ban from the site. The report also included Slack messages between the two discussing Niemann’s return, which Chess.com allows for players who admit wrongdoing.
Last month, Chess.com closed Niemann’s account given his history of cheating and allegations about his recent play, and after analyzing Niemann’s meteoric-yet-inconsistent rise in ELO — a ranking system used by FIDE, the International Chess Federation, to calculate the relative skill of a player.
“While we don’t doubt that Hans is a talented player, we note that his results are statistically extraordinary,” the report said.
Niemann has previously publicly admitted to cheating in online matches, but said they occurred when he was 12, during an online tournament, and 16, while playing “random games.”
“I would never, could even fathom doing it, in a real game,” he said.
Niemann made those comments in an interview following this year’s Sinquefield Cup, a prestigious chess tournament that saw the eruption of the scandal.
How did we get here?
On Sept. 4, Niemann beat Magnus Carlsen, the world chess champion, while playing black — a distinct disadvantage as the white side makes the first move — at the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis. The outcome was a major upset.
There were only 10 players participating in the competition and Niemann was the lowest-rated chess player in the batch, and yet he somehow defeated the best chess player in the world, bringing an end to Carlsen’s 53-game unbeaten streak.
A day after the defeat, Carlsen abruptly withdrew from the tournament.
He announced the decision on Twitter, sharing a cryptic message that many in the chess community took as Carlsen insinuating that Niemann had cheated in order to win.
Weeks later, Carlsen and Niemann played in an online match and Carlsen quit the game after making just one move. Days later, Carlsen publicly accused Niemann of cheating.
“I believe that Niemann has cheated more — and more recently — than he has publicly admitted,” Carlsen wrote. “His over the board progress has been unusual, 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.”
The Chess.com report seems to agree with Carlsen’s statement after finding evidence of more than 100 suspect matches, not a couple of infractions, with the most recent violation occurring when Niemann was 17, not 16.
Chess.com released this report after the grandmaster publicly questioned why he had been banned from the Chess.com Global Championship, a million-dollar prize event whose finals are taking place in Toronto this year. The site said that it felt “compelled to share the basis” for its decision.
The report also included a letter that Chess.com’s chief chess officer sent to Niemann explaining that “there always remained serious concerns about how rampant your cheating was in prize events.” It added that a number of Niemann’s suspicious moves in the flagged games coincided with moments when he toggled to a different screen on his computer — an indication that Niemann was consulting a chess engine while playing.
So did Niemann cheat against Carlsen?
Chess.com noted that it isn’t typically involved in detecting cheating for over-the-board chess and did not make any conclusive statements about if he cheated in person or against Carlsen at the Sinquefield Cup.
The report did say that a number of Niemann’s games “merit further investigation based on the data,” and FIDE is conducting its own investigation into Niemann and the allegations made by Carlsen.
Chess.com’s report did, however, look at Niemann’s history as a player and found “many remarkable signals and unusual patterns.”
Niemann was ranked around 2300 in the ELO system in early 2016 and it took him more than two years to rise 100 points to 2400. It took another two years for Niemann’s ranking to rise around 2500 — the ranking of a grandmaster — and he officially achieved grandmaster status in January 2021 at 17.
Over the next 18 months, Niemann’s ELO score rose more than 180 points — a much higher rate of growth than what he achieved as a youth, and against much more skilled opponents at that.
“Our view of the data is that Hans, however, has had an uncharacteristically erratic growth period mired by consistent plateaus,” the report says.
Chess.com also addressed Niemann’s postgame analysis of his controversial match against Carlsen. According to some top players, Niemann’s analysis of his positions showed a lack of understanding of the moves he had just played, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The report said Niemann’s analysis seemed “to be at odds with the level of preparation that Hans claimed was at play in the game and the level of analysis needed to defeat the World Chess Champion.”
Identifying cheating in over-the-board games is no small feat unless players are caught in the act. Elite players often require little assistance to cheat and tactics can include a coach standing in pre-arranged places in the room to indicate which piece to move. Or, as some chess fans have posited, using anal beads inserted inside a player to vibrate the correct moves to them.
Nevertheless, Niemann himself, speaking at the Sinquefield Cup, said he believed that Chess.com has “the best cheat detection in the world.” But it remains to be seen what FIDE’s investigation into his over-the-board games turns up.
Chess.com’s report also addressed that the site has a business relationship with Carlsen, as it is buying his Play Magnus app for around US$83 million. It said that while Niemann’s game against Carlsen did prompt the site to investigate his behaviour, Carlsen “didn’t talk with, ask for, or directly influence Chess.com’s decisions at all.”
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