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Deep Dive: Why the Hans Niemann Lawsuit is Going Nowhere

Hans Niemann LawsuitWe previously commented on the Hans Niemann cheating scandal, and there’s been quite a lot of discussion on LowEndTalk as well.

Subsequently, Niemann has filed a $100 million lawsuit against chess.com, current World Chess Champion GM Magnus Carlsen, Play Magnus Group, IM Denny Rensch (of chess.com), and GM Hikaru Nakamura, alleging slander, liable, unlawful group boycott (under the Sherman Act), tortious interference with contract and business expectancies, and civil conspiracy.

chess.com is in the process of acquiring Play Magnus.  Magnus Carlsen owns about 9% of Play Magnus Group but is not a corporate officer.

I listened to multiple podcasts and attorney presentations to get the straight dope on this lawsuit, and I’ll break it all down for you.  Here are the attorneys who’ve commented:

  • Aviva Cohen on the C-Squared podcast.  This is the best discussion but unfortunately there are tons of audio problems.  Worth struggling through but drops are brutal.
  • David Franklin on Perpetual Chess
  • The AttorneyTom podcast
  • Steve Lehto on the Lehto Law channel

The Challenge Niemann Faces

It boils down to Hans’ attorneys trying to do two incompatible things.

First, the lawsuit has to be filed in a specific court, and which court is surprisingly important.  You can’t just pick any court you want – it has to be a court that has jurisdiction.  There are other kind of jurisdiction but according to the commenting attorneys, personal jurisdiction is operative here.  So Hans has to find a court which has jurisdiction over all the defendants, which is based on where the acts took place or where the defendants reside.

But there’s another critical factor.  Criticizing people is not a crime, and calling them cheaters when there is substantial evidence is not actionable.  In this case, chess.com can show a ton of evidence plus Hans’ own admissions to them. It’s clearly not a situation where they are making things up out of whole cloth.  Nakamura commented on chess.com, and Magnus has actually never accused Hans of cheating in over-the-board chess.  It’s all pretty weak sauce from a defamation point of view.  Which is where we get into SLAPP laws.

SLAPP (“Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation”) lawsuits are where someone with deep pockets sues anyone who criticizes them.  Imagine you’re the Church of Scientology and don’t like critics.  You could run around filing lawsuits against all of them, which would force those individual plaintiffs to hire lawyers and slug through court defenses.  You don’t care about the costs because you have tons of money but it could bankrupt defendants.

Different state have different anti-SLAPP laws to prevent these abuses.  In some states, those filing frivolously may bear all legal costs if they do not prevail, which is a powerful incentive for attorneys to keep nonsense out of courts.

So the ideal lawsuit for these plaintiffs would be a court that has jurisdiction based in a state that has a weak anti-SLAPP statute.

Which Leads Us To Hans’ Problem

…namely that no court meets these requirements.

This suit was filed in Missouri, which does have a weak anti-SLAPP statute.  However, chess.com is in Utah and so is Denny Rensch.  Magnus is a Norwegian and Nakamura lives in California.  Some of the events happened at the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis which is apparently the justification, but chess.com wasn’t involved in that.  The defendants’ lawyers will no doubt immediately contest jurisdiction.

Also, Play Magnus Group is being sued but it’s difficult to see how they are involved.  Magnus is a minor stockholder and obviously lends his name and promotional talents.  But he is not a corporate officer nor a member of the board of directors, so it’s going to be very difficult to prove agency.  Just because Magnus does something or Play Magnus does something does not immediately make the other liable.  It’s similar to buying Tesla or Microsoft stock: just because you own a piece of the company does not make you legally liable for everything the company does.  It’s a little different here because Magnus lends his brand to the company but fundamentally he is just someone who licensed his name and got some stock in return, not someone who makes decisions at Play Magnus.

The Moon Shot Claims

Hans also included claims about conspiracy and anti-trust.  Every attorney I listened to says these are going to be very difficult to prove.

The conspiracy idea is that all the defendants got together and agreed to defame Niemann for the purpose of wrecking his chess career.  Now if there is an email chain floating around where Nakamura and Denny Rensch are cackling and rubbing their hands over all the ways they’re going to torpedo Niemann, then sure, you’ve got something.  But absent something like that, how can this possibly be proved?  Just because chess.com is buying Play Magnus does not automatically equate to conspiracy.

There’s also the question of the “illegal group boycott” claim filed under the Sherman Act’s provisions.  Akiva Cohen mentions a powerful (and very recent, in 2007) US Supreme Court precedent, Bell Atlantic vs. Twombly, which talks about the bar set for these kinds of claims.  I’m not an attorney so I’ll quote Wikipedia’s summary:

“Authored by Justice David Souter, it established that parallel conduct, absent evidence of agreement, is insufficient to sustain an antitrust action under Section 1 of the Sherman Act. It also heightened the pleading requirement for federal civil cases by requiring for plaintiffs to include enough facts in their complaint to make it plausible, not merely possible or conceivable, that they will be able to prove facts to support their claims.”

Plausible, not merely possible.  There’s much more to the law than just reading one summary on Wikipedia, of course, but I think it’s illustrative of the hurdle that Hans faces.

The 2900 Story

There are also problems with Hans’ narrative.  For example, he states that Magnus Carlsen was enraged after he lost to Niemann because that ruined Magnus’ quest to gain the first 2900 Elo rating.  The problems with this story are

  • It is trivial to show where Magnus consciously chose draws in chess tournaments when he could have played for a win, etc. so this “mad quest for 2900” story is suspicious.  Magnus never said that a 2900 Elo rating was his life goal or anything, just his next goal.  Magnus, it should be obvious, really has nothing to prove as he’s always in the top 3 in any debate around “greatest chess player of all time”.
  • He resigned against Niemann.  If 2900 was really his goal, he would have played.

No player expects to win 100% of the time, even one as dominant as Magnus.  Bobby Fischer, perhaps the most dominant player of his era, once lost to Edmar Mednis, who was not even an IM much less a GM, in 1962.

Sorry, Hans

It’s important also to consider Hans’ narrative here.  How is this fabulous $100m sum justified?

Chess is not the NFL or Major League Baseball.  No one is getting a $250m contract like Deshaun Watson.  The World Champion makes a fair bit of coin and there are a handful of super-GMs (e.g., Hikaru Nakamura) who earn well, mostly from sponsorships and endorsements.  But other than this handful, it’s hard to make a living as a chess player, much less get rich.  IM Levy Rozman is a very famous chess personality, but he makes all his money from streaming and that is typical.  The money in chess is in owning online portals or educational platforms (chess.com, Chessable, etc.).  For example, the US Chess Championship’s top prize is $262,000.  It’s just not a sport where you’re filling stadiums with tens of thousands of paying fans.  Have you ever seen Magnus Carlsen in a TV commercial?

In Hans’ mind, he was on a straight trajectory to make World Champion.  What could he have made?  $15-20 million?  And that’s if he made it.  Hans Niemann is certainly a good player, but he’s not a world challenger.  He’s 40th in the world.  He’s not in the Candidates cycle.  He didn’t even win the US Championship.  He’s definitely not going to be World Champion in 2023, so we’re talking at least 2025.

How can someone who’s so far back in the pack that he didn’t even make the top 8 (cutoff for the championship cycle) realistically claim to the court that at some future point, he’s going to vault over 39 other players and win the crown?  Is it possible this could happen?  Sure.  But courts don’t make defendants pay out vast sums of money based on possibilities.  Hans needs to demonstrate $100 million in damages now and that is an absurd figure.

Rook Odds

From what I’ve seen and read over the years, lawsuits involving public figures are always a mix of PR and law.  One of the non-attorneys on the talks asked if perhaps Hans Niemann had helped write the complaint, because it is drenched in bombastic language.  Reading it, you’d think the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is going to be taking action in the Hague.  Some of that language may very well have been included by attorneys to please their client.

But it’s not fancy prose that wins cases.  Hans faces multiple hurdles from contested jurisdiction to convincing a Federal judge that some of his claims are legit to even challenges about frivolity.

In chess, the player with the white pieces moves first and so has the advantage.  Niemann moved first, but it seems like he gave rook odds to his opponent.

1 Comment

  1. Sat:

    > It’s important also to consider Hans’ narrative here. How is this fabulous $100m sum justified?

    It isn’t. Damages only go down, so you ask for the stupidest amount possible and it gets adjusted down. I have never see one go up.

    November 7, 2022 @ 2:23 pm | Reply

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