Since early September, the usually distinguished world of competitive chess has descended into acrimony and suspicion. There were accusations and admissions of cheating. There have been (probably erroneous) claims of vibrating anal beads. Extensive lawsuits have been filed. Most of the world’s media weighed in. And at the center of it all is Hans Moke Niemann, a 19-year-old American chess prodigy.
Niemann’s meteoric rise in the chess world was crowned with a surprise victory over reigning five-time world champion Magnus Carlsen, the highest-ranked chess player in history. Carlsen didn’t like what he saw, hinting that he thought there was something inappropriate before going further and saying it outright.
In an impassioned defense, Niemann hit back at his critics, admitting to cheating twice in online games aged 12 and 16, calling it “the biggest mistake of my life” and saying “it’s the whole truth… I’d like to see if everyone can actually tell their truth.
Shortly after, Chess.com released an extremely spicy report stating that it was likely that Niemann had cheated in over 100 matches – including prize money events and live matches, some against the best players in the world. world.
Six weeks later, the 19-year-old is now suing his truth for $100 million in damages, with a lawsuit against Carlsen, Chess.com and popular chess streamer Hikaru Nakamura. Niemann says he was defamed and blacklisted from the sport. The other parties believe, in Carlsen’s words, that “Niemann has cheated more – and more recently – than he has publicly admitted”.
At the heart of all this mess, really, is this concept of “truth.” Niemann maintained his version of it, particularly in a September 7 interview – “There’s been a lot of speculation, and a lot of things have been said, and I think I’m the only one who knows the truth,” he said. -he declares. energetically. Niemann maintains that he has never cheated in “over the board” games (as opposed to online games), and independent referees tend to agree, even if there is a lot of smoke around. the integrity of its results until 2020.
But is Hans Niemann a reliable narrator? And more precisely, why are we (still) writing about him on CyclingTips?
The answer: Before Niemann was a chess prodigy, he was apparently a top cyclist on the national stage.
Was he as good as he says he is? Well, that depends on your version of the truth.
Check yourself before Utrecht yourself
When Hans Niemann suddenly became a household name this year, his past achievements as a chess player were studied by grandmasters, fans and the media trying to determine where he came from and whether his rise was credible.
Niemann’s rise has been rapid and he’s still a teenager, but in chess terms he’s considered something of a late bloomer. Where this talent germinated was in Utrecht, the Netherlands, where Niemann’s family once lived.
His parents – a Dane, a Hawaiian – were expats working in the IT industry, and their son started chess lessons at the age of eight. At this point, it wasn’t just failures that held his attention.
According to the newspaper De Volkskrant, “he also liked to ride his racing bike to participate in competitions”. According to Niemann, in the meantime he was “moving much faster [in cycling]” than in chess. Throughout his stay and riding in the Netherlands, Niemann sat in the two youngest age categories, holding a license with the Royal Dutch Cycling Union (KNWU) for two years, in 2011 and 2012.
In the Netherlands, “from the age of 8 it’s possible to take part in races and be as competitive as you want,” a KNWU spokesperson told me, when asked if the emphasis in the youth ranks was on competition or development. “Some runners focus on results from an early age, others need and/or take more time.”
Niemann seems to have fallen into the first category. In a 2020 article he wrote for the American Chess Federation, he said, “I have always been a determined person. I competed in cycling in the Netherlands and was one of the best cyclists in the country for my age when I came back to California, so my competitive spirit has always been what drives me in everything.
“One of the best cyclists in the country” is an ambiguous statement, and the wording is a bit fuzzy – it’s not clear if he was referring to his results in the Netherlands or the United States at the time. United on his return, and there is no numerical ranking. It doesn’t matter if he is In the Netherlands we are talking about, we have a problem: in the words of De Volkskrant, “his claim that he is one of the best in his age group in the Netherlands is difficult to verify. There are no results on the Internet that indicate this.
So what do we know the cycling of Hans Niemann in the Netherlands? Well, he rode for WV Het Stadion, to start with – a club that bills itself as ‘the nicest* cycling club in Utrecht [* and also the sportiest, most beautiful, most versatile and nicest cycling association in the Domstad]”.
The only Niemann results CyclingTips could uncover were from the 2012 National Championships – five laps of a short circuit for a total of 7km, where Niemann finished one minute behind the winner in a 12½-minute race, 25th. out of 35 participants.
Soon after he left, leaving behind a group of chess teachers in Utrecht who remember him as “very fanatical” in his training, coupled with a “very angry” streak when he lost. An approach by WV Het Stadion for information about his time with the cycling club went unanswered.
By the end of 2012 the Niemanns had left the Netherlands and returned to California, where his cycling continued until 2013. In most of his races he was not affiliated with a club or a team, although until June and July this year – his last competitive outing – he is on the roster for WV Het Stadion, his former Dutch club, more than six months after leaving the country.
There are hints of young Niemann’s technological interest in the sport. He was an early adopter of Strava, first logging a ride in February 2012 (he’s only followed one runner, Joe Dombrowski, and Niemann’s account has long been dormant). But there are much more recent hints of Niemann using his past as a cyclist to build his mythology.
In April 2021, Niemann told Chess Life magazine his life story, a long monologue with a very specific claim – both numerically and geographically – at the start. “I continued to ride my bike upon my initial return to the United States, finding myself ranked third nationally for my age,” says Niemann. Aside from the oddly passive sentence construction, this statement is sharper than what he said a year earlier and easier to refute.
So, has been is he the third best cyclist of his age in the United States?
There is nothing in the USA Cycling database results that seems to support this claim. At the Northern California Nevada Cycling Association District Track Championships, he finished fifth out of five riders, in all six races. In the Valley of the Sun Road Race he finished sixth out of eight overall. In 24 races he started during the 2013 season, Niemann did not win a single race. Of his eight podiums, only two races had more than three riders.
USA Cycling rankings are calculated on an ongoing, ever-changing basis, but based on that, it’s hard to see Niemann as one of the highest-ranked riders of his age in his state, let alone the entire country. No national championship appearances, few departures from the California cycling bubble, no sign of the anointing of a future cycling star.
Who, to be clear, really Doesn’t matter – forensic analysis of a child’s race results is not what competition should be for young people. “While USA Cycling provides competitive opportunities for juniors under 12,” a spokesperson told me, “we believe that at this age it’s mostly about developing their skills and getting better.” make sure they have fun on the bike.”
And in July 2013, Hans Niemann seems to have stopped having fun on the bike, or found something in chess that pushed him further – “I stopped the bike and really focused on chess”, he said of a 10-year-old version of himself. who already saw the game as a “career”.
The end of the road
This brings us to the end of Hans Niemann’s foray into cycling – his banter with the sport that is mostly notable for its banality. And it’s good. Kids start rolling and kids stop. Kids win races and kids don’t. Kids make up brash stories on the playground. Sometimes kids are told they’re special at something, and some of them probably internalize it and let the line between truth and fiction blur. .
But if you look at it one way – when a child becomes the most controversial chess player in the world, staking his reputation and millions of dollars on the absolute truth of his words and actions – a whole bloated with cycling results from a decade ago is starting to look a little less mundane and a little more informative.