Hans Moke Niemann, 19, took the fast track from private-school kid in New York City to chess grandmaster—then came the accusations
By Andrew Beaton and Joshua Robinson – Oct. 22, 2022 12:00 am ET – The Wall Street Journal
A month before Magnus Carlsen and 19-year-old American grandmaster Hans Moke Niemann found themselves battling each other at the center of a high-profile chess cheating scandal, they were two guys pushing pawns on the beach in Miami.
Hanging around for a tournament promotion, they played on a board in the sand, watched by only a handful of people, including Dutch grandmaster Anish Giri. The games were casual, but the results were decisive. Mr. Carlsen, the five-time world champion from Norway and the highest-rated player of all time, wiped the beach with Mr. Niemann, according to Mr. Giri.
Over the following days, Mr. Niemann’s play hardly improved as he toiled through a tournament in Miami. He lost every series of games and ended with zero points. Mr. Niemann’s performance, combined with his showing on the beach, advanced Mr. Carlsen’s doubts about his opponent’s abilities, said a person familiar with Mr. Carlsen’s thinking.
So when Mr. Niemann beat 31-year-old Mr. Carlsen weeks later at a prestigious September tournament in St. Louis, Mr. Carlsen was stunned. After the jarring upset, Mr. Carlsen quit the tournament in protest, setting the chess world on fire.
On Thursday, Mr. Niemann filed a $100 million federal lawsuit against Mr. Carlsen, the platform Chess.com and others in the chess world for slander, libel and colluding to blacklist him. Mr. Niemann in the suit alleges that tournament organizers have shunned him after allegations of cheating surfaced.
“Hans Niemann has an admitted history of cheating and his lawsuit is nothing more than an attempt to deflect blame onto others,” said Craig Reiser, Mr. Carlsen’s lawyer. “His legal claims are without merit.”
There is no evidence Mr. Niemann cheated in the game against Mr. Carlsen. But his acknowledgment of cheating in the past—and his especially skillful showing against Mr. Carlsen—stoked persistent suspicions about him among elite chess players and drew the attention of the wider world.
Mr. Carlsen declined to comment. In his only statement explaining the incident, he wrote, “I believe that Niemann has cheated more—and more recently—than he has publicly admitted.”
The allegation set off a frenzy of speculation and outrage. Grandmasters picked sides. Some questioned whether it was fair of Mr. Carlsen to level an accusation without evidence. Others branded Mr. Niemann a fraud.
Last month, Mr. Niemann publicly acknowledged cheating in online games in the past. The brash young New Yorker, who made a meteoric rise through world rankings, called them youthful mistakes and said he never cheated in face-to-face games. Mr. Niemann didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Niemann’s suit alleged that Chess.com colluded with Mr. Carlsen because the company is buying Mr. Carlsen’s “Play Magnus” app for nearly $83 million in a merger the complaint said would “monopolize the chess world.”
The defendants in the suit include Chess.com chief officer Danny Rensch and Mr. Nakamura. Mr. Nakamura said he had no comment on the suit. Lawyers for Chess.com called the suit meritless and said that the company “looks forward to setting the record straight on behalf of its team and all honest chess players.” Chess.com has previously said it didn’t consult with Mr. Carlsen about any of its decisions regarding Mr. Niemann.
Just about everyone who has ever pushed around bishops and knights has been speculating in past weeks about how Mr. Niemann could have cheated. Unless a player is caught in the act, it is near impossible to prove, according to fair-play experts, because a grandmaster might need help only on a handful of moves to tilt the balance.
FIDE, the game’s world governing body, has opened an investigation.
Whether or not Mr. Niemann cheated to beat Mr. Carlsen, elite players who have been pushing for better security say this type of scandal was inevitable.
“It was a ticking time bomb,” said grandmaster Alejandro Ramirez, who recorded interviews with players, including Mr. Niemann, after matches at the St. Louis tournament. “Cheating in chess is something that was bound to happen at some point. It’s too accessible. It’s too easy.”
These days, smartphone apps and websites can deliver moves lethal enough to beat the world’s best players. Chess has already had more than one so-called Toiletgate scandal, involving players caught sneaking into bathrooms to consult their phones. In other schemes, accomplices have been suspected of delivering signals for chess piece moves, either from the audience or through a hidden device, such as a tiny earpiece or a buzzer in a shoe.
Super-grandmasters, including Mr. Carlsen and the past two challengers for the world championship, Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi and American Fabiano Caruana, have repeatedly asked tournament organizers to increase anti-cheating security.
In 2020, Mr. Caruana brought up the issue with FIDE and twice with the St. Louis Chess Club, which hosted the tournament Mr. Carlsen quit. Last year, St. Louis required players to walk through a metal detector before games.
Most chess cheating occurs online, and organizers and officials have seen a spike since 2020’s pandemic chess boom.
Online tournaments with big prize money started soaring, and top-tier players who live-streamed their games enjoyed a surge in popularity.
One of those was Mr. Niemann, who said last month that his streaming career back then had been lucrative.
Magnus Carlsen, left, and Hans Moke Niemann in the 3rd Round of the Sinquefield Cup 2022 on Sept. 4 in Saint Louis. Mr. Niemann won, and Mr. Carlsen quit the tournament in protest.Photo: Crystal Fuller/Saint Louis Chess Club
Around that time, Mr. Niemann was an upperclassman at Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School, an upscale private school in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He has said he was there on a scholarship.
Daniel Levkov, another highly rated chess player at Columbia Prep, said he met Mr. Niemann playing chess as a 10-year-old. He recalled Mr. Niemann’s unusual independence, attending tournaments abroad when he was 13. Mr. Niemann transferred to Columbia Prep in the 11th grade and lived alone in a studio apartment near school, according to Mr. Levkov, 18.
Mr. Niemann taught chess at tony private schools to pay the rent, including the all-girls Nightingale-Bamford School, according to his lawsuit and Mr. Levkov. He often missed classes and assignments while traveling for tournaments, Mr. Levkov recalled. “Chess was pretty much his priority 24/7,” he said.
Mr. Niemann said last month that he has been financially independent since 16. He has also said he cycled competitively in the Netherlands and largely spent his formative years in California. His parents, who are from Denmark and Hawaii, later moved the family to Connecticut. They declined to comment. Mr. Niemann has said he was drawn to Columbia Prep by its highly competitive chess program.
“I have always been a single-minded person,” he wrote in a 2020 blog on the US Chess Federation’s website. “That spirit was reignited when I realized that if I dedicated everything to chess, I could be up on that stage holding that 1st place trophy.”
When Mr. Niemann was 11, he started working with Russian-American coach Maxim Dlugy, a grandmaster who runs chess academies in Manhattan, Mr. Dlugy said.
Mr. Dlugy, who spent his childhood in the Soviet Union, earned a world junior title and later worked with chess champions Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. He said Mr. Niemann was the most impressive chess student he had ever seen. “I feel like I’m his mentor,” Mr. Dlugy said.
Mr. Niemann’s lawsuit said Mr. Dlugy was neither his coach nor his mentor.
Mr. Carlsen last month drew attention to their work together, which raised scrutiny about Mr. Dlugy’s own fair-play violations.
Mr. Dlugy has twice been banned by Chess.com for receiving illegal assistance during games, in 2017 and 2020. The first allegation, Mr. Dlugy said, was a misunderstanding. He privately acknowledged the wrongdoing to Chess.com in the second instance. But recently, he said he was innocent and had falsely confessed to avoid being banned permanently.
Mr. Dlugy saw brilliance in Mr. Niemann from a young age. “It’s like you were teaching a sponge. Whatever information I would give him, it would be immediately taken in,” he said
Mr. Niemann acknowledged cheating in online games at ages 12 and 16 during his postmatch interview with Mr. Ramirez last month. He called the incidents the biggest regrets of his life. The only time he cheated in a game with prize money on the line, he said, was as a preteen.
Yet a recent investigation by Chess.com, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, found that Mr. Niemann had likely cheated in more than 100 online games—some when he was 17 and in several events offering prize money.
Mr. Niemann also said he never cheated while streaming games. Chess.com found 25 instances in which he likely had. The Chess.com investigation said Mr. Niemann, when confronted by the platform in 2020, admitted to the violations, and the site privately banned his account.
Mr. Niemann’s lawsuit disputed the validity of the report’s findings and said he had never confessed.
After the ban, Mr. Niemann said he dedicated himself to winning games in person. “I decided the only way to make up for my mistake was to prove to myself and prove to others that I could win.”
Mr. Dlugy said Mr. Niemann went on to play hundreds of in-person games in such far-flung places as Niksic, Montenegro, and Plovdiv, Bulgaria. He qualified for the title of grandmaster.
The recent Chess.com investigation said Mr. Niemann’s rapid ascent made him an outlier. The report didn’t conclude that Mr. Niemann had cheated in person. Chess.com polices only online events on its platform. But the report flagged six over-the-board tournaments where, it said, his play merited further investigation.
By 2022, Mr. Niemann was receiving invitations to the richest, most exclusive tournaments. One was the FTX Crypto Cup, in Miami, where Mr. Niemann lost the pair of friendly games to Mr. Carlsen on the beach.
The tournament was played online, with everyone in the same location, part of a tour with $1.6 million in prize money.
Mr. Niemann lost every series he played but won a game against Mr. Carlsen. “The chess speaks for itself,” Mr. Niemann said after beating Mr. Carlsen, who later won the tournament.
At one point during the Crypto Cup, Mr. Niemann went on a profanity-filled tirade after his computer crashed, typical of behavior that has made him stand out in the hushed-tone atmosphere of high-level play.
“Hans is just like this kind of bombastic guy that speaks his mind,” said Mr. Ramirez. “He’s still a teenager, so he acts like it.”
Wesley So, last year’s U.S. champion, described Mr. Niemann as the “most disrespectful teenager in chess.”
When Mr. Niemann was added as a late replacement to the Sinquefield Cup, an invitation-only tournament in St. Louis, Mr. Carlsen said he considered pulling out of the tournament.
Magnus Carlsen, left, watches a match between Hans Moke Niemann and Levon Aronian in the first round of the Sinquefield Cup on Sept. 2.Photo: Crystal Fuller/Saint Louis Chess Club
Instead, Mr. Carlsen withdrew after losing to Mr. Niemann in a game that ended Mr. Carlsen’s 53-match unbeaten streak in classical chess.
Mr. Carlsen had the impression that Mr. Niemann wasn’t “fully concentrating on the game in critical positions, while outplaying me as black in a way I think only a handful of players could do,” he later said in a statement.
After Mr. Carlsen’s exit, Sinquefield Cup organizers added security checks and imposed a 15-minute delay on the live feeds of the games, a measure to thwart any potential accomplices helping remotely.
Tony Rich, the St. Louis Chess Club’s executive director, was critical of Mr. Carlsen’s decision to withdraw from the Sinquefield Cup. “Did his actions achieve his goal? I think we’ll have to wait and see,” he said. “Certainly he’s right. People are talking more about fair play than ever.”
At a subsequent tournament, Mr. Carlsen forfeited a game against Mr. Niemann after one move. Mr. Carlsen nonetheless went on to win the event.
Days later, Mr. Carlsen accused Mr. Niemann of cheating in a statement and called for more attention to potential fair-play violations.
Mr. Niemann next surfaced at the U.S. Chess Championship, also in St. Louis, which began the day after the Chess.com investigation was reported.
Security for the tournament was high. There was a 30-minute broadcast delay and a high-end silicon scanner that can detect electronic devices, whether or not they are turned on. When Mr. Niemann walked through, a security guard scanned even the banana he carried.
Mr. Niemann won his first game and said, “This game is a message.”
He finished the U.S. Chess Championship in the middle of the pack and filed his suit the day after.
“My lawsuit speaks for itself,” he tweeted.