In the eyes of the world's top chess player, 19-year-old chess grandmaster Hans Niemann is a cheater. The world's top chess website apparently agrees.
An investigation conducted by Chess.com into the cheating allegations against Niemann found the American to have cheated in more than 100 games on the platform until he was banned in 2020, according to a report from the site published Tuesday.
Niemann has been under fire since world chess champion Magnus Carlsen accused him of cheating in an over-the-board game at the prestigious Sinquefield Cup last month, when Niemann beat Carlsen despite the disadvantage of playing with black pieces. Niemann has strongly denied the allegations, but admitted to having cheated twice — once at the age of 12 and again at 16 — on Chess.com in games without prize money.
According to the Chess.com report, Niemann cheated a lot more than twice and did it in online matches with prize money attached. The site reportedly used a variety of cheating-detection tools, including a comparison of Niemann's moves to those recommended by chess engines, which can easily beat even the likes of Carlsen.
In a letter from Chess.com’s chief chess officer Danny Rensch to Niemann, Rensch reportedly noted that Niemann's suspicious moves coincided with times he opened a different window on his computer, which could be how he checked an engine for the best possible move.
From the report:
“We are prepared to present strong statistical evidence that confirm each of those cases above, as well as clear ‘toggling’ vs ‘non-toggling’ evidence, where you perform much better while toggling to a different screen during your moves.”
Niemann allegedly confessed to cheating in a phone call with Rensch in 2020, leading to his ban from the site at the age of 17.
Chess.com does have a business connection to Carlsen, as it is currently in the process of buying his "Play Magnus" app for nearly $83 million, per the Wall Street Journal.
Niemann remains under investigation by FIDE, the world chess governing body, over Carlsen's allegations.
Where else has Hans Niemann cheated?
While the Chess.com report is mostly concerned with what Niemann allegedly did on its site, it also comments on a rise through the chess rankings that Carlsen called "unusual" in his statement explicitly accusing Niemann of cheating.
My statement regarding the last few weeks. pic.twitter.com/KY34DbcjLo
— Magnus Carlsen (@MagnusCarlsen) September 26, 2022
Chess players are ranked through an ELO system, in which every win, loss and draw slightly alters a player's rating, with more points given against a higher-rated opponent. Becoming a chess grandmaster requires an ELO rating of 2500, while the elite of elite players typically sit above 2700. Carlsen currently holds the No. 1 ranking at 2856.
The rub with Niemann is that while no one has yet presented definitive proof of him cheating in over-the-board matches (the Chess.com matches were all online) many people believe he has ascended too quickly through the rankings in the last two years for him to not be cheating.
As the WSJ notes, Niemann reached 2300 in late 2015 or early 2016 as a preteen, then needed more than two years to get to 2400. Reaching 2500 took another two years, acquiring grandmaster status in January, 2021.
In the last 18 months, though, Niemann has rocketed up all the way to around 2700. While 17 to 19 is typically a very young age for elite competition, Niemann's rapid ascent came at an unusually old age, though he has defended the rise by saying he focused on over-the-board games after the Chess.com ban.
Even with that reasoning, though, Chess.com found it suspicious that Niemann's rise from the age of 11 to 19.25 exceeds that of players like Carlsen and Bobby Fischer.
From the report:
Outside his online play, Hans is the fastest rising top player in Classical OTB chess in modern history.
With each new generation of chess players, there is a small group who will eventually emerge as the top players. Some of the big names in the current generation are Alireza Firouzja, Vincent Keymer, and Arjun Erigaisi. Looking purely at rating, Hans should be classified as a member of this group of top young players. While we do not doubt that Hans is a talented player, we note that his results are statistically extraordinary.
There are also games in which Niemann has played with perfect or virtually perfect accuracy, which is often the telltale sign of a cheat. However, some revered cheating analysts have been less eager to present those as a smoking gun.
It is again worth noting that no definitive proof has been presented as to how Niemann could be cheating over-the-board (no, it's probably not anal beads). However, Chess.com undercutting Niemann's claim that he only cheated twice further removes him from the benefit of the doubt, and you can only wonder how this ends for a player who has accused Carlsen and Chess.com of attempting to destroy his career.
Hans Niemann is apparently not the only grandmaster who cheats on Chess.com
Thrown in almost as an aside in the Journal report is a sentence that makes you wonder how many other Hans Niemanns there are:
Chess.com’s online cheating-detection system is well known. In our 15+ year history, it has been used to close the accounts of many non-professional online players, hundreds of titled players, dozens of GMs. It has elicited cheating confessions from 4 players in the FIDE top 100.
To quote Hans himself: “They [Chess.com] have the best cheat detection in the world.”
It took extraordinary circumstances for Chess.com to go after Niemann, but there are apparently a few other elite players who shouldn't be throwing stones.