Chess.com released a 72-page “Hans Niemann Report” at midnight that claims “Hans likely cheated online much more than his public statements suggest,” and also claims that his statistical improvement in over-the-board (OTB) chess would be by far the greatest in the known history of chess, and that the rate and extent of his improvement would far outpace that of Bobby Fischer and all known chess prodigies.
The bombshell report is the latest wrinkle in the ongoing chess cheating drama that started when Niemann, 19, beat chess world champion Magnus Carlsen last month in an OTB chess match at the Sinquefield Cup, one of the highest profile chess tournaments in the world. Following that match, Carlsen dropped out of the tournament and slyly suggested that Niemann cheated; that has since blown up into a sport-wide shitstorm about cheating in chess and how it is policed. Excerpts from the Chess.com report were first published by the Wall Street Journal.
Chess.com’s Hans Niemann Report is yet another shoe to drop in this saga, and comes after Chess.com banned Niemann following his match with Carlsen. Niemann previously admitted to cheating on chess.com when he was younger, but claimed that it was the “biggest mistake of my life” and said he did it only to increase his ranking to play against players more suited to his skill level.
“Overall, we have found that Hans has likely cheated in more than 100 online chess games, including several prize money events,” the report states. “He was already 17 when he likely cheated in some of these matches and games. He was also streaming in 25 of these games.” Chess.com claims that this contradicts Niemann’s public statements. Niemann has admitted publicly to cheating when he was 12 years old and again when he was 16 years old. He said “other than when I was 12 years old, I have never, ever, ever – and I would never do that, that is the worst thing that I could ever do – cheat in a tournament with prize money … never when I was streaming did I cheat.”
Chess.com says that its cheat detection protocol—which more or less takes moves recommended by chess AI programs (called chess engines) and compares them to historical moves made by millions of real players across various skill levels and ratings to assess the likelihood of any move or pattern of moves being made by a player in a specific game—repeatedly flagged Niemann’s games as being along a “spectrum” of cheating that ranges from “every move is an engine move” to “‘we don’t have enough evidence to close’ (i.e., where the player’s moves are unusually sophisticated but still within realistic bounds of statistical possibility).” This is how Chess.com describes its cheat detection system in the report:
Chess.com’s report also shares Slack messages and other communications with Niemann that appear to show him admitting to cheating. The messages show Niemann asking to be allowed to play in a specific tournament in 2020.
“Hey just wanted to check in to see if you talked to your team and I also remember you initially saying 6 months [ban] in our first call but I could be misremembering,” Niemann says in one of the slacks. “Anyways, I don’t intend to fight any sort of consequences and completely understand whatever you decide is appropriate.”
Chess.com tells him that they were not willing to let him play at that time; Niemann later says he’s “not going to stream competitive chess too much because I’m honestly afraid to ‘over perform’ … since it just really hurts to have my play questioned.”
The Chess.com report says that it does not have any specific evidence that Niemann cheated against Carlsen, but does attempt to explain that it’s possible to cheat in OTB games and that Niemann’s rise to prominence in the live chess space is a suspicious statistical anomaly. “Hans is the fastest-rising top player in Classical OTB chess in modern history,” the report said. “While we do not doubt that Hans is a talented player, we note that his results are statistically extraordinary.”
The International Chess Federation (FIDE) is the governing body of the game and it tracks a score for each big name player called an ELO. A player’s ELO number represents a player's skill rating relative to every other ranked player. The chess.com report tracked Niemann’s OTB ELO and compared it to other chess prodigies of the same age, as well as some historical figures. “Hans had the fastest and biggest increase in his score over time in comparison to his peers and other notable players, when considering all of their known Classical OTB games played from age 11-19,” the report said.
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Charted out, his ELO scores show two strange periods where he plateaus for years before suddenly exploding upwards in the ranks. “In general, prodigies that reach 2700 have smoother trajectories because they are working consistently toward their goal,” the report said. “They generally plateau or reach slower rates of growth once they start to hit their peak. Our view of the data is that Hans, however, has had an uncharacteristically erratic growth period mired by consistent plateaus.”
It’s also strange because Niemann’s improvements came late in life. “The conventional wisdom is that if you are not a [grandmaster] by age 14, it is unlikely that you can reach the top levels of chess,” the report said. “While that statement may seem discouraging, it has been borne out in modern chess. Greats like Fischer, Kasparov, Carlsen, and almost all of the modern GMs who have been established as top five players, were notable GMs by age 15 at the latest.” Niemannn achieved grandmaster status at the age of 17.
The controversy has been a hot topic of conversation in the chess world since the OTB match on September 4. The pair played each other again in a digital match on Sept. 19, and Carlsen resigned after two moves and turned off his webcam. Carlsen had been silent for much of the month following the initial match, but finally released a statement on Sept. 26 saying that Niemann had cheated “more—and more recently—than he has publicly admitted.” Last week, Motherboard reported that Niemann’s coach, Maxim Dlugy, admitted to Chess.com that he cheated in his own games.
Again, there is still no hard evidence that Niemann cheated against Carlsen. He has not publicly admitted to it and chess.com was careful with its report. “In our view there is a lack of concrete statistical evidence that he cheated in his game with Magnus or in any other over-the-board (“OTB”)—i.e., in-person—games,” it said. “We are presenting our findings here and will cooperate with FIDE on any further investigation.”
As a result of the investigation and ongoing controversy, chess.com has removed hans from chess.com and withdrawn his invitation to its 2022 Global Championship.