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U.S. chess grandmaster 'likely cheated' in more than 100 online games, investigation finds

The Chess.com report says the "probability of any single player performing this well across this many games is incredibly low." The grandmaster, Hans Niemann, said he's "not going to back down."

A 19-year-old U.S. chess grandmaster “likely cheated” in more than 100 online games, including several prize money events, according to an investigation by an online platform where many top players compete.

Chess.com released the 72-page report Tuesday, one month after the world’s top-rated chess player withdrew from a tournament after the grandmaster, Hans Niemann, defeated him.

World chess champion Magnus Carlsen, 31, bowed out of the event after describing the younger player’s progress as “unusual” and suggesting that he wasn’t “fully concentrating on the game” when Niemann defeated him on Sept. 4 at the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis.

Tuesday’s report said that while there were “many remarkable signals and unusual patterns” in Niemann’s play, there was no evidence he cheated in the match against Carlsen and no “direct evidence” that proves he cheated in other over-the-board, or in-person, games in the past. 

But the report concluded that Niemann likely cheated in more than 100 online games, saying that while his performance in some of the matches “may seem to be within the realm of some statistical possibility, the probability of any single player performing this well across this many games is incredibly low.”

'I'm not going to back down'

Niemann did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC News. 

After defeating Christopher Yoo in the first round of the U.S. championship in St. Louis, Niemann was asked Wednesday to address the "elephant in the room" during a post-game interview with the Saint Louis Chess Club.

“This game is a message to everyone,” he said in his first public comments since the release of the Chess.com report. “This entire thing started with me saying, ‘Chess speaks for itself,’ and I think this game spoke for itself and showed the chess player that I am.”

Niemann said the game “also showed I’m not going to back down and I’m going to play my best chess here regardless of the pressure that I am under and that's all I have to say about this game. And you know, ‘Chess speaks for itself.’ That's all I can say.”

When the interviewer tried to ask another question, Niemann interrupted him.

“I’m sorry, that’s it,” he said. “You can leave it to your own interpretation, but thank you. That’s it. That’s all I’d like to say, because it was such a beautiful game I don’t even need to describe it.”

Niemann has acknowledged cheating in the past

Chess.com's findings were first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

The site’s cheat detection system tracks player performance and time usage, and it compares moves made by a player to moves a chess engine would make, among other things, the report said.

The day after the match against Carlsen, the site notified Niemann that his invitation to the Chess.com Global Championship had been revoked, as had his access to the site, according to the report. 

The report said the decision was made “based on our experience with him in the past, growing suspicions among top players and our team about his rapid rise of play, the strange circumstances and explanations of his win over Magnus, as well as Magnus’ unprecedented withdrawal.”

In an interview last month with the Saint Louis Chess Club, Niemann acknowledged cheating in an online tournament when he was 12 and during an unrated game when he was 16 that he described as an “absolutely ridiculous mistake.”

“After that, other than when I was 12, I have never, ever in my life cheated in an over-the-board game, in an online tournament,” he said. “I’m saying my truth because I do not want any misrepresentation. I am proud of myself that I learned from that mistake.”

“Now I have given everything to chess,” he added. 

Last week, the International Chess Federation said its Fair Play Commission had formed a panel to investigate Carlsen’s claims that Niemann had cheated, and Niemann’s own statement about online cheating.

Chess grandmaster Hans Niemann competing at the Sinquefield Cup
Hans Niemann during the ninth round of the Sinquefield Cup. Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

A prior ban

The Chess.com report pointed out that the site banned Niemann two years ago after it suspected him of cheating in events and matches. In a phone call with the site’s chief chess officer, Niemann allegedly confessed to cheating and announced to his followers on the streaming platform Twitch that he was closing his account. 

In screenshots of messages from November 2020 included in the report, Niemann appears to ask the official, Danny Rensch, if he could make an exception to the ban and allow him to play in the upcoming U.S. Chess Qualifiers.

Rensch declines, saying that the site can’t risk him participating in such a high-profile event. He would be allowed to return to playing certain games in January 2021, Rensch says, according to the screenshot.

“This is more than completely fair and I really really appreciate you trusting me and giving me this chance,” Niemann appears to say in the messages. “I also agree and don’t think I should play.”

In last month's Saint Louis Chess Club interview, Niemann said he was grateful to Rensch for handling the prior ban privately and giving him a chance to redeem himself. But he said Chess.com is now jumping on Carlsen’s insinuations after their match.

“I believe that this is completely unfair, this is a targeted attack, and if you look at my games, it has nothing to do with my games,” he said in the interview. “They’ve only done this because of what Magnus has said.”