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How chess went rock ‘n’ roll: cheating, groupies, money, and brawls

Three weeks ago, one of the most renowned grandmasters in the game of chess was considering a hypothesis so absurd that it could only be found in the darkest parts of the internet. The prominent pundit known as Ginger GM, Simon Williams, asks, “Vibrating anal beads?” He ponders the arguments, bolstered by Elon Musk, that a remote-controlled sex toy could assist a player in cheating. And then he offers a stinging rebuke. “It’s just unbelievable,” he responds. “Laughable. Monty Pythonesque. It’s an intriguing concept. However, it will not function.”

Since the world champion, Magnus Carlsen, resigned from the coveted $500,000 (£447,000) Sinquefield Cup last month after losing to an American teenager, Hans Niemeyer, the global media have chronicled every salacious twist and sleazy claim of chess’s cheating scandal.

How chess went rock 'n' roll: cheating, groupies, money, and brawls
How chess went rock 'n' roll: cheating, groupies, money, and brawls

Chess has, seemingly suddenly, become part soap opera and half whodunit. Niemann, 19, maintains he is willing to play naked to prove he is now “clean”; he admitted to online cheating at the ages of 12 and 16; he insists he is now “clean.” However, Carlsen did not believe him and resigned after just one move in a recent online event when they met each other again.

However, as the narrative progresses, it also reveals something else. Chess has undergone significant upheaval. The antiquated caricature of a game played by socially uncomfortable men and boys in draughty church halls and secluded beer rooms is no longer the norm. Instead, we have entered a new era of chess: one that is younger, hipper, and even rock-and-roll.

A new breed of glamourous chess “streamers” has emerged online, with some earning hundreds of thousands of pounds annually. More people are increasingly playing and watching games. Meanwhile, at the highest level, tales of cheating, excessive drinking, groupies, and even death threats abound — if not yet simultaneously.

Big money and drunken brawls
How chess went rock 'n' roll: cheating, groupies, money, and brawls

The majority of this is due to Carlsen. He has been the world’s finest player for more than a decade; he is young (31), humorous, and extremely intelligent; and he has a life outside of the game.

Carlsen was previously a model for G-Star Raw, finished tenth out of 7.5 million participants in the 2019 Fantasy Premier League competition, and is a competent poker player. His business, Play Magnus Group, was recently sold for approximately $80 million.

The biggest chess website, Chess.com, partnered with the streaming network Twitch at the end of 2017 to transform the game into an export. Then followed the multiplier effects of the Covid lockout and the Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit, which skyrocketed chess’s popularity. The popular and free website Lichess held more than 92 million games in August 2022, compared to 37 million in August 2019 and six million in August 2016.

During the pandemic, Chess.com recruited esports luminaries to compete in a series of amateur events known as PogChamps, according to grandmaster Daniel King, who also operates the YouTube channel Power Play Chess. “They became incredibly enormous, and chess truly went mainstream.”

Suddenly, players such as 34-year-old Hikaru Nakamura, who was formerly rated second in the world after Carlsen in traditional chess (which takes hours to play), spent far more time streaming their online “blitz” or “bullet” games, in which they had only three minutes to make every move. Nakamura would do this while responding to chat questions and detailing the latest chess drama in minute detail.

“Nakamura was renowned for his prowess at bullet chess long before it became trendy to play online, and he has become the ideal chess streamer, earning millions,” adds King. “He is chubby. He has an opinion. He has no regard for upsetting others. He has essentially simply hacked an online system that predicts your success.”

Aside from Nakamura, the majority of chess material creators are not among the world’s best. But, as Chess Queens author and the two-time U.S. chess champion Jennifer Shahade notes, they have found a way to connect with new chess audiences, and they work hard to preserve it.

She states, “Many of the celebrity streamers are exceptionally gifted intellectually and socially.” Before she decided to pursue streaming, Alexandra Botez was the CEO of a Silicon Valley digital business.

Sweden’s Anna Cramling, age 20, is among the new generation of female streamers. Two years ago, she intended to major in international relations or politics in college. Despite being ranked almost 17,000th in the world, she has become a prominent chess personality.

Cramling has achieved success as a result of her production of unique, universal, and highly watchable content. In July, a video of her playing a street game versus Carlsen received 3 million views on YouTube. I Trolled This Chess Hustler Into Thinking I Was a Beginner has been viewed 2.4 million times.

Cramling is likely more well-known than her mother, Pia, a grandmaster and one of the best female players for over four decades. Cramling says of her mother, “She was rather well-known during her time.” “However, there is a new way to be recognized in chess, and it does not require you to be the best in the world. It is indicative of the times.”

Approximately 95% of Cramling’s YouTube audience is male and between the ages of 18 and 25, according to YouTube data. Importantly, people are willing to pay subscription fees or view advertisements to support chess players.

Levy Rozman, also known as GothamChess, is rumored to earn over $1 million a year through YouTube. Last year, a breach of Twitch memberships showed that Nakamura earned $773,500 only from this site, while Botez and her sister, Andrea, received $400,000.

Fide, the governing body of chess, attempted to capitalize on women’s increased interest in the game by establishing a sponsorship arrangement with the breast enhancement company Motiva, which was quickly condemned as “gross” and “misogynistic.” Maria Emelianova, a noted chess photographer, claims that many are still dissatisfied and that it remains “a running joke” on the women’s circuit.

There has also been plenty of drama off the board, with grandmasters frequently attacking each other on social media, players feuding over rogue chess moderators, and in the case of Dutch grandmaster Anish Giri, their private conversations being stolen and exposed.

A video of Nakamura battling in the street with another grandmaster, Eric Hansen, after a drunken blitz game turned sour, while other amused players looked on, surfaced last year.

The mix of alcohol and being on the road can also facilitate connections between players, and even chess groupies. According to a source who requested anonymity, “people frequently end up getting together.” “It is not that uncommon. We even make jokes about the “B tournament,” which means, “Are you with anyone?” Are you seeing anyone?’ The groupie aspect has always been present, although less so than with rock bands.”

Old-timers will tell you that some of this occurred in the past, albeit in the shadows due to the lack of social media. In the 1986 Chess Olympiad, for example, Nigel Short was unhappy that his competitor Tony Miles was placed on board 1 instead of him. When Miles died in 2001, however, Short revealed how he had gotten his own back.

“I gained some degree of vengeance not just by surpassing Tony’s chess performance, but also by sleeping with his girlfriend, which was certainly pleasurable but perhaps not gentlemanly,” he wrote.

In the meantime, the grandmaster and philosopher Jonathan Rowson recall how alcohol altered the reaction of a Russian grandmaster he defeated in 2004 at a major event. “It was a very straightforward game, and there was no cause to suspect cheating,” he argues.

“But to my amazement, when he subsequently saw me, he said, ‘I see you on the street, I kill you. Understand?’ Even though he was a bit of a nut and may have been intoxicated at the time, I was quite horrified because it was essentially a death threat.

Interestingly, booze and chess continue to combine. “Many athletes are strong drinkers,” asserts Emelianova. “Some must remain in this status for the duration of the competition to finish at the same level. One chess player is renowned for concluding his final game and returning 10 minutes later with glassy eyes. And you are aware that he no longer sees you.

She adds, “This demonstrates how stressful the game is.” “Sometimes, a player cannot sleep the entire night because they keep rehearsing their plays in their minds.”

There is occasionally a darker side as well. Botez cautioned in 2020 that it was still usual for male athletes to utilize their age and status to “hunt” for women and girls. She stated, “This has been going on for so long and no one bats an eye.” The extent to which people never speak up and deem things acceptable is quite eerie.

In recent years, numerous newbies have grown addicted to the addicting rush of seeing their rating rise after winning a game, as well as the jolts of adrenaline they get when making multiple decisions as the clock winds down.

However, if they spend enough time on a chess website, they will experience what it is like to confront a cheat. Chess.com banned approximately 10,000 accounts for fair play violations in March 2020 alone, including the accounts of seven named players.

“Cheating is the bane of chess players,” confesses Rowson, whose book The Moves That Matter expertly examines the relationship between the game and real life. “Because you are constantly questioning, ‘How is my adversary attempting to get me?'” There is an innate requirement for alertness that can manifest as paranoia.

He continues, “People forget that chess is also a sublimation of combat and a ritual meeting with death.” “Because in essence, your life is at stake. The stakes are thus great. People perceive it as”

The stakes are considerably higher at the elite level, when large sums of money are at stake, mistrust is widespread, and conclusive proof through computer analysis is attainable.

Dr. Kenneth W. Regan, the head anti-cheating expert at Fide, feels that Niemann has not cheated in the past two years. However, some, such as Fide grandmaster Yosha Iglesias, have expressed alarm regarding the American’s amazing accuracy in certain games, as measured by the website ChessBase’s Let’s Check analysis, which compares a player’s plays to the best computer moves.

Carlsen and Chess.com concur that Niemann had cheated more recently than his last incident in 2020. Carlsen made his displeasure apparent in a statement he tweeted last week: “When Niemann was invited at the last minute to the 2022 Sinquefield Cup, I strongly considered quitting before the event.” “I finally decided to play. I believe Niemann has cheated more frequently and more lately than he has stated publicly.

“His over-the-board improvement has been atypical, and throughout our Sinquefield Cup match, I had the sensation that he wasn’t tense or even fully focused in important positions, despite outplaying me as black in a way that I believe only a handful of players are capable of. This game helped my paradigm shift.”

Carlsen does not present any concrete evidence at this time, however. merely a gut feeling that something is amiss. According to Niemann, his improvement has been the result of ten hours of daily study.

Other parties have entered the controversy. Perhaps Fabiano Caruana summed it up best when he analyzed one of Niemann’s earlier 2018 matchups. He stated, “I find this game to be rather wonderful.” “It is either the work of a genius or a hoax.

Unbelievable game. To win so beautifully and error-free against a formidable opponent whose play was not entirely natural in a difficult position. I would be extremely honored to win this game.

So where does this leave the game of chess? In a cloud of suspicion that does not appear likely to dissipate soon. Carlsen’s detractors argue that he was harsh and irresponsible in his condemnation of Niemann, which could result in the teenager receiving fewer invites to important events and, in effect, being “canceled.” Others, though, believe the Norwegian is correct to shed light on an issue that has plagued the game for far too long.

The US grandmaster Robert Hess concedes that people are paranoid. Because when they play, they are aware that there may be cheaters among them. Everyone is nervous. Because there is no players’ association in chess, there is no one to whom one can say, “Hey, we need a place to discuss this.”

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