There is a lot of backstory here that I’m not going to get into, so if you’re not already up on the drama raging in the world of chess feel free to skip this post. Even if you know very little about the game itself, however, you may have heard that there was a recent cheating scandal, and that’s true. While the full contours of the cheating are still unclear, there is compelling and convincing evidence that a player of some considerable skill and accomplishment cheated in online games on multiple occasions.
After a great deal of public conjecture and mindless social media ridicule and support, the player in question — Hans Moke Niemann, an American — yesterday filed a nine-figure defamation lawsuit in the United States against multiple parties. Among those named as defendants are: Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion; Danny Rensch, the face of the world’s largest chess website, Chess.com; and Hikaru Nakamura, arguably the greatest blitz player in the world, and a popular YouTuber and Twitch streamer. (Formal chess is divided into several categories defined by various time controls. A game of classical chess usually plays out over hours, rapid chess games are usually between ten and sixty minutes long, games of blitz chess are between three and ten minutes, and bullet games are less than three minutes.)
There doesn’t seem to be any real disagreement that on several occasions in his early-to-mid teens, Niemann, who is now 19, not only cheated while playing on Chess.com, but admitted to doing so. One of the unanswered questions is whether Niemann has ever cheated in over-the-board (OTB) play — meaning in-person, as opposed to using a computer. While there has been no direct evidence of OTB cheating, Niemann’s rise in the chess ranks is a conspicuous outlier in various historical contexts, and Niemann himself seems to have indicated that when he did cheat online, he did so in order to play higher-ranked players that he would not have been paired against otherwise. (Playing and beating higher-ranked players has a disproportionately positive effect on your own ranking.)
While the current drama centers around Niemann, however, he is merely a proxy for the vexing problem of cheating in chess, whether online or over the board. Not only is this a known issue, which computers have greatly exacerbated and facilitated, but cheating is the one issue that can destroy public interest in a sport or game forever. Whether we’re talking about football or baseball, or the other football, or poker or pool or snooker, or any competition in which two or more people are purportedly contesting an outcome — including the dumbest game shows you have ever seen in your life — the one sure-fire way to destroy interest in that contest, which is also often a commercial product, is for cheating to be exposed.
Note also that in most of the above examples the great majority of those affected are not participants but passive observers, also known as an audience or fans. In the world of chess, however, and particularly online chess — and especially online chess during and following the pandemic — many of the people who are interested in matches played at the highest levels are also playing games themselves on various websites. To that point I can personally attest that experience with random cheaters on several popular chess sites ultimately led me to cancel my accounts, because I simply had no faith that those sites could provide me with honest games.
Unlike most sporting industries, then, chess has two vulnerabilities which can negatively affect the bottom line. First, there is the risk of cheating among players at the highest levels of play, which undermines confidence in the professional strata of players and tournaments. Second, there is the risk of cheating at every level of online play, which — given the relative lack of security and ubiquity of powerful chess programs — is scandalously easy.
The upshot of these convergent risks is that unless Chess.com and notables like Carlsen and Nakamura — two of the greatest players of this or any age — come out forcefully in opposition to cheating in chess in any context, what recently seemed like a growth industry may be about to implode precisely because the games cannot be trusted. And it is in that context that I believe these defendants must not only vigorously engage Niemann’s suit, but make an example of him by thoroughly and publicly destroying his reputation with all available facts and evidence. If Niemann cheated in any context, that fact should be central not only to their legal defense, but to their public pronouncements going forward as leaders of chess as an industry.
To understand Niemann’s standing as a player, note that anyone with a ranking over 2700 is in rare company in the world of chess, and Niemann has been hanging around that threshold for a while, presumably without cheating. In the world of competitive chess, however, that’s also the equivalent of being a middling player in the NBA, MLB, NFL or Premier League. Yes, relative to most of the population you’re gifted and in great company, but compared to the true greats you’re little more than an asterisk, and likely to remain so whether you cheat part time or not. (By contrast, Magnus Carlson is currently the highest-rated player in the world at around 2860, and that’s in a scoring system in which it is all but mathematically impossible for any human being to ever reach 2900.)
To underscore this point, Niemann just competed in the U.S. Championship in St. Louis, under tight security, against thirteen of the best American players. After several week of classical over-the-board play, Niemann finished in the middle of the pack, tied for fourth with five other players. Which is to say that whatever talent Hans Neimann may have displayed in his rise to 2700, it is hardly noteworthy, and in fact lags behind the development of the kind of true prodigies who go on to become world champion. (Niemann is currently ranked fortieth in the world among classical players, only six of whom are American. Were Niemann to play a tournament against the top thirteen players in the world he would undoubtedly be crushed like a bug.)
Given the cultural status surrounding high-level chess, and for a very, very few, the attendant remunerative rewards, cheating has always been a concern, as it is in all human pursuits. With the rapid scaling of chess over the past few years, however, and the inevitable interest by multiple parties in generating revenue from that increase in interest — including internet companies, professional players and social media commentators — it is now possible for otherwise marginal players like Niemann to carve out a revenue stream for themselves. And of course one way to increase the odds of success in that regard is to cheat, perhaps not all the time, but often enough to gain an advantage over other similarly ranked players who are not breaking the rules.
The problem for chess today, however, is not simply that cheating threatens to wreck the industry for everyone, it’s that a good part of the growth of chess involves exploiting exactly the kind of drama that Niemann seems to enjoy stoking. That in turn means that promoters of the sport — like Levy Rozman and Antonio Radić, to name two popular YouTubers — find themselves not only having to make editorial decisions about how to cover Neimann, but economic decisions about what is in their best short-term tabloid interest, as against the long-term interest of the industry as a whole. (I was particularly disappointed by this comment from Radić, who goes by the name Agadmator, whose game analysis is entertaining and informative for players of all levels. If you don’t care that someone is an acknowledged cheater in a given setting, then what you’re saying is you don’t care about the players who were cheated in that setting, which is a pretty weird thing to say while you’re making money as an ambassador of the game.)
I am impressed by Magnus Carlsen not only because of his play, but because — like the world champion he is — he seems to be looking farther ahead than most, and I think he sees the threat that cheating represents to the game he loves and the industry he played a big part in expanding. What I don’t know is whether the more popular promoters of the game see the same threat, and, if they do, whether they have the kind of discipline it takes to put the long-term health of the industry ahead of their immediate profits. What I am convinced of is that if the most prominent voices in chess are not allied and unified in punishing cheaters, there isn’t going to be much of a chess industry left to profit from. And because of Niemann’s new lawsuit, I think that punishment starts with him.
The reason I say that is that the only alternative is to allow Niemann to continue to dominate interest not because of his play, but because of his taunting, bad-boy persona — which, to my eye, he clearly enjoys. That is in fact doubly pugnacious both because of the attitude itself, and because Niemann knows it is extremely hard to catch people if they are truly committed to cheating at chess. Having read a recent report from Chess.com about what that site believes it can prove, which did not include over-the-board cheating, Niemann and his attorney clearly believe they are now in the clear and have no additional exposure — and they may be right about that. (My personal take, in the parlance of the American South, is that something about that boy ain’t right, but there are plenty of characters in the world of professional chess. What sets Niemann apart is not only that he’s an acknowledged cheater who doesn’t think he should have to pay a price for what he and others have characterized as youthful indiscretions, but he now wants $100M or more from people who called him out for being a cheater, and understandably wondered if he might be cheating in other contexts.)
I think it says something good that a number of adults in the chess world didn’t want to come down too hard on Niemann at various times in his cheating career as an online player, but I think that restraint was both shortsighted and particularly misplaced with regard to Niemann. Whatever prompted him to cheat in online games — and here it is important to note that he did so under his own name, precisely to improve his ranking on the Chess.com website — the fact remains that most of the exceptional young chess players are not cheating in similar situations. In fact, I would hazard a guess that most young people in any sport or playing any game are not cheaters, because it is pretty much drummed into everyone from the time they are born that cheating is wrong. And I’m guessing when Hans “My Cheating Speaks For Itself” Niemann was using computer aids to beat honest players that he knew what he was doing was wrong, but he went ahead and did it anyway.
Over time, and with consistently heightened security — particularly during classical tournaments — it will become clear whether Niemann has ever cheated in over-the-board play, because his overall ranking and average move-accuracy in that class of games will fall if he did. The pressing problem today, however, is that a malignant clown has become the face of chess for many around the world, in part because too many people decided to exploit him for their own immediate advantage. If the industry conversation going forward continues to be about Niemann’s antics and self-appointed victimhood, then he’s winning and laughing. If the conversation is about cheating, however, and how to prevent and punish it, Niemann becomes the poster boy for immediate punitive action.
In the meantime, while we wait for Niemann’s cash-grab lawsuit to progress, every player Niemann ever cheated should sign on to a class-action countersuit, in case he is successful at using the courts to wring money from the named defendants. Fair play indeed.
Update 10/22/22: Found a timely and relevant Lex Fridman interview with Hikaru Nakamura.
— Mark Barrett