Since early September, the usually genteel world of competitive chess has descended into acrimony and suspicion. There have been accusations, and admissions, of cheating. There have been (probably erroneous) allegations of vibrating anal beads. There have been vast lawsuits filed. Most news outlets in the world have weighed in. And at the centre of it all is Hans Moke Niemann, a 19-year-old US chess prodigy.
Niemann’s meteoric rise in world chess was capped by an upset victory over five-time reigning world champ Magnus Carlsen, the highest-ranked chess player in history. Carlsen didn’t like what he saw, hinting that he thought there was something improper afoot before going a step further and saying it outright.
In an impassioned defense, Niemann hit back at his critics, confessing to cheating twice in online games aged 12 and 16, calling it “the single biggest mistake of my life,” and saying that “this is the full truth … I’d like to see if everyone else can actually tell their truth.”
Soon after, Chess.com released a blisteringly spicy report indicating that it was likely Niemann had cheated in more than 100 games – including prize money events and live-streamed games, some against the world’s top players.
Six weeks later, the 19-year-old is now pursuing his truth to the tune of US$100 million in damages, with a lawsuit against Carlsen, Chess.com and popular chess streamer Hikaru Nakamura. Niemann says he’s been defamed and blacklisted from the sport. The other parties believe, in the words of Carlsen, that “Niemann has cheated more — and more recently — than he has publicly admitted”.
At the core of this whole mess, really, is that concept of ‘truth.’ Niemann has maintained his version of it, particularly in a September 7 interview – “There has been a lot of speculation, and there’s been a lot of things said, and I think I’m the only one who knows the truth,” he said emphatically. Niemann maintains he’s never cheated in ‘over the board’ games (as opposed to online), and independent adjudicators tend to agree, even if there’s a whole lot of smoke around the integrity of his results up to 2020.
But is Hans Niemann a reliable narrator? And more to the point, why are we writing about him (again) at 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 was? 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 results as a chess player were pored over by Grandmasters, fans, and media trying to work out where he came from and whether his rise was believable.
Niemann’s ascent has been fast and he’s still in his teens, but in chess terms, he’s seen as something of a late bloomer. Where that talent sprouted was in Utrecht, the Netherlands, where Niemann’s family once lived.
His parents – one Danish, one Hawaiian – were ex-pats working in the IT industry, and their son began chess classes at the age of eight. At that stage, it wasn’t just chess that had his attention.
According to De Volkskrant newspaper, “he also liked to get on his racing bike to participate in competitions.” According to Niemann, meanwhile, he “was advancing much more rapidly [in cycling]” than in chess. For the duration of his time living and riding in the Netherlands, Niemann sat in the youngest two 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 is possible to compete in races and be as competitive as you wish,” a KNWU spokesperson told me, when asked whether the focus in the youth ranks was on competition or development. “Some riders are focussed on results from a young age, others need and/or take more time.”
Niemann seems to have fallen into the former category. In a 2020 article he wrote for the US Chess Federation, he said that “I have always been a single-minded person. I competed in cycling in the Netherlands and was one of the top cyclists in the nation for my age when I moved back to California, so my competitive spirit has always been what motivates me in everything.”
“One of the top cyclists in the nation” is an ambiguous statement, and the wording is a bit woolly – it’s not clear whether he was at that point referring to his results in the Netherlands, or in the US upon his return, and there’s no numerical ranking. Regardless, if it is the Netherlands we’re 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 about Hans Niemann’s cycling in the Netherlands? Well, he rode for the WV Het Stadion club, for starters – 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 results of Niemann’s that CyclingTips could unearth were from the 2012 National Championships – five laps of a short circuit for a total of 7 km, where Niemann finished a minute back from the winner in a 12 and a half minute race, 25th out of 35 entrants.
Soon after, he was gone, leaving behind him in Utrecht a raft of chess tutors who remember him as “very fanatical” in his drive, paired with having a “very angry” streak when he lost. An approach to 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 into 2013. In most of his races, he was unaffiliated with a club or team, although through June and July of that year – his last competitive outings – he is listed as riding for WV Het Stadion, his old Dutch club, more than half a year after he’d left the country.
There are clues of young Niemann’s technological interest in the sport. He was an extremely early adopter of Strava, first logging a ride in February 2012 (he followed just one rider, Joe Dombrowski, and Niemann’s account is long dormant). But there are much more recent clues of Niemann using his cycling background to build his mythology.
In April 2021, Niemann relayed his life story to Chess Life magazine, a lengthy monologue with a very specific claim – both numerically and geographically – at the start of it. “I continued cycling upon my initial return to the States, finding myself ranked third for my age nationally,” Niemann says. Weirdly passive sentence construction aside, that statement is sharper than what he was saying a year earlier, and easier to disprove.
So, was he the third-best cyclist of his age in the US?
There’s nothing in the results on USA Cycling’s database that appears to support that statement. At the Northern California Nevada Cycling Association district track championships, he finished fifth of five riders, in all six races. In the Valley of the Sun Road Race, he finished sixth of eight on the general classification. In 24 races he started through the 2013 season, Niemann took no wins. Of his eight podium finishes, only two races had more than three riders.
USA Cycling’s rankings are calculated on a rolling basis and constantly in a state of flux, but on this evidence it’s difficult to see Niemann as one of the top-ranked riders of his age in his state, let alone the entire country. No national championships appearances, few departures from the bubble of Californian cycling, no signs of a future cycling star’s anointment.
Which, to be clear, really doesn’t matter – forensic analysis of the race results of a child is not what youth competition should be about. “While USA Cycling does offer competitive opportunities for Juniors under the age of 12,” a spokesperson told me, “we believe that at that age it’s mostly about skill development and making sure they have fun on the bike.”
And by July 2013, Hans Niemann seems to have stopped having fun on the bike, or found something in chess that drove him more – “I quit cycling and really focused on chess,” he said of a 10-year-old version of himself that already saw the game as a “career”.
The end of the road
That leads us to the end of Hans Niemann’s foray into cycling – his dalliance with the sport that is mostly remarkable for how unremarkable it is. And that’s fine. Kids start riding, and kids stop. Kids win races and kids don’t. Kids come up with brash stories on the playground. Sometimes kids are told they’re special at something, and some of them probably internalise it and let the lines between truth and fiction blur.
But if you look at things a certain way – when a kid grows into the most controversial chess player in the world, staking his reputation and millions of dollars on the absolute truth of his words and actions – an inflated set of cycling results from a decade ago starts looking a bit less mundane, and a bit more instructive.