Burden of proof: Hans Niemann ‘likely cheated’ over 100 times, says Chess.com

Published on Oct 05, 2022 11:39 PM IST

Though Niemann has admitted to cheating in the past, when he was 12 and 16, the 72-page report alleges that he cheated far more frequently than previously disclosed.

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By, New Delhi:

In the latest episode of a series of events that are rocking the foundation of the chess world, an investigation by Chess.com has found that 19-year-old American GM Hans Niemann “likely cheated” in more than 100 online games.

Though Niemann has admitted to cheating in the past, when he was 12 and 16, the 72-page report alleges that he cheated far more frequently than previously disclosed.

And that isn’t all. The investigation has made no conclusions regarding Niemann’s over-the-board games (including the one where he beat world champion Magnus Carlsen in the Sinquefield Cup in early September while playing with the black pieces), but flagged a few other such contests that “merit further investigation based on the data”.

“We present evidence in this report that Hans likely cheated online much more than his public statements suggest,” the report says.

“Consistent with the letter we sent Hans privately on September 8, 2022, we are prepared to show within this report that he, in fact, appears to have cheated against multiple opponents in Chess.com prize events, Speed Chess Championship Qualifiers, and the PRO Chess League.

“We also have evidence that he appears to have cheated in sets of rated games on Chess.com against highly rated, well-known figures in the chess community, some of which he streamed online.

“These findings contradict Hans’ public statements.”

The report, which relied on cheating-detection tools including a comparison of a player’s moves to those recommended by powerful chess engines, offers data-driven evidence but falls short of showing that Niemann was indeed cheating in the Carlsen match.

So, there is no concrete evidence that would put the issue to rest once and for all.

The report also mentions that Carlsen had nothing to do with the site’s decision to ban Niemann from their tournaments -- it was important to clear the air on that because some people alleged that the site only banned Niemann because it is buying Carlsen’s “Play Magnus” app for nearly $83 million, and needed to stay on his right side.

The report says that while Carlsen’s actions at the Sinquefield Cup prompted them to reassess Niemann’s behaviour, the world champion “didn’t talk with, ask for, or directly influence Chess.com’s decisions at all.”

The full investigation, which was made public on Tuesday evening, stated that Niemann privately confessed to the allegations, and that he was subsequently banned for a period of time from Chess.com, the world’s most popular chess platform.

Though some people argue that Niemann has already paid the price for his transgressions the report also says: “Outside his online play, Hans is the fastest-rising top player in classical (over-the-board) chess in modern history. Looking purely at rating, Hans should be classified as a member of this group of top young players. While we don’t doubt that Hans is a talented player, we note that his results are statistically extraordinary.”

Niemann has kept quiet ever since the controversy first erupted.

Fide, the sport’s world governing body, issued a statement last week saying it will convene its own three-person panel to look into the allegations.

“The focus of the investigation would be twofold: checking the world champion’s claims of alleged cheating by Niemann and Niemann’s self-statement regarding online cheating,” the statement said. “The panel will ensure a fair ruling, protecting the rights of both parties during the investigation.”

While the Chess.com report shows that perhaps Niemann’s previous statements cannot be taken on face value, the story still has a lot of gaps. And that is troubling many fans. As the current debate shows, it is unclear whether statistics can unveil smart/sparse cheating attempts. Doubt can be cast but there is simply no clinching evidence.

So, what has the report accomplished? As Scottish GM Jonathan Rowson succintly explained in a tweet: “Did Niemann cheat in online blitz? Yes. Did he lie about the extent of it? Probably. Is he trustworthy? No. Must we presume innocence? Yes. Did he beat Magnus fairly? Yes. Was Magnus wrong to withdraw? Yes. Did Chess.com make the story about themselves? Yes.”

Chess is a game played on black and white squares, but right now it seems to have entered a grey area, and no one, including the chess engines, quite knows what the next move is.

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