Niemann is the bad boy of chess. But did he cheat?

Chess player Hans Niemann is suing fellow grandmaster Magnus Carlsen, Chess.com and another player, Hikaru Nakamura for defamation. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK – The day before he beat the greatest chess player in the world, Hans Niemann was a curly-haired 19-year-old American known only to serious fans of the game and mostly as an abrasive jerk. Everyone, it seems, has a story. Like that time in June, when he lost in the finals of a tournament in Prague, then stood in the ballroom of the hotel where the event was held and ranted against the city and the accommodations.

On Sept 4, Niemann defeated Magnus Carlsen, an even-tempered, 32-year-old Norwegian who had become a grandmaster at 13.

The loss to Niemann at the Sinquefield Cup, a prestigious round-robin tournament in St Louis with a US$350,000 (S$472,600) purse, was what sparked off the circus after Carlsen accused his opponent of cheating, though he did not say so outright.

In a post-match interview with a Sinquefield commentator two days later, Niemann confessed to cheating on Chess.com, the largest online playing platform, once when he was 12 and again at 16. But he had learnt his lesson and toiled for redemption.

He had never, he stated emphatically, cheated in a live match.

The site has become the virtual hangout, so the scarlet “C” on Niemann burned even brighter after Chess.com released a 72-page report in early October concluding that he had cheated in more than 100 games on its platform. Niemann’s rise in the ranks of over-the-board chess, as the in-person version of the game is known, was “uncharacteristic”, the report stated, implying that he had cheated at live tournaments.

An uproar ensued. Beneath it, facts that complicated the narrative were easy to miss. A week and a half before Carlsen lost in St Louis, Chess.com made public an US$82 million offer for his online chess training company, Play Magnus. And as more grandmasters studied the epochal game, a consensus formed. Niemann appeared to simply outplay Carlsen, with moves that appeared perfectly human.

Someone was wronged in St Louis on Sept 4. But who?

Taking the fight to court

This entire melee will be fought out in a US$100 million defamation suit that Niemann filed in a district court in Missouri in late October against Carlsen, Chess. com and Hikaru Nakamura, one of the top players in the world and the game’s most influential streamer. The point of the litigation, lawyers wrote in their complaint, is to “recover from the devastating damages that defendants have inflicted upon his reputation, career and life by egregiously defaming him”.

On Friday, lawyers for Chess.com filed a motion to dismiss Niemann’s case and called it a “public relations stunt”.

The lawsuit suggests that Niemann will deal with the shadow over his name the same way he plays chess – by attacking.

Was the game fishy?

Carlsen and Niemann’s match at the Sinquefield Cup is now one of the most closely dissected games in chess history – not just the moves, but the behaviour of the players. Early on, with his clock running, Niemann glances absently around the room as he sips water, the picture of ease. At one point, he glowers at Carlsen like a cannibal trying to stare down his dinner. Carlsen covers his entire face except for his eyes, trying to tune out the universe.

On YouTube and podcasts, grandmasters studying the game said the champ’s opening had lacked oomph and failed as an effort to throw his opponent off balance. Niemann carefully conserved an early advantage that he never surrendered.

In an interview after the game, Niemann came across as obnoxious, saying: “It must be embarrassing for the world champion to lose to me. I feel bad for him.”

Players knew that Niemann was good. But was he defeat-Magnus-with-the-black-pieces good?

Today, the most popular chess engine is Stockfish, a program that hoovers up data from millions of top-level games and translates this monumental library of information into tactical calculations that can “see” a dozen or more moves ahead.

To ferret out cheats, Chess.com uses an algorithm to determine how closely moves mirror those recommended by an engine. At lower skill levels this is straightforward, like noticing that a fifth grade tennis player is serving like Rafael Nadal.

At higher skill levels, it gets trickier. So Chess.com looks at other factors, including a player’s past performances and browser behaviour.

If Niemann had cheated at the Sinquefield Cup, nobody knew how.

But after pulling out of a rematch with Niemann after just one move in an online tournament, Carlsen issued a statement on Twitter saying: “I believe that Niemann has cheated more – and more recently – than he has publicly admitted.”

The next week, Chess.com released its report about Niemann, stating that only had he cheated in more than 100 games on the site, then he was untruthful about his past. He had cheated at events with money at stake four times, not once, as he had stated in St Louis.

To reach its conclusions, the company conferred with the leading authority on cheating and chess, Kenneth Regan, a professor of computer science at New York’s University at Buffalo and a computational complexity theorist. On one essential point, though, he dissented.

Chess.com found that the amount of time for Niemann to climb from just below a rating of 2,500 to nearly 2,700 was faster than all of his contemporaries. It took him about 18 months.

No red flags

Chess.com did not account for what Regan called the pandemic lag. Over-the-board tournaments ceased as infections raged, so for months, Niemann was playing nearly manic amounts of chess matches online, which do not affect one’s Fide rating. When live tournaments resumed, he was like a student who had been cramming non-stop without an exam to show off what he had learnt.

Add the downtime imposed by the pandemic and the climb of nearly 200 points actually took him 27 months – the same as many other gifted players. Also, Niemann played 259 official games last year. (By contrast, Carlsen played 41.)

As for Niemann’s over-the-board games, Regan has studied many of them, and not one showed evidence of cheating.

A full investigation into Niemann’s play at the Sinquefield Cup, and Carlsen’s reaction to it, is under way at Fide, and a report is imminent.

As for the defamation case, without a quick settlement it could take years to resolve. To prevail, Niemann will have to prove damages, and his lawyers seem to believe this will be a cinch. Channelling the bluster of their client, they contend in the complaint that the defendants have “destroyed Niemann’s remarkable career in its prime and ruined his life”. NYTIMES

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