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Hans Niemann is accused of cheating in more than 100 chess games. He's playing today

Chess.com alleges that 19-year-old grandmaster Hans Niemann has cheated in more than 100 games.
Pongkiat Rungrojkarnka/EyeEm/Getty Images/EyeEm
Chess.com alleges that 19-year-old grandmaster Hans Niemann has cheated in more than 100 games.

The trickle of information about the cheating scandal wracking elite chess turned into a deluge Tuesday night, when Chess.com said it believes Hans Niemann, a 19-year-old grandmaster, cheated in more than 100 games.

The report — which runs to 72 pages with supporting documents such as email conversations — is sending a fresh jolt through the chess world. It's intensifying interest in the U.S. Chess Championships that began in St. Louis on Wednesday, where Niemann and 13 other players are vying for the title.

The tournament, streaming games on YouTube and Twitch, has $250,000 in prize money at stake. Play begins each day at 2 p.m. ET and will run for the next two weeks. In his first match, Niemann beat 15-year-old Christopher Woojin Yoo with play that chess writer Dennis Monokroussos described as "something less than computer-like perfection."

When contacted by NPR, neither Niemann nor tournament organizers offered a comment on Wednesday.

It's the latest development in a scandal that has gripped people beyond the chess world since a month ago, when world champion Magnus Carlsen abruptly withdrew from a tournament after losing to Niemann and hinted at foul play. Two weeks later, Carlsen resigned a game against Niemann after one move rather than play against him again, and then accused him of cheating.

Niemann will play for the U.S. title despite suspicions

Despite the website's damning report, Niemann should still be allowed to play in the in-person U.S. Chess Championships, says Ken Regan, an authority on cheating in chess who is a professor of computer science and engineering at the University at Buffalo.

"Cross-jurisdiction matters between online chess and in-person chess have not been resolved," Regan told NPR.

Regan also notes that Niemann remains in good standing with the three relevant organizations behind the championship tournament, referring to the St. Louis Chess Club (which is hosting the competition), the U.S. Chess Federation and FIDE, the world governing body.

The Chess.com report cites Regan as an independent expert, saying he agrees with its conclusions that Niemann cheated in multiple cash-prize online events in 2015 and 2017, and also in "numerous matches against other professional players in 2020."

Cheating in chess often takes the form of secretly getting move recommendations from a computer program, known as a chess engine.

While the Chess.com findings incriminate Niemann's play in online games, the report acknowledges "a lack of concrete statistical evidence" that Niemann has cheated in any in-person or "over-the-board" (OTB) games.

Still, the report suggests further review is needed to study "how Hans became the fastest rising top player in Classical OTB chess in modern recorded history much later in life than his peers." It also notes that Niemann's rating soared after the site quietly suspended him in 2020, when it confronted him with evidence of cheating.

What Niemann has said about cheating

On Sept. 6, Niemann publicly admitted using electronic devices to cheat — but he insisted he only did so when he was 12 and 16 years old. In the first instance, Niemann said, he was "just a child." He called the second "an absolutely ridiculous mistake."

Other than when he was 12, Niemann said, he had never cheated in a tournament with prize money. It was "the worst thing that I could ever do," he said.

Niemann also said he hadn't cheated when he was streaming games (many top players run lucrative video accounts on Twitch and other services).

The report clashes with Niemann's statements

But the new Chess.com report states, "Hans has likely cheated in more than 100 online chess games, including several prize money events. He was already 17 when he likely cheated in some of these matches and games. He was also streaming in 25 of these games."

That's far more than the handful of games that were seemingly referenced in 2020, when the site initially suspended Niemann for six months. According to the report, other players and Chess.com staff had lingering doubts about Niemann that only grew after his 2020 suspension, as his ranking soared and he was poised to compete in high-profile events with large payouts.

Chess.com says its anti-cheating technology found numerous problems when it conducted a deep review of Niemann's career. It says its system can "detect patterns of influence from engines that amount to a certainty that we can stand behind."

When asked for his view of Chess.com's anti-cheating measures, Regan called it a "multifaceted" system that includes information gathered through the website's interface.

While Regan hasn't tried to reproduce every one of the site's findings independently, he said, "In general I have no quarrel with their methods; mine may be sharper in the vein where we overlap."

The case has put a bright spotlight on cheating in chess

International Chess Federation Director-General Emil Sutovsky recently said that in the chess community, "we need a social contract, agreeing that cheating, in particular online, will often remain in the gray zone."

When asked how prevalent 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 in-person cheating, he added, "I do not know of any over-the-board case involving someone rated 2700 or above, i.e. top 50-60" in the world that were significant.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.