Hans Niemann is one of the top-ranked chess players in the world and has, for the past two weeks, been at the center of an ever-widening scandal involving accusations of cheating at the game’s highest level.
That scandal is now widening still more: Maxim Dlugy, one of Niemann’s coaches, was banned from Chess.com in 2017 and 2020 for repeatedly cheating in its tournaments, according to emails reviewed by Motherboard in which Dlugy admits to cheating. They include a lengthy explanation from Dlugy in which he says that students from his chess academy were watching him play in a Chess.com tournament, and that one of them was using a chess AI to feed him moves.
Dlugy, a 56-year-old grandmaster and former junior world champion and top blitz chess player, is well-known in the chess world. For the last several years, he has run the Chess Max Academy, a chess school with locations in Manhattan and Connecticut. Private lessons with Dlugy start at $250 per hour.
In one email, Dlugy says that in 2017, he was playing in a tournament on Chess.com in front of his students, and was crowdsourcing moves from them. (This is, itself, a violation of Chess.com's fair play rules.) "I am now positive, that one of the kids, was using an program on his cell while this was going on," Dlugy wrote. "As you can imagine, I liked many of his moves, though I had no idea that he was using assistance to generate them.” Dlugy admitted in a later email that it was not the only time he cheated.
Dlugy was banned from Chess.com but was allowed to come back with a new username, and was eventually allowed to compete in tournaments again. In 2020, he was caught again. "I agree that I violated the rules as I had some help in some of the games from an outside source," Dlugy wrote in a 2020 email reviewed by Motherboard. "I promise it will not happen again."
The emails, which were provided to Motherboard by Chess.com, is the latest shoe to drop in the discussion about cheating that started because Magnus Carlsen, the world's top player, accused Niemann, a 19-year-old student of Dlugy's, of cheating against him in a match. That saga has taken the chess world by storm, and, on Monday, Carlsen publicly claimed in an open letter to "the Chess World" that chess has a massive cheating problem, and that more must be done to call out cheaters and ensure fair play.
“I believe that cheating in chess is a big deal and an existential threat to the game,” Carlsen wrote. “I also believe that chess organizers and all those who care about the sanctity of the game we love should seriously consider increasing security measures and methods of cheat detection for over the board chess … We must do something about cheating.”
In other sports and in esports, it is common practice for cheaters to be named and shamed, and to receive lengthy suspensions. In a somewhat analogous situation, for example, both the general manager and the field manager of Major League Baseball’s Houston Astros were suspended for a year over their players using banned electronic methods to steal signs. The emails obtained by Motherboard show that, historically, Chess.com has seemingly preferred to handle cheating privately. With Carlsen's statement, the release of these emails, and the news that Chess.com recently banned Niemann for cheating on the platform, that position may be changing.
Dlugy told Motherboard that he believes cheating is rife on Chess.com, but would not comment specifically on the emails. "If the article you are writing about is about confessions made to chess.com by alleged violators of their Fair Play policies, the scope of your article will include thousands of closed accounts which I doubt would be something you would be completing anytime soon. This should give everyone the time to see how the story unwinds."
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Chess.com says on its website that it detects cheating by using a tool that calculates the probability of a given move and reviews patterns of play. It says the system "gathers and reviews different types of data and other information pulled automatically (and manually) from all member games. We load these games into a tool that provides the probability that a given player is playing cleanly or with the assistance of a computer engine. Before any accounts are closed, all reports are thoroughly reviewed by a team of specialists who have reviewed and closed thousands of accounts in their roles as Chess.com statisticians."
Its cheating page says it has "has received hundreds of confessions, including from both premium members and titled players," and has anonymously posted some of those confessions online.
Last week, Carlsen was asked what he thought of Niemann, the up-and-comer who defeated him at a high-profile tournament and whom Magnus eventually accused of cheating. Carlsen gave a peculiar answer: “Unfortunately I cannot particularly speak on that. But, you know, people can draw their own conclusion and they certainly have. I have to say I’m very impressed by Niemann’s play, and I think his mentor Maxim Dlugy must be doing a great job.”
The comment sparked a new firestorm: Why did Carlsen namedrop Dlugy? Chess followers were quick to point out that Dlugy had, in 2017 and 2020, mysteriously pulled out of two high profile tournaments on Chess.com, the world’s largest online chess platform.
They also pointed to two Facebook posts made by Dlugy. One is a photo of Niemann and Dlugy posing together from July that is captioned, "Congratulations to my student Hans Niemann for being awarded the Samford Fellowship and becoming a top 50 player in the world! Go Hans!" The other is a post by Dlugy immediately after Niemann beat Carlsen:
“Just 16 months ago or so, I recommended to Hans to really focus on endings. He devoted a lot of time to this pivotal part of the game and today I am proud to say that his endgame play is sufficient to beat the reigning World Champion from a better position,” Dlugy wrote. “That’s powerful! Hans Niemann - Chess speaks for itself!"
But, according to emails newly obtained by Motherboard from 2017 and 2020, Dlugy admitted to cheating multiple times on Chess.com, and was originally banned from the platform but allowed to come back under a different account, which was later banned after he was caught cheating again. The emails were provided to Motherboard by Chess.com after we asked for comment on Carlsen's comments about Niemann and Dlugy.
Niemann did not respond to Motherboard's request for comment. None of the Chess.com emails reviewed by Motherboard mention or pertain to Niemann, and no one has provided any evidence that Niemann cheated against Carlsen, though Chess.com did ban Niemann after he beat Carlsen at the Sinquefield Cup tournament earlier this month. (Chess.com said of Niemann's ban: "We have shared detailed evidence with him concerning our decision, including information that contradicts his statements regarding the amount and seriousness of his cheating on Chess.com.") Niemann has admitted to cheating when he was 12 and 16, but says he has never cheated in an over-the-board match: "This is the single biggest mistake of my life and I’m completely ashamed, and I’m telling the world because I do not want any misrepresentation and I do not want rumors. I have never cheated in an over-the-board game.”
The emails reviewed by Motherboard pertain only to Dlugy's own conduct.
The first set of emails pertain to a weekly Chess.com tournament for grandmasters called Titled Tuesday. The tournament in question took place April 4, 2017. After winning several matches, Dlugy was kicked out of the tournament, though viewers weren't told why Dlugy suddenly stopped playing in matches. Dlugy immediately sent an email to Danny Rensch, an executive at Chess.com: "What the hell? I got kicked out from Titled Tuesday for cheating??????? Really?????????"
The two then apparently spoke on the phone, according to a followup email, but did not resolve the situation. Several months later, Dlugy sent an extensive confession email, in which he admitted he was crowdsourcing moves from one of his chess classes at Chess Max Academy, the school he runs. He claimed that one of his students there was using a chess engine (an AI that plays chess) to recommend moves, which Dlugy then used to make his moves in the tournament. Dlugy says in the email that he did not know he was cheating at the time.
“I finally got to the bottom of what happened during the Titled Tuesday,” Dlugy wrote in a 2017 email to Rensch. “I was playing on a laptop with the TV screen hooked up to it, so the kids in the group I was teaching could follow the moves. The kids ratings were in the 1500-1950 range, and as part of the class they would scream out their suggestions as I was thinking about my moves.”
“I am now positive, that one of the kids, was using an program [sic] on his cell while this was going on,” he wrote. “As you can imagine, I liked many of his moves, though I had no idea that he was using assistance to generate them.”
Dlugy gave other specifics about behavior of the child that he found to be suspect; Motherboard is not including that information because it could be potentially identifiable. “Although I don’t have any direct proof, I am almost certain that’s what actually happened, and in this way I was actually getting many strong engine generated moves during the two tournaments in question,” he wrote. “I am truly sorry for that and feel like I robbed of my fellow GMs of some prize money, though it was completely inadvertently, as I never imagined that the moves of these kids could interfere with fair play, as I usually played much weaker with their help than without.”
Dlugy was referring to his students' rating on the International Chess Federation (FIDE) rating system. Dlugy's current rating is 2523. Carlsen's is 2861, the highest in the world. To become a grandmaster, a player must have a rating of at least 2500 and get a few other achievements. Dlugy is noting, here, that he is a better player than his students. Nonetheless, getting any outside help is considered cheating by Chess.com's Fair Play Policy, which states, "All of your moves must be your own. Do not get help from any other person, including parents, friends, coaches or another player. Do not use chess engines, software of any kind, bots, plugins or any tools that analyze positions during play.”
In its response to Dlugy, Rensch says that Chess.com’s analysis of the situation “would suggest contradictions to this story. Simply put, we do not believe this was the first and only time you broke the rules, and we simply cannot move forward with this discussion until you are truly ready to come clean … I know this is hard. And I understand how frustrated you must feel, but it is a position we must protect, since we stand by our findings beyond any reasonable doubt.”
Rensch goes on to tell Dlugy that “any confessions or full acknowledgement by you would remain private,” and that Chess.com would be willing to consider giving him his account back should he “provide us with a more full admittance of all actions taken on our site,” though they would likely not allow him to compete in any cash tournaments.
In his response, Dlugy freely admits to cheating. “I agree it was not the only time,” he writes, and admits that there was at least one other occasion in which he cheated. Chess.com eventually agreed to give him a new account, “yet require that it remain anonymous (only staff would know this is your second chance account.)”
“This account could be used for playing and lessons with students, and to otherwise enjoy Chess.com, but you would be forbidden from competing in any Titled Tuesdays or other cash events,” Rensch says. “You would be accepting these terms with your new account, and breaking the rules (ie, attempting to compete in a cash event) would likely result in the immediate closure of your new account.”
Dlugy agrees to these terms. In an internal email sent to Chess.com staff reviewed by Motherboard, Rensch says that he has reached a “compromise with Dlugy that I believe removes the pressure of the situation, basically gets the confession we need, and guarantees that he will not play in future cash events or be apart of chess.com (no videos, etc.) … if he breaks the rules again or tries to join a cash event, he will be gone.”
At the time, there was suspicion about why Dlugy had pulled out of the tournament or been kicked out of the tournament, which started a discussion about Dlugy's play on Chess.com.
A second series of emails obtained by Motherboard show that Dlugy’s second account cheated again, in a Titled Tuesday tournament on April 28, 2020.
“After analyzing the activity of your second chance account, MaximDlugy, the Fair Play Team has found that you have actively violated the Chess.com Fair Play Policy,” the email reads. “As a result, your account MaximDlugy has been permanently closed. Unfortunately, we will not be discussing the exact details of our decision … as a titled player, we would like to offer you a final chance to re-establish yourself within the Chess.com community. If you choose to acknowledge any of the behaviors that you feel might have resulted in your account being closed within the next 72 hours, we may try to work with you privately to have a new account opened.”
Dlugy responds, “Yes, I agree that I violated the rules as I had some help in some of the games from an outside source,” he says. “I promise it will not happen again. Best, Maxim Dlugy.”
Dlugy told Motherboard that he is considering legal action against the people who have made him a "person of interest" in the Niemann situation.
"I am appalled by the fact that a chess player of Magnus Carlsen’s stature would resort to frivolous and false allegations and insinuations, suggesting that I had something to do with Hans Niemann’s alleged foul play in either online or over the board tournaments," he said. "This has been unjustly damaging for me on a personal, family and business level. I am exploring legal action against those that have started and continue to discuss my involvement in the Magnus-Hans affair and therefore cannot provide any further comments on the matter."
Before all of this, Dlugy famously caught one of his opponents using a "shoe computer" to cheat in a match against him, a story that he recounted in great detail in 2013 to the website ChessBase.