Chess's 'Largest Cheating Scandal' is Heading to Court
After being accused of cheating, 19-year-old chess Grandmaster Hans Niemann is going on the legal offensive.
Embroiled 19-year-old chess Grandmaster Hans Niemann sued two of his peers, the website Chess.com and that company’s top competition executive, alleging the three men and the site colluded to make defamatory and false claims of cheating to blacklist Niemann from the chess industry.
The suit is the latest in what many have dubbed “chess’s largest cheating scandal,” which began after Niemann defeated one of the defendants, world champion and Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen, at the in-person Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis on Sept. 4.
After Carlsen accused Niemann of cheating in their match, Chess.com reviewed a history of Niemann’s online games on its site and concluded that he “likely cheated” in more than 100 games, as alleged in an Oct. 4 report released by the site. Niemann denies all of those allegations.
Now, Niemann and his attorneys allege that Carslen and his company, Play Magnus Group, colluded with Chess.com to blackball Niemann. In August, Chess.com made an offer, which Carslen accepted, to acquire Play Magnus for $82.9 million.
Niemann filed the suit in the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Missouri, where the Sinquefield Cup took place in September. The suit names Carslen and his company, Chess.com and its chief chess officer, Danny Rensch, and fellow grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura as defendants.
Niemann alleges Nakamura—a popular content creator on Twitch and YouTube who also accused Niemann of cheating after his victory over Carlsen—coordinated with Carslen and Chess.com, who sponsor Nakamura, to smear the 19-year-old.
Since the allegations were made, Niemann has lost many significant opportunities to compete in chess, the suit says.
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That includes a revocation of an invitation from Chess.com to play in its Global Championship in October, teenage Grandmaster Vincent Keymer cancelling a match between him and Niemann in Germany and the Tata Steel Chess Tournament ceasing negotiations with Niemann to compete in its event. The suit also says the reputational damage Niemann suffered is impacting his ability to obtain employment as a chess teacher.
Niemann is seeking more than $400 million in the suit for lost earnings, reputational harm and punitive damages, as well as the recoupment of attorneys’ fees.
In an interview following Carlsen and Niemann’s match, Niemann said it was a “miracle” that he had correctly guessed and prepared for Carlsen’s opening move and how Carlsen’s would go on to play the rest of the board. “Magnus must be embarrassed to lose to me,” Niemann said in that interview.
On Sept. 5, Carlsen withdrew from the event and made a cryptic tweet of the viral video of Portuguese football manager José Mourinho, in which he says, “If I speak, I am in big trouble.”
Nakamura and others then accused Niemann of cheating. Carlsen later spoke more directly, alleging the same. Cheating in over the board chess is extremely difficult and even more difficult to detect.
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In its 72-page report banning Niemann, Chess.com claims that Niemann admitted in a private phone call that he had cheated on games on the site. Niemann says he had only ever cheated in two online matches, as a child, but not since he pursued chess as a profession.
Carlsen is chess’s highest-profile player and a five-time World Chess Champion. He has been No. 1 on the International Chess Federation world rankings since July 2011 and holds the record for the longest unbeaten streak in elite chess. Over his career, he has earned more than $10 million in winnings and sponsorships.
Niemann began his career in professional chess in 2012 at just nine years old. The International Chess Federation named him a grandmaster in January 2021. He is the association’s fifth-ranked junior player (under 21) and 45th overall in its men’s rankings.