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The trickle of cheating information plaguing elite chess turned into a torrent on Tuesday night, when Chess.com said it believes Hans Niemann, a 19-year-old grandmaster, cheated in more than 100 games.
The report — which spans 72 pages of supporting documents such as email conversations — sends another shock through the chess world. Interest in the US Chess Championships starting Wednesday in St. Louis is mounting, as Niemann and 13 other players compete for the title.
The tournament, which streams games on YouTube and Twitch, has $250,000 in prize money at stake. The game kicks off at 2pm ET every day and will run for the next two weeks. In his first match, Niemann will face 15-year-old Christopher Woojin Yoo.
When approached by NPR, neither Niemann nor the tournament organizers responded on Wednesday.
It’s the latest development in a scandal that has gripped people outside the chess world since a month ago when world champion Magnus Carlsen abruptly withdrew from a tournament after losing to Niemann, hinting at foul play. Two weeks later, Carlsen dropped a match against Niemann after one move instead of playing him again, then accused him of cheating.
Niemann will play for the American title despite suspicions
Despite the website’s damning report, Niemann should still be allowed to compete in the U.S. chess championships, says Ken Regan, a chess cheating authority who is a professor of computer science and engineering at the University at Buffalo.
“Disputes over jurisdictions between online chess and in-person chess have not been resolved,” Regan told NPR.
Regan also notes that Niemann has a good reputation among the three relevant organizations behind the championship tournament, referring to the St. Louis Chess Club (which hosts the competition), the American Chess Federation, and FIDE, the world governing body.
The Chess.com report cites Regan as an independent expert and says he agrees with the conclusions that Niemann cheated in multiple online events with cash prizes in 2015 and 2017, as well as in “numerous matches against other professional players in 2020.” .”
Chess cheating often takes the form of secretly getting move recommendations from a computer program, known as a chess engine.
While Chess.com’s findings blame Niemann’s play in online games, the report acknowledges “a lack of concrete statistical evidence” that Niemann cheated in face-to-face or “over-the-board” (OTB) games.
Still, the report suggests further research is needed to study “how Hans became the fastest-rising top player in classic OTB chess in modern history much later in life than his peers.” It also notes that Niemann’s rating rose after the site quietly suspended him in 2020 when it confronted him with evidence of cheating.
What Niemann Said About Cheating
On September 6, Niemann publicly admitted to using electronic devices to cheat, but he insisted he didn’t do so until he was 12 and 16 years old. At first, Niemann said, he was “just a kid.” He called the second “an absolutely ridiculous mistake.”
Except when he was 12, Niemann said, he’d never cheated in a prize money tournament. It was “the worst thing I could ever do,” he said.
Niemann also said he didn’t cheat when streaming games (many top players have lucrative video accounts on Twitch and other services).
The report clashes with Niemann’s statements
But the new Chess.com report states: “Hans probably cheated in more than 100 online chess games, including several prize money events. He was already 17 when he probably cheated in some of these matches and games. He also streamed in 25 of these games.”
That’s far more than the handful of games seemingly referenced in 2020, when the site initially suspended Niemann for six months. According to the report, other players and Chess.com employees had lingering doubts about Niemann, which only increased after his suspension in 2020, as his ranking rose and he was ready to compete in high-profile events with big payouts.
Chess.com says its anti-cheating technology found numerous problems when it conducted an in-depth review of Niemann’s career. It says the system can “detect engine influence patterns that provide a certainty that we can stand behind.”
When asked for his thoughts on Chess.com’s anti-cheating measures, Regan called it a “versatile” system that includes information collected through the website’s interface.
While Regan hasn’t tried to independently reproduce all of the site’s findings, he said, “I generally don’t argue with their methods; mine could be sharper in the vein where we overlap.”
The case has spotlighted cheating in chess
Director General of the International Chess Federation Emil Sutovsky said recently that in the chess community we “need a social contract, in which we agree that cheating, especially online, often remains in the gray zone.”
When asked how common cheating is at the elite level, Regan said, “In online chess, several other elite players have been sanctioned, even apart from Chess.com and what they say in the report.”
As for personal cheating, he added: “I don’t know of any general case involving anyone with a rating of 2700 or higher, ie the top 50-60” in the world that was significant.