The latest bombshell in the scandal that has rocked the chess world to its foundation dropped on Tuesday when an investigation into the games of Hans Niemann found the American grandmaster has cheated far more frequently than previously disclosed.
The 72-page report, conducted by Chess.com and initially reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, found that Niemann “likely received illegal assistance in more than 100 online games” as recently as 2020, including in events where prize money was at stake.
The suspicions around Niemann, a 19-year-old who has made a meteoric ascent into the world’s top 50 over the past four years, were initially amplified last month when the world champion Magnus Carlsen first suggested, then outright declared, the American was winning through illegitimate means.
Niemann has mounted a vigorous denial of the allegations, though he did confess to violating the rules of fair play at least twice in the past by using the assistance of chess engines: first as a 12-year-old in an online tournament, and then as a 16-year-old playing unrated games while streaming.
But the Chess.com report, which relied on cheating-detection tools including a comparison of a player’s moves to those recommended by powerful supercomputers, has offered compelling data-driven evidence that dramatically contradicts those statements. The investigation made no conclusions regarding Niemann’s over-the-board games, but did flag contests from six of his stronger in-person events, stating they “merit further investigation based on the data”.
The full investigation, which was made public on Tuesday evening, stated that Niemann privately confessed to the allegations, and that he was subsequently banned from for a period of time from Chess.com, the world’s most popular chess platform.
The scandal erupted in September when Niemann beat Carlsen while playing with the black pieces at the $500,000 (£433,000) Sinquefield Cup in St Louis, ending the current world champion’s 53-game unbeaten streak in classical over-the-board games. The shocking defeat and Carlsen’s withdrawal ignited a maelstrom of comments and allegations that Niemann was cheating including from Hikaru Nakamura, the American grandmaster once ranked No 2 in the world.
Unsatisfied by Niemann’s explanation that he had somehow guessed what opening the Norwegian would play, Carlsen abruptly withdrew from the tournament, a virtually unprecedented decision for a sitting world champion that was interpreted as an act of protest. “If I speak I am in big trouble,” Carlsen tweeted, making a strong allusion to impropriety on his opponent’s side.
The controversy redoubled two weeks later when Carlsen and Niemann met again in the sixth round of the online Julius Baer Generation Cup and the world No 1 sensationally resigned after making just one move. Carlsen finally clarified his cryptic allusions with an official statement one week after, saying he was unwilling to “play against people that have cheated repeatedly in the past” and that he believed Niemann had cheated “more than he has admitted”.
— chess24.com (@chess24com) September 19, 2022
“When Niemann was invited last minute to the 2022 Sinquefield Cup, I strongly considered withdrawing prior to the event,” Carlsen said. “I ultimately chose to play. I believe that Niemann has cheated more – and more recently – than he has publicly admitted.
“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 only think a handful of players can do. This game contributed to changing my perspective.”
The Chess.com report backed up Carlsen’s assessment of Niemann’s uncommonly rapid climb up Fide’s world ratings – a gain of 350 Elo points in four years and an astonishing surge from 2,500 to 2,600 in just three months – describing his rise as “statistically extraordinary” while stopping short of concluding that he’s cheated in any over-the-board games.
“Outside his online play, Hans is the fastest rising top player in Classical [over-the-board] chess in modern history,” the report said. “Looking purely at rating, Hans should be classified as a member of this group of top young players. While we don’t doubt that Hans is a talented player, we note that his results are statistically extraordinary.”
The report further explains the methodology behind Chess.com’s cheat-detection tools, which include: “analytics that compare moves to those recommended by chess engines; studies of a player’s past performance and strength profile; monitoring behavior such as players opening up other browsers while playing; and input from grandmaster fair play analysts”. Notably, it revealed that “dozens” of grandmasters have been caught cheating on Chess.com, including some of the world’s current top 100, all of whom confessed.
It also addressed Niemann’s curious postgame analysis of his stunning win over Carlsen in St Louis, which top players at the time characterised as “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”.
Niemann has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing at any point in recent years, stating one day after his win over Carlsen at the Sinquefield Cup that he’d only cheated twice in the past.
“I cheated on random games on Chess.com,” Niemann said. “I was confronted. I confessed. And this is the single biggest mistake of my life. And I am completely ashamed. I am telling the world because I don’t want misrepresentations and I don’t want rumours. I have never cheated in an over-the-board game. And other than when I was 12 years old I have never cheated in a tournament with prize money.”
Fide, the sport’s world governing body, issued a statement last week saying it will convene its own three-person panel to look into the allegations.
“The focus of the investigation would be twofold: checking the world champion’s claims of alleged cheating by Niemann and Niemann’s self-statement regarding online cheating,” it read. “The panel will ensure a fair ruling, protecting the rights of both parties during the investigation.”